Before riding an ATV for the first time, you need to learn and understand the basic controls to operate the vehicle safely. This guide covers all the main controls you’ll find on most modern ATVs.

The main controls on an ATV consist of the handlebars for steering, brake levers for stopping, throttle lever for increasing engine speed and vehicle movement as well as a variety of electrical switches to operate electrical components such as lights, winch, and ignition.

Continue reading to learn more about how each individual control mechanism works and what it does.

Throttle Lever

atv thumb throttle
Press the throttle lever to increase engine speed and vehicle movement. Release the throttle lever to reduce engine speed and vehicle movement.

ATVs come with a thumb-operated throttle lever that works the same as a car’s gas pedal or the twist throttle on a motorcycle. 

  • Press the lever gradually to increase engine speed and vehicle movement.
  • Release the lever gradually to decrease engine speed and vehicle movement.

The lever adjusts the throttle using an electrical or an electro-mechanical system (also known as drive-by-wire) to transfer the movement from your thumb to the carburetor. Some older or budget ATVs uses a continuous steel cable to connect the lever and the carb. 

If you’re curious as to why ATVs come with a thumb throttle instead of a twist throttle, you’ll find the answer in this post.

Hand and Foot Brake

Your ATV comes with one or two hand brake levers, a foot brake lever as well as a parking brake feature.

Hand Brake Lever

ATV Hand Brake
Squeeze the brake lever toward the handlebar to apply the brakes.

The hand brake lever is located on the handlebars and operates both the front and rear brakes on the ATV. Squeeze the lever against the handlebar until the desired braking effect is reached. Release the lever to disengage the brakes. 

If you squeeze the lever too hard, your wheels may begin to skid or slide. If this happens, reduce lever pressure to regain control of the vehicle. 

Most riders prefer to use the hand brake lever as their primary braking control. For active or high-speed riding, it’s good practice to leave one or two fingers resting on the brake lever at all times to reduce reaction time and stopping distance. The other fingers should maintain the grip around the handlebars at all times.

Foot Brake

ATV foot brake
Press the brake pedal down with your foot to apply the brakes.

The foot brake is located near the right footrest and operates both the front and rear brakes (on most ATVs). 

Note that on some ATVs, the foot brake only operates the rear brakes. Refer to your user manual to learn how your specific bike works. 

Press the pedal down with your foot to activate the brakes. Release pressure by lifting your foot to disengage the brakes.

Parking Brakes

ATV Parking Brake
Squeeze the brake lever toward the handlebar and then push the parking brake lock to engage the lock. Squeeze the brake lever to release the parking brake.

Most ATVs use a locking mechanism on the hand brake lever to activate the parking brake. Squeeze the lever against the handlebar and press the parking brake lock to engage the lock.

To disengage the parking brake, squeeze the hand brake lever until the brake lock disengages automatically. On some ATVs, you’ll have to turn off the parking brake lock manually. 

Handlebars

Pull the right end of the handlebar towards you to turn right. Pull the left end of the handlebar towards you to turn left.

On an ATV, you steer using handlebars like a motorcycle and not with a steering wheel like a car. 

  • To go left, you pull the left side of the handlebar towards you and push the right side of the handlebars away from you.
  • To go right, you pull the right end of the handlebar towards you and push the right side of the handlebar away from you.

Note that you don’t countersteer on an ATV with four wheels like you would do on a motorcycle that has only two wheels and leans in the direction you are turning. 

Gear Shifter

ATV Gear Shifter
Move the shifter-rod forward or backward to switch between the gears.

Depending on what type of transmission your ATV has, it will have either a switch, a hand lever, or a foot pedal to shift between gears.

Gear shifting controls on Automatic ATVs: ATVs with automatic transmissions typically have a hand lever to switch between the available gear ranges:

  • P: Park
  • R: Reverse
  • N: Neutral
  • L: Low gear range
  • H: High gear range

After selecting the gear range, the gearing is handled automatically by the transmission and clutches.

Gear shifting controls on Semi-Automatic ATVs: ATVs with semi-automatic transmissions typically have a push-button style of gear-shifter. Push UP to switch to a higher gear, and press DOWN to switch to a lower gear.

Gear shifting controls on Manual ATVs: Some youth ATVs or budget adult models come with a manual gearbox and a foot pedal to shift between gears. In addition, you’ll find a clutch hand lever that needs to be compressed each time you switch gears, like on a car with a manual gearbox. 

The gears typically follow this layout:

  • Pedal all the way down: First gear
  • Pedal one click up: Neutral
  • Pedal one more click up: Second gear
  • Pedal one more click up: Third gear
  • …and so on.

Switches

An ATV is equipped with a range of switches to control the various electric components on the vehicle. There are the main ones you should know:

Ignition Key Switch

ATV ignition key switch
Turn the ignition key switch clockwise to start the ATV.

Use this switch to start and stop the ATV. Insert the correct key to turn the switch. The switch typically has three or four positions:

  • STOP: Cuts all electric power to the engine
  • LIGHTS ON: Turns on the headlights and instrument cluster. Return to this position after starting the ATV to turn the main headlights on.
  • PARKING LIGHTS ON: After starting the ATV, the switch will return to this position where only the parking lights and taillights are on.
  • START: Starts the engine. The engine stop switch must be in the RUN position for the ATV to start.

