As you get into ATV riding, you soon realize that tire pressure is a big deal in the off-road community and that it takes a bit of knowledge and experience to get it right.
This post covers everything you need to know about tire pressure in ATVs, including:
- How tire pressure affects vehicle performance, handling, and safety.
- How to know what tire pressure to use in your ATV in various situations.
- What can happen if you overinflate or underinflate the tires.
- How to check and maintain proper tire pressure.
What Is Tire Pressure and What is Common in ATVs?
Without getting too scientific, tire pressure is a measurement used to determine how much air that’s inside a tire.
Tire pressure in ATV tires is typically measured in PSI (Pounds per Square Inch), kPa (Kilo Pascal), or bar (a metric unit), where 1 Bar = 100 kPa = 14.5 PSI.
Most full-sized ATVs use an operating tire pressure between 5 to 8 PSI, while youth ATVs typically use between 3 to 4 PSI. However, each vehicle, tire, and riding situation is unique, and the tire pressure should be set accordingly.
UTVs are typically heavier and use tire pressure ranging from 12 to 18 PSI.
How Important Is Maintaining Proper Tire Pressure?
Maintaining proper tire pressure in your ATV tires is essential for vehicle performance, ride quality, safety, and durability. Knowing how to properly adjust the tire pressure according to different riding scenarios and terrains ensure you get the most out of your vehicle while staying safe.
The tire pressure can significantly affect how the ATV handles down the trail and how it performs in challenging off-road conditions. Riding with tire pressure that is too high or too low can be downright dangerous and increase the risk of damaging your vehicle.
How Tire Pressure Affects Performance, Handling & Safety
When you put more air into a tire, it becomes less flexible and maintains its shape (profile) better without giving in under load. Lowering the tire pressure makes the tire more flexible and pliable.
Even small changes in tire pressure can make a noticeable difference in how the ATV performs and handles.
Traction & Flotation
Lowering the air pressure improves traction and flotation on most surfaces which can be helpful in several off-road riding applications.
- Traction is essential for acceleration and preventing slippage, cornering, and braking.
- Improved flotation prevents the tire from sinking in when riding on soft surfaces. As a bonus, this reduces track damage.
Lowering or raising tire pressure changes the size of the tire footprint against the terrain, and the more elastic properties of a deflated tire allow it to form better against variation in the terrain.
On a flat surface, the length of the contact patch increases as tire pressure is reduced. And as a general rule, more tread on the ground equals better traction and flotation.
When tire pressure is too high, only the middle part of the treaded area touches the ground, significantly reducing traction on most surfaces and increasing the risk of the tire digging in.
It’s a common misconception that airing down the tire makes it much wider and that the added width improves the traction and flotation in soft terrains.
However, deflating a tire has an almost negligible effect on tire width until there is virtually no air left. In contrast, the length of the contact patch begins to increase as soon as air is removed.
Airing down the tire to an extremely low air pressure makes the tire sidewall bulge out so that the sidewall treads, known as “side biters”, begin to come into effect. The added traction and flotation can help you in a pinch.
Another effect of airing down a tire is how the more flexible rubber better conforms and wraps around different trail obstacles such as rocks, ledges, logs, and crevices. This effect significantly increases the contact area and improves traction compared to a fully inflated tire.
Reducing tire pressure can affect directional stability and increase the risk of tipping when riding across a sidehill.
A tire inflated to spec will better maintain its shape through high-speed cornering, whereas an aired-down tire will roll and can deflect up to 3-5 inches sideways.
The bending sidewalls make the ATV unstable and increase the risk of losing vehicle control.
When riding a sidehill, the tires on the downhill side of the ATV compress more, making the vehicle tilt more downhill.
An ATV handles best when the tire is nearly flat across the treaded part.
Too much air will force the tire centerline outwards, making the ATV feel bouncy, while too little will cause it not to track as well and wobble at medium speeds.
Another essential but often neglected aspect of setting up an ATV for proper handling is to ensure both wheels on the same axle has the same air pressure.
The front wheels need to be the same, and the rear wheels need to be the same, but the front and back can operate at different tire pressure.
ATVs are known to oversteer, an effect reinforced by low tire pressure and more so when tire pressure is uneven on either side.
Because ATVs use low-pressure tires running at only a few PSI, just one or two PSI off on one of the tires can have a considerable impact.
