How To Tighten ATV Brakes In 5 Simple Steps

As an ATV owner and off-road riding enthusiast, it makes sense to learn how to do basic maintenance tasks yourself. This not only saves costs but will allow you to make adjustments when you are out on the trail, and something goes wrong. Learning how the brakes work on you ATV and making your own adjustments is the perfect place to start.

Tightening the brakes on your ATV can be achieved by a simple 5 step process.

  1. Establish whether your brakes are disc brakes or drum brakes.
  2. Jack up the end of the ATV you are working on.
  3. Locate the adjustment screws on the front brakes or the wing nuts on the back brakes.
  4. Adjust the brakes until they start to bind on the wheels, and then back them off slightly.
  5. Remove the ATV from the jacks and test the wheels move freely when the brakes are not applied.

The process for adjusting the front and back brakes differ slightly from each other. The back brake also has the hand brake, if your ATV is fitted with one, which will require adjustment as well. We detail this process for the front and back brakes and also the adjustment of the rear brake pedal and handbrake.

1. Establish Whether Your Brakes Are Drum Or Disc Brakes

Establishing whether your brakes are drum brakes or disc brakes is essential because if the brakes are disc brakes, they cannot be adjusted.

Disc brakes work on a hydraulic system that does not require adjustment. If you have disc brakes on your ATV and they are causing you problems, then you should check fluid levels in the brake fluid reservoir or check to see if the brake pads have worn down.

If the brake pads have worn down, you would usually be warned by a squealing noise when you apply the brakes.

Other problems can go wrong on hydraulic disc brake systems such as replacing seals and pistons I the master cylinder of the system, but this is probably best left to professionals if you are unsure how to tackle it.

If your ATV has drum brakes, then we are in business and can make adjustments to the brakes. This brake system is mechanical as opposed to hydraulic, and we can adjust the distance of the brake shoes from the drum.

2. Jack Up The End Of The ATV You Are Working On

A jack or a stand that can lift the ATV so that all four wheels are off the ground is the ideal position to work on the brakes of your ATV, and it makes the job quicker and safer!

If you don’t have this equipment, jack up the end of the ATV that you will be working on. Remember, for safety, place chocks behind the wheels that are still on the ground to prevent the ATV rolling off the jack and potentially causing injury to you or damage to the ATV.

With the wheels you are working on lifted off the ground, you will easily be able to turn the wheels by hand while you are adjusting the brakes. In this way, you can make sure you have not tightened the brakes too much, causing the wheels to bind and not spin freely.

3. Locate The Adjustment Screws

The front brake adjustment and the back brake adjustment processes differ due to the different adjustment mechanisms for the two brakes.

Front Brakes

Each of the front wheels has an access port through which you can reach the adjustment wheel for the brakes. You can remove the front wheel for easier access, although this is not completely necessary. This access port is often covered with a dust-plug, which on some models of ATV is red. You will need to remove this dust-plug to access the adjustment wheel through the access port.

It is handy to have a small torch on hand to shine into the access port so you can locate the adjustment wheels inside the drum.

With the plug removed as per the previous step, turn the front wheel by hand so that the access port is located at the six o’clock position. From this position, you can move the wheel to access each of the two adjustment wheels, one to the right of the 6 o’clock position and one to the left of the 6 o’clock position. The adjustment wheels have little arms on them, so they look like a cog. You can use a flat screwdriver through the opening to turn the wheel in the required direction.

Once you have the adjustment wheels located, move on to the next step to make the actual adjustment.

Rear Brakes

The rear brakes have two adjustment points, one for the pedal brake and one for the hand brake. Both these are cable adjustments and can be accessed via the rear brake panel, on the right rear axle of the ATV.

The adjustment can be accessed without removing the wheels, as the adjustment nuts face the rear of the ATV. The rear brake panel will have two cables coming into it, one for the hand brake and one for the foot brake.

Each of the cables will have a wingnut at the end, which is used for adjusting the tension or length of the cable.

4. Adjust The Brakes Of The ATV

Due to the difference in procedure between the front and rear brake adjustment, we will cover them separately.

Adjusting The Front Brakes

You will need to turn both the adjustment wheels to get the correct adjustment on the brakes. Turning the adjustments in one direction will pull the brake shoes in, effectively tightening them. Turning the adjustment wheel the opposite way will push the brake shoe away from the drum, effectively loosening the brakes.

The direction to turn to tighten and loosen depends on your ATV, so you will need to turn it one way to see if it tightens or loosens to establish which direction works for your ATV.

Adjusting The Rear Brakes

When adjusting the rear brakes, you will have to adjust both the foot brake and the hand brake. Both these brake mechanisms are activated with a cable, one running to the foot pedal, and one to the hand brake mechanism. The adjustment for both cables is via the wingnuts on the brake panel on the rear axle.

The wingnuts are usually one above the other, with the top wingnut being the adjustment for the hand brake and the bottom for the foot pedal. This configuration may differ for your ATV, so you may need to trace the cables to confirm where they go.

The adjustment is achieved by tightening the wingnuts to tighten the brakes or loosening the wingnuts to loosen the brakes. Tightening the cable effectively pulls the brake shoes closer to the brake drum, and loosening the cable allows the shoes to move further away from the drum.

While adjusting the wingnut, hold the cable with a small wrench or a pair of pliers to stop the cable from twisting. There is a hex-shaped section on the cable for this purpose. If the cable twists while you are tightening the brakes, it can weaken the cable and cause it to snap, which will require the cable to be replaced.

Adjust the foot pedal cable till the pedal engages the brake without having to be depressed very far. Then, with the ATV in neutral, spin the back wheel to make sure the brakes are not binding on the wheel. If they are binding, slacken the cable off a half turn at a time until they are no longer binding.

Then adjust the tension on the hand brake cable to accommodate the changes made to the foot pedal cable.

If the adjustment of the cables does not tighten the brakes sufficiently, then the drum and or shoes may be worn to the point that they need to be replaced. If you are uncertain how to do this job, rather take it to a professional who can fit the new parts for you.

5. Remove The ATV From The Jacks And Test

Lower the jacks and remove them from under the ATV. As a final check, put the ATV in neutral and push around a little to make sure there is no binding of the brakes.

This is important because if the brakes bind, it will wear them out faster, generate heat, which could cause a fire, and use more fuel.

If there is still binding, repeat the adjustment procedure to alleviate the problem, if there is no binding, you have successfully set your ATV brakes!


Mastering these basic maintenance tasks on your ATV will make you more confident when you need to make adjustments while out on the off-road trail. Set yourself some goals to learn how to do more of these types of tasks and basic maintenance, you will be a more confident off-roader as a result!

Happy ATV’ing!

Louis Pretorius

As an amateur off-road enthusiast, I have always been drawn to outdoor adventure. I have decided to share all of my learning experiences with you as I dig a little deeper into my new-found passion and wonderful world of off-roading. My mission is to create the Ultimate Off-roading space on the internet in the process. Stay safe and happy Off-Roading!

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