How to Start an ATV without a Key: The 7 Best Methods to Try

So you have driven five hours to ride a great ATV trail through some beautiful mountains, you get the campsite set up and you go to unload the ATV and realize you left the key at home.  The ten-hour round trip drive is off the table, so you have two choices:  You can spend the weekend camping with the ATV on the trailer, or you can find a way to start the ATV without the key.

Here is what you need to know.  As a disclaimer, don’t go stealing someone’s ATV using this advice.  Only use it on an ATV you legally own for which you do not have a key.

How do you start an ATV without a key?  Here are 7 ways you can try.

  • Enable the pull or kick start;
  • Hot wiring;
  • Jump the starter relay/solenoid wires with a wrench;
  • Disassemble the ignition to manually trigger it;
  • Use scissors or screwdriver;
  • Have a replacement key made;
  • Replace the ignition switch.

Your ATV key is not some magic trigger that makes everything in the engine work.  Turning the key in the ignition opens and closes a circuit  that allows a spark to ignite the engine.  Once that spark ignites the engine, assuming your engine is good, then you are good to go, with or without a key. 

The real dilemma in the situation where you don’t have a key to your ATV us whether you want a permanent solution or something just for the weekend.  The other issue is how much you are willing to risk damage to the ATV and how much you are willing to spend. 

I am going to start with the less ideal methods that should probably only be used when you really need it or just don’t care because it is an old machine or because you are going to get an new ignition anyway.

Enable the pull or kick start

This one will not work on all ATVs, but if your ATV has an alternative start method that permits you to do a pull or kick start, this is going to be your best option by far.

Hopefully you have your owner’s manual or can locate an owner’s manual online so you can look at the exact directions for your ATV model, but here are the basic steps.

  1. First, remove the front hood that is covering the electrical and CDI components.
  2. Second, locate the wire that connects the engine to the ignition switch and remove the plug connecting the wire into the ignition switch.
  3. Third, replace the hood.
  4. Fourth, use the pull start or kickstart the ATV, depending what model you have.

Hot Wiring

Okay, hot wiring an ATV is going to depend on the type of ATV you own.  Basically, the goal behind it is to change the wires so they bypass the ignition switch, leaving the circuit open so that a spark can start the ATV’s engine.

I am going to list the different hot wiring guides I have found so you can hopefully determine which one will work best for your ATV.

Option Number 1
  1. Locate the correct two wires coming out of the ignition.
    1. This should hopefully be easy following these steps.
      1. The first wire is the fused 12 V DC from the battery.  This wire will most likely be red, but you can confirm by making sure it matches the color on the output side of the main fuse.
      2. You need to eliminate one of the remaining wires.  Look at the color of any ground wire that ties to engine ground with a lug and bolt. Find that same color at the ignition switch connector in the wiring harness.  This is not the wire you want to splice.  It is usually green on most models.
      3. Now, you need to find the second wire to eliminate.  Look at the color of the kill switch wire in your wiring harness at the CDI connector.  It should be the bottom, middle wire on the green part of the CDI connector.  This is not the wire you want to splice.  The most common color for this wire is black with a white stripe.
      4. That should leave only one wire left and that is the second wire that needs to be spliced with the first wire you identified.
  2. Disconnect the ground and kill wires you eliminated above so that they do not short together and kill your spark
  3. Cut the two wires you identified and connect them with electrical tape.
  4. Disconnect the wires when you are done riding so the ignition, lights and fuel pump will shut off and your battery won’t die.

This option is probably the best and easiest of the hot wiring methods if is available to you.  Just remember to leave some extra wire from the ignition so you can rewire it if you find or replace your key.

Option Number 2
  1. Locate the wire that connects the solenoid to the battery.
  2. Cut the wire that connects the solenoid to the battery.
  3. Locate the red wire coming out of the battery.
  4. Connect the red wire from the battery to the the wires you just cut.
  5. Start the ATV.
Option Number 3
  1. Locate and remove the lamp/instrument cluster housing top part.  It typically is connected via 3 Philips screws.
  2. Locate and remove the key switch assembly.  It is usually connected via 1 plastic nut.
  3. Locate and remove the electrical connector that attaches to the switch assembly.  You should find four female terminals.
  4. Locate the terminal with the 12V wire, which should be solid red.
  5. Place a jumper wire between the red 12V wire and the terminal next to it.  This should cause your instrument panel to light up.
  6. Install a jumper from the terminal at the opposite end of the terminal bundle and touch that jumper to the the terminal housing the 12V wire.  At this point, the engine should crank, and hopefully start.
  7. Once the engine has started, remove the last jumper that was just touching the 12V.  You should now be able to drive the ATV.  When you are done riding, you should be able to shut down the ATV by sliding the kill switch.
  8. If this is going to be a repetitive process for you, route the terminal strip/bundle down through the instrument cluster so that it is on the outside of the cluster for easier access.  Then put the cluster housing cover back on with the three screws.

