How to choose the right ATV for you

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This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Winnipegger Vaughan Alexander once took a dim view of all-terrain vehicles.

“I hated them,” the keen snowmobiler says. “They chew up snowmobile trails.”

But that was before a torque-y, 500 cc Honda Foreman ATV landed at his cottage on Malachi Lake, near the Manitoba-Ontario border. “I’m building a new cabin, which has meant a lot of hauling, and I’m at an age when I don’t want to haul stuff on my own so much,” he says.

And? “We’re quad people now.”

Chalk up another convert, in a transformation increasingly common among cottagers. Folks who once focussed on outboards, sails, or paddles are adding off-road vehicles as dock-to-deck shuttles, lakeside workhorses, and even outhouse tow trucks. When a tumbling evergreen drove the privy at Paul Hill’s Cariboo cabin into its pit, the Victoria, B.C., resident resurrected the throne with the winch on his 500 cc Arctic Cat. “It was definitely a smart use of my ATV: recovering my sewage options,” he says.

That’s not to say quads are universally appreciated. “If you have one, you love it. If you don’t, it’s the worst piece of equipment in cottage country,” says Wayne Daub, the executive director of the Ontario Federation of All-Terrain Vehicle Clubs (OFATV), with a sigh.

Off-road vehicles are diverse, including amphibious six- and eight-wheel Argos and Bobcat machines with tractor-style attachments for snow blowers and loader buckets. But for most cottagers, there are two main types: the all-terrain vehicle (ATV), also called a “quad” or a “four-wheeler,” and the utility-terrain vehicle (UTV), commonly called a “side-by-side.” They’re almost as different as motorbikes and cars: you ride an ATV by straddling the engine, steering with handlebars, and shifting your weight to aid steering and stability. You drive a UTV with a steering wheel, seated beside a passenger, seat-belted in automotive fashion.

The industry further divides both machines into categories, including “sport,” “recreational,” and “utility” vehicles. Most cottagers focus on the recreational-utility end of the spectrum: flannel-shirt-and-jeans machines, great for fetching, hauling, and running trails. Sport ATVs, on the other hand, are tuned for performance and speed on tracks or motocross courses. Appropriate fashion includes high-visibility polyester jerseys and body armour, not exactly the stuff usually worn at the lake.

These machines are “off-road” for a reason. Soft suspensions, low-pressure tires, and higher ground clearances allow ATVs to crawl over rough terrain but make them less stable when cornering, especially on roads and at higher speeds. 

That’s why owners can use off-road vehicles on their own land, or on other private land with the owner’s permission, but most provinces limit or prohibit their use on public roads, require riders to wear helmets, and demand that anyone operating one on public land have a motor vehicle licence. Each province has different rules for children operating ATVs. If you have kids under 16 who want to drive, check before you buy—most provinces require youngsters to ride an appropriately sized vehicle and to operate under close adult supervision.

As a rough rule, regulations are more restrictive the farther east you go. B.C. only recently introduced a law requiring owners to register their machines and put licence plates on them, and to wear a helmet when riding on public lands. Nova Scotia, on the other hand, requires specialized training for riders—because experience driving a car or motorcycle doesn’t translate to handling these machines. Ontario has one of the quirkier rules: single-rider ATVs may travel some local and provincial roads, but in most cases the province prohibits two-rider ATVs (also called “two-ups”) and side-by-sides from road travel. ATV groups are lobbying to change the law.

ATV: the cottage workhorse


Roads, of course, aren’t an ATVs native habitat. These machines are best suited to dense bush, tight trails, and gnarly terrain. Thanks to their low gearing, even modest machines offer enough power for hauling and towing. A basic unit with four-wheel drive and an engine in the 350−650 cc range fits in the box of a pickup truck and costs between $6,000 and $12,000.

Rick Keevil uses his 350 cc Honda to tote shingles, firewood, and lumber around his cottage on Ontario’s Lake Vernon. “I’ve never thought it didn’t have enough power,” he says. “Most of my driving is running speed, at best.” Cottager Paul Hill takes the splitter to the logs, not the other way around. “I’ve got a thing about not picking up wood more than once,” he says. Meanwhile, Phil McCarthy uses his 450 cc Polaris for trail riding and wildlife viewing around his cabin, near Mahers, Nfld. He usually goes easy on the throttle. “At anything over 30 or 35 kilometres an hour, you’re not seeing much anyway.”

Two-up ATV: the burly cousin

Two-up ATV
Photo by

Stretched to fit a rider in front and a passenger behind, two-up atvs from Can-Am, Arctic Cat, and Polaris command a premium of about $1,000 over single-rider ATVs, and feature a wheelbase roughly 25 cm longer than standard machines. The result, says Daub of the OFATV, is extra stability for launching boats, pushing snow, and traversing slopes. “You see folks buying two-ups without any intention of carrying a passenger. They’re looking for a stable, comfortable ride, and a larger carrying capacity.”

Side-by-side: the sociable machine

Photo by Pongmanat Tasiri/

Combining the power and versatility of an ATV with a more convivial seating arrangement, side-by-sides are increasingly popular. Couples in their fifties and older “lean towards side-by-sides. They like to sit together and converse, go out and see the scenery or look for some wildlife together,” says Jerry Bidulock, a Honda and Can-Am dealer in St. Paul, Alta.

With a steep hillside to scale at his cottage near Huntsville, Ont., Daniel Drache swapped his ATV for a Polaris side-by-side. He liked the quad, but “as you get older, it takes more strength to steer an ATV.” Now, with the side-by-side, “I wouldn’t go back,” he says. “I like the stability, the security.”

Side-by-sides offer rollover protection, cover from weather, and seating for two to six people, plus cargo. But, they are generally not as agile as ATVs, and can run twice the price.

There’s also a huge variety of designs and manufacturers. In power plants alone, side-by-sides include gas, diesel, electric, and electric-gas hybrid engines. They range from modest two-person units—the John Deere XUV 550 weighs 552 kg and is just 143 cm wide—to big carriers such as the six-person Yamaha Viking VI, at 740 kg and 157 cm.

The key is to get the right machine for your particular cottage, terrain, and needs, whether you’re looking for a workhorse, basic mobility, or a trail vehicle. Riders often gravitate towards utility side-by-sides because they’re easy to mount—no need to throw a leg over an engine. The Kawasaki Mule 610, for example, has a relatively low 20.5 cm ground clearance, a bench seat for two, and a top speed of 40 km/h. It hauls 180 kg of cargo in a dump box and lists for $8,799. Got a rough ride to a remote cabin? The Polaris Ranger Crew 900-6 (starting at $18,399) features seating for six, almost 29 cm ground clearance, and a cargo box. The two-seater Honda Pioneer 500 (for $10,499) is a more quad-like machine for trails, with 24 cm of ground clearance and cargo racks.

Bells and whistles

Add-ons range from practical pull-behind mowers and canoe racks to just-for-looks shiny alloy wheels. But for a working ATV, a winch is key. The winch (about $300−$700) will skid logs, pull down dilapidated bunkies, and extract your quad if it’s stuck.

Power steering and an automatic transmission are ubiquitous on side-by-sides, and increasingly common on ATVs. “Once you have power steering, it’s hard to go back,” says CanAm dealer Mark Giesler. “If you hit a stone, it’s not going to pull the handlebars out of your hands.”

Riders who prefer changing gears can save about $1,000 by selecting a manual transmission—if it’s available. “We mainly stock automatics, but we also sell a lot of manual machines because of the price,” says Mike Gibson, the sales manager for Ready Powersports.

Winter options include snowplow kits ($500-$700) and snow blowers ($4,000 or more). Heated grips ($200) and a windscreen ($200) are almost mandatory for cold-weather ATV work. Side-by-sides can be kitted out with a full range of weather protection, from roofs (a few hundred dollars) and partial windscreens to fully enclosed cabs with heaters (costing well into the four figures). Tire chains ($100 or less) offer a cheap traction boost for snow clearing. For deep snow, leave the quad parked, or install tracks (roughly $4,000 for an ATV, $5,500 or more for a side-by-side). Tracks reduce the machine’s agility, but boost traction to near-snowmobile levels, says Alberta dealer Jerry Bidulock.

If you plan to pull a trailer or launch a boat, check the ATV’s towing rating and the type of hitch it has. The standard 5 cm (2″)  receiver (the one you likely already have on your car or truck) is increasingly common on ATVs and virtually standard on side-by-sides.

Because side-by-sides were originally designed for farm and commercial use, the top speed is limited in many to 40 km/h, an appealing option for parents with teens. Recreational side-by-sides will go faster, but Polaris offers a $350 “speed key” option: a black key offers the full range of power, while a yellow key limits speeds to 40 km/h.