Bothersome noise is by far the most common complaint raised against ATVs and other off-highway vehicles.
The turmoil caused by excessively loud ATVs has been a source of conflict for over 70 years and is more relevant now than ever. And there is no denying some of today’s bikes can be quite deafening.
A stock ATV typically produces between 85 dBA and 96 dBA during normal operation. ATVs modified with aftermarket exhaust and dedicated racing models are usually louder and can exceed 102 dBA.
This is several times louder than the legal limit, depending on local noise regulations.
85 decibels equal heavy city traffic or a power lawn mower. 96 decibels equals or is slightly less than a subway train passing by or a boom box at full blast.
This post aims to give people on both sides a better understanding of the topic and to increase awareness of the issues caused by ATV noise.
Why Are ATVs so Loud?
A legitimate question people often ask when discussing noise from ATVs is why they need to be so loud in the first place.
Despite having larger engines and more horsepower, most cars, trucks, and many street-legal motorcycles are not as loud as ATVs. So, the question arises: why are ATVs significantly louder in comparison?
It all boils down to what the customers want.
For most ATV buyers, engine performance and a lightweight, highly maneuverable vehicle design outrank noise output. And they want it at the lowest price possible.
So that’s what the manufacturers make.
ATVs are so loud primarily because they use high-performance, high compression, high RPM engines placed in a poorly insulated engine compartment and have performance-focused exhaust systems with sub-optimal sound dampening. Many of the noisiest ATVs use aftermarket exhausts that exceed legal limits.
Nothing stops ATV manufacturers from making an ATV with a noise output similar to a car, but this vehicle probably wouldn’t be a hit at the sales department.
For on-road vehicles, the added pounds and volume of an extra exhaust muffler or a properly insulated engine compartment with sound-dampening materials easily outweigh the lost comfort of not having them.
For performance-focused sports and recreational ATVs, too much weight impacts performance and can be the difference between a fun and engaging ride or a vehicle left sitting in the garage.
For instance, compare a race car with a street-legal passenger car.
The performance-focused race car has a high-power output engine, almost no sound insulation, and a straight pipe exhaust. It looks almost like a passenger car but is much faster and significantly louder.
These are the same aspects that make some performance-focused ATVs as loud as they are.
Related: Why are UTVs so loud?
Are All ATVs Loud?
There are many types of ATVs, and not all are as loud.
Most ATVs with a factory-standard exhaust system meet noise regulations; some of these are even quieter than the maximum allowed noise level. However, there are also types of ATVs that are considerably louder.
Sports and recreational ATVs: The ATVs you encounter on roads and trails are usually designed for sports and recreational use. These are performance-oriented vehicles, and their noise levels should be within the legal limits.
Utility ATVs: ATVs are suitable for so much more than trail riding. Utility ATVs are designed more toward work and aren’t nearly as loud. They typically use smaller cc engines (usually 300 to 600cc), are not as performance-focused, and use more effective exhaust systems.
For slow-to-medium-speed utility work, torque and reliability are more important than fast acceleration and top speed.
Racing ATVs: These are lightweight, high-power vehicles purposely designed for closed-course racing. They typically put out far more sound than legal limits.
Modified ATVs: The excessively loud ATVs that tend to ruin for everyone are typically sport and recreational models modified with an aftermarket exhaust system.
Most install an aftermarket exhaust to increase engine power and save weight, while others want a deeper, more racing-like engine sound.
Some performance-enhancing exhaust systems can add 5 to 6 dBA or more, which makes the ATV sound about four times as loud as stock.
Is There a Way to Make ATVs Quieter?
Insulating the engine compartment would cause challenges with heat buildup and finding the space required. So, when silencing an ATV, it is only natural to address exhaust sound first.
Aftermarket secondary exhaust mufflers such as the “Silent Rider” from Kolpin can reduce the exhaust noise of an ATV significantly with a claimed reduction of up to 5 to 7 decibels without a significant loss in performance.
Another alternative is the Benz Silent Rider, which changes the exhaust sound so that it travels a much shorter distance from the ATV.
However, these products do not fit all ATVs and receive mixed reviews from people who have tried them.
Installing an extra baffle exhaust muffler can create back pressure, which might slightly decrease engine power, especially at higher altitudes.
Some ATV manufacturers may see these mufflers as a modification that voids the vehicle’s warranty, so always check with your dealer before installing one.
How Is ATV Noise Measured?
How noisy or taxing an ATV sounds is a matter of subjective perception and can be different from one person to another.
Regulating and governing noise limits based on people’s opinions would be neither fair nor predictable.
The solution is to use an objective metric such as decibels, a measurement of sound intensity, the amount of noise something or someone makes.
ATV exhaust noise is measured using a standardized testing procedure and compared to a predefined noise emission threshold. What testing method to use is defined by the lawmakers.
In most places, ATV noise is measured at a distance of 20″ from the exhaust outlet with the gearbox in neutral and the engine running at 50% of the rated engine speed according to the SAE J-1287 stationary testing standard.
