How to Ride an ATV: A Beginner’s Guide to Riding like a Pro

You are finally going to start getting serious about four wheeling and need to learn everything you need to know?  There’s a lot more to it than you might think! You have to get the right ATV and gear, learn how to operate the quad, learn proper riding technique and figure out how to properly care for your new four wheeler (If you are buying a used ATV, you must review this guide).  There is a lot there, but we are going to walk you through all you need to know  and point you at some great resources you should review. Happy riding!

What you need

Luckily, you don’t need a whole lot to get started.  Really, you need the ATV and you might be able to get going, but there are some other things that are going to keep you safe and make the experience a lot more enjoyable.

Get the right ATV

This is the most important step to getting started.  You have to get yourself a four wheeler. While it is tempting to just jump on the first good deal you find, you want to take the time to figure out what machine is going to be best for you and the riding you want to do.

There are two types of ATVs – sport quads and utility quads. Sport quads are typically not best for new riders.  They are fast, can handle some jumps, are usually two wheel drive, have manual transmissions (you have to operate the clutch and shift), and are much lighter than the utility quads.

The utility ATVs usually have automatic transmissions (just like an automatic car, you don’t have a clutch and don’t shift), are heavier, come in both two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, have more storage space,  a more comfortable seat, and are more compatible attachments such as winches, snowplows, rack boxes, chainsaw holders, gun racks, and so forth. You also may want to consider if a UTV (side by side) is a better fit for you. These are typically better for hauling cargo or people, but there are some awesome sport options available too.  See more about whether an ATV or UTV is right for you with this guide.

Once you figure out whether you want sport or utility quad, you have to figure out what size ATV you should get.  This is going to depend on a lot of different factors. First of course is your size, but you also have to look at where you are going to ride, how you are going to ride and whether you are going to let others ride your ATV.  We go into a ton of details in this guide to picking the right sized ATV, but a summary is below.

50-70cc-young children under 12 that are learning to ride.

90-125cc-children under 16 that are still learning to ride.

200-300cc-bigger teens that know how to ride, smaller adults that are learning, wont be riding for long periods of time

400-500cc – price point shoppers, ranchers, acreage owners, farmers, new riders, light trail riding, most females

550-700cc- – aggressive trail riding, hauling, taller people,

700-1000cc – aggressive trail riding, mud play riding, average male rider, hunters, hill climbers, speed demons, stream crossers

There are going to be some other key considerations you need to look into when picking out an ATV.  You will want to read this article to help you make a decision on all the other features, but a few of the most important considerations are the following:

  • Electronic Fuel Injectors are a bit more expensive, but handle better if you are going to be changing elevations, and usually require less repairs.
  • Power steering is great for new riders as it will save your shoulders.
  • Automatic transmissions are a lot easier for new riders, but give you a little less control.
  • Disc drum brakes are generally preferred to drum brakes.
  • Do you want 4wd or 2wd?  4wd is a bit more expensive, but is much more capable if you are riding in more extreme terrain.

Get the right safety equipment

Once you pick out the right ATV, you are ready to get riding; however, you should get some of the essential safety gear to keep yourself safe and make your ride more enjoyable.  For starters, get yourself a good helmet, goggles, boots, and gloves. Though expensive, you’ll be happy you got them if you wipe out. Of course, the best place to pick out the gear you need is our Recommended Gear page!

Pick out the accessories for your needs

You shouldn’t get to bogged down with buying a lot of accessories or modifications when you are first starting, but there are just a couple we think are worth considering.

First, a winch is a relatively cheap investment that can be especially helpful for a new rider on rough terrain.  If you slide off a trail or get yourself stuck in the mud, the winch can pull you out of the tough spot.  To learn more about picking out a winch and see a great one we recommend for most riders that is under $200, check out our recommendations.

The other accessory that could be good for a new rider are nerf bars.  As a new rider, you’ll have enough to think about without worrying about what to do with your feet. With Nerf bars and heel guards, you’ll get the stability you need so you can ride more comfortably. Nerf bars are like giant foot pegs that help you to easily keep your feet in place during your ride. Heel guards to the same thing on the other side of your foot, namely keeping your feet where you want them to give you more control while riding.


