— You too can learn from my mistakes —
By Joe Kosch
— I’ve been fortunate enough to experience UTVing from its very beginning, the nearly prehistoric times when the first Yamaha Rhinos and Polaris RZRs roamed the Earth. Experience is a good thing, but even when it comes to something that’s usually as fun as off-roading in UTVs, not all experiences are good.
Experience is a great teacher, and some of the choices I’ve made and observed others making out on the trail or while preparing, or not preparing, for a ride have made it clear what doesn’t work. Here are some that may help you avoid the kind of UTV experience you probably don’t want.
Most of today’s UTVs are so reliable they can convince even careful UTVers that nothing will ever go wrong. Experience has shown me that isn’t true. On one ride, a mysterious electrical issue turned the fastest machine in our group into a vehicle that wouldn’t start, much less move under its own power. My emergency preparedness consisted of a tire plug kit and a tiny compressor. Others had a good selection of tools, extra fuel and an extra drive belt. Somehow, none of us had brought a tow rope, one of the most obvious and valuable rescue items. After some searching, we discovered a length of extension cord in a pile of trash someone had left beside the trail, and we decided to see how it worked as a tow rope. It didn’t, at least not until we doubled it twice and twisted it. Even then it broke a few times. At some point in our towing ordeal, the ailing machine decided to start, at which point we made a beeline for the trailhead. The experience helps me remember to take a real tow rope; they work way better than tow-rope substitutes you might find along the trail.
A friend loaned me his Wildcat Sport for an upcoming ride, and I took it for a quick rip on the trails near my house to get a feel for how he had the suspension set up and the machine’s overall condition. I noticed the machine was low on fuel, so I cut my shakedown ride short and headed back to get gas. When I went to fill the tank, I was shocked to find the gas cap missing! After a quick look around the machine I spotted the cap in the cargo bed. Amazingly, the cap stayed in the bed for several miles of bumpy trails and hard turns. In this case, what doesn’t work is trusting that any machine is ready to drive until you’ve checked it yourself.
I was tinkering with engines long before I ever drove a UTV, and at age 12 or so, long before I got my hands on a UTV engine, a friend and I decided a piece of shoebox cut into the shape of a cylinder head gasket would work just as well as a cylinder head gasket. It did, but only for about 15 seconds. The lesson here is, shoebox cardboard, no matter how carefully you cut it, does not work as a head gasket. Considering the sophistication and performance of today’s UTVs, and the time involved in doing some repairs, don’t try to replace any gasket with anything but the correct part. If you’re in a jam like my friend and I were, and you don’t have the money for a real head gasket or access to a parts shop, it might be better to put the project off until you do.