In Whistler, BC, says Kim Wilson, “everything leads up.”
She doesn’t mean the legendary ski slopes in the mountains, where everything actually leads Low, but a much more robust sport that has seen tremendous growth in Canada in recent years.
As the owner and operator of Whistler ATV Tours, one of the original outdoor tour companies in the area, Wilson’s mission is to introduce you to the wilderness. Vertical.
All Terrain Vehicles or ATVs (aka quads) and their UTV siblings are motorized off-road vehicles that look like something out of one crazy max Movie: a stunted frame with bone-crushing tires that can handle mud, rocks, lava fields and streams with ease.
The former, intended for a single rider, is essentially a sturdy four-wheeled motorcycle for off-road stability. The rider straddles the saddle and leads with the handlebars. UTVs (Utility Terrain Vehicles, also known as side-by-sides) are designed for multiple users and offer more comfort, with car-like features that are ideal for families: bench or bucket seats, seat belts, a steering wheel, and a roll cage.
Because an ATV is an all-around vehicle, it ticks the boxes for people who enjoy doing extreme things.
— Wayne Daub, executive director of the Canadian Quad Council
ATVs are lighter, narrower and easier to maneuver than UTVs, but both models promise adventure, the thrill of getting off the beaten tarmac and discovering nature in the wild.
“It really feels like you’re in another world,” says Wilson, describing the spectacular views that make up his top-of-the-world tour, which climbs to altitudes of 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). “You never tire of that.”
Over the past three years, off-road riding has surged in popularity, with new ATV sales up 30 percent in 2020 from 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic played a big part in this abrupt surge – lockdowns and restrictions have left city dwellers yearning for outdoor activities that would also allow them to social distance. “People who live in condos just wanted out,” says Wilson.
Wayne Daub, general manager of the Canadian Quad Council, estimates that there are currently 1 to 1.5 million ATVs in Canada, with the sport contributing approximately $1.68 billion (in 2015) – including downstream revenues – to the Canadian economy contributes. “I would think it’s probably 20 percent higher now,” he says. Updated figures are expected in the coming year.
As demand continues to rise, tour operators and retailers are facing another COVID-19-related effect: a shortage of new vehicles due to manufacturing supply chain issues. “Everything was sold out in 2020,” says Daub. “Vehicles that are 10 years old are being sold above their new price.”
His organization emphasizes the need for responsible off-road driving to protect both the driver and the wilderness. Certified safety equipment (especially the helmet) and the conscientious use of designated paths are considered essential. Choosing a vehicle that is appropriate for the age, height, weight and skill of the driver is also crucial. Youth ATV engines range from 50cc to 250cc, and adult vehicles can go as high as 1000cc, but 500cc is more than enough for most riders, says Daub.
“Because an ATV is an all-around vehicle, it ticks the boxes for people who like to do extreme things,” says Daub. “But there are definitely a lot more newbie drivers out there.” He recommends newcomers take an accredited training course, or at least confirm that their tour operator offers some basic instruction before heading out into the wilderness.
Steve Levesque, General Manager and Lead Guide at Outdoor Adventures ATV agrees. “Safety is our top priority,” he says. Each tour begins with a safety briefing and a practice ride on the level before gradually moving into more demanding terrain. “Ninety-five percent of our customers have never been on an ATV.”
His company operates on the wild northwest edge of Ontario’s Algonquin Park; The sprawling Crownlands offer riders “a huge variety of trails” and the exciting chance of spotting wildlife. “Our location is unique, with a very small population,” he says. “With every tour, you’re likely to see a moose, a bear, or a wolf.”
Levesque has been cycling for 30 years and says, “There’s never a dull moment.” The thrill is in discovering untapped paths, conquering the challenges and accessing the inaccessible.
“The unknown,” he muses, “there’s a lot of it out there.”
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In the largely rural provinces of Atlantic Canada, ATVs are almost a way of life. With an abundance of wilderness to explore, there are numerous clubs, associations and trail maps to suit the more independent rider. Trails can range from three miles – an afternoon trip to enjoy a hidden waterfall or go fishing in a tranquil lake – to the 550-mile adventure that is Newfoundland’s amazing T’Railway.
The T’Railway is a repurposed railroad whose 130 bridges and trestles are maintained by a provincially funded council. It connects St. John’s on the east coast of the island with Port aux Basques on the west, with various back roads to be explored along the way. Unforgettable landscapes and the opportunity to interact with a moose or two give this route its special Newfoundland charm. Dramatic visuals can also be found on the Powder Horn Trail, a hilly, winding ride through the island’s high glacial wastelands.
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and even tiny PEI all have enthusiastic off-road communities with trails that wind through forests and farmlands, past lakes and shorelines and sleepy little towns.
From Baddeck, NS, on the southern border of Cape Breton’s famous Cabot Trail, a well-maintained network of off-road trails leads into the hills offering spectacular views and eventually connecting to the Highland Trails of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In New Brunswick, an old railroad line along the southwestern Miramichi River offers a scenic ride through second- and third-grown forests, while in PEI, hiking trails lead from the town of Murray River along the river itself, offering sightings of seals and royal blue herons stalking the shallows .