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ATV Gear Selection: When To Use Low Or High Gear On An ATV

ATV Gear Selection: When To Use Low Or High Gear On An ATV

Gear selection is more than just a matter of preference—it’s a key factor in optimizing power and control, as far as off-roading with your ATV is concerned. Knowing when to use low or high gear is essential for maximizing performance and navigating various terrains effectively. 

Whether you’re tackling challenging terrain, navigating steep inclines, or cruising on flat surfaces, knowing when to shift gears can make a significant difference in your ATV’s performance.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’re eager to learn about the importance of gear selection and when to use low or high gear on your ATV. Well, you’re in the right place!

Here is the short answer! Knowing when to use low or high gear on an ATV depends on the terrain and riding conditions. Low gear is typically used for challenging terrains, steep inclines, or when towing heavy loads, while high gear is suitable for flat surfaces and achieving higher speeds.

In this write-up, I’ll provide valuable insights to help you make informed gear choices and enhance your ATV riding experience. So you want to read on to learn more!

How do you Know When to use Low or High Gear?

In general, low gear gives you more grunt, or torque, while high gear gives you more speed. You don’t want to go too fast in low gear as you can get your revs too high which can over-strain your engine. Similarly, you don’t want to go too slowly in high gear as you can damage some important parts.

The answer is a bit like Goldilocks – when you are driving an ATV you need to select the gear that is just right for the speed you are moving at and the terrain you are driving through. In addition, every ATV is different so you may need to consult the manual or try a little trial and error.

How Do Manual and Automatic Quads Differ in Gear Selection and Performance?

Both types of quad have access to high gears

If you are driving a manual quad, you will work your way up the gears as you go along, ending up in higher gears as you move at faster speeds. You will also need to drop down when you slow down or when you need a little more muscle to get you through a tricky stretch of trail.

On the other hand, some automatic quads will do all the changing for you, except most ask you to make the initial choice between high or low before you set off. You will usually find a stick that switches between high and low. This means that the quad will still work all the changes for you, but it will work within different parameters.

For example: When you’re in low, the quad will give you more clout at low speeds to get you through some sticky ground; when you’re in high, the quad won’t have as much vigor while you are crawling but will have more power to help you cruise at top speeds.

When Are The Best Times to Use High Gear?

Some people use high nearly all the time. especially if they are planning to include lots of road work. If you don’t plan on needing a four-wheel drive, it is possible to leave an automatic ATV on high for most of the time.

The main concern about using high gear is that you can damage your drive belt if you keep going at slower speeds. Many quad riders have found their belt have snapped completely, causing havoc for the rest of the engine.

In some cases, this has led to the quad being entirely written off. To avoid this, you need to inspect your belt regularly. Knowing when to ride in high gear is also important if you want to avoid unnecessary expenses. Overall, you need to use high gears when:

  1. You want to ride at faster speeds
  2. The terrain is fairly easy, like a good trail or road
  3. You aren’t riding through mud
  4. There are no steep hills to go up or down

General trail riding suits high gear well, as you can slow down enough to negotiate a corner without putting too much strain on your machine. Some quad riders decide whether or not to use high gear by looking at how fast they are going.

Different ATVs will have different information here, so it’s best to check the user manual or ask an expert at the shop for advice. Some suggest that you shouldn’t use high gear if you are going below 25 mph while others argue that you won’t need low unless you are riding at around 10 mph.

This is where machines can vary quite considerably and it is best to look up the manufacturer’s recommendation. Paying attention to the RPM might be a better approach: your engine might thank you for dropping too low if you are going below 3,000 RPM. Listening to the sound of your engine can help you recognize when it is working effectively in the correct gear.

Pros of High Gear:

  1. More power to go faster
  2. Engine cruises comfortably at higher speeds
  3. Most popular for general trail riding
  4. More eco friendly

Cons of using High Gear:

  1. Can damage belts if moving too slowly
  2. Limited power for low-speed maneuvers

When Are The Best Times to Use Low Gear?

This is partly the opposite of the conditions when you might need high gear. Low gear gives you plenty of muscle power for completing technical maneuvers, such as getting out of thick mud or traversing sticky terrain.

Using 4WD to negotiate difficult obstacles might be more effective in low gears, as would climbing steep hills. Low gear increases the amount of torque you get, which is what gives your quad the strength to move very powerfully at slow speeds. Some of the best times to use low gears include:

  1. Climbing steep slopes
  2. Braking power for the engine when coming down steep hills
  3. Negotiating rocky or muddy ground
  4. Pulling heavy trailers
  5. Moving at very slow speeds

ATVs used for yard work can sometimes be used to tow and will need torque to move around heavy trailers, which comes from low gears. Some riders who are using their quad to drive through any amount of water, such as crossing a stream or large puddle, will need to use a low gear to keep up their revs which will also help keep water out of the exhaust. Any technical driving that needs low speeds will be best in low gear.

Pros of Using Low Gear

  1. Plenty of power to get you up hills and out of trouble
  2. Strength to pull heavy items
  3. Ability to keep revs up when needed
  4. Saves belt from slipping or breaking

Cons of Using Low Gear

  1. Difficult to reach high speeds
  2. Can use more fuel

Pro Tip!

Try to make your decision to change gear quite early, to help your driving and to save your machine from unnecessary pressure. Remember, this isn’t a car, and not all ATVs can change from high to low at the drop of a hat.

Some automatic ATVs need to be brought to a complete stop before you change gear, If you are dropping into low gear for better control when coming down a steep hill or to get out of some mud, you need to get into gear before you get to the obstacle to help you keep control throughout.

Looking after your machine by choosing the right gear can save you a fortune in unnecessary repairs. Protect your ATV and it will pay off in the long run. For more on keeping your ATV in top shape check out my Best Maintenance Items article here.


Overall, whether you need low or high gear depends hugely on the type of work you want your machine to do. If you are a speed merchant with a taste for riding fast along trails, making jumps and staying on mostly smooth, even ground, then high gear will probably be your usual choice.

On the other hand, if you are planning on completing a lot of technical riding at low speeds, negotiating obstacles, or traversing mud and water, low gear will suit you best. Once you get to know your machine, you will be able to tell quite instinctively which gear works best.

Thanks so much for reading to the end!

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