Measuring decibels is not 100% exact, but it gives a fairly precise image of how loud an ATV is. The testing standard includes a +/- 1.5dB variation to account for changes in test conditions and test instrument inaccuracy.
So what do the decibels tell us?
The decibel scale is logarithmic and can be hard to grasp at first. Without getting too technical, 83dB isn’t just slightly louder than 80dB; it is about twice as loud.
According to the 3dB “rule of thumb,” a change of three decibels (dB) on the dB scale signifies either a doubling or a halving of the sound energy.
If we compare the 102dBA level of some ATVs modified with an aftermarket exhaust with the 96dBA sound limit that applies in many states, the 6dB difference means they are about four times as loud.
What Are the Legal Sound Limits for ATVs?
The legal ATV decibel ratings vary and are usually regulated on a state level or, in some places, on a municipality level. Parks and wildlife conservatories can have rules that apply to their specific areas.
Some states don’t operate with a specified dBA limit but have more comprehensive nuisance laws.
There is no universal limit, but here are a few examples of US ATV noise regulations (subject to change):
- Oregon: 97dBA
- Utah(Moab): 92dBa
- Montana: 96dBA
- California: 96dBA
- Arizona: 96dBA
- Massachusetts: 96dBA
Often, you will find that the regulations apply to all forms of recreational ATV riding but include exemptions for non-recreational purposes, such as:
- Snow removal
- Property maintenance
- Public safety agencies
In closed course ATVracing, the various racing organizations include dB limits in their regulations, usually slightly higher than regulations for riding on public lands. Also, some race tracks can have rules that can be even more rigid, showing regard for local conditions.
As a side note, you may have noticed we use two slightly different terms: dB and dBA. dBA is simply a weighted version of the dB scale to better account for how the human ear perceives various frequencies differently. That is why ATV noise is regulated according to the dBA scale.
Why Is ATV Noise a Problem?
Excessive ATV noise can be an issue for both the public and ATV riders, directly and indirectly.
The primary issue with ATV noise for non-riders is an environmental nuisance. Prolonged or excessively loud noise is annoying, and its adverse medical effects are well documented.
For ATV riders, hearing loss is a real threat. Exposure to sound levels in the range of 80 to 85dB can cause permanent hearing loss after 2 hours of exposure. Engine noise at 95 dB can cause damage to the hearing after only 50 minutes of exposure.
Another concern all ATV riders should consider is how noise is the primary threat against ATV trails and riding areas anywhere. Noise problems are the primary cause for some of our best riding sites being closed for riding, and it’s the main obstacle people face when they try to open a new for motorized recreation.
Distance is the Most Effective Way to Reduce ATV Noise
Besides making the ATV itself less loud, what other means effectively reduce ATV noise?
Decibel levels drop quickly with more distance, and no other means is more effective in reducing the adverse effects than increasing the distance between the sound source and those affected.
Each time the distance doubles, the sound level drops by 6dB. 95dB measured 20 inches from the exhaust drops to 76 dB at 15ft, 70dB at 30ft, and 64dB at 60ft.
64dB is between a normal conversation between two people and the noise inside a car at 60mph. Noise at these levels can still be annoying in an otherwise peaceful environment like the outdoors.
But if we move to 120ft, we’re at about 58 decibels, which is quieter than a normal conversation and equal to the sound of a refrigerator.
More distance is primarily achieved by thoroughly planning new trails and potentially relocating parts of existing trails to less exposed areas.
However, distance is not everything. If the conditions are right, you can hear ATV engine noise up to three miles away, or you may hear nothing just around the bend.
What You Can Do to Reduce ATV Noise
As a rider, you can do a lot to reduce the negative impacts of ATV noise and help prevent trails and riding grounds from being shut down.
Be easy on the throttle near houses or other people: Many trails are accessed through residential neighborhoods. Keeping engine RPMs at a reasonable level and avoiding hard accelerations in exposed areas help keep the noise level minimal.
While an ATV putting along at low RPMs is by no means silent, showing that you care and are willing to do your part often goes a long way.
Please talk with your fellow riders: One bad apple that drives recklessly through a populated area is all it takes to ruin the good impression of dozens of respectful riders. Reminding a fellow rider to take it easy where it counts the most is okay.
Choose the quieter alternative: Several manufacturers are starting to offer more quiet yet high-performance options. And if there’s one thing the manufacturers will notice, it is where you put your money. Choosing the quieter alternative sets a good example and stimulates further development towards quieter ATVs.
Understand that more sound does not equal more power: Modern exhaust technology can produce similar or better performance while reducing sound outputs by several decibels. The downside with these exhausts is usually a slightly heavier and bulkier muffler design.
However, this difference in weight is typically tiny and not noticeable to most people during everyday riding. Therefore, when looking for an aftermarket exhaust, it’s better to choose the quieter, “silent” version rather than the open-end muffler.
Consider an auxiliary aftermarket silencer: Suppose you ride in a particularly exposed area or feel your ATV is too noisy. In that case, it may be worthwhile to consider installing an aftermarket auxiliary exhaust muffler.