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How to Drive an ATV: Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

In ATV riding, at least five core competencies are expected of all riders: safety procedures, mechanical knowledge, vehicle control, terrain awareness, and emergency response. In this article, we’ll help you get acquainted with the first three proficiencies and loop you in on other tips and tricks on how to drive an ATV.

Driving an ATV entails correct positioning, foot placement, brake engagement, and leg swing. It also requires performing a full controls check and wearing protective gear. For beginners, following best practices by seasoned riders is highly advised.

This article covers the fundamentals of ATVing, from mounting and dismounting to entry-level maneuvers. For more intricate or situation-specific guidelines, it is best to take an ATV safety course, interactive e-course, or training program. Doing so will make you more savvy about the sport’s environmental implications and allow you to ride an ATV in your location legally.

Woman Driving Red ATV

Safety Gear

Before starting the engine or moving, make sure you’re wearing appropriate safety gear (including but not limited to the following):

  • DOT/ECE-approved helmet and goggles
  • Abrasion-resistant, all-weather motorcycle jacket
  • Riding pants and boots
  • Elbow and knee pads
  • Reflective gear or vest for enhanced visibility
  • Chest protector (especially when riding mid-size behemoths bigger than 500cc)
  • Full-fingered gloves (although gloves that expose the tips of their fingers are great for warmer weather)
  • Baclava mask (when riding in cold weather)
  • Neck brace (for extra neck support and protection in case of sudden movements or impacts)
  • Shin guards (view on Amazon) to protect against branches, debris, or potential impact
  • Safety essentials toolkit
  • Other emergency items, such as:
    • Your mobile phone (of course!)
    • Nylon rope (at least 25 feet in length)
    • Electrical and duct tape
    • Spare ignition key
    • Extra spark plugs in case of stalling
    • First-aid kit
    • Flashlight
    • Headlight and taillight bulbs
    • Multi-purpose knife
    • Tow rope or chain
    • Sunblock (if riding during the day or in extreme sunny weather)
    • Optional: weatherproof suit or rain gear

Getting On and Off an ATV

The steps for mounting and dismounting an all-terrain vehicle are consistent across all makes and models, with the dismounting and mounting procedures being inversely proportionate. If we were to take both processes literally, they would look something like the lists below:


1. Stand on the side of the ATV, facing the seat and handlebars.

2. Ensure the brake is engaged to prevent the quad from moving while mounting.

3. Place one foot on the footrest near the seat, maintaining a firm grip on the ground with your other foot.

4. Hold onto the quad’s handlebars for balance and support.

5. Swing your free leg over the saddle and gently lower yourself onto the seat.

This is called the ‘step-through method’ and is similar to how you would mount a bike or motorcycle. Another mounting technique is ‘side mounting,’ where you approach the ATV from the side and lift one leg over the seat, bringing it down on the other side. Essentially, you’re sitting down sideways on the saddle before repositioning yourself to face forward.

6. Slide yourself into a comfortable sitting position, ensuring your feet can reach the footrests and your hands can easily grip the handlebars.

7. If necessary, insert the key into the ignition and turn it to start the engine.

8. Before moving, check that all controls (throttle, brakes, etc.) are responsive and functioning correctly.


1. Ensure the brake is engaged and the ATV is in neutral gear to prevent the quad from moving while dismounting.

2. Choose a level and stable surface away from obstacles or hazards to dismount.

3. Lift one leg over the seat and place your foot securely on the ground.

4. Gently stand up on the foot placed on the ground while maintaining your balance. Then swing your other leg over the seat and bring it down to the ground beside the first foot.

5. If the engine is still running, turn it off using the ignition key.

6. When necessary, engage the parking brake to keep the ATV stationary.

7. Keep your helmet and other protective gear on until you’ve safely alighted the quad.

8. Move a safe distance away from the ATV, ensuring it won’t accidentally roll or move.

9. Finally, look around to ensure no obstacles or potential hazards are nearby.

In an ideal setup, the above steps would have been enough to help neophytes get started on their very first ATV. However, the truth is that beginner riders are called such because (more often than not) they have not ridden a quad before. Either that or they are inexperienced to the extent that they have a limited understanding of the fundamentals of the motorized vehicle’s behavior and mechanism.

Being capable of driving an automobile is not automatically guaranteed to make you a pro in ATVing. Although both are four-wheeled, cars and quads have several dissimilarities setting them apart. These differences are apparent in their purpose, design, handling, safety features, and terrain compatibility (to name a few). And as a result, ATVs call for a different set of best practices that riders should observe to maximize their enjoyment when operating the quad.

