Beginner mistakes on ATVs are common and can leave you in a world of hurt. But thankfully, most of these mistakes are easy to avoid.
The most common beginner ATV mistakes are riding without a helmet, riding too fast, underestimating stopping distances, skipping routine maintenance, and riding on the street without tags, registration, or a proper license.
In this article, we'll cover five of the most common mistakes beginners make on ATVs and simple ways to avoid them. Additionally, we'll give you five tips from experienced riders that will help you have a better (and safer) time riding local trails.
We sourced statistics in this article from the National Library of Medicine, and we spoke from our own extensive experience riding ATVs and other off-road vehicles.
Why Do New ATV Riders Make Mistakes?
ATV riders make mistakes for lots of reasons. Sometimes, sudden acceleration overwhelms the rider and they can’t respond fast enough to let go of the throttle. Other times, nobody bothers teaching new riders basic ATV safety.
But most often, new riders simply lack the experience to avoid common errors. Here are five frequent mistakes made by new ATV riders, and how to stop them before they happen to you.
1. Riding Without a Helmet
One of the biggest and most dangerous mistakes a beginner can make is forgetting their helmet. According to the National Library of Medicine, ATV riders who ride without a helmet are significantly more likely to sustain a serious injury on the trail.
Riding is inherently risky—we all know that. But riding without a helmet is unnecessarily risky, and it could lead to disaster. An accident with a helmet may be completely minor, whereas a rider without a helmet would be seriously hurt by the same accident.
Another similar mistake made by beginners is choosing the wrong kind of helmet. It may look cool to wear an old surplus war helmet or convenient to wear a bicycle helmet—but these don't provide adequate protection.
Helmets should be rated for ATVs or motorcycles (ATV/MC) and fit snugly and securely on your head. Additionally, a helmet with a face shield is recommended to keep bugs and rocks out of your eyes. By wearing a helmet, you greatly reduce the odds of serious injury in a crash.
How To Avoid
Avoiding unnecessary head injuries is the easiest thing to do. Simply go online or to a store and purchase a helmet rated for ATVs and motorcycles. They can be a bit pricy, but the expense is well worth it.
It's best to shop for a helmet in person at a motorcycle or ATV dealership. This is because you'll need to make sure it fits, and a professional can help you choose the best helmet for your activities and fit.
2. Riding Too Fast
Riding an ATV fast is fun, and there are plenty of opportunities to throttle down on the road or on the trail. However, it's essential to correctly judge your speed and determine how fast it's safe to go. This takes time to learn, so it's best to ride cautiously until you get a feel for how your ATV handles bumps and curves.
Beginners are notorious for speed-related accidents. We've all seen videos online of riders flipping the four-wheeler, rolling it around a corner, or getting unanticipated air over a big bump. All of this can be avoided if you simply take it easy until you learn the ins and outs of your ATV.
How to Avoid
Avoiding speed-related accidents is also pretty easy to do. Start off easy on the throttle, and move it slowly forward if you've never ridden before. ATV throttles can be touchy, and more powerful ATVs can do a wheelie or flip over if you accelerate too hard.
Hold a steady speed and ride around the trail. This will help you learn the feel of the terrain and how your ATV reacts when you hit a bump or unexpected turn. As you get more experienced, you can increase your speed as you see fit.
3. Underestimating Stopping Distances
This beginner mistake is closely related to speed, but it's common enough to mention all on its own. Many beginners misjudge the distance their ATV needs to stop, especially on dirt trails. Most ATVs don't have anti-lock brakes (and don't need them), but they can't stop on a dime despite their small size.
Misjudging stopping or slowing distances can cause you to roll around a sudden turn or to lose traction and start sliding. An ATV becomes particularly dangerous when it begins to slide, as you'll lose your ability to steer and control where it goes. Also, this can be particularly hazardous on the road in traffic, as you could cause an accident or slide off the road.
How to Avoid
Stopping distances are notoriously hard to judge, as they differ on all road types. You'll be able to stop a lot faster in loose sand than on loose gravel, and a wet road may completely change your stopping distance from one stretch to another.
To avoid these accidents, reduce your speed gradually when possible. This will prevent the wheels from locking up and keep you in control of the vehicle. Also, avoid going fast on unpredictable roads, as you may encounter a sudden obstacle that you hadn't planned on.
If you see an obstacle, slow down immediately—even if you think you have enough distance to stop. At the very least, stop accelerating in case you run into terrain you haven't planned on.
4. Skipping Maintenance
On a more technical note, it's essential to remember that ATV ownership isn't all about riding. Like any complex machine, ATVs need to be cared for periodically if you expect them to work. Many beginners skip out on maintenance, either because they don't know how or they don't think it's necessary.
