Google search engineGoogle search engine
HomeFeaturesKids & Snowmobiles: Safety Net vs. Tool Kit?

Kids & Snowmobiles: Safety Net vs. Tool Kit?

Me and my sone Calvin on a snowmobile ride last winter

Ever since I read THIS HAUNTING STORY of 14-year-old Burton Winters’ death, I’ve been thinking about my own childhood snowmobile adventures and when I’ll let my own children ride without an adult present.

Burton Winters was the Labrador teen who earlier this year died from hypothermia after walking 19 kilometers following the breakdown of his snowmobile. It’s a horrible situation. As a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the horror of this. Nor can I fathom the fear that Burton surely felt. It’s staggering.

There are two things I keep thinking about: Burton was riding alone. He was 14 years old.

My life as a snowmobiler began when I was around 4-5 years old, as a passenger. I don’t know for sure, and neither does my mom, but I’m reasonably certain I started riding my uncle’s old Ski-Doo Olympics by myself at around age 8. On those rides there were always other people on other sleds.

It wasn’t until I was around 10 that my brother, cousin, friends and I would ride by ourselves without adult supervision. Such rides were usually around the lake that they were ice-fishing on. I think I was 11 when I and my same-age cousin first rode a few miles along a road ditch to get to a restaurant/bar, in order to buy hot chocolate. I still vividly remember that ride and the combination of excitement and fear that infused the hour-long adventure. I was just as happy to arrive safely back home as I was to have ridden to the bar in the first place.

I think I was in my 20s before I experience a truly long snowmobile ride by myself, in areas where I might have been in a pickle had something gone wrong. I haven’t put myself into that situation often, probably only a handful of times, because 99.9% of the time I’m riding with someone else.

Nevertheless, a big part of what I love about snowmobiling is the sense of adventure, which is why so much of my riding occurs in some of the more remote parts of Minnesota. I actually like it when a snowmobile suffers a problem that requires trailside repair or MacGyver fix. Similarly, getting lost and the subsequent process that gets our group back to “safety” are kind of thrilling and wonderful.

I might feel differently about that if I ever had to spend the night outside without shelter.

For sure it would be terrifying if I were alone and dozens of miles from any sort of safety or human intervention.

Somewhere in-between safety and terror lies the thrill of adventure and self-sufficiency. And I think we build up our tool kits to handle these situations by starting young, with short stints away from the adults, where small problems may arise that require some thought, ingenuity and/or strength.

We add to our tool kit via experiences like camping, building fires, working with mechanical things, looking at maps, navigating trails, reading, getting lost in benign situations, dealing with stress/pressure and about a hundred other life experiences.

In most ways, I think modern life offers a much larger and closer safety net than the decades and centuries that preceded it. Our vehicles usually work flawlessly. There are cell phones, GPS, cabins/houses in remote areas, search-and-rescue operations and the like. Contrast that with what the explorers of the new world faced, or what those who came across the continent for the California Gold Rush surely must have experienced.

Yet in another sense I think that all of our modern conveniences and safety nets and mostly-perfect-running-vehicles have prevented people from truly having to figure out solutions to problems. And when a real big problem actually occurs, they don’t have the tools they need to solve it.

All of which brings me back to what I keep thinking about my own kids and how Burton Winters’ tragic death should shape my own decisions about allowing them to snowmobile without adults.

From a legal standpoint, kids have to be 12 or older and have a snowmobile safety certificate in order to ride public lands without adult supervision. Based on my experiences with my own son and his riding, that seems reasonable. I think some kids are ready sooner and some later. But as a state, you have to draw the line in the snow somewhere.

What seems more important to me than age, however, is having some fundamental skills and abilities. Like being able to effectively start a snowmobile with the pull rope; understanding the spatial relationship of where you are on a map and on the ground; knowing how to change a blown belt; knowing roughly how the amount of fuel in the tank corresponds to range; and of course being able to confidently handle a snowmobile. On top of all of this is having a general calm-and-collected figure-it-out approach to life.

I want and need to put more effort into helping my kids learn self-sufficiency. For me, raising kids effectively means NOT building a bigger and stronger safety net, but rather helping teach them skills and independence, then giving them the freedom to test these skills. Still, I need to get better at letting (and sometimes forcing) them to build their tool kits.

I guess I’m going to use the tragedy of Burton’s death to help equip my kids with as many tools as possible.

Godspeed to you Burton. And peace to your family.

Thanks for reading.



  1. During my 41 years of teaching Snowmobile Safety in Minnesota my biggest obstacle was the D.N.R. My classes were always taken on a trail ride to demonstrate control, practiced survival techniques, had to change a belt and spark plugs etc. My final year of class a D.N.R. Officer attended the day long classroom session and later showed up on the day we scheduled for trila riding. Following the session he said the three teachers are,” Doing a great job , the class is supurb,BUT you are teaching too much”. My teching crew and I told the officer to take us off the teaching list as we were done. Now if you look at the D.N.R. recommendation for class, esp. the video I’m glad I no longer am associated with snowmobile training. That is SAD.

  2. Nothing to do with kids riding alone, or this story, but this is the biggest reason I can’t wrap my head around a four stroke. What if the battery goes dead???? Starter motor dies???

  3. Good article John. We expect so much out of our snowmobiles today from a reliability stand point that we expect to make to make it back from a 200+ mile day with no issues. This is unlike the late 60’s and early 70’s where it was expected you carry a gross of plugs and 3 belts to make it through a weekend.

