Best Winter ATV Maintenance Tips
September 25, 2015
Follow these simple maintenance tips to keep your ATV running strong even in the coldest temperatures
I live in Alaska, and I can assure you that when it's -20 and you go outside to start your ATV, that machine will moan, groan, and display every debility from a slightly old battery, gooey oil, or even the smallest amounts of moisture in the gas tank.
There's no question that modern ATV's and UTV's have ignition systems that are superior to the machines of the last decade, and Electronic Fuel Injection "EFI" is a wonder when it comes to cold-weather performance.
All that said, there are still three basic issues that keep a machine from rolling forward in the winter, and these problems tend to emerge when the thermometer drops below 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
So even on a cold winter morning in Tennessee, you can experience the same unpleasant situation as someone who lives in North Dakota.
THE BIG THREE
There's no problem more prevalent that poor quality fuel when it comes to causing pesky start-ups. Ask any ATV dealer mechanic, and they'll tell you that moisture in fuel tanks causes 80% of the non-starting issues that roll into their shops.
This is a preventable issue, and cold temperatures will exacerbate the problem to an extreme. Whether you get your gas at a brand-name gas station or a quickmart, almost all fuel comes from the same refineries geo-distributed to your station. Although a few brands may have an extra additive, generally, the specs are exactly the same.
Here's where the problem starts.
Gas station fuel tanks always have water in them. It can come through condensation, or the refineries may use water to separate fuel in pipelines. The problem arises if the station is not maintaining their in-ground tanks.
If you buy gas at a station where the maintenance is less than ideal and the fluid level is low, you will receive the gift of H2O in your gasoline. Just shake any one of my red gas cans in the winter, and you'll hear ice banging around inside.
Not once in a while, but always.
There are two ways to beat this problem. First, use a "Mr. Funnel" while you're fueling to remove the moisture.
The circular motion drops the water to the bottom of the basket, and you just dump the water out when you're done. I know it sounds like a gimmick, but they work amazingly well and only cost about $24.00 online or at a dealer.
Second, you need to habitually use a fuel stabilizer like STABIL to mitigate moisture and, more importantly, keep ethanol from causing long-term problems with varnish and other gummy contaminates.
Other brands will work, however, STABIL has been my go-to choice for years. Don't forget to treat gas in your fuel cans as well.
If you're starting an ATV that's been sitting for more than 6 months and its gas was not originally treated, remove the fuel from the tank and re-filter it before you start the engine.
Here's where the most common winter failures happen. The machine won't start immediately and then in 60 seconds or so, the battery is dead. These issues really get challenging when temperatures are below zero. At some of the mountain camps I travel to in the winter, we often remove the battery and take it inside the cabin at night.
For now, we'll assume you have electricity nearby. If that's the case, a simple $30.00 trickle charger that's permanently mounted to your machine and then plugged into an outlet overnight will keep the battery fresh and always ready to go.
Other basics, like making sure the battery connections are clean and tight, will go a long way toward getting you down the trail.
Also, understand that many newer machines may have phantom voltage draws from clocks or systems computers that sap battery strength. In warmer weather, there's no issue, but leave your ATV to sit just one cold night while the temperatures hover near zero and they may draw enough power to make start-ups a problem.
One of the best ways to make sure your machine will start smoothly in the winter is to do a mandatory fresh oil change in the fall. Always follow the manufacturer's specifications for viscosity and type.
But if you live in "real" cold, moving to a light synthetic oil will make an amazing difference every time you touch the key at near-zero temperatures.
My choice has been Mystik JT-4 Synthetic ATV oil and during winter, use zero-40 weight. A quart retails for just $6.76.
Although diff and transmission fluids must be kept clean and checked often, it's the engine oil that will have the greatest impact on extreme cold starting.
MORE COLD-WEATHER ADVICE
Once the machine is idling on its own, use the engine to warm your transmission and differential. Although you may be mightily tempted, don't just get on the machine and drive off at 30 miles an hour into the cold.
Start your ATV then go get a cup of coffee. Let the machine sit a good 10 minutes at idle to allow the heat from your engine to gently warm the rest of the bike's operating parts. When you start to move, be aware of your speed for the first two or three minutes of driving, and go no faster than roughly five miles an hour.
Change The Filter
Air filters are notoriously left unchanged after the summer and fall months of dust. They are simple to change or clean. If you don't know where they are, then get a manual and look it up. Your machine will thank you with improved starts and much smoother acceleration.
Every procedure discussed here will benefit you with safe, consistent winter starts in extreme temperatures.
Maintaining these habits will also keep your expensive investment rolling far longer than that guy who only changes his oil once every two years, and as soon as the bike starts they drive away like a bat out of hell.
So, warm slow, charge that battery, keep your oil and fuel clean, and you will have a smooth running machine no matter how low that thermometer falls.