Wheel spacers on an ATV is a topic where you will find just about as many opinions as there are riders. There are many pros, but there are many cons as well. In some aspects, spacers are good, and in others, they are horrible.
A few years ago, when I was in the market for a set of spacers for my Polaris Sportsman, I found all of the scattered information on the subject quite confusing.
To help potential new wheel spacer buyers make an educated decision, I have gathered all the information there is to find about possible pros and cons, when you should and should not use them, sprinkled with some of the lessons I have learned myself from owning them.
Why use ATV wheel spacers?
The primary purpose of wheel spacers is to alter the wheel spacing of the ATV, giving it a wider stance and better clearance inside the wheel wells.
You can get them in a range of different thicknesses ranging from 1/2 to three inches. This means you can increase track width by up to six inches.
Let’s take a look at various riding scenarios where you may need or benefit from having wheel spacers installed.
If you’ve already decided that you need spacers, this post tells you how to choose and install them.
The pros (the good)
Better clearance for installing tire chains
Clearance issues when installing tire chains are a common reason for having to get wheel spacers. It was the main reason why I had to get a set for my Polaris.
Most ATVs are not actually made to be used with tire chains. So when you install them, you may run into issues where the chains catch onto and damage various components of the ATV.
The front wheels are usually the most affected because they turn. Brake lines, inner fenders, or even parts of the suspension may conflict with the chains.
You usually have more space at the rear wheels, and because they do not turn, you may apply the rule of thumb that says any clearance is proper clearance. But even at the rear, you may find that the chains are hitting your exhaust muffler or other components close to the wheel.
Adding a set of spacers should give you the clearance you need. You will likely need 1-2 inches thick spacers. I got the two-inch size for my Polaris, but 1,5 inches would probably be a better solution for this particular bike.
The best way to find out what size spacers you need are to install the chains with your stock wheels and measure how much clearance you’ll need. There is no exact science to this, but I recommend that you aim for about one inch of clearance all the way around the tire.
Better stability on steep slopes or rough terrain
After the winter was over, I left my two-inch wheel spacers on the ATV just for fun (or out of pure laziness, really).
We ride quite often in areas that have some really steep slopes. I’m talking about the kind where you slide when trying to go down or where you really need to maintain some speed to climb.
One of the most plausible things that can go wrong when climbing a steep hill like this is that you hit a root, a bump, or a rock and end up flipping the ATV to either side, leaving it standing sideways in the hill.
Without wheel spacers, it won’t be standing there for long before it flips and starts rolling down the hill. This exact thing happened to me, and for a second, I was certain that the ATV would start rolling.
But then I remembered I still had my spacers bolted on, and that’s what ended up saving me.
Another benefit is when you are doing some low-speed technical riding in really bumpy terrain. I do a lot of that too, and the increased stability (not so tippy) is quite noticeable.
As a result, you will probably end up taking on even bigger challenges, but that is another story.
So to sum things up. A wider wheel stance will give you increased sideways stability when riding in hilly terrain, which you will only really need in some of the more extreme riding situations.
Better stability on paved roads
Where I live, you can legally use an ATV on public roads.
But when you ride at high speeds on paved roads, there is a risk that the ATV may flip due to the combination of excellent traction and narrow track width.
After installing spacers, I noticed that the ATV felt much more stable when riding turns.
The difference is not so noticeable when riding on gravel roads or trails. That’s because the lesser traction allows the ATV to slide sideways instead of flipping.
Most ATVs are designed to handle sharp turns on gravel roads without needing spacers to be stable. But on paved roads, it felt like they help keep the ride stable.
Increased clearance when installing bigger tires
When you install bigger and wider tires on your ATV, you may run into many of the same rubbing issues when installing tire chains.
One way to solve this is by getting new rims as well with a different offset. But if you plan on using your old rims, you may need to add a set of spacers to prevent your new wheels from hitting various components of the bike.
