Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Want to try snowmobiling without breaking the bank? Here are some tips

a snowmobile rides across the snow
Wyatt and Roger Kram ride their vintage sleds alongside a road near Fargo on January 8, 2022. The father and son plan to ride 500 miles across Minnesota, to draw attention to the history of snowmobiles and to raise money for charity.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Minnesota is home to 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, 280 organized snowmobile clubs and over 202,000 snowmobiles. If you’re one of the Minnesotans who has never hopped on a sled but would like to give it a shot — without breaking the bank — Scott Wakefield has a few tips.

Wakefield, who has been snowmobiling since he was 6 years old, is president of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We're going to take some time this month to focus on what we do for fun in the winter. It's our series Winter Play. Well, get this. Minnesota has 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, 280 organized snowmobile clubs, and more than 202,000 snowmobiles. If you're one of the Minnesotans who has never hopped on a sled but would like to give it a shot without breaking the bank, you'll want to talk to our next guest.

Scott Wakefield has been snowmobiling since the age of six. He's currently president of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association. Hey, Scott. Welcome to Minnesota Now.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Hey, Cathy. It's great to be on with you today.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks for being here. Who put you on a sled at the age of six?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: My father said, if you're strong enough and tough enough to start that snowmobile, go ahead and go have it. So I went out there, and I got that snowmobile started. And I started riding that snowmobile. What I started doing it also using his gas. And then he cut me off on that.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: OK. So that obviously sparked your joy of snowmobiling.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Yes, out in Western Minnesota. Big, wide, open ditches. Easy to ride. Not a lot of issues with anything in the ditch to be worried about or whatever. So I had a wonderful time out there. And then relocated to Waconia in 1974. And I end up with a 4,000-acre lake in my front yard.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my goodness. Perfect surfaces, obviously, for snowmobiling.

So I've got to be honest with you. I've never been on a sled. I like speed, but I think snowmobiles kind of freak me out because you can go really fast. And I don't know what's underneath me. You know what I'm trying to say? What's under the snow. What are the feelings you get when you're on your sled?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Well, it's great to be on a trail. So that'd be the first thing is on a groomed, marked trail. So we're safe if we're going to go out, Cathy, and do that.

But I've taken many legislators that have never been on a snowmobile before out for the first time. And I'm a DNR snowmobile safety training instructor, have been for over 30 years. And once you get the basics, and you get on that snowmobile, and you get on that hard, packed trail, and you're able to read the signage that tell you caution or curve coming ahead, stop ahead, I think you'd do really, really well, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: All right, I'm feeling a little bit better about this. How many snowmobiles do you have?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Well, I had 37--


SCOTT WAKEFIELD: --at one point before I got married. And then I got married, and now I'm down to seven.

CATHY WURZER: You know you can only ride one at a time, right?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: And that's what my wife told me. You can only ride one at a time. So that's why I'm down to seven.

CATHY WURZER: OK. What are you riding now?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: I'm riding or 2019 Polaris 800 Indy. It's a very nice snowmobile, a 129 track, so a short track. My wife actually loved that one so much that I ended up getting a 2023 Polaris VR1 with a 137 track, longer track. And then I've got various antique ones and a few special ones in my collection.

CATHY WURZER: So you get on your sled. What about the experience brings you joy?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: It's just fun. I mean, it's just great to get out in the wintertime in Minnesota. A lot of people go in and they hibernate, like, I'm not going out there. It's terrible weather. But you got to get out and embrace Minnesota and embrace everything that's all about Minnesota. And snowmobiling is one of those things. And so it's just exhilarating seeing nature. It's so calm.

And everybody says the cold. Not with today's technology. Technology has expanded so much in the last 30 years, even down to our gear that we're wearing. So we have Thinsulate. We have good gear that we're wearing, technology with that, with our helmets so they don't fog up the windshield, the face shield. Everybody's fogged up. I can't see anything. Now we have electronic heated face shields that plug right into your snowmobile.

And it's just the ergonomics of the snowmobile, how you're sitting more upright, so you're not sitting down on your back, where you get lower back pain. You're actually sitting in almost a half-standing position. Heated handlebars, heated seat warmers. I mean, you've got it all, Cathy. I mean, if you're just somebody that doesn't really like the cold, snowmobiling isn't one of those things that's going to get you really cold.

CATHY WURZER: Of course, I bet you've heard this from other folks, too, who are out, say, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the woods. And then you hear this, the whine of the snowmobiles. What do you say to folks who are like, oh, thanks a lot for ruining my quiet day in the snowy woods.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: We'll be by in a hurry. Wait a few seconds, and we'll be gone. Decibel limit's 73 decibels. That's the law in the state of Minnesota. So if they're exceeding that decibel limit, then they're doing something illegal. But the DNR spent a lot of time on noise reduction. And we're within-- the manufacturers are within the number. So I would say, we'll be back quickly. I was a ski instructor for Three Rivers Park before, so with a snowmobile trail next to a ski trail. And I never really had any complaint.

