Tactical Use of ATV ‘Four-Wheelers’

I decided to write this post after spending a day up at my site with J.C. Dodge from Mason-Dixon Tactical. He originally came up to meet and ended up staying all day to help with some work we were doing to improve the training site. We had a long tactical discussion and as part of that we were discussing SHTF ATV tactics. So credit where credit is due – he helped form some of the ideas behind this post.

The intent of this post is to focus on general patrol use of ATV’s. The tactical use of ATV’s is a very large topic and in the spirit of keeping the post to a reasonable length I will look at the topic in general with this post and look to further posts to focus in more specific detail on topics such as break contact drills. So really, the purpose today is to pass on concepts rather than tell you specifically how to run drills.

A good primer read would be my POST on ‘Tactical Mobility’ from July. ATV use forms a subset of that topic. The first objection I anticipate is “there will be no fuel” in an SHTF situation. Well, we can’t predict exactly what SHTF will look like. It could be a full grid-down collapse or it could be a partial collapse, a civil war, a foreign invasion, a balkanization, or some similar thing. This may allow continued fuel supply, perhaps limited to theft from enemy forces and the black market, and you may also have stocked up on fuel at your retreat in order to be able to continue limited vehicle operations. So don’t situate yourself too much with your own assumptions; for the purposes of this post, we will assume availability of fuel to run ATV missions, within reason. At the very least, you can run them till you can’t….

Using ATV’s is a cross between foot patrolling and vehicle patrolling. I do cover vehicle and foot patrolling and break contact drills for both in detail in the manual ‘Contact! A Tactical Manual for Post Collapse Survival’. The important thing is that the principles – that of fire and movement – remain the same even if the detail changes. I will be raising various situations and configurations throughout this post and it is important for you to adapt the basic principles of fire and movement to the set-up that you are using, in order to create effective SOPs.

Why use ATV’s at all?

They have the following advantages over foot movement:

         Range, short term (within fuel considerations, not an advantage over long term foot moves)

         Equipment carriage


         Ability to evacuate casualties. Vital.

Disadvantages over foot movement:

         Noise. A key consideration.

         Range, long term (limited fuel)

         Limitations of off-road capability.

They have the following advantages over vehicle movement:

         Off road capability & versatility of routes. This is absolutely vital.


         Less equipment carriage

         Less range

Equipment carriage over that which can be carried by a dismounted fighter is an important consideration. However, if you are looking to move large amounts of supplies, ammunition or support weapons then you are likely to want to put trailers on your ATV’s or step up and use larger vehicles like the Polaris style UTVs. That in itself would be a vital use because by doing so you could achieve objectives such as the resupply of remote patrol bases or caches, or the transport of heavier weapons and larger amounts of ammunition to support a raid. However, that is a separate discussion and such a use of ATV/UTV vehicles would limit their maneuverability and therefore is not a consideration for use in this post on basic patrolling.

The two considerations that I have highlighted in bold above are noise and versatility of off-road routes. These are both key considerations and speak to the tactical employment of ATVs for patrolling. Noise must be taken account of in your movement plans. The off-road capability must be utilized to the maximum to reduce your chances of enemy contact, and reduce channeling such as found when using standard vehicles when you move on roads and larger trails.

If you are looking to patrol a large area, or for example move to conduct an OP or raid on an objective where time and distance preclude a long foot move, then ATVs are a perfect choice. They will not go everywhere a man can walk: they are limited in the incline they can get up and down and have difficulty driving sideways across steep slopes. They can be stopped by creeks and other broken ground. However, you can use them on small trails or even just cross-country, depending on your terrain. You can weave through trees. This is where they have a vital advantage over vehicles, even 4 x 4 off road vehicles, which are often still limited to certain routes. Of course, if you are in open desert, then this is no longer a consideration and full sized 4 x 4 vehicles may become a better option for range, speed and equipment carriage reasons.

