A Side by Side (UTV) is easy to drive if you already know how to drive a car. They have similar controls and operate in the same manner. However, a Side by Side UTV is designed for rough off-road terrain consisting of dirt roads and trails that can have hazards and require off-road driving experience to traverse.
Off-roading has been increasingly popular in recent years, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic where the outdoors was the only place to escape.
Many people want to ride off-road, but they have old injuries or other ailments, which deters them from jumping on an ATV and going.
In 2004, the first UTV (utility terrain vehicle) hit the market and by 2012 they started to become very popular.
Now, you see many manufacturers of ATVs spending more time on developing their own version of a UTV. They are also called Side by Sides.
If you are new to riding we need to establish a few things, such as what machine works for you, safety equipment needed, transportation, how to ride, basic maintenance, and accessories.
Remember, these are not road vehicles even though you will see them on the road in some rural areas.
How to Choose a Side by Side
There are three basic UTVs or Side by Sides (SxS): utility, sport, and sport utility. Actually, while we are here, let’s clear the air on something.
Technically, a UTV is going to be a vehicle designed for utility purposes and a Side by Side (SxS) is more for sport purpose. However, they are synonymous, so let’s just roll with it.
A utility UTV is a machine that is designed for work and looks like a mini pick-up truck. They typically have a bench seat and a small bed with a lever so you can dump the load.
Common utility vehicles are the Can-Am Defender, Polaris Ranger, and John Deere Gator.
A sport UTV is built for flat-out just riding. They typically have two bucket seats, a small cargo area, and are designed for speed, turns, and hill climbs.
Popular models are the Can-Am Maverick, Polaris RZR, and Kawasaki Terx-4.
Sport Utility UTV
A sport utility model combines the two. They will be built on the sporty platform, but often have a slightly large dump bed.
Popular models are the Can Am Commander and Polaris General.
Which UTV is Right For You?
It depends on what your intended use is. I own both a utility model and a sport model.
I bought the utility model for three major reasons:
- I have some land and will use my UTV to haul mulch, dirt, firewood, and anything else that needs hauling.
- At the time of purchase, I had one child and she fit into a child seat between my wife and me.
- I hunt and I will use my UTV to haul gear, dogs, and game to and from my camp.
My wife and I recently got a sports model. We got this because my daughter is older now and we have a second child who is old enough to come out on rides.
We didn’t want a four-seater, so we got this machine strictly for riding.
My best friend has a sport utility model, because the main reason he got a rig was to ride. However he owns some land as well, so he uses the small dump body for yard work.
Sport and Sport Utility models are generally more comfortable because they have bucket seats that cradle the body, whereas a utility is usually a bench.
So, if you have back, neck, or limb injuries you may want to try out one of these two models.
All three machines are good and have their pros and cons. If you just want a machine for riding, get a sport.
If you want to use your machine for work and fun, then get a utility. If you like the idea of both, but value comfort more than utility, get a sport-utility.
UTV Riding Gear
Now that you have picked out your rig, let’s talk about some basic equipment, proper safety gear, and protective clothing you will need.
Taking the proper safety precautions is an important part of keeping off-roading fun and your equipment is key.
Here is a short list of required UTV riding gear:
- Long pants
- Long-sleeved shirt
This is gear is a must-have! Obviously, most of these are to protect you from injuries.
Make sure you invest in good goggles as riding can be dusty. The dust gets into your eyes and irritates the hell out of you. I like Oakley Goggles but there are many great brands.
They also have lenses that can be swapped out, so I have tinted lenses for the day and clear for the night.
If you are driving with a friend in another vehicle you also want some type of face mask to help keep from breathing too much dust when riding behind them.
Gloves are a valuable addition, especially when using a winch (we will discuss below). You may also find yourself lifting and moving rocks, tree limbs, and debris off the trails.
I’m either wearing or have quick access to a pair of Mechanic gloves.
Boots are important because they offer some sturdiness. You may find yourself pushing and pulling rigs out of mud and streams.
Even if you don’t get stuck in the water it is nice to have boots to keep your feet warm and dry.
I use an old pair of neoprene Muck hunting boots that are knee-high for chilly temperatures. During the summer I wear an old pair of Keen hiking boots.
Helmets can be tricky, because comfortable and light weight helmets are usually costly. I use a Klim helmet that I got seven or eight years ago for ATV riding. I spent around $400 or so on it.
You can find helmets on Amazon for far less. Look for Department of Transportation (DOT) and Snell-approved helmet certifications.
This means they meet, or exceed, safety measures and may even be required in your state.
UTV Trail Maps
Finally, bring a regular old-school paper map. Depending on where you are riding you may lose GPS service. I have countless maps of all the different trail systems in my glovebox.
If a trail is closed or changed, I will either draw the new trail on my map or simply buy one from an ATV club for $5.00. You will slowly, but surely, build up a large collection of maps.
A pretty good resource for dirt road type trail locations can be found online at the Trails OffRoad website.