    Riding solo is always an “Interesting” subject when it comes up on the various boards every winter. Is a cell phone, gps and knowing a familiy member or friend is a phone call away should you need it, enough of a “saftey net” to go for a solo ride with our modern machines?

  4. the snowmobile manufacturer’s have made a huge mistake marketing this sport as a group activity..fact of the matter is, this sport is excellent and very safe to do solo and everybit as cool if not cooler to ride alone then with a group. you drive your car alone right,whats the diffierence? nobody is gonna come save you if you crash your car at 2 they would sell alot more sleds if they could convince people that this sport is safe and good to go’s a dang hard to find people to ride with these days and everybody has exhausting schedules.. if you wanna ride you gotta do it on your’s good to spend time with your self in your own little world!!!

    as far as raisng your kids, spend lot’s and lot’s of time with them and give them lot’s and lot’s of love and teach them about the world and they will do fine.. it is these kids that need to teach themselves that get into trouble. be a role model and don’t be affraid to let your kids spend time with other quality adults..every child needs a good mentor..

    a shining example of what is possible is take a look at tucker hibbert and trace his snowmobiling back to his child hood..this is what happens when things are done right!!!

  5. Great article again John!
    Gerry, that is an interesting perspective and sad to hear that “teaching too much” is a BAD thing.
    I think back to how my dad prepared me for snowmobiles and at the time it may have felt like preaching, but those things I learned have been extremely beneficial later in life.
    None of the guys I normally ride with can diagnose a problem on their machine or figure out how to fix it. One guy broke the recoil rope on his sled and had no idea what to do, he thought his day was done. Ridiculous.
    I simply pulled out the strap from my toolkit, wrapped it around the primary clutch and pulled. Since he was on a ski doo I made sure to start it in reverse to play a trick on him and we had a riot with that.
    In all honesty you can never be too prepared. I ride alone the majority of the time and have had a couple hiccups that if they had been in a more remote location I would have been SOL, but thankfully I was lucky.

  6. A heartbreaking story. Made sure I gave my 14 year old a big hug and an “I love you” when he got home from school last night. Thoughts and prayers go out to that young mans family.

  7. I have ridden alone a lot starting as an 8th grader since 1968 and I can remember a long walk to a farm house after getting Dad’s Nordic very stuck. In later years I have made two day solo trips from southwest WI to the Eagle River area but I approach it like an airplane pilot would. File a flight/riding plan, make sure the Cat is in top notch shape, know your safe fuel range, and I carry an ARS beacon that if all else fails can be used to summon help anywhere on earth. I feel terrible for the boy’s family but then a pilot would never go into soup (or onto pack ice) without proper training and equipment.

  8. I taught DNR Safety training for many years(no longer due the DVD which I feel is inadequate). About every 10 minutes one of the instructors threw out a ‘pop’ question related to the final exam or just plain common sense. The one that was used the most and multiple times on purpose was Q. “What is the most important item to take with you when riding?” A. A friend on another machine. To this day I never ride alone.

  9. Gerry/Hugh: I too have been a MN safety instructor for over 20 years and have had to evolve along with the teaching methods and embrace some new ways of doing things. A few of us have discussed an idea for a while now and may do it for the youth that complete our class this winter…we plan to hold a trail ride with the students and their parents on a weekend following the class. It will be a great opportunity for the students to excercise some of their new-found knowledge, get/keep their parents involved in the sport, speak of and demonstrate the importance of and role of snowmobile clubs in MN, etc, etc. The possibilities with a ride like this are endless and would be a great way to further teach on things that may not have been covered in the classroom.

  10. Another great article John —but I’m confused on some of the comments posted.

    Huge mistake on marketing as a group sport?

    Also I’m missing the point on Tucker’s childhood and doing things right.

    Tucker had the greatest snowmobile mentor in the world and in my opinion, the student is only as smart as the teacher.

    Tucker, being in the lime light at an early age, was due to a father that was making sure his son would possibly achieve goals that he himself missed out on or struggled with.

    This bond between father and son is a feeling that sometimes words can’t explain whether it be at a race track, fishing trip or ball game.

    Discipline and respect are a couple of topics that should be taught at an early age with children. The rest will come a lot easier.

    Anytime there is a loss in our favorate sport, we all should feel sick.

    Riding a snowmobile solo is a freedom of choice just like riding a motorcycle without a helmet –I wouldn’t recommend either.

    My motto is teaching children or adults to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

  11. Looking back about ten years ago when I was on weekend coverage at American Airlines with a four tens work schedule, I rode every week in the Beltrami Island State Forest or up at the Northwest Angle by myself. With a Sunday Monday Tuesday off work schedule I had to ride by myself as my son was in school and my friends were at work. My machines were Polaris XLT’s with a million miles on them but were well maintained. Fortunately, the only time I ever did break down was close to civilization and some farmer friends I knew (who of course could go riding on a week day) happened to come along about twenty minutes later. Nevertheless, I always carried a backpack (and still do today) with lots of emergency equipment in case I had to spend the night in the woods. Having been a Boy Scout as a child would have been beneficial also because of the survival skills we were taught.

    Despite the dangers, riding alone is more fun as you can go where you want when you want. You can set your own speed and enjoy the scenery or explore places you find interesting. I agree with your article that kids should be taught mechanical, navigation, and survival skills. It may save their life some day. Too bad the safety instructors aren’t allowed to teach more in class.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular