ATVs For Deer Hunters
December 14, 2010
ATVs are great tools for many deer hunters. But one size doesn't fit all needs. Our expert provides some tips for choosing the best ATV for your needs.
What do ATVs have to do with deer hunting? In a direct sense, nothing. These machines can't replace your knowledge of game, geography and woodsmanship. But, what they can do is make the grunt work associated with hunting a lot easier. ATVs have revolutionized accessibility to remote places and made the job of hauling gear in and game out easy. And for this reason alone they are a must-have.
ATVs come in many sizes and configurations, so the trick is to pick one that suits your needs. Some elements are a good idea for almost everyone, however: the high sides and storage unit on this Honda Big Red 420 are very handy in keeping mud off you and your gear. Photo by Howard J. Elmer.
Before rushing out and picking up the shiniest machine in the showroom, however, you should consider a few factors.
A long hard ride through remote forest trails can take a toll on your body, which is why comfort is really important when making your purchase. So let me state right up front, all machines are different -- despite what your buddy says. That's because depending on your body size, the suspension and handling will always be just a little different on every machine you ride. You're looking for a machine that feels comfortable to you.
What else? Pay attention to the handle bar height and position of the gear shift lever -- these will sometimes feel awkward depending on the person. Make sure that there is enough clearance between your knee and the gear shift; knocking your machine into neutral after hitting some bumps is not fun. The foot brake may be placed in a weird position that you don't like.
These little ergonomic inconveniences that you may not notice in the showroom will be amplified a hundred times when you are out in the field. The good news is every machine is built just a little differently, so there will be one out there that you will feel completely comfortable with.
I suggest that you never buy anything without riding it for at least an hour on some serious trails. This should tell you all you need to know about how you comfortable you are with any particular set up. However, many dealers are not set up for test rides, and the best you can get is usually a 35-second boot around the parking lot; not near enough seat time to make an informed decision.
If getting some riding time in is not a choice, the next best thing is to use the great wealth of knowledge accrued by hundreds of other hunters; the easiest way to do this? The internet. Read everything you can about your prospective purchase, post in forums, and educate yourself to the best of your ability. The info that you would get from that test ride is available, you just need to start looking.
Over preparing for an excursion like a hunting trip is always a good thing. Err on the side of caution and beware of Murphy's Law. Makes sense right? Of course it does, but it requires quite a load of gear. Your back will be thanking you for making sure that your ATV has plenty of storage space to get you and your accessories safely and securely to your destination.
The first choice that needs to be made is whether or not you will need a trailer. All ATVs have some semblance of storage, but generally it is whatever you can strap onto the racks. But this rudimentary way of carrying cargo has also changed in recent years.
Arctic Cat (as just one example) offers one of the best options for carrying cargo, a system which they call the speed rack system. The front and rear racks on ATVs outfitted with speed rack have a dozen or so ports which can accept all types of Arctic Cat aftermarket gear, including a gun rack, chainsaw mount, all-purpose metal baskets and large sealable plastic containers.
This is in my opinion one of the best and easy to use systems on the market right now because of the vast amount of add-ons you can buy and because of its simple design. It also saves you from having any loose equipment; and there is nothing worse than arriving at your campsite to find out your tent bounced off the back of your machine 20 miles back.
Polaris also offers many hunting gear add-ons to their machines, which will help when you are packing up your ATV. Such things as rack mounting gun scabbards, rack extensions, and sealable cargo boxes will help you keep your possessions safe and secure and ensure that you still have all the gear you left with.
Another storage aspect to consider is the weight rating on the racks. Every machine has a different weight rating depending on the size and capability of the ATV and this needs to be accounted for depending on how much gear you are bringing and what type of game it is that you are hunting. If you overload a rack it can take away from the handling and overall performance of the machine. That can range from poor steering to all the way to completely flipping the machine -- and you don't want to do that.
If you decide that the ATV alone does not offer enough cargo space to suit your needs, bringing a trailer along is the next viable option. Choosing the right trailer for you is another decision not to rush, as the number of options is practically endless. For backwoods and off-trail situations, a trailer with large off-road flotation tires and a small width is the best because of its maneuverability.
You never want a trailer that is wider that the ATV itself as it may limit where you can go. You also should look at the tongue length to make sure the trailer is not too long, because the longer it is, the less maneuverable it will be.
Ground clearance is also key, as you don't want to be dragging it across rocks rather than riding over them. Look for a trailer with high side walls as they keep gear secure and dry while riding over bumps, mud and other obstacles.
Other features to watch for on a trailer are a tailgate, which comes in handy when trying to reach things in a deep trailer, water drainage holes in the bottom to make sure your trailer isn't collecting rain, and places to easily hook straps into when you want to secure something.
Getting lost in the forest is a hunter's worst nightmare; partly because it can be dangerous, and perhaps worse -- embarrassing for the self-proclaimed outdoors expert. A GPS unit can make sure that this never happens. Perhaps you already have a handheld but now this technology is also available with an ATV.