Before you jump on your ATV and start riding, there is some preparation you should undertake, especially if you have never ridden an ATV before.

Take a safety course

Depending where you are at, you should be able to find an ATV safety course.  These courses will teach you how to safely ride an ATV. One of the best options for every new rider is to enroll in an ATV Safety Institute (ASI) ATV RiderCourse. It’s not expensive, and if you’re buying a new quad, you may get a certificate to take the course for free.  Courses are usually broken up into three or four weeks, with them lasting two and a half hours a night once a week.

Read the Owner’s Manual

I know that owner’s manuals are typically the most boring thing you could possibly read, but it is so important.  The owner’s manual on your new quad should provide operating tips, riding tips and directions on what you should and shouldn’t do with the ATV, especially before your first ride. Some manufacturers require certain steps be taken before starting the engine for the first time. The owner’s manual is also your go-to for maintenance schedules and buying the right replacement parts.

As you read the manual, sit on the ATV and get a good feel for where all the controls are. Most quads have a thumb throttle, not a twist throttle like dirt bikes.  The throttle is typically located on the right side of the handlebars. The left handlebar of the ATV will probably have the electric start, headlight controller, a kill switch, and the front brake.

The rear brake is usually a foot pedal on the right side floorboard. The gear shift lever is also usually on the right side (except for Yamaha, which has theirs on the left) that has high, low, neutral, and reverse.

You also want to make sure your ATV is going to be comfortable for you once you learn where everything is and how it works.  It’s unlikely you’ll sit on your ATV and be perfectly comfortable with the location of the handlebars and controls. Following your owner’s manual, adjust the levers, clutch and handlebars to your liking.

ATV Registration and Land Use Permits

Not all states require registration or licensing, but some do. Some other states require a land-use permit or another type of land pass if you want to ride on public lands.

Other state rules and regulations regarding ATV safety may include guidelines for the required safety equipment (like helmets, gloves and riding boots), age restrictions, licensing, sound levels and safety training.

It is a pain to try and figure out what exactly is required since every state is different, but we did all the painful work for you.  Check out our guide to the ATV laws for every state.

Besides state requirements, you also need to learn the requirements to operate an ATV on public land and roads.  In addition to the state laws we linked to above, we published a guide for riding on federal lands.

Perform pre-ride maintenance

Depending on the condition of your four wheeler, there is going to be a different level of maintenance you need to handle, but even with a brand new machine, there are a few basic things you should do before your start riding.  To work on your ATV and check everything, you should get a few needed tools as well.

Check fluid levels

You should always check the oil, fuel, and coolant levels to make sure they are adequate, and you should also look for any leaks in the various systems.

Check your air filter

You want to make sure your air filter is both clean and oiled.  Even if your ATV is brand new, the air filter will be clean, but it might not be oiled. If you’re brand new to ATV riding, then oiling your air filter may be unfamiliar, but it is essential. If your air filter is dry, use some air filter oil on it before putting it back in the airbox. If the air filter is really dirty, swap it out for a new one.

Check your tire pressure

Checking your tire pressure should be one of your regular checks before every ride. Especially before your first ride on an ATV, there is a good chance you will need to add quite a bit of air before that first ride.But don’t add too much.  Over-inflated tires are more likely to pop or get damaged and under-inflated tires can ruin the rims. You’ll need a low-pressure tire gauge to get the job done.

Gas and oil

If you are like me, you excitedly ride your ATV until it runs low on gas for the first time, then think for the first time about whether you can put regular gasoline in your ATV.  The answer is mostly simple luckily. For most four-stroke ATVs, you can use regular gasoline, grade 87 or above, from your local gas station. If you don’t know the recommendation for your ATV, opt for 89 grade unless the 87 grade is ethanol free.  For oil, simply use 10w40 and change it a couple times a year. If you have a two-stroke ATV, the answer is a little more complicated. On a two-stroke ATV, you will need to mix gasoline with oil specifically designed for two-stroke engines and then use that gasoline-oil blend in your ATV.  While the answer seems mostly simple, there are a lot more considerations with putting gasoline into an ATV than with filling up your average car, but you are in luck because we have answered all the questions you could have about gas and oil already.

