In Whistler, B.C., says Kim Wilson, “everything leads up.”
She is not referring to the mountains’ legendary ski runs, where everything actually leads down, but to a much more rugged sport, one that has seen tremendous growth in Canada in recent years.
As owner and operator of Whistler ATV Tours, one of the original outdoor tour companies in the region, Wilson’s mission is to introduce you to the wild. Vertically.
All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs (also known as quads) and their UTV siblings are motorized off-road vehicles that resemble something out of a Mad Max movie: a vestigial frame with bone-crushing tires that can handle mud, rocks, lava fields and water courses with ease.
The former, meant for a single rider, is essentially a sturdy motorbike with four wheels for off-road stability. The rider straddles the seat and guides with the handlebars. UTVs (utility terrain vehicles a.k.a. side-by-sides) were developed for multiple users and offer more comfort, with car-like features that are ideal for families: bench or bucket seats, seatbelts, a steering wheel and a roll cage overhead.
Because an ATV is a go-anywhere vehicle, it meets the criteria for people who like to do extreme things.— Wayne Daub, general manager of the Canadian Quad Council
ATVs are lighter, narrower and easier to manoeuvre than UTVs, but both models hold the promise of adventure, the thrill of leaving the beaten asphalt and discovering nature in the wild.
“It really feels like you’re in a different world,” says Wilson, describing the spectacular views that define her Top of the World tour, which climbs to heights of 5,000 feet (1,524 metres). “You never tire of it.”
In the last three years, the popularity of off-roading has soared: In 2020, sales of new ATVs were up 30 per cent from 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic played a big part in this abrupt boost – lockdowns and restrictions left city dwellers craving outdoor activities that would also allow them to social-distance. “People who live in condos just wanted to get outside,” says Wilson.
Wayne Daub, general manager of the Canadian Quad Council, estimates there are currently 1 to 1.5 million all-terrain vehicles in Canada, with the sport contributing (in 2015) about $1.68-billion – including downstream revenues – to the Canadian economy. “I would think it’s probably 20 per cent higher by now,” he says. Updated figures are expected in the coming year.
As demand continues to rise, tour operators and retailers are faced with another COVID-19-related effect: a shortage of new vehicles, due to supply-chain issues at the manufacturing end. “In 2020, we sold out of everything,” Daub says. “Ten-year-old vehicles are selling at more than their original price.”
His organization stresses the need for responsible off-roading to protect both the rider and the wilderness environment. Certified safety equipment (especially the helmet) and conscientious use of designated trails are considered essential. Also crucial is choosing a vehicle appropriate to the age, size, weight and skill level of the rider. Youth ATV engines range from 50 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 a go-anywhere vehicle, it meets the criteria for people who like to do extreme things,” says Daub. “But there are definitely a lot more newbie riders.” He recommends that newcomers take a recognized training course, or at the very least, confirm that their tour company will offer some basic instruction before heading out into the wild.
Steve Levesque, general manager and lead guide at Outdoor Adventures ATV, concurs. “Safety is our number one priority,” he says. Each tour starts with a safety briefing and a practice run on the flat before moving into gradually more challenging terrain. “Ninety-five per cent of our clients have never been on an ATV before.”
His company operates along the wild northwestern edge of Algonquin Park in Ontario; the expansive Crown lands offer riders “a huge variety of trails” and the exciting likelihood of wildlife sightings. “Our location is unique, with very little population,” he says. “Every tour you’ll probably see a moose or a bear or a wolf.”
Levesque has been riding for 30 years and says, “it never gets boring.” The thrill is discovering unused trails, surmounting the challenges, accessing the inaccessible.
“The unknown,” he muses, “there’s a lot of that out there.”
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In the largely rural provinces of Atlantic Canada, ATVs are almost a way of life. With a wealth of wilderness to explore, clubs, associations and trail maps abound, catering to the more independent rider. Trails can range in length from five kilometres – an afternoon’s excursion to enjoy a hidden waterfall or fish in a tranquil lake – to the 883-kilometre adventure that is Newfoundland’s awesome T’Railway.
A repurposed railbed whose 130 bridges and trestles are maintained by a provincially funded council, the T’Railway connects St. John’s on the island’s east coast to Port aux Basques on the west, with sundry branch lines begging to be explored along the way. Memorable scenery and the possibility of interacting with a moose or two give this route its particular Newfoundlander charm. Dramatic visuals can also be found on the Powder Horn Trail, a hilly, twisting ride across the island’s high glacial barrens.
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and even tiny PEI all possess enthusiastic off-roading communities, with trails that wander through woods and farmlands, past lakes and coastlines and sleepy little towns.
From Baddeck, N.S., at the south border of Cape Breton’s famed Cabot Trail, a well-maintained network of off-road trails leads into the hills, offering spectacular views, and eventually connects to the highland trails of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In New Brunswick, an old rail line along the southwest Miramichi River offers a scenic ride through second- and third-growth forest, while in PEI, trails run from the town of Murray River along the river itself, offering sightings of seals and regal blue herons stalking in the shallows.