Home Buyers Guide How Do ATV Tracks Work? And How Well Do They Perform?

How Do ATV Tracks Work? And How Well Do They Perform?

Several of my riding buddies have invested in rubber track kits for their ATVs. The thrill of extreme performance and traction in the worst possible conditions is what got their attention and eventually led to them opening their wallets.

The tracks offer great all-year performance, making them great for utility work such as hauling moose game over wet forest grounds, pulling firewood in the winter, and playing in the snow.

In this post, we look at the technical aspect of how ATV tracks work and how well they perform in various riding conditions and riding applications.

ATV tracks work by replacing the wheels with a rubber track fitted to a sturdy frame assembly. The main sprocket that drives each belt is connected directly to the ATVs wheel hub. Installing tracks greatly improves traction and provides a bigger footprint for better overall flotation.

ATV Track kit construction and main features

The design and build quality of these kits have improved vastly through the years they’ve been around. Initially, the design was inspired by snowmobiles and has been continuously tweaked to fit ATV use.

The rubber tracks

The rubber tracks are the most important part of the track kit. They need to be wide- and long enough to give you the best flotation possible. In deep snow, better flotation is always better.

They also need to have an aggressive tread pattern for optimal grip in all conditions. Be aware that some track kits are sole as pure snow kits. The tracks on these are not well suited for the warmer seasons.

Tatou ATV rubber tracks
The front tracks on Tatou 4S are angled slightly on the edges for easier steering.

But it’s not as easy as just making the tracks huge with enormous lugs. The front tracks need to be built to grip and float well, but the bike still needs to be manageable to steer.

The track size also needs to be matched to fit the bike’s power output. An underpowered ATV will still be able to turn a full-sized track-kit, but it would impact speed and put a lot of strain on the bike.

The tracks are built with quality rubber, laminated to handle impact from sharp rocks and so they won’t stretch too much over time.

As with car tires, the manufacturers constantly tweak the rubber recipe for the optimal balance between grip and wear-resistance. A softer rubber gives a much better grip but will also wear much faster.

The track frame

The track frame is what holds everything together. It needs to be very strong to withstand the continuous beating but still has to be lightweight and open to shed snow, ice, mud, and debris from within the track.

The frame is angled upwards on the front tracks so that the tracks will pass objects and float better on soft surfaces like snow and mud.

Tatou 4S ATV front belt
Notice that the front belt is angled upwards in the front for better flotation.

On top of that, the whole frame articulates so that you’ll be able to climb up and over objects that you need to pass.

The rear tracks are extended to the back for increased footprint and better flotation.

The installation kit

You can get tracks for almost any ATV on the market today. There is no need to make modifications to the bike, but you need a special installation kit to install them.

Most bikes are built differently so you will need a kit that is specifically made to fit your bikes make and model.

The kit consists of specially made bars, brackets, and adapters that keeps the tracks securely in place.

Tatou 4S Polaris mounung plate
Installation brackets for a Tatou 4S track kit, fitted on a Polaris Sportsman XP 1000.

As I mentioned, the whole track frame articulates when you drive over rocks and other objects. To prevent the track from rotating too much, the installation kit includes anti-rotation bars installed between the track frame and the bike’s A-arms. The bars have dampening springs to make for a smoother ride.

Tatou 4S ATV belt installation kit
Here you can see the anti-rotation bar on a Tatou 4S track. Also, notice the wire that prevents the track from over-turning.

The tracks usually come with just one installation kit when you buy them new.

This means you need to buy another installation kit if you later upgrade to a new bike, and wish to use your tracks on the new bike.

These kits are about 1/10th of the cost of the complete track kit. Buying the tracks used can save you a lot of money if you find a set that includes a kit that fits your bike. If you don’t, you need to consider the added cost of getting a new installation kit.

This added cost will sometimes make buying used tracks less attractive than just getting new ones from the getgo.

The drive wheel and idler wheels

A drivewheel shaped like a big sprocket is connected directly to your bike’s wheel hub and is what drives the belts back and forward. It works with the same principle as on tanks, excavators almost any other tracked vehicle.

Tatou 4S ATV belt drive sprocket
Drive sprocket, connected directly to the ATVs wheel hub.

On the bottom part of the track frame, you’ll find a row of idler wheels that allows the track to turn freely. On earlier models, these were known to be a weak link.

Tatou 4S Camso ATV rear belt
Idler wheels seen on the rear belts. Notice that the belt is extended to the back for better flotation.

