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The allure of winter off-roading has been on the rise in recent decades, capturing the hearts of both seasoned enthusiasts and neophytes alike. Unsurprisingly, the continuously growing fascination with this winter activity is driven by the irresistible charm of its distinctive and exhilarating challenges.
It pays to heed the advice of veterans when heading out for some snow wheeling. Some best practices include keeping within marked trails, practicing conscientious riding, and having recovery and emergency kits handy.
Prioritizing preparedness and safety is paramount when embarking on such an icy adventure. With that in mind, here are top tips for ATV riding in the snow to enhance your safety while ensuring an unforgettable riding experience:
- Check the weather and trails.
- Bundle up in layers.
- Prepare your four-wheeler.
- Opt for good snow tires.
- Adjust tire pressure.
- Lighten your load.
- Use traction aids.
- Stick to designated routes.
- Avoid steep terrain.
- Watch out for snow piles.
- Drive smoothly and conscientiously.
- Go easy on the gas.
- Learn from the experts.
- Know how to get unstuck.
- Retreat if needed.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
Tips for ATV Riding in the Snow
1. Check the Weather and Trails.
This reminder needs no introduction — always assess weather and trail conditions before heading out. Doing so serves multiple purposes: it allows you to plan your route, adapt your driving approach, and determine whether the weather and road conditions are suitable for snow off-roading. The last thing you’d want to happen is to skip this step and be stranded in a lodge or campground somewhere because the trails are inaccessible.
2. Bundle Up in Layers.
As you would for any winter sport, layer up before heading out. Your staples should include:
- A moisture-wicking base layer.
- Insulating mid-layer.
- Protective outer layer.
- Weather-appropriate riding boots (view on Amazon).
But depending on how aggressive the activity will be or where your planned destination is, you may need to add heated grips, a helmet, and a chest protector to your list.
3. Prepare your four-wheeler.
Snow adventures often extend longer than typical off-road trips due to the added challenge of navigating snow-covered trails. Consequently, it’s essential that your four-wheeler helps ensure your preparedness for the journey. This entails fitting your quad with specialist snow tires and snow chains (view on Amazon), having extra clothing (on top of your layers), and carrying food and necessary tools.
4. Opt for Good Snow Tires.
You may not like this because it requires spending more than usual on a set of seasonal tires. Nonetheless, never skip this step, as a huge chunk of your on-road safety hinges on the quality of rubber mounted on your rims.
Opting for a premium brand translates to superior performance and reliability. Inversely, settling for mediocre options could make a critical difference in precarious situations or unforeseen emergencies.
High-quality snow tires typically possess specific features, including a specialized rubber compound, deep grooves, and large channels. If you’re new to winter off-roading, here are some tested-and-proven tire brands that will get you moving along your checklist:
- Maxxis M962 MudBug ATV Tires (view on Amazon)
- Duro Excavator Tires
- ITP Mud Lite XXL Tires (view on Amazon)
- Sedona Mudda Inlaw Tires (view on Amazon)
- Kenda K299 Bear Claw Tires (view on Amazon)
5. Adjust Tire Pressure.
Lowering tire pressure significantly enhances traction on icy surfaces. This adjustment increases the ground contact area, reducing the likelihood of spinning or getting stuck in the pillowy snow.
For seasoned off-roaders, a general guideline is to lower the pressure by approximately 3-5 psi. A couple more tweaks after that often suffice for improving handling on snow. However, you can continue to fine-tune the tire pressure incrementally to find the optimal level for the terrain you’re navigating.
6. Lighten Your Load.
Although the general notion is that “lighter is better in snow,” this may not always be the case — the validity of this statement depends on the type of snow you are riding on. If the snow is pillowy soft through and through, lighter would be the way to go. But if that slush is only on the top layer, then the extra weight will help your ATV get to and grab the hard-packed snow underneath.
Of course, there’s no way to absolutely know this before treading on the trails. A practical consideration would be determining how your ATV’s weight affects its propensity to slide on slick surfaces when heavier or lighter. From there, decide how much weight you can safely remove from your brute. Just make sure you don’t compromise protection from the wind and cold.
7. Use Traction Aids.
Consider using traction aids when the snow poses a risk to navigating the trails unscathed. The snow may not always appear dangerously deep in such scenarios. Nevertheless, you’d be better off with these aids than being stuck in a precarious situation.
Traction boards and recovery winches like Genuine Polaris® RZR PRO HD 4,500 Lb. Winch with Rapid Rope Recovery (view on Amazon) are the most common of the lot. But there’s a slew of other grip enhancers that prove extremely useful during out-of-norm cases. Speaking of which, here are a few scenarios where you’ll be requiring the help of traction boosters:
- Deep Snow — Traction aids are essential when navigating deep snow as they help the ATV maintain grip and prevent it from getting stuck.
- Icy Trails — In icy conditions, traction aids like snow chains or tire socks provide additional traction, improving control and stability.
- Steep Slopes — When climbing or descending steep slopes in snowy terrain, traction aids enhance traction, reducing the risk of sliding or losing control.
- Off-Camber Terrain — On uneven or off-camber terrain covered in snow, traction aids help the ATV maintain stability and prevent tipping.