Unbalanced tire pressure is the leading cause when an ATV pulls to the left or right. Such behavior can pose a significant safety hazard and cause fatigue after a long day of riding, even if you have an ATV with power steering.
Some people prefer a slightly higher pressure in the front tires for improved handling in racing applications.
Suspension and Ground Clearance
It is easy to forget that the wheels are part of the ATVs suspension. When you hit a bump, and the springs compress, so do the tires.
The springs and shocks are set up according to how much the wheels flex at the recommended air pressure.
When there is less air in the tires, they compress more. But why is that a problem?
The difference between the springs and the tires flexing is that the springs have shocks to control spring compression and extension.
When the wheels flex, they do so in an uncontrolled matter, almost as the springs would without shocks.
When a tire with low air pressure soaks up half the impact, it’s taking away from the shock’s ability to do its job.
The fact that shocks are shaft speed-sensitive, meaning they start soft and absorb more force when they are hit harder, adds to the problem. The shock won’t be as effective at taking up the remaining part of the hit when the more flexible wheels absorb much of the movement.
The result is a more unstable ride with a more uncontrolled suspension that is less capable of absorbing hits and keeping the wheels connected to the ground.
A few PSI differences in tire pressure can reduce the effective ground clearance by as much as an inch or two.
That means when you hit a bump hard, you are likelier to bottom out and hit the frame when riding at a lower tire pressure.
The less elastic properties of a fully inflated tire reduce the contact surface against the ground, which makes the tire turn more efficiently, effectively improving acceleration and speed.
Tires with lower pressure are more flexible and will deform more from the vehicle’s weight and surface texture. A deflated tire takes more power to turn and will cause the ATV to feel less responsive.
A higher tire pressure will generally make the ATV perform better on harder surfaces like gravel and paved roads, while a lower tire pressure typically improves off-road performance.
While your ATV might have enough power to bring the vehicle up to speed with aired-down tires, that is typically not a good idea. When you reduce tire pressure, you should lower your top speed by about the same percentage to prevent damage or accidents.
For example, when you reduce the tire pressure by 50% from what the manufacturer recommends, you should also lower your speed by about 50%. Note that this is only a rule of thumb to remember that deflated wheels cannot go as fast.
Slightly airing down the tires makes the sidewalks more flexible, making for a more plush ride.
The effect is more noticeable on rocky trails where you won’t feel every little bump.
Air pressure and fuel consumption are like a double-edged sword for ATV tires.
You’ll get the best mileage on harder surfaces with a higher air pressure according to spec.
While in the mud, an aired-down tire will struggle less to move forward and thereby reduce fuel consumption compared to a tire that spins more and needs more power to move forward.
Tire Durability and Puncture Resistance
Maintaining proper tire pressure can extend your tires’ service life and reduce wear on other components on your ATV.
Running the proper tire pressure for the situation can also help prevent punctures.
A more firm tire from running a high tire pressure is penetrated more easily by sharp objects like thorns and twigs.
However, if you air down the tire so that the tire sidewall begins to bulge, you risk damaging the tire sidewall from hitting sharp rocks. The sidewalls are typically the weakest part of a tire.
Cornering with an aired-down tire flexes the side walls, allowing sand and debris between the tire and the wheel, eventually causing bead leaks.
What Can Happen if You Over or Under-Inflate the Tires?
Now that we’ve looked at how tire pressure affects riding and handling let’s look at what can happen if you take things too far in either direction.
Risk of Blowing the Wheel
Overinflating the tire can cause it to explode, which can potentially be fatal. Never exceed the maximum tire pressure found on the tire sidewall!
Underinflating the tire and taking it to the highway can cause the bulging sidewalls to overheat and blow out. Never run a deflated tire at higher speeds.
Risk of Popping the Tire off the Rim
Accidentally popping the tire off the rim from hitting an object at an angle is the most significant risk of running really low tire pressures.
The tires rely on air pressure to keep the beads seated, and with too little air in the tire, there’s little holding the tire in place.
To keep the tire on your wheel, you must reduce speed and avoid sharp turns whenever the tire pressure is low.
This is where bead-lock rims come in handy. Beadlocks are explicitly designed to allow the advantages of an aired-down tire off-road without de-beading the tire.
Related: How Do ATV Beadlocks Actually Work?
Risk of Pinch Flats
A pinch flat is a severe puncture where an aired-down tire gets pushed in and pinched between an object and the edge of the wheel, slicing the tire sidewall open.