Over the years, however, they have been improved with stronger bearings, rubberized wheels and built using strong materials that can withstand quite a bit of beating without breaking.

How hard is it to install tracks on an ATV?

Installing a track kit is actually pretty straightforward but does take some time compared to installing tires. If you know how to change a wheel, you should be able to install tracks.

The first time you install them, you should expect to use a couple of hours, unless you run into any fitting issues. But if you leave the installation kit on the bike when you switch back to tires, installing the tracks again will be much faster.

The manufacturers claim that the installation time is similar to installing tires after the initial installation. But from our experience should set aside a good hour to get the job done.

ATV track performance in different riding conditions

So how well do ATV tracks work? A set of ATV tracks will outperform any ATV tire in almost any technical riding situation. But on the flat, smooth areas, they lack the speed to keep up with the tires.

Let’s have a closer look at how well ATV tracks perform on different surfaces.

Obviously, there will be quite a bit of variation between the different brands of how well each model performs, but this summary should give you a general idea of what to expect.

ATV track performance in the snow

Many think of ATV tracks as “snow tracks” you can put on the quad.

This is maybe not so strange because many of the commercials you’ve seen display the tracks as a way of transforming your ATV into a winter machine.

From a marketing standpoint, this is only common sense because it’s in the snow the difference between tires and tracks is the biggest.

As soon snow depths start exceeding your bike’s ground clearance, you’ll find that the wheels will just dig in, and you’ll be left hanging on the snow.

With tracks, you will float on top and only in the most extreme snow conditions will the bike find any real challenge.

If you plan on doing utility work or hauling heavy goods up steep hills, it may be a good idea to drive over the hardest parts some hours in advance for the snow to set a bit. Because of compacted snow, there is almost no stopping these things.

Pure pulling force on a hard snowy surface is are over twice than what you ger with wheels.

In very deep powdery snow, however, you may struggle to get up the steepest hills due to lack of speed.

ATV track performance in mud and dirt

This is another arena where tracks really come to shine. For heavy utility work in soft and muddy conditions, they work really great. The flotation and traction allow you to reduce speed as much as you need to do the job safely without the risk of getting stuck.

For pure mudding purposes in deep liquid mud, however, the story is a bit different. In this scene, there are no beating tires. Have a look at this article for more on how well tracks work in different mud-conditions.

ATV track performance on asphalt and gravel roads

On hard, smooth surfaces, the tracks will obviously have no traction issues. But they do however struggle a bit with speed.

The gear ratio difference will result in a much slower speed when riding in the same gear and RPMs compared to tires. As a general rule of thumb, you may expect the speed to drop about 50%.

This means the bike’s internals need to run twice as fast to keep the same speed as with tires. This will undoubtfully wear a lot more on the bike, making tracks less desirable for trail riding.

On asphalt, you should also expect premature wear of the tracks, as well as reduced comfort and handling compared to tires.

ATV track performance on grippy or slippery rocks

The combination of great traction, low ground pressure, and aggressive threaded pattern in the tracks makes them perform well on sharp or slippery rocks.

Ensure that the brand you choose will guarantee that their track is built to handle these kinds of conditions without breaking or delaminating.

A softer, more sticky rubber mixture will ensure a better grip on the slippery parts and wear faster when riding on dry surfaces. The trick is finding the optimal balance, and some manufacturers do a better job at this than others.

How do ATV tracks hold up against the alternatives?

To give you a better idea of whether ATV tracks are the right choice for you or not, it’s helpful to compare them with the natural alternatives that they are up against.

ATV tracks vs. tires

ATV tracks will outperform any ATV tire when it comes to traction and flotation performance; there is no doubt about it. But then why doesn’t everyone run to the store and change their tires for a set of tracks then?

Well, there are other important aspects that make a set of wheels the better option in many situations.

