How to Build an ATV Tough Enough for Alaska’s Backcountry

Here are six DIY upgrades that will make your four-wheeler more rugged
Tyler Freel Avatar
A man on a four-wheeler equiped with brush bumpers.
Brush bumpers can provide valuable protection for your ATV, especially when traveling off-trail. Tyler Freel

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A Suzuki ATV four-wheeler on a rocky path.
the author has been putting Suzuki’s King Quad 750axi to the test in Alaska this year. Tyler Freel

In Alaska, ATVs are critical tools for many hunters. They’re also important in the daily lives of just about everyone who lives outside the cities. This is rugged country, and most of our adventures (and chores) take us off blacktop roads and into the woods. ATVs play a year-round role for many Alaskans. But a stock machine has plenty of room for improvement, and you can’t safely hit the backcountry without a few upgrades. Regardless of where you live, if you’re an outdoorsman or woman investing in an ATV, you want to maximize its potential for your intended purpose. This will cost a little extra money, but there are several simple after-market modifications you can make to get the most out of your new 4×4. Some of these will be more or less helpful depending on where you live and what you’re using an ATV for, so customize accordingly.

Here are the upgrades I think are most important in relation to the places I hunt. If you spend much time in the woods, these basic builds will make life in the backcountry much easier.

1. Winch

The front of a Suzuki four-wheeler ATV equipped with bumpers and a winch.
Without a winch, an ATV won't be of much use in the backcountry. Tyler Freel

A hunting ATV needs a winch. You can forget going off-road without one. Now, obviously there are some places that might be exceptions, like small farms. A winch can make a lot of problems go away, the most obvious of which is being stuck in the mud. They are also very handy at helping you safely navigate some otherwise suicidal obstacles, primarily steep climbs and descents. On extremely steep terrain, if you can anchor your winch straight uphill, your machine cannot flip over backwards—the main risk when navigating this kind of country. You can also start at the top and lower your machine backwards over small cut-banks and other declines. You can right a flipped machine if you’ve got a tree to help you out, and move or lift a dead deer, elk, bear, or even moose with the right hardware.

You can buy off-brand winches pretty darn cheap, and this may be the best option if you’re rarely going to use it. But if you’re planning to rely on this critical tool so often, it’s advisable to buy a reputable brand winch like Warn. You’re going to depend on your winch working, so buy the best you can afford—don’t cheap out. Mounting a winch can take a little time, and you’ll usually need a bracket specific to your ATV, but it’s not all that difficult. You will also need a winch if you want to use a snow plow, which is nice to have during our extensive Alaskan winters.

2. Synthetic Winch Rope

A warn synthetic rope winch.
Buy a winch with a synthetic rope. They are much more reliable than steel cables. Warn

Your average ATV winch typically comes wound with a 3/8-inch steel cable. These cables work and have pulled uncountable numbers of ATVs out of compromised positions, but there is a better option. If you’re buying a winch new, order a model that already comes with a synthetic rope. There are a few issues that steel cables have that make rope a better, easier, and more dependable option. First is that as soon as you unwind that steel cable, it will never be the same again. It will never stack back on the spool as neatly, and will become harder and harder to pull out the more you use it. This, combined with the fact that you’re yanking on random stuff, causes kinks in the cable, which make it even less friendly to wind. After some use, the cable will begin to fray in spots, producing slivers of steel that will run well into your hands as you handle it. The cable will eventually wear out and break, and you better hope you have enough left to extract the ATV after you re-attach your hook to what’s left.

Synthetic rope is lighter and as strong (or stronger) than steel cables, and it won’t kink or make your hands bleed. Plus, it winds and unwinds much more cleanly than steel. If the winch you have has a steel cable already on it, you can buy an aftermarket winch rope and easily replace it. Just pay attention to your guides and rollers to make sure that the steel cable hasn’t caused any nicks or rough spots, as this can fray your new rope when winding it in under tension.

3. Brush Bumpers

If you’re really planning on squeezing the most out of your ATV, brush bumpers are a good idea. They add a great layer of protection to your machine, and you don’t have to worry as much about driving over brush, small trees, and alders. Here in Alaska, many moose hunters frequent old burned timber stands, and these are littered with dead small trees and debris that can damage an ATV pretty easily if you’re not careful. Bumpers won’t make your ATV bulletproof, but it will certainly give you some forgiveness and added protection to many of the more vulnerable parts while you’re crashing through the brush.

Bumpers will generally be specific to make and model, and if you’re buying new, you can often get them added as part of a package, like the Rugged Package you can get on the Suzuki King Quad 750axi that I’ve been using this year. For a little extra cash up front, it significantly increases the protection for your machine. If you’re looking to upgrade your existing machine, you can usually find options that are easy to install yourself.

4. Aftermarket Tires

The wet and muddy tires of a Suzuki ATV four-wheeler.
For serious use, stock ATV tires leave much to be desired and won't let your machine reach its full potential. Tyler Freel

Stock tires are probably the single biggest power-robbing items on your new ATV. Now, for most general purposes, stock tires will work fine, especially if you have a winch. But you do want to have appropriate tires for the terrain where you’ll be using your ATV in the most. If you’re using it in arid regions, or mostly on smooth trails, you might not get your money’s worth out of a good set of aftermarket tires. But you sure will in the backcountry. Your tires won’t roll you anywhere if they’re spinning in the mud, and factory tires are generally pretty anemic. Even though they will often get the job done, you’re still leaving a lot of power and performance on the table.

An ATV’s power goes to zero as soon as the wheels lose traction, so naturally, you want more grip. There are lots of great aftermarket tires available. I’ve been using the Mud Lite II’s from ITP for several years now. Putting a set of those on a 400cc Polaris Sportsman made an incredible difference in performance, and made it almost impossible to get stuck unless I was high centered. On heavier, more powerful machines, good tires are even more important, as they let you access more of the ATV’s power.

If you’re in muddy country, look for tires with deep, aggressive lugs, and ideally with some lugs or texture on the sides that will provide traction in ruts and other nasty mud holes. I like to up-size the tires slightly, but not too much. I also like a slightly wider tire over the stock rubber, but I usually only get an inch larger diameter tire. Larger tires provide more ground clearance, but also can make the machine more susceptible to tipping and can require a clutch kit to work properly. Check with your dealer for appropriate sizing.

Read Next: A Gear Test of the 6 Best Hunting ATVs

5. Wheel Spacers

Wheel spacers are less common, but they’re still a useful and affordable accessory that can make your ATV more stable and less susceptible to getting stuck. They are essentially solid aluminum discs that bolt onto each of your hubs. The actual wheels then bolt onto these spacers, effectively spreading the tires wider. With some machines, wider aftermarket tires will require ¾- or 1-inch spacers to maintain clearance, but even when not required, that wider stance will add stability to your machine, especially on side-hill trails. This stability is invaluable, as traveling rough side-hills is an easy way to flip your machine. If you travel lots of rutted up trails, this wider profile will often help keep your wheels from slipping fully into ruts, and keep you from getting stuck as easily. Simple to install, wheel spacers are a smart DIY upgrade.

6. Heated Grips

We’re drifting into luxury territory here, but heated grips are a wonderful thing to have on an ATV in the north country. They come standard on most snow machines, and are an easy upgrade for your ATV. If you’re riding in cold, rainy conditions or the frosty mornings of moose season, you will appreciate having them. Even when dressed appropriately, icy handlebars can suck the heat right out of your body; these grips eliminate that issue instantly. Depending on your make and model, and the grips you get, you may have to do a little wire-running, but they are generally pretty simple to install and an affordable item that will help keep you comfortable in the field.