Other things to check

While you are checking the tire pressure, check the wheel nuts and axle nuts to make sure they aren’t loose or broken. Even new ATVs frequently arrive with loose lug nuts, so it is always smart to tighten and properly torque (you’ll want our favorite torque wrench) each lug nut on all four wheels Then, grab the tires and rock them back and forth to try and detect worn-out bearings. Next, check all the levers like the brake levers, throttle, and foot

Loading and Transporting

Now that you have an ATV, you have to get your ATV to the riding location.  Unless you are just going to be riding around your own property, you need to get a handle on how you are going to load and transport your quad.

One of the easiest solutions is to load the ATV in a truck bed, assuming you have a truck.  Unless you have a short bed, you are going to mostly be okay. We have a guide for basically every truck and every bed combination out there and what size ATV you can fit in the bed.  

A couple things to keep in mind when loading an ATV in a truck bed-you don’t want to let the ATV sit on your tailgate if it is too heavy, you shouldn’t load the quad by yourself, and you shouldn’t ride the ATV onto the truck.  You also want to make sure you get a decent set of ramps. We have some guidelines you should follow in our recommendations.

If a truck bed isn’t going to work for you, you need to figure out what size trailer you need.  We have all kinds of guidelines you should review when you are buying a trailer, but the short answer is that you can fit many single ATVs in a 4 x 6 foot trailer, although a 5 x 8 foot trailer will fit any single ATV much more comfortably.  

For two ATVs, you will need at least a 6 X 12 trailer loading nose to tail or 6 X 10 foot if you can load side by side. You can also get away with a 6 X 10 trailer for most ATVs by loading one of them sideways and one normally.  If you are getting into larger ATVs, bigger than 550cc I would say, you need to look at the dimensions to see if you are going to need something even bigger like a 7 X 12. For three or more ATVs, You are going to want to run your measurements, but will likely need at least something 16 feet long


Starting your ATV

How to start your ATV is going to depend on what type of quad you have.  Luckily, If you have read your owner’s manual, you should already know how to start your quad and get it running.

Typically, an ATV starts either by a pull cord or by turning a key and pushing the starter button.  If you are just starting off, hopefully you bought an ATV with an automatic transmission. If that is the case, you simply need to put the ATV in gear, usually by moving a lever forward.  Then, slowly press the throttle to get going, which is usually done by pushing a thumb lever forward or twisting the right hand grip.


Before you do anything aggressive or head out on a trail, you are going to want to practice a little bit to get familiar to your quad and how it handles.  We recommend finding a large, flat, open area to practice that is free of obstacles and hazards. In addition, practicing on a hard dirt surface will make it easier for you to learn the basic maneuvers.  Do not practice on public roads or paved surfaces as accidents are much more common on paved roads since ATVs are designed for off-road use only.

If you are teaching a child to ride, there are a lot more considerations you should review in our key tips for teaching children to ride ATVs.

As you practice, work on getting a feel for the acceleration and braking, then move on to turning.  After you’ve gotten completely familiar with the ATV, including where the controls are, how to operate everything naturally (without thinking about what does what), and how to turn comfortably using your body-weight, then you can start opening up a little bit at a time.

Once you are comfortable in an open area, start with some simple trails before slowly advancing to more complicated terrain.

As a new rider, you need to stay completely focused on what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t drive so fast that you outpace your line of sight or your brakes. Practice starting, stopping and turning over and over until it just comes naturally.  There’s nothing that will increase your riding ability like lots of practice.


Having the correct riding posture will help you to easily operate the controls and help you react more quickly when shifting your body weight. You should practice with the proper posture from the very beginning to ensure you don’t learn bad habits.  Proper riding posture, when you are traveling straight, includes:

  1. Keeping your head and eyes up, looking at what is in front of you.
  2. Having your shoulders relaxed, with your elbows bent slightly out, away from your body.  Don’t ever lock your elbows. It gives you less control over the ATV and proves painful when you hit a bump.
  3. Keep both hands on the handlebars.
  4. Place your knees in towards the gas tank.
  5. Leave your feet on the footrests, with your toes pointing straight ahead.

Don’t be Afraid to Stand Up

Standing up on an ATV may seem a little wild for a beginner, but it is actually safer in most situations.  If you’re in for just a casual stroll down a trail, then your are more than okay to take a seat for your ride.

