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 got their attention and eventually led to them opening their wallets.
The tracks offer excellent 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 primary sprocket that drives each belt is connected directly to the ATVs wheel hub. Installing tracks dramatically improves traction and provides a larger footprint for better flotation.
Continue reading as we dive into the details of how ATV tracks work and how they perform in various riding conditions.
Related: Are Tracks Worth It? Pros and Cons
ATV Tracks: Construction and Features
These kits’ design and build quality 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 are the most critical part of the track kit. They must be wide- and long enough to give you the best flotation possible. In deep snow, better flotation is always better.
They must also 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.
But it’s not as easy as just making the tracks massive with enormous lugs. The front tracks must be built to grip and float well, but the bike must still be manageable to steer.
The track size must also match 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, 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 faster.
The track frame is what holds everything together. It must be rugged to withstand the continuous beating but still 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.
On top of that, the whole frame articulates so that you can climb up and over objects that you need to pass.
The rear tracks are extended to the back for increased footprint and better flotation.
You can get tracks for almost any ATV on the market today. Modifying the bike is not required, 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 bike’s make and model.
The kit comprises bars, brackets, and adapters that keep the tracks in place.
As mentioned, the entire track frame articulates when you drive over rocks and other objects.
The installation kit includes anti-rotation bars between the track frame and the bike’s A-arms to prevent the track from rotating too much. The bars have dampening springs to make for a smoother ride.
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 must consider the additional cost of getting a new installation kit.
This added cost sometimes makes buying used tracks less attractive than getting new ones.
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.
On the bottom part of the track frame, you’ll find a row of idler wheels that allows the track to turn freely. In earlier models, these were known as weak links.
Over the years, however, they have been improved with more robust bearings and rubberized wheels and built using rugged materials that can withstand quite the beating without breaking.
How Hard Is It to Install Tracks on an ATV?
Installing a track kit is pretty straightforward but more time-consuming than installing tires. If you know how to change a wheel, you should be able to install tracks.
You should expect to use a couple of hours the first time you install them unless you have 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 as you get used to the installation process. But from my experience, you should set aside a good hour for the job.
ATV Tracks 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 Tracks Performance in Snow
From looking at the commercials, many consider tracks solely as a way of transforming an ATV into a winter-season vehicle.
From a marketing standpoint, this makes sense because it’s in the snow the difference between tires and tracks is the biggest.
As soon snow depths exceed the ground clearance, you’ll find that the wheels will dig in, and you’ll be left high-centered 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 across the snow a few hours in advance for the snow to set. On packed snow, there is almost no stopping these things.
Pure pulling force on a hard snowy surface is over twice what you get with wheels.
However, you may struggle to climb the steepest hills in bottomless powdery snow due to a lack of speed.
ATV Tracks Performance in Mud and Dirt
This is another arena where tracks come to shine. They work great for heavy utility work in soft and muddy conditions. 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.
However, the story differs slightly for pure mudding purposes in wet and deep mud. Nothing can beat a set of oversized mud tires in the mudding scene. Please refer to this article to learn how well tracks work in different mud conditions.
ATV Track Performance on Paved and Gravel Roads
The tracks won’t have any traction issues on hard, smooth surfaces. 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 must 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 and reduced comfort and handling compared to tires.
ATV Track Performance on Grippy or Slippery Rocks
Excellent traction, low ground pressure, and aggressive threaded patterns in the tracks make them perform well on sharp or slippery rocks.
Ensure the brand you choose guarantees its tracks are built to handle these 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; some manufacturers do better 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, it’s helpful to compare them with the natural alternatives they are up against.
ATV Tracks vs. Tires
ATV tracks will outperform any ATV tire regarding traction and flotation performance; there is no doubt about it. But if so, why doesn’t everyone run to the store and change their tires for a set of tracks?
Well, other essential aspects make a set of wheels the better option in many situations.
Tracks are much slower than wheels, about 50% slower. This makes them less desirable for plain trail riding. When riding in varying conditions, the wheels can hold a much greater speed between the more technical areas.
But it’s about keeping speeds low to prevent damage when things get tricky. The excellent traction you get with tracks allows you to keep speeds low in any situation that requires complete control, whereas with wheels; you rely much more on speed to make it through.
A track kit will add about 60-110 pounds to your rig, minus the weight of your wheels.
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.
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.
Installing tracks will increase your ATV’s ground clearance by several inches unless you compare it with large-diameter wheels.
Length, width, and stability
Installing tracks makes the ATV broader and longer than when using wheels. Thus, the increased center of gravity you get with the increased ground clearance does not negatively affect the bike’s overall stability or increase the risk of flipping.
The stability actually improves, giving you much greater confidence when riding up, down, or across hills.
Because steep inclines are where many ATV accidents happen, added stability should be a welcome safety bonus. However, the increased width has the downside of making it a bit harder to ride through narrow woods or passes.
Tracks make ATVs harder to steer at slower speeds. At higher speeds, the difference is much less noticeable. Power steering is a must, especially if you plan on using them in the snow or mud.
This one depends somewhat on what tracks you are getting. Because of extra mechanical drag, some track kits require more of the engine than a set of wheels. Surprisingly, others require less power than wheels because of the power-to-drive ratio you get with the smaller drive sprocket.
ATV Tracks vs. Snowmobile
The main difference between an ATV with tracks is speed and bodywork design. An ATV will also have much better traction overall, making it perfect for heavy utility work. It is also much easier to maneuver in tight spots than a snowmobile, especially for beginners.
But an ATV with tracks cannot 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.
Another benefit of ATV tracks is better starting traction when stopping and starting on a hill. With a snowmobile, this maneuver will often lead to getting stuck.
While it is enjoyable 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 glide through the snow 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.
This contributes to the fact that ATVs with tracks have a higher fuel consumption than similarly sized snowmobiles.
With a tracked ATV, you can cross larger areas with little or no snow, as with the snowmobile doing so will wear or even damage the skies.
ATV Tracks vs. the “Iron Horse”
The “iron horse” has been the moose hunter’s favorite in Scandinavia 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 excellent off-road performance, it requires walking alongside the machine and moving much slower than an ATV with tracks. They also cost more than a set of tracks does, so if you already have an ATV, the choice will often be relatively 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 engine power 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 run tracks effectively on a small ATV, as long as you only ride at slower speeds.
How much do ATV tracks cost?
On average, a set of quality ATV tracks costs about 4000 – 6000 dollars, including the installation kit. Buying them will often save you money if 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 many years if you maintain them and store them in a dark and dry place when unused. Riding on asphalt, concrete, or 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.