Making the Most Out of Your Quad

Quad Bike on the Beach

There are several ways to fully enjoy your ATV, even as a beginner. And the good news is, they won’t cost you an arm and a leg. The majority of these ways require consistency and a lot of practice. But before you get to the exciting part, here are a few things you need to prioritize:

Select the right ATV for you. 

We’re not only talking about appropriating rider size but also riding level.

  • A sports quad would be great for riders who can quickly grasp handlebars (view on Amazon) and gear shift.
  • A youth ATV would be better suited for youngsters or those with a lighter build.
  • A utility-oriented quad or UTV is also an excellent option for learning to ride (apart from work applications).

Any of the three would be perfect for getting newbies acclimated to ATVing. Whichever you choose, the important thing is you do not ride an ATV that’s too burly or powerful since you are still learning the ropes of this recreation/sport. Otherwise, you risk being sandwiched underneath your quad.

Gear up.

Ensure your safety by wearing protective gear while riding, as ATVs are likely to cause accidents or serious injuries (believe it or not). Appropriate PPEs include the items listed in the earlier section.

Also, well-fitted gear eradicates many a rider’s ‘false sense of security’ and reduces the risk of injury. So make sure you scour supply shops, sports stores, and online retailers for the right-sized protective gear and equipment before tearing up the track or trails.

Use nerf bars during your learning phase.

Adding nerf bars like DG Performance Alloy Series Nerf Bars (view on Amazon) to your quad versus making do with traditional footpegs isn’t merely for enhanced aesthetics. These supporting ‘brackets’ reduce constant slippage and help boost newbie confidence. Without these add-ons, learners — whether inadvertently or otherwise — tend to drag their feet when riding.

These larger footpegs broaden the footing space on an ATV, enhancing stability for beginners. Furthermore, they aid in the learning process of turning, clutch usage, and gear shifting.

If you don’t have an ATV yet and are still choosing one, opt for something equipped with these bars. Otherwise, have them added to the four-wheeler to facilitate safer learning.

Keep both feet on the footpegs consistently.

Keep your feet on the footpegs as you learn maneuvers and improve your driving skills. Placing them in the footing area of the ATV not only supports your riding stance but also ensures your safety.

Moreover, it allows you to shift gears promptly since the footing area houses the clutch and gear shift — in addition to supporting even weight distribution, effectively reducing tip-overs.

Take it easy on the throttle.

Regardless of your skills, it is ill-advised to dive straight into hair-raising speeds when riding an ATV. This reckless approach would only lead to unexpected outcomes, such as losing control and crashing into a tree or road obstacle. ATVs have thumb throttles and automatic clutches highly sensitive to driver input — a rough flip can send you and your quad careening off course.

Know the trail.

Before riding, thoroughly research the trail you intend to explore. This preparation helps prevent becoming lost or encountering challenging terrain where you might get stuck.

Additionally, familiarizing yourself with the trail’s layout, difficulty level, and potential obstacles ensures a safer and more enjoyable off-road adventure.

Steer clear of pavement.

Refrain from riding your ATV on tarmac to prevent unforeseen collisions and minimize tire wear. Riding on paved streets is unsuitable for ATVs as it can lead to on-road accidents and is often against the law in many jurisdictions.

Refrain from doing acrobatics on your machine.

When learning how to drive an ATV, avoid attempting wheelies (which involve leaning back to lift the front wheels). Resist the urge to perform them and other similar tricks since they could result in serious harm, especially when done by an amateur. Moreover, the maneuver can lead to the ATV flipping over and causing severe injuries like fractures, paralysis, or even fatal outcomes.

How to Ride an ATV

A Man Riding an ATV Down a Dirt Road

Following the mounting procedure above, here are steps on how to drive an ATV. Note that these are general guidelines and do not reflect procedural nuances contingent on the year, make, and model of your quad:

Before Starting Your ATV

  • Position the ATV safely.
  • Place the transmission in NEUTRAL or PARK.
  • Engage the parking brake.
  • Activate the fuel valve.
  • Make sure the stop switch is in the RUN or ON position.
  • Set the choke to ON if the engine is cold.
  • Initiate the engine. Do this by turning the key and pressing the START button, typically located on the handlebars’ right side.

After the Engine Is Warmed Up

  • Engage the hand brake.
  • Disengage the parking brake.
  • Transition into gear (1st gear for motion and higher gears for increase in speed). Engage the clutch by pulling its handle to position the engine in neutral gear, preparing for gear changes.
  • Gradually release the hand brake while gently applying the throttle.