- Hard-Packed Snow — Even on hard-packed snow, traction aids can be helpful as they provide extra grip when accelerating, braking, or making sharp turns, ensuring better control.
8. Stick to Designated Routes.
Of all the tips in this guide, this is self-explanatory. Not only does practicing discipline and restraint prevent unwanted impact on natural habitats and wildlife, but it also ensures your safety (physically or otherwise) while on the trails.
9. Avoid Steep Terrain.
Navigating steep slopes when ATV riding in the snow is risky due to getting stuck, potential traction loss, and mechanical damage. Hence, it’s advisable to opt for safer, gradual routes instead. But should you encounter a steep incline or decline, maintain a steady speed, use brakes gently when descending, and avoid sudden movements to prevent instability and tread slippage.
10. Watch Out for Snow Piles.
Another hazard to steer clear of while winter off-roading is accumulations of snow. Snowdrifts can be deceptively shallow in appearance. However, they’re often deeper than they seem on the surface.
This misleading depth can lead to problems such as your four-wheeler tipping over, getting stuck, or losing control (all of which could be avoided if you veer away from that snow pile). These deep snow pockets can also conceal rocks, stumps, and debris that can puncture your wheels or cause significant damage to your quad.
11. Drive Smoothly and Conscientiously.
These habits come naturally to more experienced riders. But for those new to the sport, you can develop instinctive driving skills by practicing the following:
- Gentle Acceleration — Apply the throttle gently to avoid sudden wheelspin, which can lead to loss of traction. Gradual acceleration provides better control.
- Brake Smoothly — When braking, use gentle and controlled pressure to avoid locking up your tires and skidding. Anti-lock brakes (if equipped) can help maintain control.
- Use Engine Braking — Utilize engine braking by downshifting to slow down gradually, reducing the need for aggressive braking.
- Steer Smoothly — Make gradual and deliberate steering inputs to maintain stability. Avoid sudden jerky movements.
- Choose Suitable Gears — Select an appropriate gear for the terrain and your speed, allowing you to maintain control without unnecessary wheel spin.
- Maintain Momentum — When ascending inclines, maintain a consistent speed to prevent getting stuck. Going too slow can lead to a loss of momentum and traction.
- Keep It Cool — Monitor your engine’s temperature, as heavy snow and ice can impact cooling. Ensure proper airflow to avoid overheating.
While these practices may require some time, the pay-off of repetition would be well worth the efforts of any off-roader! Over time, conscientious driving habits translate to well-developed reflexes and solid driving techniques — resulting in reduced risk of mishaps and more enjoyable ATV riding experiences in the snow.
12. Go Easy on the Gas.
To avoid tire spin and keep good traction, be gentle with the accelerator pedal (view on Amazon). If you press it too hard, the wheels might spin when they hit something tough or encounter resistance. So, instead of going ham on the throttle, slowly press the gas to lower the chances of your tires spinning. This way, your quad can maintain balance and hold onto the ground better.
13. Learn from the Experts.
On top of the driving tips in step #11, here are additional words of wisdom from off-roading savants that’ll help level up your’ game’ in ATV snow riding:
- Reduce your speed compared to what you’d normally do on city roads.
- When starting, use a higher gear for better traction.
- If necessary, raise your suspension settings to avoid getting stuck in deep snow.
- Activate your differential lock when you encounter slippery surfaces.
- Maintain lower speeds, especially on downhill slopes.
- Keep your lights free of snow and ice for visibility.
- Leave additional room when stopping or braking.
- Apply the brakes before entering a turn, and accelerate when exiting.
- Adjust your 4WD settings based on trail conditions.
14. Know How to Get Unstuck.
To free your ATV when it’s stuck in the snow, first assess the situation and ensure your safety. If necessary, turn off the engine and dismount. Clear any snow and obstacles around the tires using recovery tools and a D-handle shovel. Next, utilize the necessary equipment, employ the ‘rocking method,’ or seek assistance from your buddy or group to pull or push your machine out of the stuck position.
If the situation isn’t too severe, these steps should help you get unstuck. Once free, select a different route or adapt your driving technique to avoid similar problems.
15. Retreat if Needed.
Last but not least, prioritize caution over recklessness. Keep in mind that when ATV riding in the snow, needlessly confronting danger doesn’t signify an adventurous spirit or a genuine love for the outdoors. There’s no shame in stepping back from dangerous trails or challenging riding conditions. It’s better to retreat and plan another adventure under safer conditions than suffer irreversible outcomes resulting from disregard and hardheadedness.
ATV Snow Riding Essentials
In addition to having the right gear, it’s crucial to undergo specialized off-roading and avalanche training. These training programs cover essential topics such as driving techniques, safety protocols, and recovery procedures.
Combining the right gear — as detailed in my off-roading winter guide — with the knowledge and skills gained from this training will equip you to handle winter off-roading challenges and emergencies effectively.
Conclusion — Tips for ATV Snow Wheeling
Winter ATV riding is an adventure like no other — it holds the beauty of pristine landscapes and the thrill of the unknown. By following these tips, you can ensure that your snowy escapades are not only unforgettable but also safe and enjoyable.
So, gear up, rev your trusty four-wheelers, and let the snowy trails beckon you to embark on an ATV journey you’ll cherish for years to come!