ATVs and UTVs represent a significant investment for any sportsman. Just like your truck, your home or anything else you spend a big chunk of change on, you want it to last for as long as it can. You need to take care of these items and, on occasion, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
A little time spent on your ATV in the garage can save you hours of aggravation in the backcountry. And it’s not that difficult as manufacturers are making machines easier to work on and with better components and materials than ever before.
The manufacturers are also backing up their machines with better warranties, like Kawasaki’s “Kawasaki Strong” three-year warranty.
Many of the things you’ll need to do as an owner are completely laid out in your owner’s manual. If you want to get more in-depth, your dealer can set you up with a complete service manual—the same book your dealers’ mechanics use to work on the machines. If need be, your dealer’s service department can also help you out with maintenance questions.
Doing routine maintenance stuff may seem a little overwhelming, but it’s easier than you think.
I bought my first new ATV back in 1987. I spent a lot of time making sure everything was taken care of and followed my service schedule methodically. After all, I was a teenager and had worked many hours washing dishes at a restaurant to pay for it. That ATV meant more to me than my car.
I bought a service manual and learned how to do just about every part of the maintenance work myself, from changing the fluids, to rebuilding the engine. I am proud to say that that ATV currently sits in my garage, still in use today and awaiting the day when my son is old enough to take care of it. With proper care and maintenance, an ATV can last forever.
I know some folks who’ve gone out and dropped a hefty chunk of change on two brand spanking new ATVs. Within a week, they brought both of them back to the dealership, claiming the “hunks of junk” broke down.
They weren’t very eager or happy to admit that they took them out and spent the first day they had them spinning doughnuts in a mud pit and seeing how fast they could go. The dealer was happy to let his service department hit them with a nice repair bill, though.
Follow the recommended break-in procedures. You’ll be much happier in the long run.
2. Change/Check the Oil
Would you go out and buy a brand new truck and never check or change the oil? Of course you wouldn’t. Heck, you wouldn’t do that in an old beater you bought to haul firewood around at a hunting camp. The gas may make the ATV go, but the oil keeps it running.
Checking the oil on ATVs and UTVs is easy, and changing it is way easier than on your car or truck. Follow the owner’s manual for the recommended oil weight and type. The smaller engines on ATVs are far more sensitive to different oil weights than your truck’s engine.
It won’t cost you a ton of money either because your ATV’s engine only needs a few quarts of oil at most. Pick up a few extra quarts of oil to have on hand to top it off when necessary. Just like your truck’s engine oil, the oil in your ATV’s engine catches all that dirt and gunk that gets in there after hauling you down the trail. You don’t want to keep that stuff in there, do you? No, of course not.
Check your oil often. I like to do it every time I fill the gas tank and at least once a week on top of that. Follow your owner’s manual recommended change schedule to keep your machine running strong.
3. Routinely Wash
Ever see those guys driving around town with mud all over their trucks or SUVs after they just had a ton of fun? Ever see them driving around with dried mud and all that other nastiness because they don’t want to wash off their “badge of honor?” Some folks don’t like to wash off their dirt for whatever reason.
Don’t be that guy! Sure, I like getting my ATVs dirty. I’m not real big on mud, but if it happens to get muddy, so be it.
I can tell you that during hunting season, my ATVs get filthy, especially hauling decoys out into the muddy fields every morning to set up for flocks of Canada geese. It’s really important to wash that mud and junk off, though. Mud and dirt trap moisture against the metal on your vehicle. Moisture and steel don’t mix very well, even when there is a healthy coat of paint between them.
If you let it sit long enough, you’re going to regret it when the rust demons start eating away at your machine.
Mud and dirt also can affect your engine’s performance.They can work their way into the air filter, causing you to have to clean it more often, and dirt and dust can clog up the vents and other parts of your machine.
So wash it off. Make sure you cover up all of the intakes and other parts of your machine that don’t react too well to wetness when doing so.
4. Keep a Clean Air Filter
A little basics in mechanics here. To put it simply, your engine only needs three things to cycle: gas, air and spark. Gas goes from the tank into the fuel system, either through a carburetor or an electronic fuel injection system. There it mixes with air and becomes an air-fuel mixture before traveling to the cylinders, where a spark ignites the compressed mixture and the resulting explosion depresses the piston, turns the crank and bang, you’re riding down the trail.
To make all of this happen, you need air—good, clean air. To keep a healthy supply of kosher air flowing into your engine, you need to make sure that your air filter is clean and dry. Modern machines have air filters up higher than ever, designed for more protection from incoming water and dirt, but you still need to check the intakes and filters, and more often than you would on your truck.
After a dusty, dirty ride, it’s a good idea to check the air filter right away. Also, if you store your machine over the winter or use it intermittently, be sure to check the air filter before you cold-start your machine. Little critters seem to love ATV air filters for winter nests.
5. Check the Belt
Just about all modern machines run on a CV belt transmission, much like a snowmobile. These types of transmissions allow the engine to operate efficiently without the need for a manual clutch. They let you just shift into whatever range you’re riding in and then give it gas.