Noise is a key factor. This is where you have to be clever in your tactical application. Noise can be reduced by using slower speeds, which is something you will be doing if tactically patrolling anyway. Noise is also reduced by using range and terrain masking. You will use terrain masking anyway to help defeat FLIR. You will probably not drive an ATV all the way towards the enemy position, but you may perhaps drive it to behind the ridge over which the enemy is located, cache the ATV’s, and then move forward on foot.

If you are doing a raid and want ammo resupply and casualty evacuation, then you will leave the ATV’s to the rear in a rally point, move forward with the weapons and ammo you can carry, then call the ATV’s forward when the fight goes noisy and it does not matter anymore. They will bring the ammo up and evacuate any casualties. If you had heavier weapons such as mortars then ATV/UTV vehicles would be able to carry in the heavy ammunition and may be co-located at the mortar firing line in dead ground from the enemy position. For a machine gun fire support line, the ATVs would be out of noise range to the rear and would have to move forward once the fight started. 

Military units have for some time utilized ATV’s with trailers as part of dismounted formations to carry ammo and evacuate casualties. The ATV(s) will move slowly at the rear of the formation, for example in the platoon sergeant’s group within a dismounted platoon. The noise of a slow moving ATV is limited, granted it is not uber-tactical, but it depends what you are doing. Horses for courses.

If you are really serious, you can even get a stealth exhaust system for your ATV’s that will significantly reduce noise. Remember that the less noise you make, not only are you reducing the range at which you can be heard, but you are also allowing yourself to hear more:

“The Stealth 2.0 Exhaust System is an innovative high-flow/low-restriction spark-arresting muffler with a smaller diameter for a better universal fit. 4.5″ diameter by 12.5″ overall length. Quiets UTV or ATV exhaust noise by at least 50% with no measurable back pressure or loss in performance. In fact, Dyno test results on some models have revealed an increase in midrange power and overall performance. Universal design fits any UTV or ATV with a four-stroke engine. Heat shield included. Certain models require an additional adapter (sold separately).Colors: Black.”

So how are we going to conduct these ATV patrols?

I would suggest a minimum of two ATV’s, which gives you a buddy pair. You could have one person on each ATV, or two people. You could have a four-man team riding on two ATVs, or give each man an ATV for more flexibility. If you had the full four vehicles, then you could really practice genuine bounding overwatch by deploying one pair on an overlooking feature, the other pair riding across to the next feature, then the overwatch pair mounting up and riding across,. The speed of the ATV’s will allow this to be conducted fairly rapidly but keep a base of potential fire ready in overwatch in case the moving pair comes under enemy fire.  

Alternatively, if you are ‘riding the fences’ at your retreat property with ground domination patrols, you could send out one man on an ATV, preferably two persons (a buddy riding on the back), to do a short term patrol and look for signs of infiltration. This kind of patrol could mix ATV movement with dismounted movement and LP/OP activity. 
If you are moving or patrolling on ATV’s you will have to consider how you can do this more tactically. You will inherently be less tactically aware and create a much larger signature than a foot patrol, but be more tuned in to the environment than if you were in a vehicle. Think about moving at a slow ‘patrol’ pace, well spaced, and using the ground as best as possible, in a similar way to how you would do it if you were on foot. It stands to reason that there will be times when moving on the ATV’s is not appropriate. That will be when close to the enemy and when you need to make better use of ground by moving on foot. ATV’s can go off-road to a serious extent but will still be limited.

A useful way to think about it would be similarly to how orienteers navigate to a checkpoint when racing: they will move at a fast run (green) when simply trying to macro navigate and close long distances fast. They will then slow down (amber) when seeking the attack point onto the checkpoint. They will then be moving slowly, maybe even walking (red), when moving from the attack point to find the checkpoint. They will then set off again at green to the next point, after a quick map orientation and assessment. You may end up moving initially at a faster pace (green) before slowing down (amber) when you are moving into what you consider ‘hostile’ territory, before caching the ATV’s and moving the final part of the route on foot (red).