Every rusty and decrepit ATV you see in a storage lot or a field was once expensive and brand new. Now it's trashed, and it probably didn't get that way from responsible ownership. Chances are it worked fine—but the owner rode it into the ground without proper maintenance.
Lack of maintenance is also responsible for many ATV accidents. Most incidents where the brakes fail or the throttle gets stuck are a direct result of improper storage or lack of basic mechanical upkeep. Fixing an ATV once it's broken is a lot harder than periodically caring for it while it works.
How to Avoid
You'll need some mechanical know-how if you want to own and ride an ATV. Luckily, most of this information isn't hard to come by. Read your owner's manual and purchase a basic set of tools to work on your ATV. After all, the manual tells you exactly what you need to do to keep your ATV working.
Change the oil regularly, and perform a basic safety check before riding. Check the brakes, throttle, and see how the engine runs before riding. If your ATV is a two-stroke model, make sure you mix the gas with oil in the proper ratios—and never put two-stroke gas in a four-stroke ATV.
When something breaks, or when the throttle feels sticky, diagnose and fix the problem before riding any further. If you're not confident in your abilities, take it to a trusted friend with mechanical experience or an ATV shop for repairs. Prevention is the best policy—and regular maintenance is key.
5. Riding on the Street (Without Proper Paperwork)
When you first purchase an ATV, you'll instinctually want to take it around the block a few times—or maybe ride down to McDonald's with your buddies. In some cases, that's perfectly legal—but it's usually not without the right paperwork. In most states, you'll need to get a license or complete a safety course before riding on the street or public trails, and your ATV will need to be street legal.
Off-road vehicles are subject to fewer requirements than on-road vehicles. Simple things like turn signals and a headlight are not always required off-road, but they're always mandatory on the street. You can make almost any ATV street legal, but you'll need to get the proper lights and register it with the state. They'll issue a license plate (similar to a motorcycle plate), and you'll be able to operate it on the road without fines or losing your ATV to an impound lot.
How to Avoid
As we explained above, the first step is to make sure you're allowed to operate your ATV on public roads and trails. Requirements differ between states, but there's usually a course or license requirement.
In Texas, for example, riders must complete a state-approved course and obtain a safety certificate before operating an ATV on public property. Public property includes roads, public off-road trails, and public land. Other states, like Wyoming, require you to register your ATV and obtain an MPV or ORV permit.
Beginner Tips for Riding Safely
Now that we've covered the most common mistakes beginners make, let's go over a few tips that many riders wished they knew starting out.
1. Bring a Dipstick
Most ATVs don't have a fuel gauge. That means you'll have to find another way to check your fuel level, or you risk running out of gas on the trail. A simple paint stir stick from a hardware store will work great—and you can use a Sharpie to mark the different fuel levels on it.
Fill your tank up completely, and mark the level. Then mark the half and quarter points on the dipstick. Mark down your mileage, then go out and ride for a few hours. Check the fuel again. This will help you determine how far you can go on a tank and when you need to pack extra fuel for a trip.
2. Bring a Backpack
Every experienced ATV rider has a pack with a few essentials in it. At a minimum, it's smart to bring a first aid kit whenever you go for a ride. Many riders also include a few wrenches, a socket set, and some other basic supplies. These items don't weigh a lot, and you can store some of them under your seat or strapped to the back of your ATV.
3. Ride With Friends
There are plenty of reasons to ride in a group. For one, it's a lot more fun to ride with friends—especially if your experience level is about the same. Additionally, riding with trusted friends makes it a lot safer, as there's always someone around if your ATV breaks down if someone has an accident.
4. Research Before You Buy
Do your research before purchasing a new or used ATV, and don't let price be the only factor. Quality varies widely between makes and models, and buying a used ATV in better condition can save you thousands down the road. Make sure the title is clean and in hand, and never buy an ATV without getting a copy of the bill of sale.
5. Don't Try to Impress Anyone
Many beginners think they need to ride like a stunt rider to earn the respect of their friends and other riders. And sure, some people will like it if you go too fast or hit a jump when you're first starting out. But it's not worth getting hurt, breaking your ATV, or ruining the experience for other people's admiration.
Don't let other riders pressure you into doing dumb stuff on your ATV. If you want to learn jumps and race, that's fine and completely possible—but it takes time to master, and you'll need lots of practice before you can do it safely. Just have a good time and try to avoid people who encourage you to ride beyond your comfort level.
About THE AUTHOR
23 years old. I work at a motocross store where we specialize in gear, parts, and apparel for ATV and UTV riders.Read More About Kellie