Winter ATV Riding Essentials
Advice for riding ATVs in the cold and snow
Story by Jerrod Kelley, Jan. 14, 2011
They’re called all-terrain vehicles for a reason. ATVs are designed for all types of terrain, from rocks to mud to sand to snow. The latter is probably the most challenging of all the elements because it also involves protecting yourself (read: staying warm) from the weather, and making sure the quad is also ready for the white stuff and frigid temperatures. Of course, four-wheel-drive and diff. lock will improve a machine’s traction, but a 2WD sport quad can be fun, too.
Even if you’re not out for a snowy trail ride, you can still add a few common-sense accessories to get more out of your machine instead of storing it for the winter. This article will share tips and tricks of how to ride in the winter, what products to use and how to dress to make the cool (pun intended) adventure a memorable one.
Whether you own a utility ATV or sport quad, accessories and winter-themed products will help a machine step up its game in the bitter cold. Before you add these, be sure to consult your owner’s manual to see if your machine will do well in the brutal cold. EFI is great, but is not required. A battery charger, engine block heater (if applicable) and proper cold-weather fluids will ensure it starts all winter long.
• Snow Plows: Adding a snowplow or snow blower will make an immediate difference and sure beats shoveling! The aftermarket (as well as some manufacturers) has several different sizes, designs and shapes to choose from when considering plows. Just pick something that’s durable, versatile and fits within your budget. Snow blower attachments are more expensive, but can add a tougher appearance and, potentially, more snow-moving abilities.
• Warmers: If you’re riding in the cold, you’ll probably want some sort of electronic device that warms your extremities. That’s your hands, feet and even your seat! Once you ride in the cold with hand warmers, you’ll never want to go back to non-heated grips again. You can also get a thumb warmer if your throttle thumb feels left out. A seat warmer just makes sense, otherwise you’d being doing something your dad always told you to try to avoid doing – and that’s freezing your arse off!
• Wind Protection: Along with windshields, another option instead of hand warmers would be to add hand guards and/or gauntlets. Hand guards minimally protect your gloved hands from slushy snow and chilling winds. However, gauntlets, or handlebar covers, create a water-resistant barrier as well as an additional layer of warmth. Just be sure you can operate the handlebar controls (throttle, levers).
• Traction: You can give it a go with stock tires or upgrade to a more aggressive set of tires with taller, sharper lugs. Tire chains also improve traction, but we suggest you use them for only working with your ATV and not full-speed riding. You could also add ice racing studs or even snowmobile track studs (if done properly) for improved bite. Studs may be best for sport quads, but can be used on 4x4s, too. Maxxis, with its 4-Snow tire, and ITP, with the TundraCross pre-studded tire, each offers something for snow riding.
• Tracks: Track kits are available for all types of ATVs, sport or utility, and basically help the machines stay on top of the snow by giving it a larger footprint. Some track kits offer tracks at all four wheels. Others have a single rear track and front skis that essentially turn sport models into snow-quads. Kits vary in price and design, so explore your options. We suggest a kit that’s durable, cost effective and relatively easy to install. If it’s too pricey, you might be better off with a used snowmobile.
• Juice: Finally, a newly charged or fresh battery is also a great idea if you plan on venturing out into Jack Frost’s backyard. This is especially important if you plan on adding a winch, lights and other devices that run off your machine’s battery.
Winter Trail Riding
Our first rule of thumb is to never ride alone because getting stranded in normal conditions is one thing, but being left out in the cold is worse. Another good rule is to make sure it’s legal to ride your ATV in the winter and the trails allow quads.
• Snowmobiles, first: The last thing you want to do is hack off a fellow powersports enthusiast. If you can ride on the snowmobile trails, remember sleds are way faster and quicker than ATVs, so be aware of your surroundings and pay attention at all times, especially in blind corners and long straights. It’s good to yield to snowmobiles and practice as much etiquette for these shared trails as possible.
• R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Stay on the trails and respect all posted trail traffic signs (STOP, speed limit, etc.). Although you could ride off the trail because of the snow, your improper prints show disrespect.
