Rock Crawling On An ATV

How To, Ride Technique — on January 8, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Rock crawling! Without a doubt I can say it is the one thing that turned this sport quad-addicted journalist into a 4×4 ATV junkie.
It was only a few short years ago that I got my first taste for the giant red rock cliffs of Moab, Utah, the best place on the planet for rock crawling. Since that time, I’ve returned two or three times a year with my usual group of Moab fanatics for our rock fix. We don’t even bother with the easy and moderate trails anymore; just bring on the tough stuff! Is it dangerous? Yes, but not so much if you have the right equipment and several good friends along for the ride.
Rock crawling presents 4×4 ATV owners with the ultimate test of man and machine. And if you happen to be riding a location such as Moab, the views from the top will reward you with stories you’ll tell for a lifetime. Sound like fun? Well, then here are a few things you should know before heading out of your first rock crawlin’ safari.
The Right Machine
Any 4×4 ATV will do for easy to moderate trails, but we like the nasty stuff! Engine displacement and horsepower aren’t near as important as low-end torque. We’ve tested everything from 400cc engines to mammoth V-twin monsters out on the rocks, and actually found that they all work well. The key is smooth off-idle response, though, and the smaller engines tend to excel in this area. A good amount of engine braking is also nice to have for those steep downhill descents. It’s all about what you feel comfortable with.
Low range selection and a good front locking differential are a must. Auto lockers and manual lockers will do, but we’ve found the manual variety to be more predictable and reliant when it comes to safely pulling the ATV up over steep rock shelves. With the manual lockers, you know for a fact that all four wheels are turning together without any chance of the wheel slipping.
Ground clearance is also a good thing; after all, we are talking about rocks. Ten inches or more of ground clearance seems to work the best. The longer, two-rider ATVs also seem to work better due to the longer wheelbase. When climbing over taller rocks they don’t require near as steep of an attack angle, which makes getting the front wheels over the top of an obstacle much easier.
Rock And Roll Gear
Face it, rocks hurt and are unforgiving. While you should always wear a helmet when riding an ATV, it’s especially important when rock crawling. The speeds are slow, but you will be riding at steep angles, and could possibly tip over. For that reason you should also invest in a good set of protective riding boots that cover the shins. Elbow and knee pads are a great idea too. The knee pads also come in handy when you need to get down on one knee to get that great photo angle of your buddy getting completely vertical on a rock face.
Most rocky trails, like those found at Moab, are only 10 to 20 miles in length, but could take you most of the day to complete depending on the degree of difficulty. If you’ll be out in the sun, pack sunscreen. All of the typical mandatory safety items also apply — long pants and a long sleeve jersey, gloves and eye protection.
Never Go Alone!
You should never ride alone to begin with, but this is especially true out on the rocks. In this case, though, many friends are better than a few. You’ll need each other to help lift and pull your machines up and down the more difficult parts of the trail. Pick your friends wisely, though, as one unreliable machine or rider can ruin the whole day for everyone.
What to Pack?
Since you will be out on the trail most of the day, you should pack all of the necessary tools you’ll need for any possible breakdowns, a towrope and additional fuel. A tire plug kit and a small air compressor are also a must since jagged rocks can tear up your tires. We can’t state enough that rocks do hurt, so you’ll also want to take along an ample first aid kit and your cell phone. A GPS is also a good idea should you need to define your location for breakdown or medical assistance. Food and plenty of water should also go without mentioning.
Don’t over pack with a lot of weight, and invest in a good lower profile rack bag. Shorter bags don’t restrict your view of the terrain below you, and they help keep the center of gravity lower. Distribute the weight evenly between the front and rear racks. Too much weight over the rear of the ATV can make the front end light, which is not a good idea when climbing steep angles! You don’t want a 600-plus-pound ATV to flip backwards on top of you.
Get a Rope
Any veteran ATV rock crawler will tell you that a strong rope is your best friend. You’ll want a rope with a locking hook on the end. Hook the rope to the lowest point on the front of the ATV, and then throw the other end to your buddies at the top of the steep obstacle you’re about to tackle. It only takes a small amount of tension on the rope to keep the nose of an ATV down when motoring up a steep grade.
Basic Technique
Before attempting a difficult rock crawling trail, you’ll want to make sure you have a handle on your throttle and brake control. Sometimes you’ll be using both at the same time. It’s never a good idea to nail the front brakes while descending a steep hill, or the back brakes should you start to roll backwards down an obstacle. Ease into the brakes and throttle with light pressure. Take advantage of your engine braking system. Often it’s better to just roll through with light throttle and brake tension and take a few bumps so that the ATV doesn’t loop over on you from a sudden stop.
Use a spotter for the more difficult climbs. Have one of your friends stand at the top of the rock you’re climbing and point the direction you need to turn the handlebars. A second set of eyes can usually see where all four of your tires are going better than you can.
When climbing, never go full throttle! Move all of your body weight forward over the bars, and traverse those steep obstacles by letting the torque of the front wheels pull you up and over. Traction is your friend. More traction can also be obtained by running your tires’ air pressure a little lighter. This allows the tread patch to flex and expand, firmly gripping the rocks.
If you find you lack power to crawl over a large rock, or the initial point of contact is taller than your tire can handle, then you can use a technique known as the “Moab Bump.” This refers to approaching an obstacle such as a steep rock step with a little forward momentum to get the tires to bite and climb. As the front wheels clear the step, the rear tires hit the rock ledge and push the front end down. You need to carry just enough speed to get the rear wheels to climb the step, but not so much speed that it sends the front end in the air. Again, never go full throttle when climbing rocks, and use your safety rope!
Winch It Good
If you ever have a doubt that you can’t safely climb or descend a challenging hurdle, use a winch! Make sure at least two riders in your group have a winch installed on their ATV should one fail. Never attempt to tackle a difficult rock unassisted if you’re unsure of yourself.
Bring that UTV!
Believe it or not, a UTV can actually conquer the same rock challenges that an ATV can, and then some! Much like the two-rider ATVs, the UTV’s longer wheelbase does not require as steep an angle to get the front wheels up over a challenging rock shelf. Just like the ATV, horsepower is not as important as smooth low-end torque. Some of my best rides on difficult Moab trails were accomplished in the smaller displacement Yamaha Rhino 450.
If you follow these guidelines, and just use your head, you’ll find yourself addicted to rock crawling and, just like me, seeking out and conquering challenges that used to seem too formidable. Rock crawling is fun, challenging and oftentimes rewarding. With a little practice and experience, you’ll be amazed at where these amazing vehicles can go.

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  • Sparky says:

    Rock crawling is a very exciting sport for sure. I have been Mountain Riding my ATV for years now and find it to be the best activity in a ride. Mountain ATV Riding will just make for one really good ride. Some times, bolders are much bigger than a big 4 X 4 rig, an ATV just growls to get over it like a bad dog that can’t wait to get it’s best toy from a fetch!
    Mountain ATV Riding…… one must take the time to get a little bit of training and experience as well as Safety……then you will be hooked on the ride! From the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas to the Mountains in West Virginia at the Hatefield – McCoy area, nothing can match such a good ride.
    Muddin’, flat trails, back woods, Yeah they can be fun, but try those rocks in the mountains just once – all else is for the kids then!

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