During the Ride

  • For ATVs with manual or semi-automatic trannies, always close the throttle, learn the engagement point, and listen to the engine when shifting. The first two help prevent wheel lifting and stalling, while the third guides riders with gear shifts and throttle adjustments.
  • When changing gears, learn to coordinate your throttle and clutch. Note that ‘popping the clutch’ can cause your ATV to jerk suddenly, potentially resulting in a loss of control.


  • Turn off the engine.
  • Shift to neutral (or park) and activate the parking brake. If there is none, utilize low gear to avoid rolling. If equipped, enable the parking mechanism to secure the drive train.
  • Use brakes correctly. Apply the rear brakes by squeezing the right handle with your right hand, and use the front brakes by gently pressing the left handle using your left hand.
  • When parking, roll forward against the gear before dismounting (especially on inclines).
  • Refrain from parking on an incline.

Correct Riding Posture

Having the right body position and keeping it consistent while learning to navigate diverse terrains are crucial for your success in ATVing. The below guidelines help you achieve the correct posture for riding:

  • Keep your head up and your eyes focused forward.
  • Place your hands on the handlebars.
  • Keep your feet on the footrests with your toes pointed ahead.

Beware that taking off hands or feet impairs control and balance, and dragging feet on the ground can lead to severe injuries if caught beneath rear wheels.

There are different correct riding positions, and they are dependent on what you need during your learning phase.


If it’s stability you aim for, then sitting down is best. Sitting offers the lowest center of gravity for utmost stability and safety — particularly when carrying passengers in 2-up ATVs — while ensuring your feet stay firmly on the footrests.


If it’s improved agility and visibility, then hovering or standing would work better. In obstructed areas, standing enables you to see beyond obstacles and assess potential obstructions behind them. While at road crossings, it offers an extended line of sight. Standing also facilitates swift weight shifts and quick changes in riding positions (no wonder more advanced riders are in this stance when driving spiritedly or competitively).


Posting or crouching is another riding position that’ll benefit you. It is similar to standing, except you look like you’re squatting while driving instead of standing up. When faced with challenges like navigating rough trails with numerous and intense bumps or climbing steep hills and crossing water bodies, adopting this position is advisable for enhanced shock absorption and maneuverability.

Turning & Cornering

A Man Riding an ATV in the Snow

Seasoned riders always revert to the owner’s manual for precise instructions on executing ATV turns. However, they have a few proven steps they recommend to beginners:

  • When navigating at low to moderate speeds, shift your weight forward and lean into the turn’s direction.
  • Steer the handlebars while maintaining your gaze toward the turning path.
  • If the ATV tilts, lean further into the turn while gradually decelerating.
  • Upon exiting the turn, slightly elevate your speed.

Depending on whether your four-wheeler has a solid rear axle or a locked differential, leaning into turns will slightly differ for you. But either way, it is recommended to shift your position forward and outward before leaning into a slow turn and to move inward and forward before a fast turn.


Performing a K-turn (or 3-point turn) is one of the most difficult but equally important maneuvers you can learn (alongside a U-turn). It comes in handy when you lose forward momentum while ascending. To practice, follow the guidelines below:

  • Keep your weight forward and brake to prevent rolling back.
  • Engage the parking brake with your weight forward.
  • Dismount on the uphill side.
  • Shift to neutral, and turn off the engine.
  • Hold the front brake, release the parking brake, and turn the handlebars.
  • Gradually release the front brake for parallel alignment.
  • Set the parking brake, then start the engine.
  • Mount from the uphill side, keeping your weight uphill.
  • Point the front wheels downhill, then release the parking brake.
  • Descend slowly, shifting your weight to the ATV’s rear.

Note that you won’t get a grip on this technique in one sitting, even if your backyard has a steep slope where you can practice. It takes repeated real-life encounters to get good at it. Nonetheless, practicing this turn in a controlled environment will do wonders for you and your safety when the situation demands it.

Hills & Inclines

Riding up inclines is one of the more dangerous maneuvers to grasp during your learning phase. Even for experienced riders, any misses when climbing hills could prove dangerous (even fatal). That said, it’s crucial to maintain control over your quad to prevent tip-overs or overturns.

In general, always exercise sound judgment — if a hill appears excessively steep, it likely is. Begin your ascent in a lower gear, accelerating to sustain momentum. And when visibility is limited, reduce speed to ensure you can see over the hill’s crest.