Because you are driving an ATV, with your hands on the bars to steer, you will have a slower reaction with your weapon if you come under fire. As such, your first reaction might well be to move the vehicle rapidly into cover. You need to work out how to carry your rifle, whether slung across your chest or in a hunting rifle mount on the front of the ATV.

If you have two people on an ATV, then you may consider the passenger facing rear. You may have to rig a seat and foot rests up to do this. This will allow them to fire their weapon and cover the rear sector, and if you were able to turn around and drive away from the enemy in a break contact drill they would be in a position to fire. Be aware that if you want to conduct break contact drills in such a fashion, then you still need to stop to put accurate fire down on the enemy, so you would have a group moving and a group firing as per a conventional break contact drill. 

If you are riding an ATV alone, with another buddy travelling with you on another, then you have to work out the practical considerations of how you will break contact, which will depend largely on the terrain you are on and the ability to turn around. You may be able to reverse, spin around off-trail in a circle, or you may have to do a k-turn. A k-turn takes time and is not advised initially – if you can’t spin around due to a narrow trail, then reversing until you have broken contact or can spin around is better, then do the k-turn and drive away.

Also remember that sitting on your ATV you have a high profile so if you are going to stay on it you must be putting down effective suppressing fire and moving fast. Don’t forget reliability issues with the ATV and the potential for it to stall, or be disabled by enemy fire, if trying to maneuver under fire. All this points to the need to mentally be able to make the decision to get off the ATV when it does not serve you to stay on it any longer. This may take the form of abandoning the ATV and moving out on foot with a conventional break contact drill, or perhaps fighting back to your buddy and getting on the back of his. It may also mean that if you are moving back in bounds by fire and maneuvering on your ATV’s, that you may actually get off and adopt a fire position each time you stop. You have a choice between a balance of speed by staying on the ATV, or steady with more cover and effective fire if you get on and off with each bound.

There is potential to use the ATV itself as a form of cover. The engine and metal parts will give you a little cover, but there is a gas tank sitting right there in the middle, so beware! Yes, this isn’t Hollywood so gas does not automatically explode, but it is a fire/explosion hazard.

There is so much that you need to pull in from standard patrolling, and also from vehicle patrolling, that this shouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel but rather adapting techniques to ATV use. For example, you are making noise and limiting what you can hear. So, put in tactical halts. Stop, turn off the engines, and listen.

One of the great advantages of ATV’s over something like an off-road motorcycle is the stability. You can stop, turn it off and sit on it. You can take cover behind it. You can carry more gear; you can easily fire a weapon from on top of it. A dirt bike is useful for simple ‘run away’ drills to escape contact, either that or just dump it and fight out on foot. An ATV gives you more options, from simple ‘run away’ at speed (mostly not advised), break contact options while remaining on the vehicle and fire and maneuvering, and also the ability to dump the ATV and fight out on foot. The ATV also allows you to carry casualties. So in a contact if your buddy is hit, rather than having to drag him out of the contact and then carry him out, you can pull up, throw him on the ATV, and drive out. Even if you have to initially drag him off the ‘X’ by foot then if you then have an ATV, perhaps one parked outside of the contact or back at a Rally Point where you left it, you can man-carry the casualty to the ATV and then drive out to get help. Using ATVs will also allow you to move faster out of an objective area if you are subject to follow up by hostile forces.

But don’t forget the keys! If there is any potential for having to swap out or use others vehicles, then have an SOP for where the keys are; not on the body of the guy you left back at the objective before running away.

One thing that vehicles should have in a hostile situation is run-flat tires. Input on options for that with ATV’s, perhaps foam filled, would be useful. 
I will follow up this post with one next week discussing specific contact drills and how you may achieve them in varying terrain and maneuver options. Right now I am getting ready for my August 31st training weekend. For further training weekend availability, please check out THIS POST and also the detailed information on the MVT WEBSITE.
Live Hard, Die Free.