Additional UTV Gear
Some other UTV driving gear you may want:
- Neck Braces
- Cold Weather Apparel
- Child Seats
- Eye Protection
If you have young kids or injuries, then you may want to invest in a neck brace. We got a pillow type of neck brace. It goes around the back of the neck and keeps the head from bobbing side to side.
My father-in-law struggles with neck and back pain. He simply wraps up a towel and puts it behind his neck. It gets the job done.
I also recommend a good cooler. We have a 45 count Yeti cooler that we keep in the back of the Utility Machine, strapped down with some bungee cords.
We like the Yeti because it keeps dust and water out of our food and drinks. We also won it in a raffle, so the price was a factor!
My family has specific clothing and gear that we only use for riding, because you can never fully wash the dust out. We have two large tote bags, one for warmer weather and one for cooler weather.
In this bag will have pants, jackets, sweatshirts, jerseys, and so forth. All this clothing gets washed separately and then stored in the same tote bag with some cedar wood chunks.
Some companies, like Fox, sell clothing specifically made for off-roading. This is usually expensive, but may offer some safety features such as padding around the shoulders or chest.
I personally like to ride in old work clothes, like Carhart, because it is durable and cheap. I am old school!
How to Haul a UTV
Did you think yet about how you will haul your UTV to the riding area? Transportation is often overlooked when buying a UTV.
For example, a few years back my brother got a new side by side. He got ALL the accessories that go with it, a top-of-the-line windshield, winch, lights, and even a radio!
Then when the machine was ready to be picked up he was scrambling looking for someone with a trailer to help him pick up the damn machine. Ha!
You need to put some thought into transportation if you plan on getting a UTV. It is not like an ATV where you can toss it into the bed of a truck.
You will need a trailer and a vehicle powerful enough to tow the trailer and rig.
Last year, my old half ton truck was on death’s door and I needed to get a new one. This was before I purchased my second UTV.
However, my wife and I talked and knew we would most likely be purchasing a second UTV in the next year or two.
So, we purchased an F-250, which was capable of towing a trailer with two machines. However, my old trailer was a small landscape trailer that could fit an ATV and UTV, not two UTVs.
So I needed to dump that trailer and buy a new one. We ended up getting a Big Tex 70 PI. As you can see, the off-roading Side by Side hobby can get expensive…
Basically, there are two types of trailers you can use to haul your Side by Side UTV, open and enclosed.
These trailers do not protect your machine, they are simply there to tow your machines to and from. They are nice because they lack walls and a roof allowing you to manipulate the unit more easily on the trailer.
These will protect your machines from the elements and allow you to carry gear/tools inside. Basically, it is a garage on wheels.
However, the height and walls can handicap your ability to upgrade machines.
My buddy had a beautiful enclosed trailer, but when he put new tires on his UTV he couldn’t fit it inside his trailer anymore! Something to think about.
UTV Truck Rack
Some companies make racks that go over the bed of your truck, which will allow you to transport a UTV without a trailer. This system is pretty ingenious but the look alone scares some people off!
Truck racks start at around $2500 and go up from there. Definitely an option to consider if you are comfortable with something different.
Check out the video below showing how a UTV is loaded on a truck rack.
How To Drive a Side by Side
Now that you purchased your gear, and had a white knuckle stressful ride with a trailer hooked up to your vehicle, you are ready to hit the trails!
Driving a Side by Side UTV is very similar to driving a vehicle. They have a shifter lever, which has park, reverse, drive, high and low gears, a brake and gas pedal, lights, and a steering wheel.
All things you are familiar with if you an automatic car. So you basically drive a UTV the same way.
Turn the key to start the motor. Put your foot on the brake pedal and shift it into gear. Then press the gas pedal and off you go!
Driving a UTV vs ATV vs Dirt Bike
Now, if you are coming from an ATV or dirt bike background, then you will notice some differences. For starters, the machines are bigger, both width and length.
Some trails are only meant for ATVs, so you may find gates that restrict UTVs. Additionally, when riding “chainsaw trails” (tight trails) you will find yourself barely squeaking by.
Some other things to consider, a Utility UTV is light in the rear section of the unit. So when going up steep hills you may need four-wheel drive to stop from spinning.
In a four-seater, you may also find yourself favoring sitting on the driver’s side. For some reason, the passenger side seems to always brush up against tree branches!
This took me two seasons to remember! Funny how that works!
Before you hop onto a tight trail with your new rig drive on some large open trail systems. This way you can get a feel of the brakes, gas pedal, steering, and so forth.
As you get more comfortable you can try more advanced trails.
Riding can be dangerous, so don’t rush into a complicated trail and risk damaging your unit as well as yourself and crew.
So there really isn’t much to teach about driving a Side by Side UTV if you already know how to drive a car because they function the same.
Just remember you are not on a smooth paved road though when driving off-road! There are many hazards to be aware of.
How Old Do You Have to be to Drive a Side by Side?
The driving age for a UTV varies by state so you must check with your particular state laws.