On the other hand, if you’re wanting to ride at some higher-speeds and take some sharper turns, you need to stand-up. It’s makes it easier to control your quad, reduces fatigue and makes for a better ride. When you stand on an ATV, you want to hover just above the seat, keeping your elbows out and your knees bent.


Turning in an ATV is an art form.  As you get more advanced, you can get more aggressive with your cornering and have a lot of fun.  When you are just starting, you should stick to the basic turning techniques appropriate for ATVs being ridden at low to moderate speeds:

  1. Move your body weight forward and to the inside of the turn.
  2. Turn the handlebars  in while looking in the direction of the turn.
  3. As needed depending on your speed, shift your body weight further toward the inside of the turn to maintain your balance.
  4. If your ATV starts to tip at all while turning, lean your body further into the turn while gradually reducing the throttle and making the turn wider, if possible.

Driving in Reverse

Most ATVs have a reverse gear. Every ATV I am aware of comes with a rev-limiter that is activated when the ATV is in reverse to limit the speed you can drive in reverse.  While that may seem annoying, it is actually super helpful because it is really difficult to handle an ATV in reverse and you will quickly lose control if you are going to fast in reverse. If you really want to go faster in reverse, many ATVs come with the option to reverse the rev-limit via an override button.  This can be helpful if you a stuck in a tough situation like a mud bog or snow bank. Unless you are in one of these tricky situations, just leave the rev-limiter in place and rever slowly and carefully, especially while you are still getting accustomed to riding ATVs.

Using Four-Wheel Drive

One of the big choices we discussed above is whether you want four-wheel or two-wheel drive.  If you opted for a 4WD ATV, the first thing you will need to figure out is when you should use the four-wheel drive.   Four-wheel drive is going to be beneficial when you are on rough terrain or tackling obstacles such as hillclimbs, logs, ledges, snow, ice, mud bogs or rock fields.

You don’t want your ATV in 4WD all the time though.  You will definitely feel the difference. When your quad is in 4WD, the steering is going to be rougher and your engine works harder, impacting your gas mileage.

Hill climbing

If you are going to do any kind of trail riding, you will have to learn how to climb hills.  Climbing hills improperly could cause loss of control or cause the ATV to roll over on you. While climbing hills seems pretty easy, there are some key things you will need to learn and follow.:

  1. You can’t climb every hill.  Some hills are just too steep for your abilities or the capabilities of your ATV. Use your common sense and let your fear caution you. If the hill you are approaching looks too steep for you, just don’t try it.
  2. Never ride past the limit of your visibility; if you cannot see what is on or over the crest of a hill, slow down until you have a clear view.  There are few things scarier than flying over the crest of hill to be met with a cliff edge.
  3. The biggest key to safely and effectively climb hills is to keep your weight uphill at all times.

The best technique for approaching an uphill climb is to:

  1. Shift the ATV into a lower gear and speed up before climbing the hill so you can maintain momentum.
  2. Move up on the seat and lean forward, or stand and position your torso over the front wheels, keeping as much weight as possible toward the front of the quad.  The goal here is to keep the front end of your quad on the ground.
  3. If you need to downshift, shift quickly while momentarily releasing the throttle; this will help keep the front wheels from lifting.

If you are cruising up the hill and then realize you do not have enough power to reach the top of the hill, you need to know how to handle the situation.  Ideally, you will come to this realization while you still have forward momentum and enough room to turn around and head back down the hill. To execute a safe U-turn:

  1. Keep your weight uphill.
  2. Make the U-turn before you lose speed and shift your weight to the back of the ATV..
  3. Proceed downhill in a lower gear, keeping your weight to the uphill side to keep the back of the ATV on the ground.