Honda, to take one prime example, offers a built in GPS system right in the central console of almost all of their machines. This system, called GPScape, will
tell you your exact latitude and longitude along with your altitude and current direction of travel. It leaves a 'breadcrumb' trail, which will help you find your way out of the bush. It also stores your favourite spots so locating them next year will be as easy as a few pushes of a button. This is a practical and useful feature as it saves you having to invest an extra amount of money on a separate GPS unit.
If however you would like a separate GPS unit, there are plenty of aftermarket options for you to choose from to help you combine this technology with your ATV. Handlebar mounts and rack attached mounts are available for almost all types of GPS units so you can be watching your progress as you ride through the bush. These mounts also prevent your unit from falling out of your pocket when riding over rough terrain -- a possibility most people do not consider ahead of time, often to their regret: I have had this happen and was not a happy camper when I went back the next day to find my GPS had been run over by a fellow ATV enthusiast.
Engine size is a something to take into consideration; everyone has their own preferences when it comes to power. Like everything else, the size of engine in your ATV depends on where you intend on going and how rough the terrain is going to be. The newest craze in the ATV world from manufacturers seems to be putting in larger and more heavily powered engines than ever before.
Although the extra power is nice in some situations, it also has many downsides. Personally, I always choose a 500cc engine. In my mind the 500cc always has enough power to get anywhere and still is a small enough motor to have decent gas mileage and be affordable when it comes to insurance. Anything smaller than 500cc and you may begin to run in to trouble when it comes to being able to get that heavy load up and down steep inclines, getting through deep mud and other situations that you will definitely want to avoid.
I recently had a chance to ride a new 800cc machine, which I felt was very overpowered for anything other than heavy towing or extreme work situations. When picking through rocks, or when climbing steep hills high powered machines can be especially dangerous as they have a tendency to pop unexpected wheelies which can scare the living daylights out of you. It truly can get you hurt or into some bad situations.
But again engine-size is a preference, so go out and try some different machines with different engines, pay special attention to how twitchy the throttle is, because off-road this can equal a very lurching ride as rough terrain can cause you accelerate accidentally.
No one can deny that part of the fun of the hunt is spending time with good friends. This is a much more easily accomplished task since the advent of the side-by-side ATV. Now with only one machine you can get a group of guys and not have to worry about individual transportation.
The key difference with these machines is size. Side by sides tend to have a larger wheel base, a tall roll cage and in some cases low ground clearance; the result being a machine which can't get you in to some of the tight spots that a standard single rider ATV can. But a standard ATV could never haul you and five of your friends out to the hunt camp for a weekend.
For just this situation Polaris offers the ranger 800 crew, which has seating for six. This is the extreme other end of the ATV spectrum. Polaris also offers a wide range of add-ons for this side-by-side, such as a rear cargo box that fits in the bed, gun scabbards which can be mounted on the roll cage and even a bow case capable of carrying two bows.
With their car-like design, side-by-sides also offer the capability of having a full roof and doors. There are tons of different options when choosing a cab for your side-by-side, from heavy material walls to solid steel. Someone hunting in a southern climate may want to utilize this feature to keep out of the sun, while most northern hunters simply want to stay out of the cold.
Even modern comforts like stereos are now offered to keep you entertained while on the trail; just don't let the tunes scare away the deer.
For the serious hunter, farming food plots in many places has become an area of interest to aid in the hunt. Why? Because bringing the deer to you seems a lot easier than the traditional go out and hope for the best. Food plots are a popular way to keep a healthy herd of deer wherever you want them. ATV manufacturers have also kept up with times offering many specific tools and implements to help with the planting and clearing process.
Arctic Cat offers its speed point system, which allows you to hook and unhook new implements simply and effectively. It is a 3-point hitch like that of a farm tractor, only shrunk down in size to fit an ATV. They offer lawn mowers to cut the grass or brush, tandem discs, landscape rakes, and box scrapers for turning up new soil and a seeder/planter to plant whatever ever type of seeds you choose. There is also a sprayer attachment for fertilizer or pesticides. Polaris also offers pull behinds but only in the form of lawn mowers.
Hunting and ATVs are an obvious match, especially in the eyes of anyone who has lugged around all of their gear all day through the bush only to come home empty handed. The manufacturers recognize this and have been coming up with some very innovative ideas that keep advancing the sport. When looking for an ATV, watch for manufacturer assembled hunting options.
The major ATV companies have put together hunting-ready machines for your convenience. Usually outfitted with gun scabbards, storage bins, camouflage paint packages, winches, and other accessories that make any machine better for the hunting enthusiast. These packages are well put together and make it easy to pick up a hunt ready machine right from the showroom.
ATVs won't tell you where the deer are, bring them any closer or field dress your game. They do not have the capability to re-load your shotgun, set up a tree stand or a blind. This is all true. What you need to consider is ATVs make all of these things possible for you with about 50 percent less grunt work. The machine does not have the knowledge, but it has the power to let your knowledge thrive.