Are ATVs Hard to Drive? Avoid These Beginner Mistakes

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Whether you are planning your next holiday activity or are in the market to buy your very own ATV, you may find yourself wondering how difficult it is for a beginner to operate an ATV. Many ATV accidents could be avoided if everyone educated themself on the basics of how an ATV operates and what makes it different from driving other types of vehicles. 

This post will go through essential features for operating an ATV safely and what skills you need as a rider.

ATVs’ basic controls are relatively easy to learn and operate, but safely driving in rugged terrain takes some practice and experience. The basic design of an ATV requires a highly interactive riding style where the rider shifts their weight to maintain vehicle stability and read the terrain ahead. 

Note: Always refer to your owner’s manual for model-specific operation instructions and guidelines. The tips in this post are only general guidelines and may deviate from your specific ATV brand and model.

Boarding and Dismounting an ATV

ATVs use straddled seats similar to those on a motorcycle or a horse saddle. This requires some flexibility to swing one leg across the seat and sit comfortably in a straddled position for extended periods.

Boarding an ATV is significantly easier than straddling a motorcycle or getting on top of a horse but is more challenging than getting into a car seat.

Starting and Stopping an ATV

Starting and stopping an ATV is about the same difficulty level as starting a car or a motorcycle. 

The steps involved may vary slightly between brands and models of ATVs; refer to the owner’s manual to learn the correct starting and stopping procedure for your specific ATV.

Learning The Basic Controls to Operate an ATV

Depending on your previous driving experience and what types of vehicles you have been driving, riding an ATV can be pretty different in how it operates. The basic controls are not complicated, but if you’ve only been driving a car previously, you’ll notice that the controls are laid out differently.

It’s always a good idea to take a riding course to learn how to operate the vehicle in a controlled environment.

Always start by driving slowly to familiarize yourself with the location of the controls and their response when activated. Only after gaining this understanding should you gradually increase speed as you become more experienced.

Steering: An ATV uses handlebars to change the direction of the wheels. When you pull on the left end of the bars (and push the right end), the wheels turn left, and when you pull on the right end of the bars (and push the left end), the wheels turn right. 

Ensure you always maintain a firm grip on both ends of the bars. 

Avoid hitting obstacles such as rocks along the trail, as this could cause what is known as a kickback. The force from the impact transfers from the wheels, up through the steering column, and to the handlebars. This sudden movement may cause you to lose your grip.

You can reduce kickback significantly by choosing an ATV with power steering. Here are some other benefits of power steering on your ATV.

Throttle control: 
ATVs feature a thumb throttle on the right side of the handlebars to regulate engine speed. This control method is deemed the safest and most effective for maintaining throttle control while riding on uneven terrain, where the rider needs to shift positions on the vehicle continuously.

Make sure to apply throttle slowly and gradually until the bike starts moving. ATVs are powerful vehicles, and the fast acceleration they offer may come as a surprise. 

Many new riders apply too much throttle too quickly, leading to a phenomenon known as “Whiskey throttle.” This occurs when the rider panics due to the unexpected rapid acceleration, instinctively grips the handlebars tighter, and inadvertently applies even more throttle, resulting in losing control of the vehicle.

Check this post to learn more about why ATVs use a thumb throttle instead of a twist throttle.

Shifting gears: ATV transmissions are either manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic. 

On an ATV with a manual transmission, the rider must apply the clutch lever for each gear change. If you have previous experience driving a car with a manual shift stick, you should have no problems learning how to shift a manual ATV quickly.

Riders with no prior experience with manually shifting gears are advised to take an ATV driving course or, as a bare minimum, have an experienced rider guide them until they feel confident with the gear-shifting procedure. 

On ATVs with a semi-automatic transmission, the rider does not need to operate a clutch to shift gears. All that is required is to push a button when it’s time for a gear change, and the bike does the rest.

The only skill needed to change gears on a semi-automatic is understanding the correct engine speed (RPM) to push the gear change button.

Please refer to this post to learn more about how different types of ATV transmissions work

Braking: Most ATVs have one or more hand brake levers and a foot brake lever. Squeeze the hand brake lever against the handlebars or press the foot pedal downwards to activate the brakes. Increase the pressure gradually for a smooth stopping motion. Note that some ATVs’ foot brakes do not activate the brakes on all four wheels. Refer to your user manual or ask an instructor how the brakes on your specific ATV operate. 

Check this post to learn more about how ATV brakes work.

Misc controls and features: As a beginner, you should focus on becoming comfortable operating the basic controls of steering, accelerating, braking, and shifting gears, as described above. 

In addition, you will find controls such as light switches, ignition switches, and a range of other controls, depending on how your specific ATV is equipped.

Learn more about ATV controls and typical ATV features.

Understand How ATV Riding Is Highly Interactive

One of the most common mistakes beginners make is believing riding an ATV is like driving a car. While many of the same principles apply in theory, these two types of vehicles operate quite differently. 

Riding an ATV is highly interactive, where the rider continuously needs to shift its weight from side to side and from front to back to compensate for sharp turns, sloped terrain, braking, acceleration, etc. 

With cars, the driver’s and passengers’ weight and placement have little effect on vehicle stability. Everyone remains stationary and buckled up in their respective seats without the need to adjust their seating position to prevent the vehicle from tipping.

Vehicle stability is maintained by how the car is designed with a low center of gravity, wide vehicle track width, long wheelbase, and a firm suspension design.

