Can-Am UTV driving in Moab

Making Tracks in Moab: Newbie Learns Off-Road Ropes in UTV Adventure

A “silent sport” aficionado gets behind the wheel of a side-by-side UTV for the first time. Here’s what he took away.

If anywhere on Earth resembles the surface of Mars, it’s probably Moab, Utah. Red slickrock, sandy washes, and towering spires conjure otherworldly thoughts. But no, this desert paradise is very much here on our home planet, a fact I’m reminded of as I blink up at the azure sky, crisp morning air washing across my face.

And then I mash the throttle.

But it’s fitting that the vehicle I’m driving, a Can-Am Maverick Sport X RC, resembles something from a science fiction movie. Large tires and a long-travel suspension allow the side-by-side UTV (short for utility terrain vehicle) to claw its way over obstacles that would make all but the most diehard off-road drivers wince.

Can-Am Maverick Sport X RC
The author crawls over an obstacle in the Can-Am Maverick Sport X RC; photos by Matt Ritscher, Tactical Application Vehicles.

Make no mistake — I am no diehard offroader. Yes, I own a slightly modified pickup to take on adventure trips, but my idea of offroad usually means a rough Colorado dirt road where I might need to slow down for the occasional deep pothole or a few tricky rock gardens.

I use my truck as a means to access adventures, usually silent ones like hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and mountaineering. The vehicle is usually a means to a recreational end spent away from the vehicle.

UTVs in Moab

Long story short, I’m a newbie where enjoying the drive itself is the point of the activity. And the Can-Am was an amazing introduction to a sport that was a whole lot more fun than I expected.

I spent 2 long days, mostly behind the wheel, of some very challenging trails in Moab. This is what I learned about the burgeoning world of UTV adventure.

ATV, UTV, Side-by-Side

A quick note on terms you’ll encounter with off-roading. An ATV (all-terrain vehicle) is also known as “quad” or “four-wheeler” and is meant for single riders.

A UTV (utility task vehicle) tends to be beefier and allows for “side-by-side” riding, which is why some simply call it a “side-by-side” or “SXS” for short.

But because they’re comparable and have similar applications, we will reference both in this story.

Easier Than Expected

A lot of off-roading requires pretty significant skills. Full-size Jeeps, SUVs, and trucks can navigate many of the trails that I drove. But those trails will challenge drivers with hard obstacles, and mistakes can be very costly when driving a nice truck.

Driving the Can-Am, and with no training beyond years of modest driving, I found most of the trails easy to navigate. With four-wheel drive and a front locking differential, the vehicle was so capable that even steep, boulder-strewn obstacles were usually simple to overcome. Add in the small size and incredible 14.75 inches of suspension travel, and this vehicle feels pretty invincible.

Just 15 minutes after climbing into the UTV, I felt comfortable driving over some pretty sketchy-looking terrain. After a full 8-hour day behind the wheel, I was confident on difficult trails.

But I Had a Lifeline

While I say driving the Can-Am Maverick was quite intuitive and easy, I also wasn’t alone out there. Indeed, several expert drivers, familiar with the area, led the tour.

And, more importantly, they knew how to maintain these vehicles. I did not! We had no breakdowns over 2 long days of driving, but if something had gone wrong, it felt great to know there were others who knew how to build these machines in my group.

For a newbie like me, I think having some experienced drivers leading the way means a lot when dabbling in these UTVs for the first time. I did pick up a few very newbie pointers, though:

  • Bring lots of water! Just like going on a long hike, you need provisions for a long day.
  • A bandana or Buff is crucial. They can protect you from dust and the sun.
  • Navigation could get tricky. Be prepared with maps and navigational tools, as you cover ground quickly and could easily get disoriented.
  • Be prepared to self-repair and rescue. This means research likely-wear items for your vehicle, like tires and belts, and have the tools and spares needed to repair them.

Respectful Drivers

I’ll be frank: the ATV world has always been somewhat foreign to me. My passions lie in sports I do with my body like running and climbing. So, before getting behind the wheel, toys like side-by-sides hit me with a bit of a negative vibe.

But after spending a day in one, and a weekend with the people who love them, my perspective has evolved.

Can-Am vehicles in Moab
A built Can-Am crawls along a trail near Moab

In Moab, there are well-developed trails where off-roading is managed. And the system seems to work really well.

While I spent my time driving in established motoring areas, it was clear that people take the rules pretty seriously and care about the places they visit. In a couple of days of driving, I didn’t notice a single piece of trash along the trails. And people clearly stayed on course, with very little trail-widening evident.

The people I met were welcoming and encouraging. Much like any community of enthusiasts, they were there to help one another learn, and to share the stoke. Having spent years around many outdoor communities, I was impressed.

Can-Am on slickrock
A Can-Am crawls over slickrock trail near Moab

All that said, I also still know that ATVs are loud and can be destructive if misused. Just like any outdoor recreation, they require responsible decision-making and management.

While ATVs can potentially be more destructive than other land uses, most anything, from mountain bikes on community trails to hikers cutting switchbacks, can damage the places we love. There’s a time and place for side-by-sides, and when used right, they’re an absolute blast.

Surprising Efficiency, Durability

One of the obvious negatives about ATVs and UTVs is that they burn gas. Even though electric models exist and are certain to become more popular in the near future, you still have to fuel these vehicles. But on a positive note, I was shocked by the efficiency of the Can-Am Maverick Sport X RC.

I drove that little mechanical mountain goat hard for nearly 8 full hours. And at the end of the day, I’d burned just 3.5 gallons of gas. I was impressed.

Lots of Logistics

If the logistical scale of outdoor adventure starts with grabbing your running shoes and going for a run (at a 1) and goes all the way to tuning your mountain bikes, pumping up tires, driving to the trail, and arranging a second vehicle (at a 7), then driving ATVs probably registers at an 11.

There are just so many moving parts (literally and figuratively). These are expensive vehicles, even when compared with mountain bikes.

The Can-Am Maverick Sport X RC I drove starts at $15,299. And the cost of vehicles goes way up from there. It’s not uncommon to see Can-Am builds approaching $50,000, although these are very tricked out.

But for the average rider, a $20,000 vehicle is quite realistic.

IMG_1070

Then figure in trailers, trucks, spare parts, and fuel. You’ll need to plan for possible breakdowns. And if people have conflicting schedules, getting back and forth to trailheads is a longer process, simply because these things travel faster than people on foot.

There are big miles involved, so planning is paramount. Here again, I was glad to ride the coattails of experts. I had a great time and was glad to shut down my brain a little and just follow the leader.

Accessibility

Ultimately, I was blown away with the Can-Am Maverick that I spent most of my time in. It was very easy to learn to drive. It was super capable, crawling over crazy obstacles with ease. And it was fun at higher speeds, turning through winding berms while spraying roostertails of sand.

Obviously, Can-Am isn’t the only player in this space. I saw plenty of other machines from Arctic Cat, Yamaha, RZR, and others. And then there were motorcycles, Jeeps, SUVs, and pickups sharing the trail.

So while UTVs are an easy entry, there are plenty of machines that can crawl through this country. None of them are cheap, but that brings up a final point: rentals.

Moab is full of rental companies and guided tours. In hindsight, I would certainly consider hopping in a rental the next time I’m in the area. Even though I doubt I’ll purchase one of these in the future, a rental seems very likely.

And while I expect I will continue to primarily pursue silent sports for the foreseeable future, I’ve peeked through the door of off-road motoring. And what I saw on the other side was very fun, and very appealing. I hope to open it and hop in the driver’s seat again soon.

Sean McCoy
By

Editorial Director Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in GearJunkie's Denver office, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.