Cheaper than getting a set of new rimes
As mentioned above, getting a set of new rims with different offset is one way to solve your problem when you run into clearance issues. A set of quality wheel spacers are not cheap, but they will still set you back less than most rims on the market.
It not hard to argue that better stability, in general, equals a safer ride. Spacers do, however, make the bike harder to turn, so it’s not all good. More on that later.
Makes the ATV look better
The last one of the Pros really comes down to personal preference. Some riders prefer the more aggressive look the bike gets when widening the wheel stance.
The Cons (the bad)
There are a lot of benefits to installing wheel spacers on an ATV, but there are quite a few potential downsides as well. Ultimately you will have to decide whether you can accept some of the cons listed below.
It’s worth noting that you can minimalize most of them by choosing spacers that are just as thick as you need, but no more. Less is more when it comes to wheel spacers.
Increased wear on drivetrain and suspension
Moving the tires further away from the axles will increase the strain on wheel bearings, ball joints, axles, and just about any component of the bike’s drivetrain and suspension.
The further you offset the wheels, the more significant momentum you get. This applies to both wheel spacers and different offset rims.
Therefore it is vital to choose spacers that give you the extra clearance you need, but no more. There are no additional pros of widening the bike more than you need, but the cons start showing up one-by-one.
The ATV will become harder to steer – increased steering input
The difference in steering geometry between stock and two-inch spacers is quite noticeable. Even bikes that have power steering may struggle to turn the wheels from time to time.
The reason why this happens is quite simple. When riding stock, the wheel’s center is aligned with the pivot point in the ball joints. When you turn, the wheel also pivots (rotate).
But when you add spacers, you are no longer only rotating the wheel; you are moving it back and forth as well. You are forcing it to swing.
This extra movement puts a lot of strain on the power steering system, which may cause premature wear or even damage if you don’t pay attention. A bike without power steering will get heavier steering that may cause fatigue for the rider.
Increased bump steer (bar whip)
Bump steer is the twitch you feel in the handlebar when you hit a rock or a small bump. Due to the same steering geometry changes described above, these twitches will become noticeably more powerful when you install spacers.
Again, putting more strain on the power steering or the rider in a non-power steering ATV.
Expert Tip: Using wheel spacer just at the rear wheels will add a lot to stability, without the downsides involved with changing the steering geometry of the front wheels.
The ATV may become too wide for some trails
With a wider stance, you will no longer fit that well in the ruts on muddy trails where others ride stock. Your wheels will brush off on track-edges and on rocks where others will fit. It will become harder to ride, and you risk damaging your wheels.
Some trails are set with a maximum legal width of 50 inches. Adding wheel spacers may actually make your ATV illegal to use on such trails.
The ATV may no longer fit between trees or through other narrow passes
The extra width may be enough so that you don’t fit between when riding in dense forests, through narrow gates, or between narrow rock passes.
They will likely make you dirty
When installing wheel spacers, your stock fenders may no longer keep you protected from flying mud and dirt
Stock wheels on most ATVs are about in-line with the fenders. When you install wheel spacers, you will quickly learn that this design feature did not come about by accident.
Expect to get dirty or to pay for a set of fender flares that will make your fenders wider as well.
The ATV will no longer fit all truck beds and trailers
Make sure that your trailer or truck bed is wide enough to allow a wider ATV. This aspect is sometimes overlooked when people install wheel spacers. Measure twice, buy once!
Safety – are ATV wheel spacers safe?
A set of good-quality ATV wheel spacers are perfectly safe to use if installed correctly. Make sure you use quality lug bolts or studs as well. Do not use wider spacers than necessary, as they do affect suspension and steering geometry. Inspect them regularly to check for damage.
Value – are ATV wheel spacers worth it?
Wheels spacers are definitely worth it when you must widen the ATV to fit tire chains or larger wheels. They do, however, come with a few downsides, such as heavier steering and increased wear on the ATV. Some riders feel that the disadvantages outweigh the sole benefit of getting better stability.