We enjoy every season, but none more than fall. The warm days under crystal clear skies and cool nights bring out the best of nature’s color palate, with the northern woods turning into a beautiful work of art that invites you to come explore it. Fall also brings hunting season which is one of our favorite reasons to be in the woods, and we wouldn’t miss it. Whether you hunt small game with a .22 rifle, whitetails with a bow, or even bigger game like elk, moose or bear, you want to be prepared. For many hunters, their ATV or Side x Side has become an invaluable tool as well. While most hunters are meticulous with their planning, you don’t want to overlook the one resource you rely on to get you in and out of your back country hunting spot. We’ve put together a checklist to help you out.
Hunting Buddy Checkup
Battery - It’s no secret the quality of batteries has taken a nose dive in the last several years, mostly due to lead restrictions. Unfortunately it’s not uncommon to be changing batteries once each season. Hunting season often means cranking over a cold engine, powering lights, a winch, hand warmers, or other accessory items, and the last thing you need far from camp is a dead battery. Before you ever head to the woods, make sure your machine’s battery holds a good charge and cranks the engine over quickly. Slower cranking is often the sign of a weak battery and you don’t need to spend a night out in the cold.
Tires - You picked your boots based on the terrain, and the next major thing to check is tires. Pick a tire that matches the terrain where you’ll be hunting. If you’ll be slogging across a muddy field, go for an open tread pattern that will get traction and clean out well. Rocky trails often mean sharp rocks, so pick a tire with a strong sidewall to resist cuts. Whatever tire you choose, don’t go overboard on size which causes a lot of extra stress on drive line components. One size up from stock is usually O.K. There are plenty of good tires available, and companies like MAXXIS, STI, and ITP have options that are sure to work for where you are headed.
Lights - Whether you hunt early mornings, late afternoons, or both, you’ll almost certainly be riding in darkness for half your trip. Make sure your machine’s lights are all working, and better yet install an accessory light like the small SQUADRON lamps from Baja Designs. (See our review on page XX). They light up the trail like no tomorrow and make it much safer as you slink your way through the endless shadows of the woods.
Oil - Using the right oil for the conditions is important, and switching to lighter grade oil for better cold weather starting can make life easier for your battery. Most of the manufacturers use synthetic oils for their excellent protective qualities, especially on startup, but if you want to go with another brand, we’ve been running Mobil-1 fully synthetic year round with zero problems. Don’t skimp on cheap oil in an expensive engine. TIP – Walmart has Mobil 1 in 5 quart jugs for the same price as four quart containers found in other stores.
Rattle and Roll - Nothing is more annoying than a constant rattle when you are trying to sneak into the woods and you’ll have nightmares about the 10 pointer that ran off because of the loose tools you forgot about until it was too late. Make sure everything is securely fastened down with no loose items in the accessory box or bed. Pack a piece of foam or a couple rags into the bottom of the box or between items. When carrying a gun in a scabbard, we slip it inside one of those soft, protective socks to prevent the gun from getting scratched up, to keep the scope from getting banged around, and to help avoid any unwanted clatter.
Accessories Worth Having
The list of accessories designed for hunters is nearly endless, but there are a few go-to items we know we can count on that make a big difference.
GPS - For hunting unfamiliar terrain, a GPS unit is a must and can mean the difference between walking in circles all night and making it back to camp. A GPS is not foolproof, however. Most GPS systems have to operate for a couple minutes to find the three satellites they require to triangulate in your position, and they might not work if you are in a canyon, or the signal is blocked by steep grades or other natural features that they cannot penetrate. Whatever type you have, become familiar with it before you head out into the woods.
A Winch - For pulling you out of a sticky situation, nothing beats a winch, and it will likely be your only friend if things go badly miles from camp. We’ve had great luck with the WARN winches which run quietly and smoothly, and they’ve never let us down. It’s a good idea to pack a winch strap in your accessory box for looping around trees, big rocks, or whatever you are using as your anchor though. Connecting the hook back onto the winch cable can seriously damage your cable. When winching be sure to leave your machine’s engine running. Winches draw a lot of power and can quickly drain even a fully charged battery.
Cabs & Windshields - Side x Side riders can have a little more comfort on the trail with full cabs. Whether soft sided or hard sided units from the factory, both will offer welcome protection from nasty weather. Simply adding a windshield makes a huge difference also, and they usually install in minutes.
ATV Hand Guards and Heated Grips - Keeping your hands warm is extremely important in cold, wet weather. A simple set of hand guards has a big impact on your comfort. Some even come with a small mirror for looking behind, but blocking the wind makes all the difference in the world. We even made a pair once from a couple of old milk jugs, but most guards are easy to install and we leave them on all year.
One trick snowmobile riders have been using for years is to use heated grips and there are several brands available that can get the job done. We prefer the type without a huge ceramic resistor wired in, but whatever type you get, find a convenient location for the switch (preferably on the left side so you don’t have to take your hand off the throttle), make sure any heating element is well away from anything critical, and use plenty of zip ties when routing the wires to keep them from getting snagged on anything. One trick we also use is to apply a silicone rubber sealant to all electrical connections, including those on the back of the switch. You don’t need anything shorting out in the rain, snow, or mud.
Extra Storage - Accessory storage boxes come in about every size and shape, and we never want to be without one; they’re extremely handy! We prefer storage boxes that offer a rigid, stiff sidewall that can take some abuse and are not flimsy. A good seal around the opening is important as well.
Scabbards are the easiest way to haul and protect your gun or bow on the trail, and again we go with quality construction that we can count on for years of use. A quality scabbard or case provides excellent, dry protection for your weapon.
Hunting is an individual sport of self-reliance. There is no team uniform, nobody is going to give you a ring for winning a championship, and there will be no replacement going in for you if you get injured. In fact, should you get injured, lost, or stranded, you’ll almost certainly be on your own. You’ll need to count on your own skills, instincts, and ingenuity to get back, and a huge part of that is planning ahead. For any expedition far away from camp or back in the mountains, you should bring the following:
- A basic first aid kit
- Rope and Tie Downs (Parachute cord works great)
- A lighter or waterproof matches (You can make them waterproof by coating them in nail polish)
- A GPS and map. Be familiar with both!
- Water and a snack
- A flashlight and knife
- Hand wipes for when you’re done cleaning any game
- A tire repair kit
- A small tarp that can double as a shelter in the event of an accident or bad weather
Other items you may want to consider would be:
- Fire tinder
- A different pair of boots should yours get wet
- A second pair of socks
- A rain jacket or warmer coat depending on the season and where you are hunting
All of the above items could be life-savers and will easily pack into a sealed, aftermarket storage box which can be attached either to the ATV’s racks or inside the cargo bed of any Side x Side. Remember, it’s not a successful season if you don’t get back.
One More Thing...
State regulations play an important part when using your ATV or Side x Side for hunting, and you should be familiar with the rules in your hunting territory. It’s a lot cheaper to check first than to learn them from the local Conservation Officer. In most areas, you can’t shoot from an ATV or Side x Side without a medical exemption, although it’s legal to steady yourself when shooting. Just make sure your feet are firmly planted before you squeeze the trigger.
Today ATVs and Side x Sides are as common at hunting camps as flannel, bacon, and tales about the one that got away. They can be a hunter’s best friend, but just be sure your hunting buddy is as prepared for the season as you are.