The downside is that you need to check these belts as they can become stretched and worn out, especially if you often ride it hard, or if you frequent water crossings or extreme terrain.
Now, it’s not always easy to check the CV belt, so be aware of how the machine feels and drives. When a belt starts to go, the machine will not shift smoothly, and you’ll being to notice severe performance issues.
There’s also a smell. Ever have a belt go on a car? You smelled it first, didn’t you? That nasty, burning rubber odor. Yeah, it’s the same with an ATV. Of course, if you don’t drive like an idiot and take care of your machine, your belt could faithfully last for years. Just keep an eye on it.
6. Treat Your Gas
Remember what I said about the air filter? Well, you also need to make sure that your gas is in good shape. Keep water and other stuff out of the fuel system and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations about octane ratings. Unless your owner’s manual calls for it, you don’t need to run premium gas in your ATV.
Old gas breaks down. You’ve no doubt seen those Stabil commercials showing the guy who didn’t use a stabilizer product before putting his boat away for the winter. That’s the same kind of thing that can happen to your ATV.
When gas breaks down, it can clog fuel lines, and the little vents and ports in your fuel injectors, causing the fuel system to fail. Once that happens, well, you’re in for another one of those not-so-fun trips to the mechanic again. A few bucks and a moment of time for proper storage preparation can save you hundreds of dollars in repairs.
7. Monitor the Boots, Bolts and Nuts
That ATV I bought back in my youth was, and still is, very important to me. So I always tried to check every nut and bolt on the machine before I took off on a long ride.
Sometimes, though, I just took off, ripping down the trail. Hey, what can I say, I was a teenager after all. One of my axle carrier bolts had worked itself loose and gave way as I slid the back end around a corner. A few seconds spent checking the bolts would have saved me from an accident where I ended up breaking a few other parts because of my negligence.
Take a few moments to inspect your ATV and take special notice of the rubber protective “boots” that surround parts like the drive shafts, air intake and other important and expensive-to-fix parts. It’s also a good time to grease up the bearings and pivot points on your frame and suspension. Every ounce of prevention, my friends, is worth its weight in gold.
8. Maintain Tire Pressure
Have you ever noticed that you had a soft tire while you were driving your truck down the road? It pulls one way or the other, and the ride is rough and uncomfortable. With an ATV, you’re dealing with a tire that has much less air pressure in it than in your truck so these problems will be magnified.
An ATV tire grips terrain very differently than a truck tire does, so it needs to operate at a lower pressure. When a tire starts to lose pressure, you’re more apt to have the bead pop off the rim. When that happens, you’ll get to spend the next hour or more wrestling it back onto the rim with some flat-headed screwdrivers and a lot of language that would make your mother ashamed of you.
In a worst case scenario, it can lead to serious damage or even an accident, none of which you want or need. To protect yourself and your machine, get a low-pressure tire gauge and check those tire pressures before you take off. If you feel one going low while you’re riding, pull over and take care of it right away. That’s why I always carry a cheap, portable tire pump I can run off my ATV’s 12-volt outlet, as well as a tubeless tire patch kit.
9. Mind the Coolant Level
There aren’t a lot of air-cooled ATVs out there anymore, so most of the time you will just be dealing with checking coolant levels and maintaining your machine’s radiator system. Taking care of routine coolant stuff is easy but vital to keeping your ATV in good running condition.
Check coolant levels before you take off down the trail, and give your radiator and hoses a good look, too. Check the coolant itself for signs of dirt and overheating. Coolant that is running too hot for long periods of time will start to change color and will start to give off a smell. It produces a burnt odor.
Likewise, if your cooling system starts mixing with your oil system, your coolant will turn milky. It could be worse, but it’s still a major repair bill.
Modern engines run at pretty high tolerances, so coolant in the oil or excessive overheating can cause major mechanical nightmares that will end up costing you more money than it would take to buy a new Beretta shotgun. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather buy a new A400 than buy a new engine for my ATV.
10. Don’t Be Stupid
So you shelled out anywhere from $8,000 on up to twice that much on a nice, shiny new ATV or UTV. Very cool, but now comes the word of caution – don’t be foolish. There are two basic places you can go with your new ride. The first ones are all the places you thought you couldn’t go, but now you can. The others are the places you didn’t think you could go, and still shouldn’t.
By this I mean you need to be very aware of the machine’s limitations as well as your own. If you see a steep hill and aren’t sure you can ride up it, you probably can’t. Either your machine will succumb to the effects of physics and roll over or your riding ability, or lack thereof, will cause you to make a potentially grave mistake.
Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Either way, you can end up hurt with your ATV wrecked. It’s simply not worth it.
Repairs are expensive, insurance is costly and you are irreplaceable. Be smart, wear a helmet and protective clothing and make sure you’re not riding above your skill level.
You want your ATV to last forever but you also want it to be there to enjoy it.
All photos by Alphonse Palamina