  • Speed
    Tracks are much slower than wheels, about 50% slower. This makes them less desirable for plain trail riding. Whenever riding in areas with varying conditions, the wheels can hold a much greater speed between the more technical areas. But when things get really tricky, it’s all about keeping speeds low to prevent damage. The great traction you get with tracks allows you to keep speeds low in any situation that requires full control, wherewith wheels; you rely much more on speed to make it through.
  • Weight
    A track kit will add about 60-110 pounds to your rig, minus the weight of your wheels.
  • Lifecycle
    Tracks last a long time if you use them wisely, maintain them and store them correctly when not in use. Riding a lot at higher speeds on asphalt will wear them prematurely.
  • Comfort
    Tracks do not have the beneficial dampening effect that the air inside tires gives. They rely on the bike’s suspension to take up bumps and pots in the road. However, they will float over small holes where wheels would fall in because of the increased footprint. Their ability to bridge gaps will improve comfort when riding in uneven off-road conditions.
  • Ground clearance
    Installing tracks will increase your ATVs ground clearance by several inches unless you compare it with really large-diameter wheels.
  • Length, width, and stability
    Installing tracks will make the bike both wider and longer compared to using wheels. Thus, the increased center of gravity you get with the increased ground clearance does not negatively affect the bike’s overall stability. In fact, the stability actually improves, giving you much greater confidence whenever riding up, down, or sideways on hills. Because steep inclines are where many ATV accidents happen, added stability should be a welcome safety bonus. However, the increased width does come with the downside of making it a bit harder to ride through narrow woods or passes.
  • Steering
    Tracks make ATVs harder to steer at slower speeds. In higher speeds, the difference is much less noticeable. Having power steering is basically a must, especially if you plan on using them in the snow or mud.
  • Power requirements
    This one depends somewhat on what tracks you are getting. Some track kits require more of the engine than a set of wheels because of extra mechanical drag. Others actually require less power than wheels because of the power to drive ratio you get with the smaller drive sprocket.

ATV tracks vs. snowmobiles

The main difference between an ATV with tracks is speed and bodywork design. An ATV will also overall have a lot better traction, making it perfect for heavy utility work. It is also a lot easier to maneuver in tight spots than a snowmobile, especially for beginners.

But an ATV with tracks is not able to pick up the same speed as a snowmobile, often leaving the snowmobile alone on top of the steepest hills with the deepest most powdery snow.

You also get the benefit of better being able to start and stop halfway up a hill with the ATV. With a snowmobile, this will often lead to getting stuck.

While it is very fun to ride an ATV, even in deep snow, you cannot play around the same way as you can on a snowmobile.

Another issue with riding in deep powdery snow with an ATV is that it will pack up everywhere on the bike.

Snowmobiles are built to slide through the snow almost like a boat in the water, but the bodywork on an ATV is full of holes, gaps, and openings that will get packed with snow.

ATV Tatou 4S Camoplast tracks in deep snow
As you can see, these things get quite packed when riding in really deep snow.

This contributes to the fact that ATVs with tracks have a higher fuel consumption than a similarly sized snowmobile.

With a tracked quad, you do have the benefit of being able to cross larger areas with little or no snow, as with the snowmobile doing so will wear or even damaging the skies.

ATV tracks vs. the “Iron horse” (jernhest)

Here in Scandinavia, the “iron horse” has been the moose hunter’s favorite for several decades. It’s also great for hauling firewood and other utility tasks.

But this was before ATV rubber tracks entered the scene. While the iron horse is strong and features great off-road performance, it does require you to walk alongside the machine and moves a lot slower than an ATV with tracks. They also cost more than a set of tracks do, so if you already have an ATV, the choice will often be quite easy.

What size ATV do you need to use tracks?

It’s a common misconception that you need a large and powerful ATV to use tracks.

ATV tracks require less power to operate than tires and can be used with almost any size ATV. While the track-assembly does not rotate as easily as a tire, this doesn’t mean you can’t use tracks on a small or medium-sized ATV.

The undercarriage drive sprockets are only about one third the size of a tire, effectively gearing down the power to drive ratio. The ATV will run slower with tracks than with tires, but that is by design. ATV tracks are not meant to be used at higher speeds for extended periods. This leaves enough power to effectively run tracks on a small ATV, as long as you only ride at slower speeds.

Related questions

How much do ATV tracks cost?

On average, a set of quality ATV tracks cost about 4000 – 5000 dollars, including the installation kit. Buying them used will often save you some money, as long as you find a kit that suits your specific bike’s make and model.

How much do ATV tracks weigh?

A complete kit of ATV tracks weighs from 60-110 lbs. The market-leading brand averages at about 80 lbs.

How long do ATV tracks last?

A set of ATV tracks will last for many years if you maintain them and store them in a dark and dry place when not in use. Riding on asphalt, concrete, or on sharp rocks will wear them faster than riding on snow and mud.

Will ATV tracks work on a UTV?

ATV tracks will not work on a UTV, and UTV tracks will not work on an ATV; they are not interchangeable. However, your ATV tracks will likely fit other ATVs if you get a model-specific installation kit for the new machine. Make sure the drive sprockets are geared correctly for both machines.