Over the last 50 years, recreational vehicles have taken America by storm. Both ATVs and UTVs are powerful, incredibly tough machines built to handle the rigors of off-road riding. Yet to the casual observer, they may look somewhat alike. You may know the differences between the two, but how do you explain them to the average non-rider? At 2Wheel, we’re happy to help. Our quick guide gives you the 411 on both machines: why they’re different and the type of gear you need to ride.

ATVs Vs. Side by Sides

Let’s take a brief trip through ATV and UTV history. The first all-terrain vehicle was the humble 1967 Sperry Rand Tricart, a three-wheeler with fold-down steering bars and footpegs attached to the front wheel assembly. The Tricart was originally powered by a 5 HP Briggs and Stratton engine – certainly unimpressive by today’s standards. What’s more, its first riders didn’t wear protective apparel or headgear. Today’s ATVs only seat one, but some early Tricart ads showed passengers riding on the fiberglass shell behind the driver. Later versions came with a JLO Rockwell 2-Stroke 11 HP engine and boasted top speeds of 45 MPH.

UTVs came along a few years later. Most credit the 1970 Lockley Wrangler as the first utility task vehicle. Fitted with a 12 HP motor and fat bouncy tires, the Wrangler was marketed as an all-season vehicle and could go over 50 MPH. This vintage machine looks a little more like some of our modern ATVs, but the Wrangler and most of its descendants are two-seaters. As you know, ATVs only seat one – the rider. And that’s how UTVs got the “side-by-side” nickname: two seats, side by side.

There are other important differences between ATVs and UTVs. All-terrain vehicles have more in common with their dirt bike cousins – motorcycle controls and handlebar steering. But UTVs behave more like Jeeps. They usually have bench-type seats, steering wheels and automobile-style controls.

Common Misconceptions of UTVs

We’ve outlined the difference between ATVs and UTVs. Now, it’s time to debunk some common UTV myths. You’ve probably heard someone think that UTVs are

  • super-expensive,
  • not family-friendly,
  • extremely hard to drive, or
  • super-easy to operate.

Price-conscious riders can relax – there are plenty of affordable UTVs on the market. The 2021 Can-Am Maverick is a great example, powered by an 800cc engine and starting at $11K. If you require less power, there’s also the 400cc Kawasaki Mule SX XC starting at around $9K.

Those needing more than a two-seater can rejoice. The Polaris Ranger Crew 570 offers room for four and starts at $11,499. Need more? The Crew 570 Full-Size, 1000 and XP 1000 models all seat six. These UTV all offer ample horsepower, towing and storage. Plus, their refined cabin design keeps out both water and dust.

These are all great points, but what about drivability? Truthfully, UTVs are neither difficult nor super-easy to drive. A beginner’s driving course can prep you for basic off-roading. You’ll need more skill if you plan on hitting harder terrain or riding in bad weather.

You’ve seen basic UTVs and beefy sport models, but is there anything in-between? Fortunately, there are many models built for both work and sport. The Can-Am Commander DPS boasts an 800cc engine, a dual-level cargo box and a 1,500-pound towing capacity. It won’t clean out your wallet, either: Those impressive specs come with a low starting price of $11,199.

What’s the Difference in Gear for Side by Side Riding?

What type of UTV gear do you need? That depends on how you plan to ride. For starters, you need an emergency recovery kit. No rider should go off-road without a winch, and there are plenty of powerful models to choose from. Pay attention to weight rating when you buy – 4,000 pounds or more is best. Don’t overlook cabling as you shop, either. Synthetic rope is lightweight and can float, but steel offers more heat and abrasion resistance. Your recovery package should also include a tow strap and a fully stocked first aid kit.

Deep mud and super-rocky ground aren’t your only hazards. You don’t want your UTV dying in the backwoods with no gas or power, so bring a spare can of fuel and a jump box. Don’t forget a few more essentials to get yourself out of a jam:

  • Extra spark plugs
  • Spare tire and rim
  • Air compressor
  • Extra drive belt
  • Jack and lug wrench

UTVs offer extra protection – roll bars, doors and seat belts, to name a few. Even so, you don’t want to hit the trails without riding gear. For starters, you need a helmet. UTV helmets sport some critical protective features: peak visors, lightweight composite shells and robust ventilation systems and roomy eye port for goggles. Footwear is also important, so choose a boot that best meets your riding style. Versatile models provide traction, shock-absorption, warmth and exterior protection. If you plan on racing, you’ll need high-performance styles with beefier impact protection.

When gearing up, don’t forget about your riding jacket and gloves. Extra insulation and waterproofing are critical in cold weather, but your jacket should also provide crash protection. Many versions come with built-in armor or fit over chest protectors. Your gloves should also match your riding conditions: extra insulation for frigid temperatures and vents for hot-weather riding. Remember to select gloves with proper grip and impact protection.

A Few Last Words About UTVs

Utility task vehicles have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Modern UTVs have a lot to offer: strength, durability and power. Riding one isn’t rocket science, but you do need basic instruction before hitting the trails. With a huge range of models and robust features, they remain popular choices for work and play. By shopping smart, you can find a UTV that meets your needs. Safety is your highest priority when gearing up, so choose high-quality riding gear for your off-roading adventures. To handle common emergencies, your UTV gear should also include basic tools and recovery equipment. Follow these useful tips and you’ll get the most out of your side by side.

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