Interest in off-roading, boating explodes during pandemic

A man sits inside an all-terrain vehicle.
Airtec Sports Roberts general manager Warren Burger says most off-road power equipment needs be preordered with a monthslong wait for delivery. “If we had inventory on the floor, it would be gone within a day.”
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Times are good right now for 43-year-old Brian Berrini. The insurance agent who lives in Ely  finally picked up a shiny, new off-highway vehicle to joy ride in the woods. And he’s excited.

“Very excited actually,” he grinned. “Because a lot of my friends and everybody else up here has been constantly buying them and it finally came into the dealership so the anticipation was kind of killing me while everyone else was having fun, I was just waiting so yeah, it’s here.”

Berrini already had snowmobiles and a four-wheeler.  Added to his collection now is a five-seat Polaris “General.” It looks sort of like a futuristic dune buggy.

“You can fit four adults in there very easily, five you now if there’s a couple of kids involved,” Berrini said. “There’s two seats in the front and three seats in the back.”

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Berrini said that when he brought home his new toy he was immediately out trail riding.

Berrini bought his off-highway vehicle from Airtec Sports Roberts, east of the Twin Cities. The place looks pretty deserted and is far from overflowing with units from which to choose.   

“If we had inventory on the floor, it would be gone within a day,” said general manager Warren Burger. He said most machines, like Berrini’s, are pre-sold with months of waiting before delivery.

Burger said he even had to stop renting power sports equipment because he can’t get his hands on enough machines.

“Since the whole COVID thing started, it seemed like more people just wanted to get outside and enjoy the outdoor air,” said Berrini. “We see more and more new families buying snowmobiles, four-wheelers, side-by-sides, pontoons, jet skis — everything.”

A woman stands next to an all terrain vehicle.
Pam Kermisch, Polaris vice president of off-road marketing, says sales have been booming.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Minnesota-based Polaris is a worldwide leader in motorized recreation. It operates a sprawling research and development site north of the Twin Cities in Wyoming.

“When the pandemic first hit, we didn’t know what that was going to be like for our business,” said Polaris vice president of off-road marketing Pam Kermisch.

It turned out that sales boomed. At the height of the pandemic Polaris’ earnings for the first three months of this year were up nearly 40 percent from last year.

Kermisch said Polaris closely tracks repeat purchasers and knows there’s a growing market of people who are new to off-road touring.

“People who live more suburban and urban and younger, female, multicultural and they’re discovering power sports,” said Kermisch.

But not everyone embraces the growing demand for tearing through the woods aboard power sports equipment. Some call the machines “wreckcreational” because of the environmental damage they can cause.

“Is there any tension between motorized and no-motorized? The answer is yes but there’s always tensions in management of natural resources,” said Paul Purman, who works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division. 

“With any user group you have a few bad apples,” said Purman. Still, he said the DNR  welcomes motorized recreation provided it takes place legally.

Purman said off-road “bad apples” don’t stick to managed trail systems.

“I think there’s a real need for an increase in information available to new buyers of machines so it’s real clear to them when they’re buying a machine where they can ride it, [and] what the best practices are,” said Purman.

Purman said he expects large off-road vehicles will become even more popular as the population ages, underscoring the need to keep up with the demand for trails and make sure users know what the rules are and follow them.

Correction (July 14, 2021): A previous version misstated the name of Airtec Sports Roberts. The story above is updated.