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Comparing Snowmobile vs ATV: Which is Better for Ice Fishing

Comparing Snowmobile vs ATV: Which is Better for Ice Fishing

Ice Fishing is a favorite way to get outdoors in the winter. But ice fishing requires a lot of gear to keep warm and get you to the fish. You can be old school and pull it all on a sled yourself. But why not save time and energy by using a snowmobile or 4WD ATV to haul you and your gear.

With all the ATVs, and snowmobiles on the market today, deciding which one best meets the demands of ice fishing can be tough. Read on to see if it’s snowmobiles or ATVs that best meet your needs for ice fishing. 

We’ll begin by looking at which type of snowmobile works best for Ice fishing

What type of Snowmobile is Best For Ice Fishing?

For ice fishing, fan-cooled snowmobiles are the hands-down winner, here’s why. 

Fan cooled snowmobiles are air-cooled engines that use a system of fans to cool the engine. 

The benefit of this is they cool properly even in minimal or hard-packed snow conditions or in an icy environment typically encountered in ice fishing. 

An outstanding example of a fan-cooled sled is the Yamaha VK540a 540 cc two-stroke engine, geared to provide maximum torque for towing all your gear. 

Features to look for When Buying a Fan Cooled Snowmobile

When looking for a new or used Snowmobile, it should have a fan-cooled engine of at least 450cc, an automatic transmission, high fuel capacity, and electric start. 

The longer and wider skis and tracks distribute weight better the better. Wider tracks are less maneuverable, but they’ll dig in better to get you where you’re going, with a smoother ride.  

For moving your gear, you want a snowmobile with connections for towing, or space to add carrying racks. High load capacity with good torque at lower speeds for hauling, and high snow to chassis clearance.

Are ATVs for Ice Fishing?

Razor Dirt Quad 500 - 36V Electric 4-Wheeler ATV

ATVs or quads are multi-purpose recreational vehicles suited to all terrains. They are highly maneuverable, with insanely quick acceleration, and go-anywhere capabilities that guarantee riders an adrenaline rush. 

Not only do ATVs have the power, traction, and hauling capacity for farm and commercial applications, but they’ll get you wherever the fish are biting. Top it off with year-round readability and the idea of buying an ATV becomes a slam dunk for the outdoorsmen.

But the question is: Are ATVs the best fit for ice fishing? Let’s look at the downsides of ATVs.

ATVs use more complex engines/cooling systems, transmissions, and braking systems than snowmobiles. They use four expensive tires, better models use four-wheel independent suspensions, and most only seat one person. 

All this means ATVs are more expensive to buy and maintain. In addition, they’re heavier, bulkier, require more strength to ride, and may not be suitable for smaller riders. 

Features an ATV Used For Ice Fishing Needs


When looking for an ATV, a fuel-injected single or two-cylinder engine will get the job done. 

Two-cylinder engines are worth extra consideration because they accelerate faster than same-size single-cylinder engines, but they‘re bulkier, heavier, and may be difficult for younger or smaller riders.


ATV drivetrains consist of a transmission, front, and rear final drive, and differentials all working in tandem to move power to the wheels and ultimately the ground.  

Unless you’re a racer, you want an automatic transmission to avoid clutching and keep riding fun. An optional internal gear-drive transmission is more costly, but The improved performance is worth the price.

Final chain-drives are the standard method of transferring torque to the front and rear differentials. Optional, final shaft drives cost more but are worth it since it doesn’t require regular adjustment like a chain drive.

A combo 2WD/4WD drive system is usually standard. It allows you to turn 4WD on when more traction is needed and off when it’s not needed. 2WD is more economical, so only use 2WD when needed. Look for a model that switches between switchable without dismounting your quad. 

A limited-slip front differential sends power to the wheel, getting more traction. An optional locking 4 wheel differential forces wheels to spin at the same speed getting you out of harder jams like deep mud.

Suspension & braking systems

suspension systems are typically 4 wheel independent systems, but some entry-level models use a solid rear axle. They use parts similar to your truck’s suspension. The front wheels need to be properly aligned to perform properly.

It’s worth being sure your model has an adjustable four-wheel independent suspension. Disc brakes are simply the best choice and standard on most models.


For ice fishing, you want tires with long paddle-like treads. These treads bite into snow and ice well and help propel your ATV if you’re in the water.

A perk of an ATV’s oversized tires is that they displace enough water to provide limited buoyancy. Installing tires with a high floatation rating can increase this effect, and is worth considering when ice fishing

Installing the Nebulus flotation device seen below is a precaution that may save your life and ride.


Breaking it down: Comparing Snowmobiles & ATVs for Ice Fishing

Purpose & Season

Built for winter, fan-cooled snowmobiles thrive in the icy winter conditions of ice fishing. They have the power and capacity to meet all wintertime recreational and work needs. 