Where to Drive Your Side by Side
Public lands are definitely the place to go if you can. There are many riding areas around the country that allow Side by Side UTVs on their dirt roads and trails.
In addition, national parks sometimes have areas that allow UTVs.
There are also off-road parks on private property that will let you ride there, usually for a small fee.
One note of caution is don’t just take off and drive on private land if you don’t have permission from the owner first. Doing such can get the police called on you and it gives our sport a bad reputation!
Is it Legal to Drive a Side by Side on the Road?
Keep in mind that in most states UTVs are not allowed on public roads. They are recreational vehicles that have low-pressure tires designed for a dirt road and not paved road use.
While they are not highway vehicles, some state laws do allow them to be driven on the public highway but have a registration requirement that you apply for a license plate.
You still need to comply with the speed limit, keep your seat belts on, and obey all rules of the road. Also, most UTVs will have brake lights but won’t have turn signals.
When driving on the city streets make sure to use the proper hand gestures like a motorcycle would or better yet, get a turn signal kit and add them to your rig.
There are many aftermarket companies that make street legal kits for UTVs.
One pretty cool thing with some small towns in rural areas is that they will let you drive your off-road Side by Side on the public highway just to get fuel and maybe some food.
Ask around before you go or check out the rules online so you are aware of the local laws.
Don’t forget to take a valid driver’s license with you if you plan to drive on state roads.
UTV Liability Insurance
If you find yourself doing more than just trail riding and driving on public streets you may be required to purchase liability insurance.
It is a good idea to have it either way but getting in an accident with a street-legal vehicle is a concern you should think about beforehand.
Every good UTV driver will inspect their vehicle before every ride. I will quickly check for proper tire pressure, the roll cage is secure, and look for any obvious signs of damage vehicle.
I will check the fluids to make sure it has oil and coolant. I will check the radiator to make sure it isn’t clogged with dirt or debris (skipped this once and my rig overheated and stalled out).
I will also check to make sure all my emergency supplies including a current first aid kit are loaded up.
In addition to my daily checklist, I will bring my machines to Can-Am for factory maintenance before the start of every season.
They will check for warranty issues, fluids, brakes, tires, and so forth. It costs a few hundred bucks, but my machine costs $16K or so, so it’s worth it to protect my investment.
I’m not handy or mechanical, so for me it is a piece of mind knowing a pro checked out my machines. My riding buddy is very mechanical, so he just checks the machine himself.
Lack of mechanical knowledge aside, you need to know how to do some simple emergency repairs and have some emergency supplies. Watch YouTube clips on how to plug tires and change belts.
UTV Emergency Gear
Additionally, you should carry some emergency gear in your UTV at all times. My list includes:
- Assorted Wrenches
- Assorted Screwdrivers
- Assorted Vice Grips
- Assorted bolts, nuts, and screws
- Small battery power air compressor
- Hand Air Pump
- Tire Plug Kit
- Tire Jack
- Duct Tape
- Electrical Tap
- Emergency Radio
- Emergency Food
- Emergency Space Blanket
- Rain Ponchos
- Plenty of Extra Water to Drink
- First Aid Kit
I carry enough gear where we can usually improvise a way to get our machines out of the woods. This past summer, I blew out a tire and didn’t have a jack.
We made a fulcrum out of a large tree and rocks. It took a while to get out of the woods, but we got out!
I will also carry some other spare parts that are machine specific, such as belts, bolts, etc.
UTVs are expensive, so the last thing you want to think about is accessories, but there are a few that make your ride more comfortable.
Both of my UTVs have a roof, windshield, and a dust screen on the back window.
The windshield helps keep some of the dust out and is good for inclement weather and cool temperatures.
In the summer, I usually take it off and ride without a windshield though, because it does get warm.
The roof is nice, because it stops the sun from beating down on your head, and again protects you from the elements.
Interestingly, most of the dust in your rig will come from the back window. So, the dust screen cuts down on some of the dust. Who knew?
Side by Side UTV Add Ons
UTVs are big and heavy, meaning you can’t muscle them out of the mud and snow like you can with an ATV. So, I have a winch on one of my machines.
This way I can pull myself out or a buddy in need of help.
Can-Am did a great job of making use of empty space, trouble is they charge you a lot for every little thing!
That being said, I like how their storage containers lock into a spot and I don’t need to be concerned about losing tools or clothing on the trail.
If you ride at night it is nice to have some big LED lights. They come in handy for getting in and out of the woods during the hunting season.
If you think you don’t need lights because you will always come home before dark think again! The unexpected always happens. You will need them!
Piecing It Together
UTVs are a blast and can help folks with injuries or older people get into the great outdoors! If you can drive a car, you can drive a Side by Side.
Just be safe and keep it slow. The last thing you want to do is get hurt or hurt someone else. The safety of others with you is always your top priority.
If you have more questions or are unsure about something feel free to contact me via the email shown on this website.
I also highly recommend taking a look at the ATV Safety Institute website. Despite the name being “ATV”, they have great information that can be very helpful for driving a Side by Side in addition to riding an ATV.
Have fun and be safe!