ATV tires are consumables, meaning that you will eventually need to replace them. You can simply replace them with the same stock tire, but what if you want a better performing tire or what if the tire manufacturers have discontinued that particular tire? You might also want to change the style and tread pattern of your tire to better fit the terrain that you ride. If that is the case for you, it is important to understand how different styles, sizes and tire constructions can affect how your ATV will perform in certain terrains. With the right knowledge, you can make an informed decision when you purchase your next set of ATV tires.
Trail (or all-terrain ATV tires) are the most common tread design that you will see, partly because most ATV's come stock with trail tires. The reason for this is that they are extremely versatile and can handle most terrains and situations fairly well. They also tend to last the longest over all of the other styles. The downside of an all-terrain ATV tire is that they are not designed to excel specifically in any one terrain. If you tend to do all of your riding in one specific terrain, like just mud or just sand, a terrain specific tire is the way to go.
All-terrain ATV tires come in the widest variety of tread patterns. Some come with more squared lugs, while other trail tires come with long lateral lugs. One common theme of trail tires is that the lugs or treads are set close to each other, which creates a somewhat large contact patch. The tread depth of trail tires generally ranges from a 1/2" to just under an inch. This depth of tread combined with the large contact patch gives the trail tires a good amount of traction with a smooth ride.
ATV Mud tires are known for their aggressive looks and performance capabilities. Less aggressive treaded mud tires can work well in a variety of conditions, with the exception of hard-pack surfaces. More aggressive mud tires with tall lugs really only perform well in mud, which is their biggest downfall. These aggressive mud tires should only be considered for an ATV that will be ridden primarily in the mud pits. Often times, the ATV will need to be lifted and fitted with wheel spacers or the offset of the wheel can be changed to accommodate the larger tire.
Larger mud tires tend to be on the heavy side and require more low-end power to properly turn them through the mud. The added weight could also add more stress to the differentials, CV joints, axles, hubs and wheel bearings.
The most important aspect of mud tires is their tread pattern and lug depth. The lugs are generally longer laterally with a tread depth anywhere from 1" to 2" and above. The long and tall lugs act as paddles to get the best traction in the soft mud. To be able to slice through the mud, the tread pattern is usually directional. The lugs are spaced much further apart compared to trail tires. This is done so that the mud will not get stuck between the lugs and as the wheel spins, it will clean itself by spinning off the mud. On many mud tires, there are additional lugs on the shoulder of the tire to help grip the sides of the ruts. This tread pattern may work great in the mud, but it will make for a rough ride with less than optimal handling on any harder terrain.
Many trail and mud tires work fine in the snow, but an actual ATV snow tire is designed specifically to get the best traction in the snow. There are two main designs for ATV snow tires, both of which are like a combination of other tire styles. The first has shorter lugs in the shape of a trail tire, but the spacing of a mud tire. The second has the pattern of a trail or mud tire, but the lugs are very thin like a dune tire, just shorter. Both types have their own advantages. The flat lugs of the first style allow you to add studs (some tires are even pre-drilled for studs) for more traction in icy conditions. The second style will paddle through more powdery snow and works great for play on a sport ATV. Both styles feature wide spacing between tread so the snow can be cleared away easily as the tire spins.
ATV race tires are purpose built to get the most traction possible on motocross style terrain. These tires need to be durable to be able to handle the abuse of a race from start to finish. They are usually constructed with a harder compound to get the most bite, with little give. While ATV motocross tires excel on medium- and hard-pack terrains, they are a poor choice for softer terrains like sand, mud and snow because of the shorter tread depth.
Racing tires for ATV's feature a knobby tread design that runs vertically and horizontally. The knobby lugs are very stiff and have tread depth of 1/2" or less. They are also very square in shape, which allows them to be able to bite in every direction. The spacing between lugs is fairly close together to create a large contact patch, which aids in acceleration. This setup is perfect for the harder terrain of a motocross track or on hard-packed trails.
Sand tires for ATV's are the most specialized tires available and really shouldn't be used in any other terrain. While they may not be good for anything other than sand, you won't want to go to the dunes without them. These paddle style tires will get you the traction and flotation that you need to get through the dunes.