• Look Out Below: Riding in the winter also means you’ll be riding in the snow. Therefore it’s sort of like riding in the mud in that you can’t always see what’s beneath the surface. However, if you’re on a trail chances are pretty decent the path is safe and the snow is packed enough to offer safe travels. If you’re legally cutting a trail through new snow, however, beware of fallen trees, hidden boulders or camouflaged drop-offs.
• Ice, Ice, Baby: Exercise caution when riding on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers. Remember, a good rule of thumb is to only venture out on a frozen lake with at least six inches of solid ice. Rivers, depending on where you live and how big the river is, vary so beware.
• Follow the Leader: But do it carefully! Because of icy conditions and whiteouts from snow roost, it’s best to have larger following distances.
Unless you’re a caveman, there’s no sense in trying to turn yourself into a frozen block of ice. There a proven way to dress for winter riding and it involves layering your clothing. This also lets you add or remove items to fine-tune your comfort and warmth. The key terminology for all cold weather gear is moisture wicking, breathable and waterproof. Also, a few other products will improve your overall experience.
• Layer 1: This layer should be tighter to your skin and something that is designed for warmth and moisture absorption. Some sort of “performance long underwear.” See mountain climbing and snowmobile-related products if you need examples!
• Layer 2: The second layer should not be super loose fitting or bulky, but warmer and thicker (think fleece). Again, something that wicks moisture, stays dry and warm.
• Layer 3: Gore-Tex is king but any jacket and pant that offers both a breathable and waterproof shell is ideal. Jackets with zippered venting lets you cool down if you get too warm.
• Hang On: Gloves are important because you need your hands to function so you can control the throttle, hang on and stay in control. Look for a glove that offers a waterproof design, yet isn’t too bulky so it bunches up under your hand or interferes with the controls.
• Toe Jam: Don’t just jam your feet into any old work boot. Be sure the boot is made for cold weather with some sort of insulating material and, above all, is waterproof. When paired with a good pair of wool socks, you’re piggies will be toasty warm and looking for some roast beef.
• Buckets: You can opt for a snowmobile helmet or just customize your open-faced MX helmet with a few other accessories (keep reading).
• Ninja-fied: A balaclava may give you the look of a redneck ninja, but it’s proven itself in the snowmobile industry for years and will keep your entire face/head warm under your helmet.
• Fog Alert: Dual-pane goggles ensure the lenses won’t fog over (at least as much as a normal single-pane you were in the summer).
• Hannibal-esque: Although a breath mask or “box” may look like something Hannibal Lecter wears, it truly works. This device attaches to the inner mouth area of a helmet and keeps the cold air off your face. When combined with a helmet, goggles and balaclava, you create almost an impenetrable guard against the dreaded wind chill!
Winter Trip Essentials
Riding in the snow is really no different than riding in the warmer seasons, however, you need to prepare for the unexpected. We’ve broken a shock mount riding in the snow before. We’ve been stuck fender deep in mountain snow, which is often unpredictable (soft, packed) and can sometimes seem bottomless. Here are a few goodies to always remember for riding in the snow.
• Winch: You will get stuck at least once and a winch makes the whole process of getting unstuck a whole lot less stressful on you and your quad.
• Spare Goods: This includes socks, long underwear, gloves and a few wool blankets. Staying warm and dry is crucial in the snow/winter. Extra gear just makes sense and it will easily fit in a backpack or rear rack bag.
• Edibles: Water and snacks are always a good idea. You many not think you’ll need to eat, but you may not have expected to get stuck or lost either.
• Miscellaneous: This includes sealable baggies (for melting snow) and for keeping matches, paper, steel wool (for burning) and snacks dry. It also includes a compass, whistle and other survival-type products.
• Medical: Take along a good first aid kit in case someone in your party is injured.
• Bag It: Trash bags are good for storing wet clothes, dry clothes and garbage.
• Ring, Ring: Always take a cell phone with you on your trip.
• Short and Bright: Taking a flashlight is a good idea because winter riding often means the shortest days of the year. A few mishaps and your day could become night sooner than you expected.
Let It Snow
With these tips you no longer have to fear the snow and the frosty conditions that come with it. We encourage you to explore the flakes for work and for play and to do it a safe manner. Pushing it around or conquering a snow-covered trail is a natural act for an ATV. It’s up to you to determine how much time you need to spend in the snow. Don’t be such a (snow)flake!