On the other hand, ATVs feature a narrow wheelbase to fit through narrow passages, such as between trees and trail gates. The wheelbase is shorter than on a car to keep the vehicle light and nimble, and the center of gravity is relatively high with the rider’s weight placed on top.

The weight of the rider and its placement on the vehicle play a much bigger role in keeping the bike stable and preventing it from tipping. 

How to Avoid Tipping the ATV

Many ATV accidents happen when the bike tips to the side, front, or back. While “ATV” stands for “All-Terrain Vehicle,” the name can be a bit misleading. Even though ATVs can handle terrain where most other vehicles wouldn’t stand a chance, they also have limitations. 

ATVs are designed with a relatively narrow track width (usually no more than 50 inches) to fit in thigh spots when going off-road and into the woods. Also, the wheelbase is relatively short to keep the vehicle nimble. 

Situations when tipping to the side typically happen:

  • When cornering too fast. Increase your speed gradually as you get more experienced with how the vehicle behaves at various speeds and surfaces.
  • When drifting. Drifting on a slippery surface like a gravel trail may lead to tipping if the tires unexpectedly regain traction while sliding sideways. 
  • When side-hilling. If possible, avoid crossing the side of a hill, also known as sidehilling. When you need to drive on a side hill, go slow, avoid slippery hills or hills with obstacles, shift your body weight uphill, and keep your feet on the footrests. If riding with a passenger, ask them to dismount before crossing the hill. If you begin to tip, turn the front wheels down if possible or dismount to the uphill side quickly to avoid getting hit by the ATV.

Situations where tipping backward or forwards typically happen:

  • When driving up a steep hill. Avoid steep and slippery hills if possible, and never exceed the maximum incline recommended by the manufacturer, typically around 15 degrees. Always engage 4×4 if available before ascending or descending a hill. Shift your body weight uphill, drive straight, and proceed at a steady rate to avoid stalling. Never apply more throttle mid-hill. If you lose traction, apply the parking brake, dismount the bike, and perform what is known as a K-turn. If the bike begins sliding or rolling back downhill, do not apply engine power or apply the brakes at full force. Apply the brakes gradually until the bike eventually stops. 
  • When driving down a steep hill. The same guidelines apply when going downhill. Only now, make sure to maintain a slow and steady pace by applying the brakes slightly. 
  • When exceeding the vehicle’s rated weight carrying capacity or improper cargo placement. Make sure not to exceed the bike’s rated weight capacity. The ATV becomes more top-heavy and more likely to tip with a heavy rider or when hauling cargo. Also, make sure the cargo weight is distributed correctly. Putting all of the load on the rear cargo racks will increase the risk of tipping backward. 

Related: How Much Weight Can an ATV Carry? (Cargo and Rider)

How Difficult Is ATV Riding for Children?

ATV riding can be a fun and exciting way for children to learn how to operate a vehicle, but it can also be potentially hazardous if done incorrectly.

Children learn fast and will likely have no problems learning how to operate the basic controls of an ATV.

However, some parents make the mistake of overestimating the child’s ability to calculate risk, understand consequences when things go wrong, and how the child will react in a situation where something unexpected happens, and they lose control.

Young children have not yet developed the ability to evaluate and consider consequences like teens and adults. This makes them more prone to taking risks that an adult wouldn’t.

When faced with unexpected situations, such as another vehicle suddenly appearing in their path, they are more likely to freeze and panic instead of attempting to avoid an accident.

In addition, a child lacks the body weight and strength to handle a large ATV properly. That is why you should never allow a child to operate an adult-size ATV, but only an age-appropriate size bike as recommended by the manufacturers. 

In short, children learn how to operate an ATV fast physically, but they may not yet be mature enough to avoid situations where accidents may happen. 

  • Make sure the child learns how to ride in a controlled environment, like a closed course, under the supervision of an adult. Preferably an organized ATV training course.
  • Make sure it wears safety gear such as a helmet and preferably MX boots and body armor.
  • Don’t remove safety features such as speed limiters too soon only because the child wants you to.  

Remember, as an adult, it’s your responsibility to prevent the child from taking on more than it can handle.

How ATV Riding Differs From Riding a Motorcycle

Many controls and features on ATVs are identical to those on motorcycles, with the most prominent being:

  • Both use handlebars for steering.
  • Both feature a straddled seating position.
  • Both employ hand levers and foot pedals for braking.

However, two significant differences distinguish these vehicles:

  1. ATVs have four wheels, whereas motorcycles have only two. This means ATVs cannot lean into corners like motorcycles. Additionally, countersteering, a vital technique for safely steering a motorcycle, is not possible on an ATV. Riders must continually shift their weight around the seat when navigating rough terrain, which is a key reason why ATVs have larger seats.
  2. Also, ATVs use a thumb throttle, whereas motorcycles use a twist-style throttle. Check this post to learn why.

Wrapping Up

Learning to operate an ATV safely requires a clear understanding of its unique controls and an adaptive riding style.

Always prioritize safety by familiarizing yourself with specific model guidelines and respecting the ATV’s capabilities, ensuring a safe and enjoyable riding experience.

Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok
Haavard Krislok is an ATV and off-road enthusiast with a rich background spanning two decades in owning, maintaining, repairing, and utilizing ATVs for farming, logging, and hunting. Outside his professional life as an engineer and project manager, he cherishes recreational trail riding and is the creative force behind, serving as its owner, editor, and content creator.

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