Rear ATV sand tires are also known as paddle tires and for good reason. Instead of a typical lug tread, dune tires have long ridges that run across the entirety of the tire that work as paddles in the sand. These paddles are usually over an inch long and are spaced extremely far apart. Front sand tires have a different tread pattern. They are mostly slick with one or two ridges raised in the center that run all of the way around the tire. They are designed this way to aid in steering. Without the ridges in the center, the tires would not be able get enough bite in the sand to make immediate turns.
ATV turf saver tires are specially made for lawns, turf and pavement. Any other form of ATV tire will tear up turf, because they are designed for maximum traction in dirt. Turf saver tires very much resemble lawn mower tires, or even car tires. The tread is very tightly spaced to provide a very smooth ride on flat, solid surfaces. The depth of the tread is also very minimal so as it will not dig or bite into the turf. This tread design will last much longer on these harder surfaces due to its flat and closely spaced tread. Turf saver tires are the best choice on hard surfaces, but they are a poor choice for any other terrain as they will not provide enough traction.
For many years, bias-ply tires were the only offering in the ATV world. Recently, that has changed with more and more brands producing radial ATV tires. Both styles have their own advantages and disadvantages. Deciding between the two comes down to the rider's personal preferences and riding styles. To make the choice, it's important to understand how each is constructed and how the construction will affect the ride and performance.
In the past, the ply rating of a tire was the actual number of plies that were bonded together to construct the carcass of the tire. With the advancement in the materials used to construct tires, manufacturers now do not need to use as many plies. Because of this, ATV tires are giving a ply rating, which is determined on the strength. A modern 6-ply tire might not actually be 6-plies, but rather only 2 or 3. Bias-ply tires get their name from the way that they are constructed. Each ply is laid at a bias (diagonal) from bead to bead, with the next ply being laid over the top in the opposite direction, which creates a crisscross pattern.
Radial tires are constructed by laying plies down perpendicular (90 degrees) to the direction of travel or the center of the tread. These plies run from bead to bead, over the face and down the sidewall of the tire, which creates a wrapping effect. Some tires are then finished off with some sort of belt (usually steel), which helps stabilize the tire and reduces wear. For most radial tires, the sidewalls remain thin and weaker compared to bias tires. Some manufacturers are reinforcing the sidewall construction with strong materials like Kevlar.
More and more riders and switching to radial ATV tires because they provide a very smooth ride and the tread does not wear as quickly as it would on bias tires. The softer sidewalls act as a "spring" to help absorb the bumps. They also allow the tire to flex on corners, which keeps more of the tread on the riding surface and results in more traction. Belted radial tires distribute the weight of the machine very evenly throughout the tread. This keeps the heat generated very low and helps prolong the life of the tire tread. Though the weaker sidewalls provide a smoother ride, they also make the tire more susceptible to punctures. Radial ATV tires cannot be aired down because they rely on the air to ride on, whereas bias-ply tires can run on low pressure due to their thick sidewalls.
When choosing the ATV tire size, it is always a good idea to stay with stock, especially if you have not made any modifications to the wheeler. The manufacturers choose the stock tire size to work in harmony with how the ATV is set up. This includes the horsepower, torque, gearing, handling and body. A dramatic change in tire size can throw these things out of balance, which in turn could lead to less desirable performance or even equipment failure due to the extra stress created.
If you do want to go with bigger tires, most manufacturers leave enough clearance for a tire that is 1" larger than stock. Anything larger, and you will need to modify your ATV to accommodate the extra height and weight. Conversely, you need to be careful when choosing a smaller tire. The smaller diameter will increase the RPM, which could over-rev the engine and over-work the transmission.
If you are not sure what the stock size tire of your ATV is, you can use the Dennis Kirk tire finder to pull up all of the tires that will fit your make and model.
Most casual riders do not pay attention to whether their ATV tires are rounded or flat. This seems like a non-issue to these riders, and for the most part it is. If, though, you want the best performing tire for your type of riding, the shape of the tire should be considered. A simple breakdown places round tires with soft terrain and flat tires with medium- to hard-packed terrain. Utility and all-purpose ATV's usually benefit from rounded tires, while sport and racing quads benefit from flat tires.