ATV Adventures: Choosing the right gear range is important on the trail - 2924

Choosing the low gear range setting is important when climbing a steep trail at a slow speed.

Traditionally, ATVs and UTVs equipped with four-wheel drive have two gear ranges — high and low. Using those two ranges properly will extend your enjoyable riding days.

I have talked to many people who say they never use low range on their machines. It seems that with the power built into late model machines, people don’t see a need for low range.

A transmission is built with two gear ranges to maximize the performance of the engine. When people fail to use the transmission correctly, they risk damaging the transmission. I have watched people load their machines on a steep ramp in high range with the smell of a smoking drive belt in the air.

An analogy I like to use to help people translate gear range principles to OHVs is riding a 10-speed bike. You obviously would not use 10th gear to climb a steep hill. It seems to be easier to understand when you are providing the power, but when the power is provided by another source, it isn’t so clear. The horsepower may be impressive, but that power has to be transferred to the driving wheels via the transmission.

Arctic Cat, Can-Am, CF Moto, Kawasaki, Kymco, Suzuki and Yamaha all use a belt drive transmission. Energy is transferred from the crank shaft to the drive shaft by a system of pulleys that make up a continuously variable transmission or CVT.

The pulleys have facing beveled plates that are narrow near the shaft and wide at the outer edge. The belt has a V-shape that creates a frictional grip as it rides in the grove between the plates.

When the machine is at rest, the belt on the primary clutch is down close to the drive shaft and the belt rides high on the secondary clutch. As throttle is applied, the plates on the primary clutch press closer together, keeping the belt tight and causing it to ride up higher on the primary wheel as it shifts from a low gear position. The plates on the secondary wheel spread apart causing the belt to drop closer to the shaft as energy is transferred to the drive shaft.

The belt is low on the primary clutch to be in low gear. As the machine gains momentum, the secondary clutch plates begin to expand as the plates on the primary clutch squeeze together causing the belt to ride higher thus shifting into a higher range.

As you ride your machine on the trail, the belt is constantly changing positions on the clutches as it moves through an infinite number of gears delivering power smoothly through the power band, adding to the excitement of the ride. The benefit of a CVT transmission is its ability to maximize the performance of the engine while ensuring that power to the ground is optimal as acceleration occurs.

With regard to the selection of high or low range, the action of the clutches does not change in either range. The gear selector changes the gear ratio. The high range uses a high gear ratio while low range uses a low gear ratio, which changes the output of power to the wheels.

Choosing between these two ranges is important. Late model ATVs and UTVs are designed to go faster in low range. The machines I have listed are good to about 15 mph while the Polaris models are good to about 20 mph. If the engine feels like it is revving too high, then you should be in high range.

A good rule to use for choosing low range is to consider the load. If you are carrying four people in a side-by-side, loading a machine for transport, climbing a steep hill with low momentum, or negotiating technical terrain at low speeds you need to be in low range. You may not feel the damage that is being done at the moment, but over time you are shortening the life of the belt.

It is important to know the manufacturers’ recommended towing capacities. Jeramie Pulsipher at Young Powersports in Layton showed me a drive belt that was destroyed when a Polaris General 1000, with a tow rating of 1,500 pounds, tried to pull a 5,000 pound Jeep out of the mire. Friction is a key factor with a CVT transmission and too much will damage more than the belt.

When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down, and be nice to your CVT transmission.

Lynn Blamires can be reached at

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