How To Check And Maintain ATV Brakes | Hunt or Shred

Keeping your ATV's brakes well-maintained is vital for your safety. Here's how to check and maintain ATV brakes.

From worn-out brake pads to faulty brake components like the master cylinder or the brake calipers, dozens of things can cause your brakes to underperform. Regularly checking your brakes and their components is important and can save you from bigger problems if faults are caught early on.

Changing your brake pads or shoes is not the simple solution to all your brake-related problems. Unless your ATV's parts have gone past their life expectancy, it might only be the brake fluid that needs to be changed. Brake fluid is a light-colored and clean fluid. It should be changed if it's not clean or has shifted to a dark, muddy color. Most manufacturers recommend changing the ATV's brake fluid every 25,000 miles.

I've been riding ATVs for as long as I can remember. Therefore, in this article, I will go over some common problems in an ATV's brake system and how to identify and fix them. I have also shared some tips that I find very useful and efficient to troubleshoot some ATV brake problems.

Table of contents


ATV Disk Brakes vs. ATV Drum Brakes

Before moving onto the problem-solving part, you need to identify whether your ATV has a disk brake system or drum brakes.

Disk brakes are a newer technology and can be found mostly in the later model ATVs. However, drum brakes are still used and are not obsolete yet, as they can be found in the older ATVs people still own. Disk brakes have a hydraulic brake system that leads to much more efficient braking for all vehicles, decreasing the number of accidents in this regard.

Disk Brakes

You can easily tell if your ATV has a disk brake system by looking behind the tire or at the wheel's axle. As the name implies, disk brakes work when the brake pads on both sides of the "disk" press the disk to slow down the ATV's speed. Disk brakes are mounted behind the front wheels as all the newer model ATVs are front-wheel drives, and it helps in effective braking and fuel efficiency.

Drum Brakes

Drum brakes are also found in modern ATV models but only at the rear wheels, as most of the work is done by the front wheels with the disk brakes. They look like a half drum on both sides of the wheel. Instead of brake pads, they have brake shoes that press inside and against the drum walls to slow down the vehicle.

If you have an older ATV, you most likely have the drum brakes system that can be seen on both the front and rear ends of your ATV.

Depending on the brake system your quad has, you can get the brake pads or brake shoes accordingly to repair your affected brakes if that is the problem. You can also upgrade from a drum brake to a disk brake with a disk brake conversion kit for efficient and long-lasting brakes.

However, it is essential to figure out why your brakes are not performing well before changing your brake pads or shoes, which might not even be the cause.

Common Causes of Faulty Brakes

ATV rides can be exciting if you are into sports and track riding. It's an empowering feeling when leaving all the dirt in the air behind you until you figure out your brakes aren't working correctly. If realized on time, you can save yourself from severe damage. In any case, you'll end up going home with a ruined riding experience.

These experiences are not something I look forward to as an ATV enthusiast. Therefore, it's better to identify these common causes of faulty brakes beforehand:

  • Brakes require adjustment
  • There is air in the brake valves
  • Brake pads are worn out
  • Brake controls are damaged
  • Master cylinder is not working properly
  • Brake calipers are not working properly

Common Brake Problem Signs

You can determine the nature of your brakes’ problem by figuring out the symptoms you are experiencing. This is often judged by the “feel” factor.

  • If you feel that pressing your brake lever or pedal requires more effort than usual, it is probably related to the brake pads or calipers.
  • In comparison, if you feel your brake lever or pedal is pressing relatively easily, the problem generally persists with the hydraulic system leak.

ATV Brake System

To diagnose the problems and repair and maintain your ATV’s brake system, it is essential to understand how the brake system works and the components it consists of.

The ATV brake system usually depends on the engine capacity and the make year of the ATV. While the systems can vary, they are usually broken down into two braking circuits.

Braking Circuit

A braking circuit refers to an individual braking system that does not have other braking components. A hand lever and pedal-operated brake circuit are the two independent circuits found in a typical ATV.

Generally, riders do not apply their brakes using both options simultaneously. However, the two systems are in place as a backup to each other. If one brake system fails, you can use the other to stop the bike.

The hand lever-controlled brake circuit is usually linked to the front wheel brakes, which is commonly based on hydraulic systems. On the other hand, rear-wheel brakes, which usually consist of drum brakes, are operated through the pedal brake circuits, commonly with a mechanical operating system. Some rare pedal-operated brake circuits come in hydraulic versions, usually set up with conversion kits.

ATV Brake Setup

The ATV brake system is typically set up with a hand lever operated hydraulic brake system linked with the front two calipers and one wheel caliper at the rear. Additionally, the pedal-operated mechanical or hydraulic brake system is linked to the remaining caliper at the rear end.

However, some other ATV braking systems are less common for most ATVs. This includes the earlier version system, which consists of a hand-operated mechanical brake cable linked to both front and rear drum brakes.

Components of a Hydraulic Brake System

The hand lever-operated hydraulic braking system is collectively made from these components.

Brake Lever

The brake lever is mounted with the ATV handle and incorporates the cables, master cylinder, and brake fluid to apply the brakes. These are made from lightweight collision-resistant alloy.

Master Cylinder

There is always a middle-man who undertakes the major burden. The master cylinder is the main bridge between the brake fluid and the brake housing behind the wheel. It works by creating and maintaining fluid flow and pressure, which is essential for the brakes to work. If the brake fluid is low or has leaked out, the master cylinder will not work correctly.

Brake Fluid

The brake fluid fuels the functioning of the system. As you press the hand-lever, the brake fluid is pressurized, and it decompresses by releasing the same amount of pressure evenly to all the brake calipers.