CATHY WURZER: So you mentioned that you're an instructor with the DNR. You obviously say it's important for anybody to learn how to drive one of these things, right? I mean, it's a good thing to take a class.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Right. And even if you are born after December 31, 1976, the state requires you to have a snowmobile safety training certificate to be able to ride on that. And so we have adult courses too. And the adult courses are done all online through a vendor. And then we have between 16-year-olds up, they're also going to do that adult course.

But we train the 11 to 15-year-olds in the youth training. There's two ways of doing that-- traditional course, where you go three nights a week to a location and go through a book. Or you do it online, self learning online. And we call that the hybrid. And then you come in for a little review for about an hour. And then we do a test behind the handlebars through a designated course. And that's the second way that you can get certified in the state of Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: So when I do see folks on trails, it looks like-- you're sitting there, and it looks like you're having a good time. Absolutely. But it's not like you're just a bump on the sled. I mean, it looks like you actually are using your body.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Right. It's one of these big misnomers, that you're just going to sit there. It's lazy, da da da da da. There's a lot of people. We work out before we go into the snowmobile season if we're going to do a lot of riding. And we have the passion like I have the passion.

So you start to work out early in the fall. And you're looking to build your leg muscles, back muscles, and then your upper body to steer that snowmobile. But yeah, you're moving your body into the corners. So you need to get your weight transfer over.

And that's one of the things that I test-- I do in the testing process is to get young children to learn how weight works to their advantage. So then if you move your body weight over halfway onto the snowmobile to the turn that you're making-- so to the left, let's say-- that's going to make it so much easier to turn, which is less work for your muscles to turn the steering. And you're going to have a more comfortable ride.

So if you go out and have a really bad snowmobile experience, that's not good, because you're never going to do it again. But I can teach you the way. And I teach people how to have a good experience by using body weight.

CATHY WURZER: Is it similar to what you would do, say, on a motorcycle?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, it is, like moving back and forth. We have standing positions, which would be opposite of what a motorcycle would be. But when you're using your body weight, that's very similar to a motorcycle. But standing, going up a hill, going down a hill, we have all kinds of different positions and ways that you need to be moving around. So you're very active when you're driving a snowmobile.

CATHY WURZER: So what do you suggest to someone listening today who thinks, well, this might be OK? Maybe I should just try it. What the heck? So do you suggest renting a snowmobile? Can you buy a cheap one? What do you think?

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Yeah. So I just had a guy the other day. I was at Topgolf the other day. And he said, hey, I'm thinking about going up to this Brainerd place. I'm new to town, a new transfer to Minneapolis. I'm working in a Fortune 500 company. And I'm wondering what-- I got to get out of the house. I got to embrace this Minnesota thing.

And I said, the first thing you need to do is go somewhere and rent a snowmobile. And I would suggest going to Cragun's in Brainerd because they rent the snowmobiles there. You can stay overnight. They have packages, not unlike other resorts in Northern Minnesota also and along here in the Twin Cities.

And rent the snowmobile first. And make sure that it's something that you want to do. If it is, then buy something used in that $5,000 to $8,000 range. And then once you get the kind of experience that I have, then you can move into the-- and you don't have to have as many-- 50 years-- as I am.

But, I mean, you get into it a couple of years or whatever, then you buy the $19,000 to the $20,000. But rent a snowmobile first for a couple hundred bucks a week, a weekend. And make sure you like it first.

CATHY WURZER: Maybe find a club too.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Yeah, join a club.

CATHY WURZER: I bet there's--

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: We have 280 clubs.

CATHY WURZER: I was going to say. And I bet there's probably a website you might want to pass along.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: There is, yeah, mnsnowmobiler.org. Go to that website. We have a plethora of snowmobile clubs in the area that you can go and join the club. The MnUSA dues are $20.

And join the club. And get to meet a lot of the people that we have in the state of Minnesota. We have 25,000 members in our association. Like you had stated earlier in your open, there are 202,000 registered snowmobiles. We're the third largest snowmobile-registered state in the nation. We have two of the four manufacturers right here in Minnesota, with Polaris and Arctic Cat.

So yeah. Go out and join a club first. Join me MnUSA. And make your life a lot easier.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Scott, I appreciate the time. Thank you so much.

SCOTT WAKEFIELD: Thanks, Cathy, for having me. Anytime.

CATHY WURZER: Scott Wakefield is president of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association. You can find out more about upcoming events, like the vintage snowmobile show and the winter rendezvous, at mnsnowmobiler.org.


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