Several years ago, during a late-fall outing at a ranch in a rugged area of southwestern Utah, one of my hunting companions harvested a big buck at the bottom of a rocky, steep canyon. He fired up his brand new four-wheel-drive ATV and carefully worked his way down to where the buck lay.
He secured his trophy on the back rack, donned his helmet and started the long, steep ride back out. With 600ccs under his thumb, and low-range gearing that would climb a telephone pole, moving out wasn’t a problem. He started out slow at first, but picked up the pace as he became comfortable with the power.
In one particularly steep section, a small, grassy stair-step between boulders required a little more throttle to get the front tires over the hump. The next instant all he saw was sky as his 600-pound ATV headed vertical one moment, then flipped sideways the next. When the dust cleared, my buddy was lying on the ground nursing a sprained wrist with his pride dented like his helmet, which had taken a good whack on a rock. The quad tumbled a half-dozen yards before coming to rest against some boulders and brush.
By the time I arrived on the scene, he’d taken stock of the situation and just needed my help getting his ATV righted and the buck reloaded—this time tied on the front rack. We made it out of the canyon without further incident.
As hunters, we use our ATVs in many ways, including hauling game and gear. When the racks—or bed in the case of the popular side-by-sides—are loaded down, balance becomes a critical safety factor. Too much weight in the front or the rear can cause steering problems, especially in steep up- or downhill riding situations. Too much weight on either side can throw the machine off-balance going through corners or traversing sidehills.
As my hunting partner found out the hard way, the key is to load your ATV or side-by-side in a way that best suits the most difficult riding conditions you’ll face on the way to your destination. If the ride is all uphill, put the heaviest cargo on the front rack; if the ride is downhill, place most of the weight on the rear rack. In some instances you might have to move your game from front to rear, or vise versa, as the terrain dictates.
Maintaining proper weight and balance begins with loading. Just as our pickups and SUVs have maximum load ratings, so do the ATVs and side-by-sides we ride and drive. It’s common for the front racks of many of the larger ATVs to have a maximum load capacity of 100 pounds while the rear rack can tote 200 pounds. (Note: The maximum capacity is indicated on a tag on the rack and in the owner’s manual.)
Those ratings are not necessarily determined by the hardware’s limit. Instead, they usually reflect the maximum weight the engineers believe the machine can handle over the front or rear suspension and still retain good rider control. Exceed the maximum recommended load capacity and you compromise the suspension’s ability to work properly, which then affects steering, braking, balance and other handling issues.
So if you harvest a 400-pound black bear, it’d be a lot safer to load it into the bed of a side-by-side than it would be to try and haul it out on the back rack of an ATV. Likewise, it’s smart to load a 200-pound buck on the rear rack instead of the front of your ATV for the ride back across the fields.
Better yet, field dress and quarter your kill, then distribute the weight to the front and the rear for better balance. This is especially good when the ride is long and the terrain varied.
By the way, if you have a roof rack on your side-by-side or electric hunting cart, be especially careful to limit the weight placed up top. Light, bulky items such as bags of decoys, clothing and sleeping bags are fine, but avoid any items that are heavy, which makes the machine top-heavy.
Riding Steep Terrain
Maintaining proper weight and balance is critical when riding or driving off-road. If this is your first rodeo with an ATV, you’ll quickly learn that weight positioning is everything. For example, in steep terrain ride with your body weight (and the heavier parts of game or gear you’re hauling) positioned toward the front of the ATV going uphill—and toward the rear of the machine going downhill. The steeper the incline, the more your body and cargo weight needs to be transferred toward the uphill side.
The best way to transfer body weight going uphill is to stand with your knees and elbows slightly bent so you’re leaning over the handlebars while both feet are firmly planted on the footrests. Going down a steep incline is less intuitive and requires the arms and legs be straightened out enough to get your butt over the rear of the seat.
Throttle control is also critical. Maintain a steady throttle going uphill—especially over rocks and ledges. It’s a balancing act, and the smoother you are on the throttle the better. Heading downhill requires the same smoothness, using braking and a low-gear compression to maximize both traction and control. The key on downhill sections is to go s-l-o-w and keep your body weight leaning to the rear. Should the front tires begin sliding, release a little brake to allow them to roll so steering control is regained.
Another area of riding where weight and balance come into play is braking. This isn’t much of a concern on the flats, but get into steeper terrain and keeping good control of your ATV or side-by-side is a lot more important. The most effective method for downhill braking (or improving traction while climbing) is to utilize all four wheels by slipping your ride into 4WD mode.
Another key safety issue related to weight and balance is allowing the front and rear wheels to roll instead of slide. Sliding wheels provide zero steering control, so wherever momentum and gravity are sending your quad, that’s where you’ll end up unless you get the front wheels to roll again. As one of my snow/ice driving instructors once said, “You have a choice: slide or steer. The tires can’t do both at the same time.”
The same principle of weight transfer and braking/throttle control applies to sidehill terrain. Go slow and shift your body weight to the uphill side of the ATV. Some situations might even require you to stand on the uphill footrests so all of your weight is on that side of the ATV.
In situations where traction is minimal, you might need to apply more throttle while turning the wheels slightly uphill to keep your ATV going in the direction you want.
Keeping your body on the uphill side of the machine also provides you a way of fast escape should things get out of your control. Of course the prudent ATV rider/hunter would scout out the easiest/ safest ride route prior to making the attempt in the first place. If that means going around a particularly bad section and losing a little time in the process, so be it.
Steering control is another delicate issue when additional weight is placed on an ATV or side-by-side. Added weight can make steering inputs react faster or slower than you’re used to when riding your machine empty. In general, four-wheel-drive ATVs respond best to low-speed steering maneuvers when more of the rider’s weight is shifted toward the front tire that’s on the inside of the turn.
Side-by-sides have their own unique weight and balance issues when it comes to carrying loads. The first, and most important, is your body positioning doesn’t make nearly the difference as it does on an ATV. While one of today’s bigger ATVs weighs around 600 pounds, a side-by-side might top 1,200 pounds. They have seats and not a saddle, too, so shifting your weight is basically a moot point.
The multi-passenger UTVs also sit much higher than an ATV, so they’re more prone to tipping than sliding in corners, and when it comes to sidehill situations, the side-by-sides have a higher center of gravity, which means they’re more tipsy than a quad. In side-by-sides, the best way to ride over steep terrain is to minimize sidehill driving.
When it comes to loading, keep the center-of-gravity issue in mind. Place the heaviest items in the bottom of the bed with lighter objects on top. The heavier and higher the load, the slower the speed you need to drive. Use the tie-downs, too; the last thing you want is for the cargo in the bed of a side-by-side or utility vehicle to shift while in the middle of a turn or trying to negotiate steep or off-camber terrain.
A good practice, whether riding an ATV or driving a side-by-side, is to set the adjustable shocks accordingly. As the load increases, increase the stiffness of the coil-over springs on the shocks. This helps maintain stability and compensates for the load.
Tire pressures are also a critical aspect of how your ATV or side-by-side handles loads. Read the owner’s manual carefully when it comes to tire inflation—a couple pounds of air pressure in small ATV tires makes a big difference in the way your machine rides and handles.
ATVs and side-by-sides are wonderful tools for the hunter. They provide an unparalleled mode of transportation and enjoyment. But like any tool, they need to be used with common sense and some caution.