Pinch flats typically happen when the tire pressure is too low for the speeds and terrain you are running, and you accidentally hit a rock or other object.
Risk of Wheel Damage
Like pinch flats, when an aired-down tire hits a rock, the tire offers much less cushioning to protect the wheel from impacts.
Loss of Traction
Running the tire pressure too low can cause the wheel to spin inside the tire.
Risk of Injury
Tire failure from over-inflating or under-inflating the tires or accidents from poor handling caused by incorrect tire pressure can cause severe injury or death.
Factors That Affect ATV Tire Pressure
ATV Size and Payload Weight
Most tires have a max load rating or a ply rating stamped on the tire sidewalls, indicating how much weight the tire can carry.
However, the rating only applies when the tires are inflated to the specified tire pressure.
Most of a tire’s weight-bearing capacity is in the sidewalls. When inflated to the recommended tire pressure, the air stiffens the sidewalls, allowing them to carry more weight.
As tire pressure goes down and the sidewalls begin to bulge, so does the tire’s load-bearing capacity.
Smaller and lighter ATVs typically have a significantly lower recommended tire pressure than heavier machines. Due to the lower weight, a youth-sized ATV may only require half the tire pressure of an adult-sized ATV.
Tire Size and Construction
Some ATV tires are designed more towards a specific purpose and may require different air pressure. One example is the most extreme mud tires designed with a more sturdy carcass to maintain their shape.
Whether the tire has a flat or round tire profile also affects the recommended tire pressure.
Tires designed to be ridden at a different tire pressure than the ATV manufacturer recommends usually have a recommended operating pressure stamped on the tire sidewalls along with the max pressure for mounting.
Terrain and Riding Conditions
While not required, adjusting the tire pressure according to the type of terrain and riding conditions can optimize ATV performance significantly.
Is There an Ideal Tire Pressure for ATVs?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all tire pressure for all types of ATVs and riding situations.
The ideal tire pressure for your ATV is the operating pressure recommended by the ATV manufacturer, adjusted for load and terrain. The recommended rating represents the best balance between performance, safety, ride quality, and durability through various terrains and riding conditions.
How to Know What Tire Pressure to Use on Your ATV?
Now that you know how crucial proper tire pressure can be, you’re probably wondering how much is too much or too little.
Finding the ideal pressure for your ATV and riding scenario is not as complicated as you might think.
1. Use the Manufacturer’s Recommendation as a Baseline
Whether you plan on adjusting the tire pressure to optimize performance for a specific riding situation or looking for a more general setup, you should always begin by setting the tire pressure according to the ATV manufacturer’s recommendations.
You’ll find the recommended PSI settings for your specific make and model ATV in the owner’s manual and on a sticker or a placard placed somewhere visible on the vehicle.
If the recommendation operates with a min and max operation range, you can start with an average of the two numbers.
2. Consider the Terrain and Conditions Where You’ll Be Riding
Different terrain requires different air pressure for the tires to perform optimally. You can ride in any terrain with the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure, but adjusting to specific conditions can be beneficial if you want the best experience.
Do not air down the tires before you need to. If you’re riding on a paved road to where you’ll be mudding, you should not deflate them before you get there.
Remember to inflate the tires before riding home. Most people recommend a portable 12V air compressor to inflate the tires on the trail.
Hard Surfaces (Gravel and Asphalt)
Most of the time, when riding on hard surfaces, you’ll be happy with the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure.
When riding in mud, there are two main strategies to consider.
If the mud is only a few inches deep, you might want to air down the tires a couple of PSI to increase traction and flotation. This can help you stay on top without sinking in. You typically don’t want to go any lower than 3 PSI.
Ideally, you want to find a happy medium where you deflate the tire enough to slightly enhance off-road traction without worrying about the tires coming off.
However, if the mud is exceptionally wet and deep, and there is no chance of staying on top, you might want to try a different approach.
To maximize ground clearance in the hope of reaching down to the firm ground below the mud, you’ll want to keep the tires inflated and not air them down.
When riding in snow that’s no deeper than the wheels can dig down to the ground without the ATV getting high-centered, you’ll get the best results by keeping the tire pressure high. 8-12 inches of snow is typically the limit before airing down.
However, if the snow is any deeper, you might want to deflate the tires to improve flotation and traction.
When riding in the dunes, you would get the best traction and flotation by airing down the tires.
However, the downsides of running a low tire pressure in the sand typically outweigh the benefits. Regardless, flotation in the sand is usually not an issue in lightweight vehicles like ATVs.
