Let’s face it—the vehicles you choose to get you in and around your hunting property are some of the biggest purchases you will make as a hunter. It’s important to select the best machines for your hunting experience.
In this article, we’ll look at two options for the hunter. We’ll talk about the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and the side-by-side vehicle (SxS), also known as an ROV or UTV, and we’ll cover several things that you may want to consider when determining which vehicle is the best fit for you.
ATV or SxS: Which One Is Right for Hunting?
When considering these machines and which is best for you, price is always important, but so too are dependability, maneuverability, and hauling capacity. Other things you should consider are towing capacity, engine displacement size, ground clearance, and warranty. Additional considerations may include whether or not you’re going to have passengers. Do you have a well-established road system on your property? Is your property flat, mountainous, or somewhere in between? Do you only need two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive? The list goes on and on. When making this important decision, you have to ask yourself, “What do I need my machine to do for me? And how will I most often use it?”
When determining whether to purchase an ATV or a SxS, you really need to understand what each can and cannot do. To be clear, there are so many variables that it would be impossible to consider every use and which machine is best for which function, but with a little research, you can get a good feel of what is right for you. One thing is for certain—you won’t regret getting one of these machines for your hunting property. The benefits are astounding! Whether you choose an ATV or SxS, you really can’t go wrong. Either of these machines will enhance your experience and lighten your workload.
What to Look for in a Hunting ATV
Imagine yourself alone on the trail, maneuvering whips and turns while maintaining that ever-important tight turning radius. If this sounds like your ideal hunting experience, then an ATV could be right for you. The ATV allows the operator to explore places that many off-road machines fear to tread. The average ATV measures about 40 inches wide and 6 to 7 feet long, while most side-by-sides are 60 or more inches wide and reach over 10 feet in length, making the ATV more agile and just right for a tight squeeze. Agility is the word—the smaller frame and maneuverability offered by the ATV help it to stand out over other off-road machines. In many circumstances, an ATV is faster and quicker than a comparable SxS, but extreme care should be taken when driving these machines at or near top speed. Please remember, proper safety equipment should be worn at all times, and never operate an ATV on pavement.
When it comes to speed, most hunters are not looking for a machine that will blow the doors off but, rather, a workhorse, and what the ATV may lack in hauling abilities, it makes up for in its maneuverability through most any terrain. It’s true that many ATVs can exceed speeds of 40 mph, but for hunters, maneuverability and agility are probably more important. An ATV is lighter than a comparable SxS and, in many cases, fits into the back of a pickup truck for easy transport to your property. Just make sure that you get ramps designed for the size and weight of your machine, regardless of whether you plan to use your pickup or trailer to haul your ATV, and be sure to follow proper loading procedures.
The size of your ATV is also important. With engine displacements (a.k.a. engine sizes) for adult-sized machines ranging from 250 cc to 1,000 cc, there is a wide range of options available. A 250 cc is much smaller than a 1,000 cc, and most hunters will settle on a machine between 400 and 800 cc. A bigger engine usually translates to more speed, a bigger frame, and compromised maneuverability. To determine what size is best for you, speak to a local dealer who will be able to help you to understand the wide array of options available and to make a well-informed decision. And don’t forget to actually sit on the machine to get a feel for its size. If possible, ask for a test drive around the store.
Power Steering and 4WD for ATVs
Advancements in all-wheel drive, full-time four-wheel drive, and on-demand four-wheel drive all add to the value and cost of an ATV. You may be surprised at just where you can take a two-wheel drive ATV, but when it comes to deep mud, snow, and other slippery conditions, 4WD can become very important.
New advancements in electronic power steering can really make a big difference in your ideal ATV. In tight places where your speed is negligible, power steering shines. I recently experienced the benefits of the power steering option firsthand when I was hunting feral hogs in my home state. Feral hogs are a non-game species with a year-round season and no bag limit where I live. When you have a 100-pound pig on your front rack and a 100-pound pig on the back, it can be difficult to steer, to say the least. That is, unless you have electronic power steering. In fact, the ride is so smooth you cannot tell there is any weight on the front rack. Maneuverability is not lost at all. A manual steering machine would require way more effort to control under the same circumstances.
An ATV can become your biggest ally for setting up and maintaining your hunting property. From hauling stands to pop-up ground blinds and game cameras, your entire experience is so much simpler with an ATV. Hills, creeks, and drainages are no match for the ATV. For hunters who are accustomed to hauling these items on foot, the ATV can be a life changer. But it is in game retrieval that the ATV truly excels. Being able to drive right up to your deer and load him on the back rack makes an ATV worth its weight in gold and certainly worth the price.
Hunting Side-by-Sides: Power Meets Comfort
Now let’s look at the side-by-side (SxS) and see how it stacks up for hunters when compared with the ATV.
The familiar steering wheel and gear shift lever of the SxS make the learning curve for this vehicle virtually nonexistent. Steering, acceleration, and braking are so familiar. Simply buckle your seatbelt, start the engine, put it in gear, and off you go.
Many hunters can attest that a side-by-side is one of the most valuable pieces of equipment for their property. While an ATV is useful and, in many cases, indispensable, there are just some things the SxS can do that the ATV cannot. And while tight maneuverability and portability may be sacrificed, the benefits of a SxS are strong.
When looking at the benefits of a SxS, two attributes stand out: the large cargo box and the ability to safely haul passengers. For many folks, hunting is a social event: perhaps it’s a much-needed excuse to get together with old friends or even a hallowed family tradition passed down between generations. No matter what the occasion, one of the greatest joys of hunting is sharing your experience with a companion. The SxS can allow two, three, or (if you prefer the crew-cab versions) up to six people to ride together. For an outfitter who is getting clients into and out of stands, the SxS is a must-have.
Hauling a Lot of Hunting Gear? The SxS Wins
The SxS cargo box eases the load of hauling your chainsaw, oil, gas cans, safety gear, and more into the woods to cut firewood or break trail. With the SxS, not only can you more readily cut your firewood, but you can also haul it out of the woods in no time. The cargo box makes carrying stands, climbing sticks, and all of the rest of your gear so much easier. With a payload exceeding 1,000 pounds in many machines, the SxS ensures a smooth ride regardless of the haul, and many hunters attest that they seldom even remember there is anything back there.
Many side-by-sides come with an assisted dump cargo box that is a great help when unloading firewood or other material. One tip for deer hunters who are using their SxS to retrieve game is to tilt the bed when loading a game animal. The slope of the bed makes it easier to slide the animal into the bed and get it out once you arrive back at camp.
Most all dedicated deer hunters realize that deer hunting is a year-round activity. Just because the season ends does not mean the work stops. Whether you are prowling around field edges or hunting sheds in the early spring or preparing food plots in the summer, the SxS is an excellent tool.
When it comes time to go trim shooting lanes around your stands, the ability to haul loppers, string trimmers, blowers, chainsaws, and, of course, helpers is a snap with the SxS. With one machine, several of you can strap in and haul all of your tools and safety equipment into the woods to get your stands ready. No matter what the job or how heavy the load, the SxS is a sure win to get your hunting property into top shape and keep your party happy in the process.
How Much Can a Side-by-Side Tow?
In addition to hauling and cargo capacity, many SxS machines also have heavy towing capabilities. For landowners who do not have access to a tractor, this can be an important tool. In fact, many companies make food plot implements specifically for off-road machines. The larger engine displacement and towing capabilities of the SxS mean that food plots can be mowed, sprayed, disked, and planted with great ease via these machines. While looking at side-by-sides, it’s always important to explore your potential towing capacity. Several machines can pull 2,000-pound trailer loads without a problem. But be sure you look at the receiver hitch. The 2-inch hitch is standard, but not every manufacturer offers this.
SxS and Protection from the Elements
One often overlooked benefit of side-by-sides is the protection they offer from harsh weather conditions. Many models have options that allow them to be fitted with a roof, doors, and a windshield. Some even come with a fully enclosed cab, with options of heating and even air-conditioning! When the temperature drops, the windshield is a necessity. Riding an open off-road vehicle in subfreezing temperatures is never fun. Side-by-sides allow you to get out of the weather when traveling to and from your hunting locations or retrieving game, which is a tremendous benefit. The doors, roof, and windshield help make a SxS more comfortable than an ATV when you are exposed to the elements. If your conditions dictate the need for full enclosure, perhaps the SxS is your best choice.
How Do I Haul My Side-by-Side?
Possibly the biggest drawback of the SxS, when compared to the ATV, is its portability. If you select a SxS, you will need a trailer to transport it to your property. When getting a trailer for your SxS, be sure to look at its carrying capacity—not just the length and width. Trailer carrying capacities include the weight of the trailer in the total capacity. A trailer rated for 1,500 pounds may actually be able to only haul about 500 pounds, because the trailer itself may weigh 1,000 pounds.
What Is the Cost Difference between ATVs and Side-by-Sides?
This used to be no contest—ATVs were just cheaper by a long shot. But today, depending on the model and options you choose, the price between your ATV and SxS are not so far apart. For example, Tracker Off Road has a top-of-the-line ATV with power steering that runs just under $7,000. They also have a SxS, with many of the features discussed previously, starting under $8,000.
What Accessories Are There for Hunting?
Accessories for both ATVs and SxS's can make your vehicle the perfect hunting rig. Are you a bow hunter? Consider great options to haul your bow and other archery gear. Check out options from gun boots to storage bins, and with literally hundreds of options available to enhance your ATV or SxS, you can build it out in a manner that best suits your needs.
However, there is one accessory that you will not want to go without, and that is a good, strong winch. A winch is used for far more than getting you out of a mudhole. But in case that does happen, always get a winch that is rated for three times the weight of the machine. So if your machine has a gross vehicle weight of 800 pounds, your winch should be rated for 2,400 pounds. But don’t think the winch is only good for the ATV. Your SxS also needs a good winch to help out when the need arises. From dragging a fallen tree out of your way to helping recover game from a steep gully, it’s the first option most people install on their new off-road vehicle.
Another accessory that you might want to choose for your hunting vehicle, regardless of whether you pick an ATV or SxS, is camouflage. Many of today’s vehicles are available in optional camouflage, and this not only looks great, but it’s also practical because it’s generally a very tough skin. Just add a little dirt and it will look great on your next hunting adventure.
Which Choice Is Right for You: ATV or SxS?
Many hunters do not delegate their machine to only one purpose. Whether it is on the farm, ranch, or around the house, the machine you choose can serve many functions and yield benefits that span far beyond hunting. Choosing an ATV or SxS is really a personal decision that should be made carefully and thoughtfully, and if you are like me, you might decide on both! Can’t decide? I don’t blame you. When making your decision, be sure to check out some of the great walk-around videos from Tracker Off Road. You won’t find a more complete review of both the ATV and SxS. Invest the time to watch and learn, talk to hunting buddies about their experiences, and soon you’ll know what is best for you.
For an in-person look, visit one of the authorized Tracker Off Road dealers or your local Bass Pro Shops / Cabela’s store and see the benefits for yourself to help decide which is the best machine for you.
Regardless of which you choose, be sure to follow your local laws on operation and safety. Enroll in a riding course, because you might be surprised at what you learn to keep you safe off-road. And please, respect the land and tread lightly. Lastly, when riding or operating your ATV or SxS, the old motorcycle adage is true with these machines as well: “All the gear, all the time.”