If you are in the unfortunate position where you are riding uphill and don’t realize you won’t make it until you lose all forward momentum, follow these steps:

  1. Keep your weight uphill and apply both the front and rear brakes to come to a stop. Do not allow the ATV to roll backward.
  2. Apply the parking brake while keeping your weight uphill.
  3. Dismount on the uphill side or to either side if pointed straight uphill. You don’t want to be downhill from your quad where it could roll down on top of you.
  4. From your uphill position, hold onto the ATV until your riding partners can come up and help you safely turn it around or inch it back down the hill. Another reason we recommend never riding alone.
  5. Do not attempt to ride backward down a hill. Should you begin rolling backward, do not apply the rear brake abruptly. If you don’t also apply the front brake, you are at much greater risk of rolling the ATV backwards

Riding Downhill

Always check the terrain carefully before you start down any hill. Choose a downhill path that is as straight as possible, with a minimum of obstacles and the least steep as possible. Shift your weight to the rear of the machine and use a low gear. On steeper downward slopes, straighten, but do not lock, your knees and elbows. You should use  both brakes to gradually slow down, but whatever you do, always apply the rear brake. If you only apply the front break, you are going to flip right over your handlebars, likely getting crushed by your quad


Most of the time when you are going up or down a hill, you will want to go across the slope rather than directly up or down the hill.  This is called traversing and requires different techniques.. Before getting in the technique, you should never traverse slopes with excessively slippery, rough, or loose surfaces.

If you have found a safe slope for traversing, here’s the technique you should follow:

  1. Always keep your your weight, especially your upper body, uphill.
  2. If you feel your ATV sliding at all on soft ground, you need to turn your front wheels gently uphill to keep your ATV on a straight line across the hill.
  3. If you can’t keep the straight line and the ATV begins to tip, turn the front wheels downhill if the terrain allows (don’t drive off a cliff please). If the terrain does not permit, dismount on the uphill side immediately and try to just hold onto your ATV..
  4. Drive smoothly and avoid making sudden throttle changes.

Dealing with obstacles

Unless you are on a well maintained trail, you are likely going to run into some obstacles out on the trails. Whether it’s a rut, boulder, or log, there’s a way to get over it safely.  Unless it is too big of course. Generally, you shouldn’t try to get over anything thicker than 2 feet (think telephone pole) unless you have a big quad and lots of experience. If the obstacle isn’t too big, just follow these guides for getting over small obstacles blocking your path:

  1. As you approach the obstacle, stand up from your seat with your arms and knees bent.
  2. You will want to slow down a bit.  The bigger the obstacle, the slower you should approach.
  3. Keep a firm grip on the handlebars and keep the ATV pointed straight ahead. You want to hit the obstacle at a nice ninety-degree angle.  This is especially important if you are jumping a wet log as it is easy to get stuck sliding down the log when the first wheel goes over, leaving you with nothing to do but quickly reverse out of the situation.
  4. As the front tires hit the obstacle, give it a little gas, but you want to release the throttle as soon as the front wheels have gone over the obstacle.
  5. As your front wheels have gone over the obstacle, lean slightly forward, taking your weight off the rear wheels. Make sure your throttle is completely released before the rear wheels hit.

Riding through Mud

While having four-wheel drive is absolutely beneficial for getting through mud, it is not essential in most situations.  Without 4WD, you basically have two options to get through a mud puddle.

First, the most fun and most dangerous, and least recommended, way is to fly through it at top speeds, enjoy the wave of water hitting you, and pray you don’t hit something buried under the water or mud.

Second, the safer method is to find ruts hopefully made by a previous rider.  Go through the mud puddle with your tires on top of the ruts, one in the middle of the two ruts, and one on the outside.  As you are working through the mud, don’t give it to much gas or you will spin your tires. This is going to get you all muddy and cause you to slip into the rut or to form your own new rut.

If you do start to get into a rut, you want to get out as soon as possible before you get stuck.  In this situation, you are going to have to give it some gas, let the tires spin, and rock your quad back and forth until the tires catch something solid and shoot you forward.

how to ride an atv

Ending your ride

As you are ending your ride, you will want to put the ATV in neutral when you come to a stop. This will prevent you from accidentally accelerating as you dismount.  Once you have come to a complete stop, set the parking brake as directed in your owner’s manual.

Once you are done riding for the day, your last thought should be toward keeping your ATV safe from thieves.  Unfortunately, ATV theft is way too common, and you should absolutely take the threat seriously. We even published 21 tips you should be following.  For example, you should always remove the key, lock the ATV to something solid and keep it close your house or camp just for starters.

Brent Huntley

Brent Huntley is the owner of ATV Man and is responsible for almost all the material on the website. He also runs and loves to travel and ride ATVs with his family. When he isn't playing, his day job consists of owning Huntley Law.

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