What Brakes Are Used on an ATV

There are two main types of brakes used in motor vehicles such as an ATV. These are disk brakes and drum brakes. If you’re not a mechanic or have a lot of car experience you wouldn’t know off the top of your head what kind of brakes are best on an ATV. So today I will explain what kind of brakes are used on ATVs.

ATVs use disk brakes. These have a metal rim with brake pads that grab onto the rim to slow down the wheel. Brakes pads are relatively small and wear out. When they do they need to be replaced. Very old ATVs have drum brakes which are not as effective at braking as disk brakes.

You may have heard there are also what are called hydraulic brakes. These are the same thing as disk brakes, but by hydraulic is meant that the brake pads are engaged using hydraulic fluid.

In this article, I will explain how often brakes on an ATV need to be changed, how to know when they need to be changed, how to replace them, and whether it’s easy enough to do yourself.

ATV racer takes a turn during a race on a dusty terrain

How To Know When ATV Brakes Need To Be Changed

The brake pads and the rotor (ring) that they grab on to need to be replaced eventually because they wear out. It’s difficult to visually inspect ATV brakes without opening them up, so here’s when ATV brakes need to be changed.

Overall, this is done by visually inspecting the brake pads. If the brake pad friction material that sits against the rotor is less than 1.0 mm (0.039 in.) thick, then the brake pads should be replaced. The brakes can also begin to make a loud noise when they need replacing.

Worn ATV brakes have little to no brake pad material on the brake pads. As the brake pads are used a very small amount of the brake pad is worn off. Over time the brake pad material gets thinner and thinner until there’s none of the brake pad left.

At this point, the metal behind the brake pad material will make contact with the rotor. As you may know, the rotor is the metal ring that the brake pad pinches to slow down the wheel.

Checking the hydraulic fluid regularly is very important

There is what’s called hydraulic brake fluid. This is housed in a tank. The owner’s manual of popular ATVs like Polaris, and Alterra states the hydraulic fluid level should be checked each time before riding. It has a low-level mark, and if it’s below that level it should be topped up.

The hydraulic fluid is responsible for making the brakes squeeze the rim. So, it’s very important to be checked regularly. ATVs have a front brake controlled by the lever on the handlebars, as well as a rear brake that is operated by a ‘foot brake’. This foot brake is positioned where the footrest is.

Changing the brakes on an ATV – how it’s done

The brake pads are removed from the housing, and then new ones are installed. It’s fairly straightforward but you do need a few tools that not everyone has, such as a car jack, and a socket wrench.

Here’s a really good video that shows how the brake pads on an ATV are changed:

The owner’s manual of well-known ATV brands says to have the brakes changed at an authorized service center. Another option is to take it to an ATV/motorbike mechanic depending on what’s closest to you.

However, if you’re fairly good with tools, you can follow the instructions in the video above. You’ll simply need to order in the new brake pads for your specific ATV/quad model.

Checking the brakes pads can be part of the half-yearly service

Most ATV owners’ manuals recommend getting your ATV services every 6 months. They are a bit vague on the details of exactly what is checked. Therefore, when you get it checked it’s worth asking if they can check how much of the brake pads are remaining.

Exactly how long brake pads last will depend on how much braking you do, and how often your ride your ATV. For example, a utility ATV used on a hilly farm every day will use up the padding on brake pads much quicker than a recreational ATV used to go fishing or hunting on mostly flat areas.

Car mechanic working on disc brakes

How To Brake on an ATV

Using the brakes on each type of vehicle can be different. For example, on a car, the brake is the middle or right-hand brake. Whereas on a motorbike they can be located on the foot or the handle levers, so this is how you brake on an ATV.

Overall, to engage all of the brakes on your ATV squeeze both hand levers, and engage the foot brake. The foot brake is typically located on the right-hand side. It’s important to engage the brakes gradually rather than slam on the brakes, otherwise, it can create a skid.

A skid is very dangerous, and you also won’t stop as quickly as is possible. If you brake too quickly and you enter into a skid you should ease off the brakes, and then engage them gradually. If you use all four brakes it will provide the most braking power.

A situation can occur on a two-wheeled motorbike called a ‘tank slapper’. This is where the front handlebars whip side to side, in a very dangerous way. For this reason, a steering damper is used to stop this from happening.

Many people wonder whether a steering damper can be installed on an ATV, I explained the reasons why in this article about what a steering damper does on an ATV.

ATV Break

How Hydraulic Brakes Work on an ATV

It’s not easy to see how hydraulic brakes work because they’re located on the inside of a car or motorbike. They also use fluid to engage the brakes which seems like it wouldn’t provide enough force to slow down an ATV or car. So, here’s an explanation of how hydraulic brakes work on an ATV.

Overall, it works by pushing hydraulic fluid into two pistons which are located on either side of the brake pads. These brake pads squeeze onto the wheel to slow it down. When you press the brakes it pushes the hydraulic fluid into the pistons, which then squeeze the brakes onto the wheel.

This is a bit of a simplified explanation but is in effect how they work. In reality, there is what’s called a rotor. The rotor is a metal disk that is attached to the interior of the wheel. The rotor is what the brake pads attach to. As the brake pads are used over time they wear down and need to be replaced.  


I’m Rob, the owner of RX Riders Place. My family and I have a long history of riding dirt bikes and ATVs and want to share what we have learned.

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