Snowmobiling can be an expensive sport, and in some cases renting may be the best way to get into the sport. There are pros and cons to renting and owning, and we'll go over both to help you decide!
Planning a trip is more difficult when you are at the mercy of a rental sled. Many places are booked in advance, killing last-minute trips or chasing a storm. When you own your snowmobile, you are on your schedule. Every winter is different, and specific locations can be blessed with more snow than others. Snowmobile rentals are only available in popular tourist spots, and places that let you trailer to locations are rare.
Many snowmobilers ride locally if snow conditions permit in addition to their destination trips. If an area does not consistently receive snow, chances are there are no snowmobile rentals in that area. We had a banner snow year from 20-21 in Northern IL and Southern WI. We put on a lot of miles locally, right from our house. Being a renter would not allow for this opportunity.
Snowmobiles available for rent
Out west, you can rent the latest top of the line machines. In the midwest and east coast, that is not the case. The rentals are often the lowest base model with a detuned 600 motor or low horsepower 4 stroke. You will not be able to get your hands on a 4 stroke turbo or 850. The suspension will not be very tunable outside of tightening or loosening the springs.
Crossover sleds are available if you want to ride powder in some of the play areas in the snow belts. They are lower horsepower, and you'll be unable to get your hands on an 850.
Is there not a market for high-end rentals? There is, but insurance is too high to justify it. With some beginner renters we've seen on the trail, we are glad they do not have access to the more powerful machines!
The last thing to touch on the rental snowmobiles is reliability. These rentals are used and abused. Most shops perform maintenance on them, but there is only so much you can do. You do not have a choice if you end up with a brand new rental or an old service dog with over 5000 miles! Many places do not even give you a spare belt, so make sure someone in your group has a tow strap!
Snowmobile cost of ownership
If you are a one trip per year person, it makes more sense to rent than own if you don't mind riding a lower-end model. If you prefer a high-end sled that you can personalize, you'll have to buy your machine.
Renting a snowmobile will range from $250-400 per day, with a whole trip ending up at $900-$1500. If you go on more than one trip, it will make more sense to own as it's not difficult to keep the overall cost of ownership down to under $1,800-$3,000.
The purchase price, insurance, trail pass, gear, and maintenance will be the standard costs of owning a snowmobile. You will also be on the hook for parts if you have bad luck. There are ways to minimize high-cost events. Buying a snowmobile during spring order usually nets you an extended warranty ranging from 2-4 years. Selling the sled before the warranty is up means you'll never be liable for a motor going down. Another option is buying a low-mileage used snowmobile and selling it in a year or two. Snowmobiling is an expensive sport, but you can do a lot to reduce your risk of ending up with a money pit.
Making the choice
Renting versus owning is going to come down to your situation. If you want a high-performance machine with advanced suspension, you'll have to own your machine. If you want to experience the sport but are not ready to invest much money, renting will be the ticket. If you are proactive and follow our advice, you'll minimize the ownership cost, which could be cheaper than renting.
Still undecided? Here is a pro and con list for each option
Owning a snowmobile
Freedom to pick your desired snowmobile
Ability to adjust the sled to your desired riding style
Ride whenever you have the ability
Not limited to select tourist areas
Can chase snow storms
Handle your maintenance knowing your machine is up for the trip
Adding aftermarket products to enhance your riding experience
Overall ownership cost can be cheaper than renting
Expensive upfront cost
Repairs can be costly outside of the warranty
Requires owning or knowing someone with a truck and trailer
Responsible for maintenance
On the hook for payments and insurance even in a poor snow year
Need storage for snowmobile/trailer
Renting a snowmobile
No investment required
Can cancel if snow conditions are poor
The rental is professionally maintained
Not responsible for any mechanical repairs
Machines are usually 1-2 years old
It doesn't require a truck and trailer
High-end models are only available out west in mountain sleds
Midwest and Northeast rentals are limited to slower, low-end models
Can end up with a higher mileage machine
Limited areas to rent
May have to plan trips far in advance
You cannot fix the damage on your own, subject to the dealership labor rate
My experience of renting vs. owning
I have experience renting and owning snowmobiles and snowbikes in numerous situations. Every time I have owned, I have come out ahead versus renting. Not only has ownership been cheaper, but I've also had high-end machines instead of lower-end rentals that would cost more.
In 2016 I built a snowbike for a trip and outfitted it with numerous aftermarket accessories that enhanced the experience and performance. I went to Colorado for five days of riding with friends who had to rent. The cost of the rentals with insurance was $350 a day and came out to $1,750 for the trip. The rentals were basic, just bike and snowbike conversion with no accessories. In the spring of 2018, I sold the snowbike for a $1,000 loss after eight days of riding, numerous accessories, the trail passes, and insurance. If you factor in what it would cost to rent for eight days, I came out way ahead. What helped me beat the rental cost vs. cost of ownership was buying the bike lightly used at a good deal. I also used the tactics for purchasing in the offseason and selling in season that I go into detail about in these blogs: How to get the best deal on a used snowmobile, How to get the most money for your used snowmobile.
The last trail snowmobile I sold was a high-end model that I bought new and owned for seven seasons. That machine was sold for a loss of $4,000, bringing the cost of ownership to about $570. Add insurance, maintenance, storage, and accessories, bumping up to $950. It still comes in around or lower than one rental trip a year. Again I made sure to sell in peak season to minimize the cost of ownership.
For trips out west, I do choose to rent. The hassle of owning a mountain sled and a minimum 14-hour drive to the mountains vs. a 2-hour flight makes renting the better choice. You can rent high-performance snowmobiles out west, unlike the midwest and east coast. The time it takes to drive out west, and the cost of diesel makes renting the best option in my situation.
I will say my ownership did incur any mechanical repairs, and a motor going down can easily make ownership cost way more than renting. If you buy smart, you can reduce the risks of a large repair bill. Remember that mechanical failure out of warranty is the leading risk you eliminate with a rental. If you crash a rental or break any part of the sled at your fault, like an A-arm, you are still responsible for your repair cost at the rental company's labor rate, which will be much greater than fixing something on your snowmobile. Both options have their financial risks. You can check out these resources that go over how you minimize the risk and increase the odds that ownership will be cheaper than renting.