Basic ATV riding techniques

Getting prepared to hit the trails for safe and fun riding

Story by Steve Casper, Nov. 19, 2007

Every ATV rider was at one time a beginner. We all had to survive the first-day jitters as we learned the basic techniques of riding an all-terrain vehicle. For most people, this experience is both fun and challenging. By the end of the day, new ATV riders feel a great sense of accomplishment and are excited about the new sport they’ve discovered.

However, the first day of riding can also be somewhat risky. That’s why safety is paramount while learning basic ATV riding skills.

The best thing for every new rider is to enroll in an ATV Safety Institute (ASI) ATV RiderCourse. It’s not expensive, and if you’re buying a new quad, you will probably get a certificate to take the course for free. Certified ASI instructors conduct courses at various locations throughout the US.

However, taking the course is not always possible for all riders, so here is some advice on a similar step-by-step training procedure.

Know your machine

The first thing to do is carefully read your owner’s manual and become familiar with the way your machine works. As you read the manual, sit on the ATV and get a good feel for where all the controls are—brakes, throttle and shifting. Then figure out the proper procedure for starting. Where is the choke? How long should you let it warm up? Make sure you understand that all shifting is done with the throttle chopped and the revs down.

Pre-ride inspection

Inspecting the mechanical condition of your ATV before each ride is important to minimize the chance of being injured or stranded. This also ensures long enjoyment of your ATV. Remember, you can ride farther in one hour than you can walk in a day.

The first step in this process is to check your tire pressure. If the tires on one side of your quad are not the same pressure as the corresponding tires on the other side, it will affect your handling. Over-inflated tires may get damaged and under-inflated tires can ruin the rims. You’ll need a low-pressure tire gauge to get the job done.

Next, check the wheel nuts, axle nuts and grab the tires and rock them back and forth to try and detect worn-out bearings. Also, test the action of the brake levers, throttle, and foot shifter. If your ATV features an adjustable throttle limiter, make sure the adjustment is appropriate for the rider.

You should always take a peak at the oil, fuel, and coolant levels, as well as look for any leaks in the various systems. Then check the chains and sprockets (if applicable) for adequate adjustment, wear and proper lubrication. Wiggle the handlebars back and forth, looking for any loose connections. Make sure you’re carrying a tool kit and any other emergency equipment you may feel you need.

Set up your practice area
 
Choose a large (about 100 by 200 feet), flat, open practice area, free of obstacles and hazards, to use while you practice. The terrain should be flat for all the exercises described here except for the hill exercises. Practicing on a hard dirt surface will make it easier for you to learn the basic maneuvers.

Do not do these exercises on public roads or paved surfaces. ATVs are designed for off-road use only.

For your markers, you’ll need five objects—these can be milk cartons or plastic bottles with sand in them. Do not use glass bottles or other breakable items, though. You should also bring a tape measure to mark your distances, or at least measure your stride so you can pace off the distances.

Proper posture

The correct riding posture will help you to easily operate the controls and help you react more quickly when shifting your body weight. Proper straight-line riding posture includes:

1. Head and eyes up, looking well ahead.
2. Shoulders relaxed, elbows bent slightly out, away from your body.
3. Hands on the handlebars.
4. Knees in towards the gas tank.
5. Feet on footrests, toes pointing straight ahead.

ATVs are rider-active, so to enhance the performance capabilities of the machine, you must shift your body weight. This is especially true in maneuvers such as turning, negotiating hills, and crossing obstacles.

Starting and stopping

The first thing to work on is simply starting and stopping in a straight line. Set up two markers, about 100 feet from your starting point. In first or low gear, ride to the markers (riders with a clutch will have a chance here to learn how to release it slowly) and slow down before you reach the markers. Come to a smooth, non-skidding stop using both the front and rear brakes, with your front tires between the markers.

Then, if you have a shifting model, do the course again, taking off in first and shifting to second, and then downshifting to first as you start braking. Whether you have an automatic transmission or a manual transmission ATV, do this procedure several times, increasing your speed slightly each time.
 
Next, try a similar stopping exercise in a corner. Take turns stopping at marker C and D, increasing your speed as you feel more comfortable. Be careful to not overshoot the corner or skid while braking.

Turning basics
 
The following basic turning techniques apply to ATVs being ridden at low to moderate speeds:

6. Move your body weight forward and to the inside of the turn.
7. Turn the handlebars while looking in the direction of the turn.
8. As you increase your speed or turn more sharply, move your body weight farther toward the inside of the turn to maintain your balance.
9. If your ATV starts to tip while turning, lean your body farther into the turn while gradually reducing the throttle and making the turn wider, if possible.

There are three drills you can use in the field to practice turning. Start with a large oval made with two markers. Ride around the outside, making left turns and then try some to the right. Do not shift gears during the exercise. The next drill is practicing tight circles. You can use the same markers in the same position for this exercise as well as the next one. Simply ride around the markers and decrease the radius of the turns so that you are making tighter turns and then ride around marker B to the right.

The final turning drill is a figure eight exercise. As your skills increase, move the markers closer together (25 feet apart) so that the figure eight becomes smaller. During these exercises, be careful to not tip or make wide turns. To compensate, slow down, lean your body into the turn, put more weight up front, use more effort to turn the handlebars, and look in the direction of the turn.

Going up hills

Climbing hills improperly could cause loss of control or cause the ATV to overturn. So it’s a good idea to remember these tips:

10. Some hills are too steep for your abilities. Use your common sense. If the hill you are approaching looks too steep, it probably is.
11. Some hills are just too steep for your ATV, regardless of your abilities.
12. Never ride past the limit of your visibility; if you cannot see what is on or over the crest of a hill, slow down until you have a clear view.
13. The key to being a good hill rider is to keep your weight uphill at all times.

When approaching an uphill climb, you should:

14. Shift the ATV into a lower gear and speed up before climbing the hill so you can maintain momentum.
15. When approaching the uphill climb, move up on the seat and lean forward, or stand and position your torso over the front wheels.

As you are climbing, you may need to shift to a lower gear to prevent lugging or stalling the engine. To shift into a lower gear on a hill, remember these points:

16. Keep your body weight forward as you prepare to shift gears. For steeper hills, lean forward as much as possible.
17. Shift quickly while momentarily releasing the throttle; this will help keep the front wheels from lifting.

If you do not have enough power to reach the top of the hill, but still have forward momentum and enough room to turn around safely, keep these in mind:

18. Keep your weight uphill.
19. Make a U-turn before you lose speed.
20. Proceed downhill in lower gear, keeping your weight to the uphill side.

If you are riding uphill and lose all forward momentum:

21. Keep your weight uphill and apply both the front and rear brakes to come to a stop. Never allow the ATV to roll backward.
22. Apply the parking brake while keeping your weight uphill.
23. Dismount on the uphill side or to either side if pointed straight uphill.
24. Hang on to the machine until your riding partners can come up and help you safely turn it around or inch it back down the hill.

Do not attempt to ride backward down a hill. Should you begin rolling backward, do not apply the rear brake abruptly. Only using the rear brake or applying it abruptly could cause the ATV to roll over backward.

 
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