Jump the starter relay/solenoid wires with a wrench

This method is not going to work on most ATVs, but you may get lucky.  It will only work on certain ATVs that have an electric starter without an alternative start method.

You might as well give it a try and see if you are able to do it before moving on to the more advanced hot wiring discussed above.

First, you need to locate the ATV’s starter relay or solenoid.  It is usually located on the outside of the plastic right next to or under the battery and near the wiring harness.

A starter solenoid is a switch that controls a high amp load with a low amp. Starter solenoids come in all different shapes and sizes, but normally they have a round or square body with two larger and two smaller wires. The larger wires are for the high amp load and the smaller wires are for the low amp switch.

Your ATV’s solenoid may only have one smaller wire if the ground is coming from the frame where it is mounted. It may be sitting in a plastic or rubber cover, but it’s not uncommon for it to be on the outside.

Once you have located the starter solenoid, you should see two big main wires.  Hopefully, it will be set up so you can jump those two main wires using a wrench.  If you can jump the wires, you should be able to start the ATV.

Disassemble the ignition to manually trigger it

This method requires you to take apart the ignition so I would only use it if you are planning to get a new ignition to install or if you are comfortable enough with getting the ignition back together if you plan on it.

The point of this method is to basically line up the ignition the same way turning your key would.  Follow these 5 steps to give it a try.

  1.  First, you need to get the ignition loose from your ATV.  From there you should see that your ignition is basically a cylinder that separates into two pieces.
  2. Second, you should be able to remove the bottom half of the cylinder that is connected to the cord leading to your ATV engine.
  3. Third, if you look inside the ignition on the other half of the cylinder, there should be a piece inside with metal connectors on it.  Pull that piece out of the ignition.
  4. Fourth, take the piece with the metal connectors and determine how those metal connectors line up to the connectors on the other portion of the ignition.
  5. Fifth, start the ATV.  With the metal connectors in the right position, you should be able to start the ATV just as though your key was turned.

Use scissors or screwdriver

This is the first method I saw used to start a vehicle when I was 13 or 14.  My friend wanted to take our his parent’s spare vehicle, but didn’t have a key so he took a screwdriver, jammed it into the ignition, turned it and the van started right up.  While this method works, it is not ideal.

Once you have jammed a screwdriver into your ignition, there is no point in a key because anything you jam in there will turn the ignition.  There is also a good chance of damaging your ATV’s ignition to the point where you need to buy  a new one anyway.

I have also seen people use one blade of a pair of scissors the same way.  I am not sure if one is any better for your ignition, but I would have to assume there is not much difference.

Have a replacement key made

This is definitely your best option if it is available.  If you are in the situation we described above where you are far from home and simply left your key behind, you may be able to buy a new key from a local dealer.

Assuming you can locate a dealer near you that can replace keys by the code, get in contact with someone back home that  can access your ATV key.

There should be a code stamped onto the key.  If you tell the local dealer that code, they should be able to make you a new one.  Another alternative that may work is telling the dealer your ATV VIN and model.  If they trust you didn’t steal the ATV, they may make you a new key.

If you don’t have the code stamped on your key, your best option is finding a lock smith that can hopefully cut you a new key.  Note some locksmiths also have key codes so that may be an alternative if you can’t fine a local dealer that can make you a key from the code.

If you can’t get a locksmith to your ATV, you can hopefully remove the ignition from your ATV and get a key made.

Buy a new ignition switch

If you aren’t in the situation where you are camping and need immediate access to the ATV, getting a new ignition switch is a good alternative, especially if you can’t get a new key made.

A new ignition switch is surprisingly inexpensive and should be easy to install.  If you are not comfortable doing this yourself, you can always take it to a dealer to have it done for you.

Other Helpful Tips

  • As you have probably realized, most of these methods are going to require you to have some kind of tools with you to be able to start your ATV without a key.  Some tools, like a screwdriver, may be used to actually start the ATV, while other tools will help you get access to the parts you need.  Check out our recommended gear to see the tools we always like to carry with us.

  • Cutting wires to hot wire an ATV should only be a last resort.  Before you start cutting and rewiring, realize you are going to cause more problems in your ATV in the long run.  It is always smarter to get a new key made or install a new ignition if that opportunity is available.
  • We discussed above how you can have a new key made using the code stamped on your current key.  If you lose your key, that won’t help you much, but you could write that code down now and store it somewhere safe so you have it in the event you lose a key in the future.  I recommend sending it to yourself in an email and storing it on your phone so you can access it wherever atv toggle switchyou may be with your ATV and no key.
  • If you end up going the hotwire route, consider wiring the cut wires into a toggle switch that replaces the key.  While this doesn’t provide much security, it helps make the matter of starting your ATV a lot simpler.
  • If this article has shown you anything, it should be that it is not that complicated to steal an ATV.  Make sure to read our 21 tips to secure your ATV and avoid getting it stolen.

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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