The bad news is their winter-specific design limits their use. 

On the other hand, ATVs are multi-purpose, all-terrain vehicles capable of meeting all demands of the ice fishing season. A huge perk is their multipurpose design means they aren’t sideland for lack of ice and snow.


Basics | Air cooled engines vs Liquid cooled engines | Animation. ✔

When ice fishing, snowmobiles with a gasoline-powered, two-stroke, fan-cooled engines maintain the proper operating temperature in all conditions thanks to heat-dissipating fins on cylinder heads and a system of cooling fans.

These simple fan-cooled engines require minimal maintenance keeping ownership cost lower. It’s best to look for an engine of 450cc or more. 

In contrast, ATVs use more complex gasoline-powered, two-cylinder, liquid-cooled engines. Their liquid cooling systems are more expensive to manufacture and have more breakable parts, increasing the risk of potential problems and the cost of ownership.  

A minimum 450cc or larger engine is suggested. Two-cylinder liquid-cooled engines are also heavier and bulkier. They require more strength to ride and may not suit smaller, or younger riders.

Transmissions & Drive systems

BRP | Snowmobile Drive-line (Part 1)

Snowmobiles use a pulley-based continuously variable transmission that functions similar to an automatic transmission. Shifting occurs through a system of clutches and pulleys triggered by centrifugal force. 

Variable speeds move the drive-belt to the appropriate pulley resulting in smooth gear changes.  Power transfers directly to tracks via a direct chain drive. A lever reversing gear direction puts a Snowmobile in reverse.

ATVs with automatic transmissions are standard on the bulk of quads sold today. Their standard clutch belt-drive systems are lighter, which is a plus for ice fishing. 

Optional, internal gear-driven transmissions are more reliable. They are more expensive to own and heavier, a red flag when ice fishing.

Final drive systems and Differentials

Snowmobiles use a simple direct chain-drive system to get power to the tracks and ultimately into the ground. The absence of complex final drive systems and differentials found in ATVs equals fewer parts to breakdown, keeping their cost of ownership lower.

In stark contrast, an ATVs 4WD design demands front and rear final drive systems to move power from the transmission to the differential. 

Optional Final Shaft-drives are more reliable which equals fewer repairs offsetting increased cost of ownership. Standard chain drives are lighter, but they stretch and need costly regular adjustments or replacement.

Standard 2WD/4WD Limited slip differential sends power to the wheels that need it most, be sure to look for a model that uses a button to switch between 2WD/4WD while riding.

Optional locking differentials send maximum power to the front wheels to get you out of difficult jams like deep mud.

Suspension systems

Yamaha ATV Independent Suspension System

A snowmobile’s Front suspension typically uses independent a-arms in the front with adjustable, coil-over, spring-loaded shocks on the skis to absorb impact and control ride. 

Rear suspensions are more complex with dual side rails that carry front, mid and rear independent a-arms with coil-over shocks to control the sled’s ride. The rear system is adjustable as well.

Front suspensions in ATVs are fairly complex. They are independent and use a-arms with various adjustable coil-over shocks. Proper alignment improves handling and wears on the suspension and tires.

Independent rear suspension is found on most 4WD sport utility quads. Each wheel moves independently, helping climb obstacles. 

Suspension Adjustments are doable, but maybe a bit much for many weekend warriors. Visit this link for a guide

Braking systems

Rear disc brakes get the job done and perform well in freezing conditions, and are standard on snowmobiles. Because of superior performance, disc brakes are standard on all four wheels. Of quad ATVs. 

Getting Power to the Ground: Tires, Skis, and Tracks

Snowmobiles use skis to steer and tracks for traction
Engines and drive trains are about producing power to move your ride. Tires, skis and tracks get that power to the earth.

Snowmobiles use skis to steer and tracks for traction to propel the sled. Skis should be carbide and as wide as possible to improve weight distribution on the ice. 

Longer wider tracks are also best. They dig in and give you better traction, and of course, improve weight distribution on the ice.

Longer wider tracks and skis won’t steer as well but they give you a smoother, and quieter ride. You can expect to get 3-10 years out of a snowmobile track, the more aggressively you ride, the shorter their lifespan. 

Snow tires help your car drive better in the winter, and they’ll give you better control on the ice. Sadly, there aren’t a ton of tires committed to winter driving conditions. 

For ice fishing, look for a tire that is good on the ice with a high floatation rating. The Maxxis 4-snow fits the bill. 

Tire replacement is another factor that drives up the cost of ATV ownership. Depending on your riding style, you can expect to replace tires in only a year or in as long as five years. 

Seating and Cargo Capacity

one-seater ATV
Most standard snowmobiles are built for one rider. 2-up or touring snowmobiles are factory-built machines that can legally carry two riders.
Click this link to view a few touring models.

