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How to Fix Backcountry ATV Breakdowns

How to Fix Backcountry ATV Breakdowns

An ATV breakdown is a big problem. ATV's and UTV's are the workhorses of outdoorsmen. They provide transportation through the roughest terrain and go where most cars and trucks don't belong. Maintaining them is vital to years of reliability and proper work regimens. Take care of the tool that takes care of you.

ATV's and UTV's are amazing workhorses delivering practical and, often, indispensable assistance transporting and hauling cargo — until they stop rolling.

Making minor fixes or trailering your rig to the shop for larger repairs is easy when you're maintaining a food plot on the back forty, but ATV breakdowns when you're miles from the trailhead are a much bigger challenge.

The easiest way to avoid mechanical problems in the backcountry, of course, is to not have them in the first place. This is why following a regular maintenance schedule for your ATV or UTV by changing the oil regularly, keeping your rig well lubricated and taking your rig in for the larger check-ups recommended in your owner's manual is so critical. But even the best-maintained rigs run into problems and Murphy's Law almost guarantees you'll have to face them miles from camp or the trailhead. This is when you need to get creative.

Here are some interesting real-life ATV breakdowns that some hearty Alaskans "MacGyvered" their way out of and what you should carry on your ATV or UTV to be ready for emergency repairs.

Moose Mayhem

My most recent fix-it adventure unfolded as a recruit on a moose hunt off Alaska's famous Denali Highway. You see, when it comes to moose hunting, it's all about the help. It takes some serious resources to quarter, bag, and haul a 1200-pound animal to the pickup.

A chain saw is used to clear a path through a willow thicket for the disabled Polaris. ATV breakdowns don't always happen on a clean path.

With a handsome bull on the ground and several ATV's shared between four men, an older 6-wheel Polaris was chosen to make the trek across the marsh to assist in the extraction. Since we had used jet boats to access the hunting area, there were some serious ATV logistics; we needed to transport the ATV by boat to the downed moose.

Within the hour, Alan Echols, proprietor of Maclaren River Lodge, had his Polaris 6-wheeler at the scene ready to drag 300-pound quarters through the marsh.

As we started to pull the first moose section out, the transmission popped out of gear. Alan calmly stopped, growled, lit a cigar and said, "We'll just manually shift this puppy back into gear and take it slow."

Minutes after removing some plastic shrouding, a screwdriver was used to pop the shifter and reengaged the rear drive. After successfully rolling 70 yards, and with firm soil was underfoot, we heard the horrible sound of the chain ratcheting.


Following a quick inspection, a stripped rear sprocket and chain lay helpless on the tundra. Biting down harder on his cigar, Alan proclaimed, "Hey, we still have the front drive!"

With front wheels still turning and the moose quarter left behind, our mile pull through the willow slash took an hour as four men pushed from behind. Two hours later, the Polaris returned home on the boat with Alan.

A Phantom jet boat is used to ferry a Yamaha Grizzly 700 in to pick up moose quarters on the Maclaren River in the Alaskan interior. This jet boat was perfect for transporting the broken-down ATV, allowing for easy pick-up and transfer.

It was replaced with an agile Yamaha Grizzly 700 that remained unstuck as we dragged the moose to the riverbank one section at a time.

Getting Speared

Wes Hudson is another Alaskan who spends as much time as he can in the wilderness. As a father of five, and owner of eight ATV's, he is knowledgeable about getting his family and machines home.

While on a summer ride in the Alaska Range, Hudson was crawling out of a willow thicket when his temperature warning light illuminated. An instantaneous engine shut down and inspection revealed that a willow stick had speared its way through the grill.

Although it took some wiggling and a sharp pull to remove the stick, it left a small round hole in the leaking radiator that needed to be fixed.

Realizing the hole was fairly manageable, Hudson was reluctant to shove a whittled stick back into the void because he didn't want do any more damage to the radiator.

"I really thought there had to be a way to get the machine home without a new part," said Hudson.

After staring at the radiator and drinking a bottle of water, he thought a sharp sheet metal screw might do the trick.

After combing the Arctic Cat, Hudson found an extraneous screw on the exhaust. He removed it, screwed it right into the radiator, added some bottled water to the cooling system, and he was back home in no time.

Once he had the unit in the garage, he backed out the screw, drained the coolant, reset the same screw with dab of JB-Weld, and the machine was good to go.

"I never did a thing to it, and sold the machine a few years later. To my best guess, the screw is still there," said Hudson.

First Ride

Doug Moore and his son Justin decided to celebrate their new ATV purchase with a trip up one of the many Denali Highway trails. While descending a mountain, the senior Moore heard a bang as the rear wheels locked up and tossed him unceremoniously over the handlebars.

Shaking off the roll on the rocks, they were looking at the back of the machine when Justin said, "Dad! Look at the hole in the rim!" A hole about the size of the boy's first finger was in the brand new aluminum tire rim right next to the bead.

Within minutes, the two had the tire off. The bolts had sheared off the disc brake caliper and sent one of the threaded heads through the rim. The Moore crew shrugged their shoulders, cracked open the tool bag, zip-tied the caliper out of the way, put it back together and headed to the truck.

Doug remarked, "Although duct tape would have worked, we had to secure the caliper out of the way. We avoided damaging another part, ripping the brake line, and losing fluid while descending the steep mountain."

What To Carry

These men agreed there's almost always a solution to get your rig out of the bush. Although their fixes and tool kits varied, all of them agree to pack the following:

While Echols likes his bailing wire, Hudson believes a pair of needle nose Vise Grips is an absolute. Moore says a box ratchet set and a knuckle socket extension can save the day. While favorite tools may vary, everyone should carry the essentials in cause of a ATV breakdown.

Think Creatively

There are many valuable resources Mother Nature has provided for us to fix things without paying for them. Before you panic over your ATV breakdown, look around, assess what is around you and what is provided from the land. Using bits and pieces of whatever you can find to plug that tire up or fix that hole until you can get help may be your only option. Have a back-up escape plan, just in case.

Many machines have returned home because someone had the idea of duct taping a limb to a broken tie-rod or filling a torn tire with spruce limbs. Assessing the situation and applying deductive reasoning will deliver the MacGyver edge.

So remember, use your melon, assemble a basic travel tool bag and leave it strapped to the machine until you sell it. Although not a solution for overriding a poor driving decision, less-than-ideal maintenance practices, or just plain bad luck, it will save your bacon and get your machine back to the trailer.

Have a MacGyver story of your own? Share it with us by replying in the comments section below.

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