When riding while seated, shift forward to align your torso with the front wheels or handlebars. Also, maintain your body weight uphill and on the footpegs or nerf bars.

If your engine risks lugging or stalling, downshift to a lower gear. Maintain forward weight and swiftly shift while briefly easing off the throttle to prevent front wheel lifting.

In instances where your ATV has insufficient power to continue the ascent but enough momentum to make a safe turnaround, maintain uphill weight, make a U-turn before losing speed, and descend in a lower gear while keeping an uphill direction.

Downward Slopes

Riders should always carefully check the terrain before descending hills. For beginners, it’s wise to choose the straightest downhill path, as you would want to deal with the least obstacles possible.

While descending, ensure to shift your weight back, use a lower gear, maintain a low speed, brake gradually, and keep your focus ahead. This set of actions works for most descents and should get you to level ground in no time. However, you may encounter overly steep hills every now and then. In such scenarios, traversing or driving across the slope at an angle would be much better and safer than descending in a straight line.

Traversing entails keeping your feet planted firmly on the footrests, leaning and turning your wheels uphill, and keeping your speed steady. This last bit is crucial, as sudden or drastic increases in speed could easily tip your ATV. But traversing isn’t a one-size-fits-all technique for riding downward slopes. In fact, it’s ill-advised on rough, loose, or slick surfaces.

Now Practice!

A Man With a Helmet Driving an ATV on a Dirt Road

Of course, all this knowledge will go down the drain if you do not put them to good use. And to do so, you’ll need to spend a good number of hours practicing. Side note — practicing how to drive an ATV doesn’t include your off-road adventures (treat these two activities separately). The expectation is that you should already have the basics down before engaging in the sport more seriously.

To get started on your 10,000 hours of practice, you first have to find a practice area. The space needs to be safe and at least 100 x 200 feet in dimension. It should also contain two sections — a spacious, open, and level area and a gently sloped but not overly steep terrain.

Set up the area with a tape measure and tons of markers. You can buy neon-colored cones like BESEA 28″ Orange PVC Traffic Cones, Set of 8 (view on Amazon), or make your own using plastic jugs.

Practice checklist

Once this hazard-free space is set up and ready, make sure to include the following items in your ‘practice checklist’:

  • Braking in a straight path (at 2,100 feet away while using 1st and 2nd gears)
  • Braking in a turn, with the help of 3-4 markers placed several feet away on either side from your starting point
  • Turning in a 60-foot oval, in small circles, and while tracing the figure “8.”
  • Doing sharp turns (for improved, coordinated braking, weight shifting, and throttle control)
  • Doing quick turns, with the help of markers spaced 35 feet apart
  • Climbing hills, traversing slopes, and braking on descents
  • Any other maneuver or technique that you’d want to become better in

Additional Pointers

There are tons of pointers to heed when ATVing. But as a beginner, focus on the important ones first and work your way from there. These include being aware of local ATV rules (preferably from official sources), ensuring you have the certifications and licenses required depending on your location, and getting advice from dealers on techniques and maintenance. 

Pre-/post-ride inspections, controls guides, and similar reminders are typically found in the first few pages or chapters of any given owner’s manual, so that should be fairly easy to revert to for a quick recall of the basics. But should you need a quick rundown of these items, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Familiarize yourself with controls while increasing speed and shifting gears gradually.
  • Ensure proper oil, coolant, and brake fluid levels before riding.
  • Check and oil the air filter for optimal performance.
  • Customize handlebars and controls for comfort.
  • Adjust and lubricate the drive chain for proper tension.
  • Fine-tune suspension compression and rebound as needed.
  • Verify and adjust cold-tire pressure for an optimal ride.
  • Ensure all bolts and nuts are secure and tightened according to spec.
  • Fill the tank with fuel before your first ride, as ATVs are typically empty from the factory or showroom.

In addition to the above, account for added weight from accessories when riding with passengers — although ideally, you should avoid pillion riding during your learning phase. Also, note that not every ATV has a 2-up layout. But even if your quad did have that setup, riding solo until you elevate your skills to the next level is highly recommended.

Finally, when ready to take your ATV riding, adhere to the “Tread Lightly!” guidelines and stay within designated trails.


Ultimately, learning to ride an ATV for the first time should be treated like everything else — an experience with inherent risks. While ATVing is undoubtedly fun, you should take your learning slowly but steadily and choose a quad that aligns with your gradually improving riding prowess and confidence. Also, avoid risky maneuvers beyond your skill level, as careless behavior can endanger you and others.