Cargo capacity- is about 400 pounds plus rider. Towing capacity is about 1,500 pounds depending on snow conditions. That’s enough to haul all the gear needed to get your limit, or pull portable ice shelters and larger ice houses.

Aggressive off-road riding means quad ATVs are best suited to one rider. But there are two seaters available for less aggressive riding or touring. 

400 pounds is a good ballpark figure for cargo capacity, counting the rider.  Divide cargo with ⅔ on the rear racks and ⅓ on the front racks.

Cost and Affordability


NewRay 57783B 1:16 Snowmobile-Polaris 800 Switchback Pro-X-Blue Diecast Vehicle

Fan cooled snowmobiles are lower cost than ATVs because of their simple Air-cooled engines and smaller braking systems using only two brakes, compared to four on an ATV. These less complex systems cost less to build and maintain.  A reliable used snowmobile can be found in the low thousands and new models are moderately priced.


X-PRO ATV Quad 4 Wheelers Utility ATV Full Size

ATVs are simply more costly to own and operate.  Their more complex cooling systems, transmissions, braking systems, and tire replacement drive up cost. Prices are easily several thousand higher for a new or used quad than a snowmobile with an equal size engine. 

Snowmobiles vs ATvs
  • Naturally aspirated gasoline-powered.
  • Fan cooled, 2-cylinder with at least 450cc. 
  • Typically engines are fuel-injected, gas-powered. 
  • They may be single or twin cylinders with a minimum of 450cc.
Cooling systemsSnowmobilesATVs
  • Fan cooled engines are best for ice fishing. 
  • They are simple and easy to maintain.
  • Liquid-cooled engines.
  • complex and requires regular maintenance.
  • Clutch belt-drive system.
  • There is a reverse gear.
  • Most are automatics w/ reverse. 
  • Optional internal gear drive.
  • Clutch belt-drive system standard. 
Final drive systemsSnowmobilesATVs
Final drive system is direct chain-driven.
  • Final chain drive is standard.
  • Optional shaft drives are reliable and low maintenance.
  • N/A, snowmobiles don’t use a differential.
  • 2WD/4WD limited-slip differentials are standard.
  • Optional locking differential is recommended.
  • 15 inches or wider are suggested.
  • Tracks have 3-10 years of use.
  • Carbide-based skis.
  • For ice Fishing, longer, wider skis help with weight distribution.
  • Look for a tire with a good floatation rating. 
  • Large paddle-like treads grip the ice well. 
  • Replace as needed. Every 1-5 years.
Braking SystemsSnowmobilesATVs
In all conditions, rear disc brakes are the best choice.Four-wheel disc brakes are best for all terrains.
Suspension systemsSnowmobilesATVs
  • Independent front, mid and rear suspension system. 
  • Using adjustable coil-over shocks.
  • Rear rails carry sliding independent a-arms, controlling roll.
  • 4 wheel Adjustable suspension.
  • Coilover shocks w/ individual a-arms are preferred.
  • Entry-level models may use a solid rear axle.
Steering SystemsSnowmobilesATVs
  • Power steering is standard on most quads today.
Buoyancy and flotationSnowmobilesATVs
Reliability & maintenanceSnowmobilesATVs
  • Fan cooled snowmobiles are reliable. 
  • Simple design equals limited maintenance.
  • complex systems equal more regular maintenance. 
  • The cost of ownership is higher.
Ice safety is the primary safety concern for snowmobiles and ATV’s. Visit this Minnesota Department of natural resource link for ice safety guidelines. Pay attention to weight distribution and avoid overloading for both.
  • New snowmobiles are Moderately expensive.
  • Used snowmobiles will be less. 
  • A fan-cooled sled is inexpensive to operate and maintain.
  • Basic ATV will be moderately expensive. 
  • High-end models are more expensive. 
  • Higher maintenance needs drive up the cost of ownership.

The Winner is Snowmobiles. They’re Best For Ice Fishing.

snowmobiles are best suited to ice fishing
If the conclusion surprises you, think of our original question:
Are snowmobiles or ATVs better for ice fishing? In answer to this question, the facts point to snowmobiles: 

Snowmobiles have a long history of reliable performance and are built to run in the extremes of winter weather. They’re lighter, easier to use and maintain. Best of all, they’re less expensive to own and operate. Quad ATVs can do all this but are heavier, harder to ride, more expensive to own and represent an unjustified expense. 

In the end, it’s an apple to orange comparison Quad ATVs have a place for year-round use. But the question is, Are Snowmobiles or ATVs better for ice fishing? The answer to that question is, fan-cooled snowmobiles are best suited to ice fishing, because they do all you need, reliably and with better value.