Brake Pads

The brake pads are the end of the line components that are pressurized into pressing against the disk to slow down the machine. These are commonly made from artificial leather, which can resist high friction and heat.

Brake Caliper

The calipers are fixed on the wheel knuckle; they receive the brake lines’ pressure that forces the brake pads to press up against the rotor.

Brake Lines

Brake lines are rubber pipes looped over in steel wires that carry the brake fluid from the fluid reservoir to the calipers, enabling them to pressurize.

Brake Rotors

Also known as brake disks, they are round(disk) shaped metals attached to each wheel hub.

The hydraulic single rear wheel braking system consists of:

  • Brake Pedals
  • Rare Brake Master Cylinder
  • Brake Line

The older quad-bikes that use the mechanical braking system consist of similar components. However, two main components that differ from those of the hydraulic ones are:

Brake Drums and Brake Shoes — the metal drums are fixed with the wheels and contain the brake assembly on the inner side. When you apply the brakes, the brake shoes press against the drums to slow down the wheel. Due to their mechanism, they produce much more heat and are less durable and reliable.

How to Fix Common Brake Issues

After discussing the common causes of faulty brakes, let's talk about the solutions to fix those issues.

Brake Adjustment

Brake adjustment refers to adjusting the tightness of the brakes in the drum system. It can seem like a pretty straightforward solution and unsatisfactory by the simple procedure. However, it is better to assess the more straightforward, on-the-front possibilities before exploring complexities unnecessarily.

You can try some adjustments from the hand lever or the pedal, but it’s better to start with the adjusters at the drums. If your brake system is mechanical, it must have a cable stemming from the lever/pedal to the brake shoes. These cables can become rusty and lose their efficiency. The good thing is that they are serviceable, and you can clean them with a degreaser like WD-40 and sandpaper.

Air in Brake System

Air can enter or develop in the brake lines if there has been a leak or the master cylinder is not working properly. You will experience a harder pedal or lever if air has entered your brake system. To extract the air from your brake lines, you need to.

  • Drain the lines completely
  • Fill the brake fluid reservoir
  • Pump the brakes thrice, so the brake lines are pressurized with the fluid
  • After you feel your brake lever/pedals have hardened, Open the bleed screws so the pressurized fluid flows throughout the brake system

Leaking Brake System

Check for a leak anywhere in the brake system to identify whether the air entered due to a leak or the pads have worn out. Check for damp areas along the brake lines and seals if the pads are fine. The brake fluid generally leaks from the cap seals of the reservoir, master cylinder seals, caliper piston seals, brake lines joints, the banjo bolts’ copper seals, and caliper screws.

However, finding the source can be tricky at times. If you are unable to locate the leak, refill the fluid reservoir. There are different kinds of fluids available. The cap of your brake fluid’s reservoir will be engraved with the recommended fluid type for your ATV. To complete fixing your brakes after refilling the fluid reservoir, repeat the process mentioned for removing air to complete fixing your brakes.

Faulty Master Cylinder

The master cylinder distributes pressurized fluid evenly through the brake lines. This is the component you know to be the bridge between the fluid and the brake system stopping the wheels. Therefore, it bears the primary load of the system and is made with long-lasting capabilities. However, it can fail if the fluid is too old or in case of emergency braking.

If your brake feels stiff, similar to air in your brake system, it can be due to a faulty master cylinder. To ease the pressure, you need to clamp each hose on the brake circuit. The brakes should feel natural after you have eased the pressure from the hoses.

Worn Out Brake Pads

Brake pads wearing out after a particular time (depending on your running) is common and needs to be replaced. It’s eminent that you will have trouble slowing down your ATV if your brake pads have outlived their life.

Unless you have mounted a muffler on your ride that subsides every other sound, you will hear a sharp, whistling sound coming whenever you roll out. The noise comes when the brake pads have buffed down to the base steel plates that rub against the metal disk. The irritating sound clearly indicates that your ATV is calling for a change of brake pads.

You will need these tools to replace ATV brake pads:

  • Socket Kit
  • Clamp
  • Jack
  • Lug Wrench
  • Vice Grips
  • Safety Glasses
  • New Brake Pads

Step To Change The Brake Pads On Your ATV:

  • Remove the wheel after loosening the bolts
  • Unbolt the caliper and lift it up
  • Remove the brake pads
  • Install new brake pads
  • Place the caliper and tighten. Make sure the pads are well settled under the caliper
  • Put the wheel back and tighten the bolts

There is no particular age for the brake pads, as it depends on the use of the ATV and how frequently it’s ridden. You can check the health of your brake pads by taking a quick look inside the wheel. You can judge by the thickness of the pads if they need to be changed or not.

Was This Article Helpful?

Many things can affect the effectiveness of your brakes. While checking the brakes every time by unmounting the wheel and dissecting the brake circuit can be difficult, you can run these simple checks to keep your brakes healthy and catch any underlying fault:

  • Brake fluid level check
  • Brake pad thickness check
  • Paying attention to sound from the brakes
  • Stiffness of the lever/pedal

These tips will ensure that you’re able to understand why your brakes are giving you problems and then what you can do to fix them. However, after years of riding ATVs, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is take your ATV to the shop for regular maintenance to ensure that you don’t have to deal with such issues in the first place.




45 years old. I'm in business marketing. I write for Hunt or Shred on the side. I love hiking, camping, and everything outdoors with my family. I have 6 years of experience working at an ATV shop selling, fixing, and test driving all brands and models.

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