The enticement of accessing the wide open outdoors where you can’t drive even the most tricked out 4x4 pickup is the allure an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). You can take a hike, but why not go farther while easily packing everything you need for the adventure?
What’s so cool about ATVs? If you can drive a car, you can easily operate today’s user-friendly ATVs, many of which come with power steering, electric starters, fuel injection and other essential goodies found on a truck. There are even SUV-like all-terrain vehicles called UTVs, also known as Utility Task Vehicles or side-by-sides, that can haul bigger loads and seat more passengers in comfort.
They might be similar in handling and operating functions, but ATVs and UTVs at their core are designed for off-road use. Use common sense, don’t take chances when safety is compromised and respect the environment when you’re using them.
Taking an ATV safety course is the first step. You can take those in an interactive classroom setting with other riders or find an online course. State laws govern mandatory equipment and even operator license requirements.
When you have mastered the basics, get familiar with these 10 tips for practical operation and safer handling of your ATV or UTV.
Use common sense when operating on the trail, as well as when unloading and loading an ATV into a truck bed or onto a trailer.
- Use a winch to load the ATV, if possible.
- Avoid using too steep of a ramp. If you accidentally gun the throttle or approach too fast, the vehicle could flip or overturn.
- Use a ramp that can withstand the combined weight of the ATV and its rider.
- Attach the ramp securely to the trailer or pickup using straps or chains. If you have separate left and right ramps, space them properly for your ATV.
Approach the ramp in first gear so you can climb it easily. Engage four-wheel drive in low gear.
On private property, you have the trail all to yourself. On public lands designated for off-road vehicle use, though, you will share the trail with other riders. Keep everyone safe by practicing basic trail etiquette. A little common courtesy goes a long way.
- Always yield to descending traffic. Riders may have trouble starting after stopping when seeing you approach.
- Announce your intent before passing, and slow down when being passed by another rider.
- Be considerate of others on the trail and keep to the right.
- Don’t assume a route is open just because you see tracks. Uninformed riders or deliberate violators may have made those.
- Never stop side by side, in the middle of the trail, at the crest of a hill or around a corner on the trail.
ATVs and UTVs are ideal for hauling cargo where pickups can’t venture. Sure, you don’t want to make two trips, but turnovers due to overloading are common accidents. Take these steps to get you—and your gear—safely to its final destination.
- Check the owner’s manual to make sure the trailer is rated for towing with your ATV. The same goes for the cargo rack. Even slightly overloading the rear rack lightens the front, forces weight toward the rear and can make steering and stopping unsafe.
- Weight distribution is the key to a controllable ride. Be sure everything is evenly distributed to balance the vehicle.
- Load trailer cargo to maintain the lowest possible center of gravity. Distribute the load evenly. Tie down cargo to avoid shifting when turning or braking.
- When slowing, downshift and use the engine to help slow the vehicle. Do not brake suddenly to avoid the risk of overturning.
Traversing steep terrain is a given. Safely get up and down the hill by following these tips.
- To drive uphill while seated, slide far enough forward to position your torso over the front wheels or handlebars.
- Start the climb by shifting into a lower gear. Gently throttle up to maintain momentum.
- When going downhill, shift your weight to the rear. Use a lower gear, maintain a slow speed and brake gradually.
In some areas, crossing streams and other shallow waterways is illegal for environmental reasons. If a water crossing is inevitable, follow these tips.
- Determine the water depth and current speed before crossing. Avoid crossing if the water is too swift, even if it is shallow.
- Avoid driving across water at high speeds. Hydroplaning, loss of steering control and roll over are the dangers.
- Drive at a slow, steady speed to spot and steer around submerged obstacles.
- Do not drive into water that is deeper than the maximum depth specified in the owner’s manual.
- Avoid spinning your wheels, which disrupts streambeds and erodes banks.
Venturing into the woods before daylight is a given when hunting the short days of fall and winter. Slow down and stay safe in the dark to arrive safely at your blind or treestand.
Never overdrive your headlights. You should always be able to stop within the length of the illuminated beam. An ATV/UTV beam is effective for about 200 feet. The average stopping distance at 30 mph is about 180 feet.
- Make sure headlights are clean and work properly.
- Travel only in familiar areas.
- Always carry a flare or flashlight for emergency signaling.
- Wear reflective apparel to make yourself more visible to other riders.
Just because your ATV/UTV has four wheels doesn’t make it safe to operate on a paved road. Here are some reasons to stay off paved roads and keep to the trails—which are more fun for riding anyway.
- The low pressure and deeply grooved tires of an ATV/UTV are designed for off-road use.
- Pavement adversely affects handling, and if driven too fast, an accident can result.
- Many local and state laws prohibit operating off-road vehicles on public roads.
Board a theme park ride and you are told to keep arms and legs inside the car at all times. The same reasons apply to ATVs and UTVs. Injuries can result when brushing past tree limbs and branches. Use the handholds and keep a lookout for what’s ahead.
ATVs are categorized by safety and maneuverability. One size doesn’t fit all, which is why ATVs are sold by age limit and engine size, too. Follow the age limits for the model, even though the rider might fit comfortably on the seat of another.
Wear over-the-ankle boots, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and goggles, unless otherwise specified in your owner's manual. Helmets are also crucial in most off-road situations, as the jostling from uneven terrain make it easy to bump your head, even if you're strapped in with a safety belt.
If you’re new to ATVs and UTVs, you can get practical advice, learn more about which vehicle is right for you and find everything you need to enjoy the sport at Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Boating Centers.