You cannot ride as fast with aired-down tires, and there is a high risk of de-beading the tire when landing a jump. There’s also a higher chance of bottoming out due to the reduced effectiveness of the suspension.
When running sand tires, you need just enough air to keep the paddles from folding so that they grab the sand the best.
You typically want to air down the tires slightly when rock crawling for better traction. You typically won’t be riding at speeds where the downsides of a deflated tire become an issue.
3. Consider the Load
If you’re bringing a passenger or loading up the cargo racks to their capacity, you might want to increase the tire pressure by one or two PSI to compensate for the added weight.
3. Other Factors That Can Affect What Tire Pressure to Use
What Tires and Wheels You Have
If you’re running more specialized aftermarket tires like massive mud tires, you might have better results if you choose the operating tire pressure recommended by the tire manufacturer.
If you’re running bead-lock wheels, you can safely deflate the tires more without the tire coming off the rim.
For those that have installed significantly larger wheels, you can air down the tires more without having issues caused by reduced ground clearance.
Temperature and Altitude
Tire pressure is affected by temperature swings and changes in altitude. Remember that the temperature and altitude at home might not be the same as where you ride.
Also, keep in mind that temperature affects tire stiffness. A colder tire is stiffer and will not become as flexible when you air it down.
4. Test and Adjust
Finding the optimal tire pressure takes some trial and error. I recommend first lowering the pressure by no more than 1-2 PSI.
Then take the ATV out for a test ride and note how it behaves. Adjust according to your findings and personal preferences until your ideal air pressure is nailed down.
How Often Should You Check the Tire Pressure?
It is generally recommended to check the ATV tire pressure before each ride and adjust it when out of spec. It is also recommended to observe the tire pressure throughout the day of riding in case of changing conditions or leaks.
While this routine might sound a bit excessive, you’ll find that your reading will almost always fluctuate between each time.
The current temperature and altitude might not be the same as the last time you checked.
And because of their tubeless design and rough use, ATV tires are prone to developing small leaks.
Thornes and twigs can create small punctures, and bead leaks due to damages, corrosion, or debris are relatively common.
As tires age, the rubber becomes less flexible and no longer provides an effective seal against the wheel.
How to Check ATV Tire Pressure
Checking the tire pressure is reasonably straightforward, but there are two main things to remember.
- Tire pressure is always checked when the tires are cool.
- You should use a pressure gauge with a scale suitable for ATV tires for accurate readings. A conventional automotive gauge has a longer interval scale and may not provide the accuracy to read low-pressure ATV tires properly. Most ATVs come with a suitable pressure gauge in their tool kit.
To read the tire pressure, remove the valve cap and press the gauge straight toward the center of the valve.
How Do You Adjust the Tire Pressure?
To increase the tire pressure, you need access to an air compressor with a tire inflator. If you don’t have one at home, you’ll find one at most gas stations.
Manual tire pumps could get the job done in an emergency, but they are tiresome, time-consuming, and unsuitable for regular use.
- Remove the valve cap and read the tire current pressure to ensure you don’t over-inflate the tire.
- Place the tire inflator nozzle over the tire valve. Most nozzles have a lever that must be compressed for the nozzle to slide onto the valve.
- Activate the tire inflator for a couple of seconds and read the tire pressure.
- Continue filling until you’ve reached your desired air pressure.
- Ensure both tires at the same axle have the same tire pressure.
- Don’t forget to reinstall the valve caps.
To deflate a tire, you can compress the pin in the center of the tire valve. The valve cap usually has a small tip designed to press the pin.
If you want to remove a lot of air, you might use a valve-stem-core removal tool to speed up the process. Ensure you don’t lose the valve stem core as you unscrew it.
What Is the Maximum Tire Pressure for ATVs?
All ATV tires have markings on the tire sidewall indicating a maximum tire pressure you should never exceed.
IMPORTANT: The MAX value on the tire sidewall indicates the maximum tire pressure when installing the tire to the wheel. ATV tire beads are relatively tight and need quite a bit of pressure for the tires to seat.
However, you should never operate the ATV at the maximum mounting pressure.
Most tires have a warning label referring to the ATV owner’s manual for the proper operating tire pressure.
Some tires have the recommended operating tire pressure range printed on the tire sidewall in addition to the maximum mounting pressure.
Knowing the difference between the two is essential to prevent blowing out the tire during operation.