Note that some ATVs require that the gear shifter is in PARK and/r that the hand brake lever is compressed for the bike to start.

ATV Switches
The type of switches and their layout varies between different ATV brands and models.

Engine Stop Switch – Also Known as “Kill Switch”

When the switch is in the OFF position, the engine will not run. Use this switch to turn off the engine in an emergency.

Momentary High Beam Switch

Pressing and holding this switch will activate the headlight high beam. The light will return to the low-beam position as soon as the button is released. This feature can be used used to signal other drivers. 

Mode Switch

The mode switch allows you to toggle through the various display modes and functions on your speedometer. These features vary between different ATV brands and models but may include trip-counter, battery voltage, engine rev counter, and odometer.

Reverse Override Switch

Most modern ATVs come with a rev-limiter designed to prevent unintentional, fast acceleration when in reverse. Unintended acceleration can happen when the rider’s leg or hip accidentally pushes on the throttle switch while driving in reverse.

By activating the reverse override switch, you temporarily deactivate the rev-limiter as long the button is pressed. Use this switch with caution. It’s easy to lose control of the bike while driving fast in reverse. 

Winch Switch

If your ATV is equipped with a winch, it will have a dedicated winch switch mounted on the handlebar. The switch has two positions: “OUT,” spool the winch rope out, and “IN,” which will spool the winch rope back in on the winch drum. 

High/Low Beam Switch

This switch change between high and low beams.

Work Light Switch

If the bike has work lights, you’ll find a separate switch to turn on these lights. Never use work-lights when riding on-road. 

Hazard Light Switch

Activates all turn signal lights to flash simultaneously. Use this feature to alert others of an emergency or another situation that requires caution.

Turn Signal Switch

Move the switch to the left to activate the left turn signals. Move the switch to the right to activate the right turn signals. 

4×4 Switch

2x4 4x4 switch
Most modern 4X4 ATVs use an electric switch between 2X4, 4X4, and any other transmission settings available on the specific bike.

Depending on your ATVs transmission, it may have an electric 4X4 switch that toggles between 2X4, 4X4, and other modes such as 4X4 ADC, or other model-specific transmission modes and features. 

Some ATVs use a mechanical lever to switch between 2×4 and 4×4.

Hand and Seat Warmer Switch (If Equipped)

Some high-end come with optional hand warmers and/or seat warmer to keep you warm when riding in freezing conditions. 

Front Differential Lock (If Equipped)

Some utility ATVs come with a locking front differential that, when activated, forces both front wheels to rotate simultaneously when driving in slippery conditions. 

On some ATVs like Polaris, the diff lock is automatic, while other brands have a dedicated front differential lock switch that must be operated manually.

Instrument Cluster

ATV Instrument Cluster
The layout of the instrument cluster can vary quite a bit from one ATV to another and display a range of information that can be useful for the rider.

The instrument panel displays useful information such as:

  • Vehicle speed
  • Engine RPM
  • Fuel level
  • 4X4 mode
  • Warning lights
  • Indicator lights
    • Over temperature
    • EPS warning (if equipped)
    • Neutural
    • High beam
    • Check engine
    • Turn signal
    • Trailer turn signal
  • Fault codes
  • Odometer
  • Service notification

The gauges may be digital, analog, or a combination of both. The displayed information aids the rider in driving the vehicle safely and within legal limits.

Please pay attention to potential fault codes or warning lights as they work as an early indicator when something is potentially wrong with the ATV. Noticing the warning early and identifying what’s causing the alarm can prevent expensive repairs down the line. 

Fuel Cap

The fuel cap is always located on the highest portion of the gas tank. Only use gas according to manufacturer recommendations.

Operator Presence Detection (If Equipped)

Many modern ATVs come with a so-called operator presence detection feature that registers whether the driver is present on the bike or not. When the bike detects that the rider is not present, it will alert the rider with a sound and/or display message.

The alert and/or message occurs when:

Situation 1 (ATVs without a tether switch):

  • The gear shifter is not in park (P)
  • And, the vehicle is not moving
  • And, the hand brake is not applied

Situation 2 (ATVs with a tether switch):

  • The gear shifter is not in park (P)
  • And, the vehicle is not moving
  • And, the hand brake is applied
  • And, the tether switch is not connected

Battery Quick Disconnect (If Equipped)

ATV battery quick disconnect
Turn the switch to completely connect or disconnect the ATV electric system from the battery.

Some ATVs come with a battery isolator or battery wick disconnect switch. 

By turning the switch to the OFF position, you remove all power from the vehicle. This feature may come in handy to reduce the risk of the battery draining when the ATV sits for long periods. 

To re-engage the switch and turn back on the power, turn the switch 90 degrees to the ON position. 

To sum things up

Now that you know the basic controls of an ATV, you should be ready to move on to basic training. 

However, knowing the various controls and how they work in theory is not enough to ride an ATV safely in real-world conditions. To do this, you’ll need to practice until you can operate the controls on muscle memory alone. 

It’s recommended that all new ATV riders take a riding course or, as a minimum, ask someone with previous ATV riding experience to guide them the first few times of riding. 

ATV-riding is a skill that requires a lot of practice to maintain control of the vehicle and under all conditions. 

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I'm an ATV and offroad-enthusiast, an engineer, a farmer, and an avid home-mechanic. I'm also the owner and editor of BoostATV.com. If you have any questions or suggestions regarding this article, please feel free to contact me.