Snowmobile vs ATV: What’s The Difference?

Snowmobiles and ATVs are fun machines that allow you to explore the backcountry, travel in remote settings, or take care of necessary tasks on ranches, farms, and other rural settings. They are similar in many ways but also have a few key differences. 

I’m a lifelong winter sports enthusiast, and I’ve been snowmobiling for most of my life. I have decades of experience on sleds, but I also am very familiar with ATVs. I understand how both of these machines work and the differences between the two. 

I wanted to write up a post that compares and contrasts snowmobiles versus ATVs. This can be valuable information for any action sports lover or people who love small engines as I do. And even if you have never been on either, this post might convince you to hop on one or the other. 

Let’s start the engines and get moving. 

The Obvious Difference

Ok, let’s get the obvious out of the way here. I’m sure nearly everyone reading understands this, but a snowmobile is built for the snow, and an ATV is built to move across dry land for the few newcomers out there

There are instances where ATVs can be driven on snow, and they can actually do alright if the snow isn’t too deep. And you may have seen a snowmobile race on grass or water. But these applications are not standard. 

I’ll highlight some situations where you might want to use an ATV in the snow, but it’s good to understand that these machines are better on dry ground and snowmobiles are better during the winter when the snow starts stacking up. 

Snowmobile vs. ATV: Detailed Comparision

Let’s take a deeper dive into the similarities and differences between snowmobiles and ATVs to understand better when and why you would want to use either machine. 

TerrainSnow/IceAll-Terrain/Light snow and ice
ControlsThrottle/Handlebar SteeringThrottle/Handlebar Steering
SafetyHelmet/Avalanche AwarenessHelmet/General safe driving skills
MaintenanceRegular small engine maintenance Regular small engine maintenance 


Both snowmobiles and ATVs have a similar function in that they are designed to move a person across areas that regular automobiles cannot go. Snowmobiles are designed almost exclusively for the snow, while ATVs are designed for all-terrain use. 

Both of these machines are commonly used as recreational vehicles, meaning that they can be used for fun and entertainment. Many riders like to take their sleds or ATVs out on trails or in the backcountry as a way to enjoy nature. 

But ATVs and snowmobiles can also be used for functional purposes such as transport, hunting, or hauling equipment into hard-to-reach places. They are often utilized in remote settings because they can get around where other vehicles cannot. 

Operation and Control 

ATVs and snowmobiles have similar operations and controls. If you know how to operate one of these machines, it’s really easy to hop on the other and get cruising. They look a lot different, but the basics of how they operate are pretty much the same. 

ATVs have wheels, and snowmobiles do not. That’s a big difference that affects how they operate and their intended use. But you use the handlebars to steer and the throttle to move forward on both of them. 

A fairly significant difference between ATVs and snowmobiles is that some ATVs can be used in 4-wheel-drive mode or 2-wheel-drive mode while snowmobiles don’t have any changes available with the drive train.

Snowmobiles are typically lighter in weight than ATVs. This can make them more maneuverable and easier to navigate in tight situations. A single rider can often lift up the rear end of a snowmobile to help move it, while that’s more difficult with an ATV.

Maintenance and Upkeep

The maintenance and upkeep of snowmobiles and ATVs are pretty similar, especially when it comes to the engine. If you understand how to perform basic maintenance on one, you should be able to handle the other. 

ATVs can have more powerful engines and more complicated suspension systems because of the wheels. This means that the cost of maintaining a snowmobile is a bit cheaper than maintaining an ATV. But this can vary from machine to machine. 

Regardless of what machine you have, or if you have both, regular maintenance is an important aspect of ownership. If you want them to last a long time and deliver reliable performance every time you ride, you need to ensure they are well-maintained. 


Safety is extremely important with both snowmobiles and ATVs, and there are similar safety concerns with both. You always need to wear a helmet when you are riding, and you might want to consider extra body armor if you ride aggressively or race. 

Understanding how these machines maneuver is another essential safety consideration. You also need to be careful when turning to not flip them or fall off. Rolling either of them can lead to injury or worse. 

All snowmobilers need to have basic avalanche safety knowledge, especially if they are going to ride in the backcountry. If you don’t plan on using your ATV in the winter, there really isn’t any need for avalanche safety, but it’s still good to know if you are interested.  

Can You Use ATVs in the Snow?

You can use an ATV in the snow, and many people do this rather than purchase a snowmobile. 

This is more common for utility use than for recreational purposes. If you own a large property or ranch, you might use your ATV in the snow.  

An ATV can function alright in slight to moderate snow, but it won’t float on deeper powder like a snowmobile. That’s why ATVs aren’t often used for recreational purposes in the snow. If your goal is to have fun in the winter, you’ll want a snowmobile. 

If you are going to use your ATV in the snow, I recommend getting chains that will give you extra grip and traction. You can keep these on your tires while snow is on the ground to provide more bite and reliable performance. 

There are ATVs with tracks that function as a cross between a snowmobile and a snowcat. These are specialty machines that aren’t commonly used, and I don’t recommend getting one unless you are a gearhead who wants to tackle a new project.

Snowmobiles off the Snow

Believe it or not, there are several situations where you might use a snowmobile when there isn’t snow. These are primarily for novelty or specialty purposes, but the machines don’t absolutely need snow to operate. 

Water cross or water skipping is a type of snowmobile racing that occurs on water. Snowmobiles can go across lakes or other bodies of water if they are going fast enough and the rider knows what they are doing!

There are also drag races that occur on grass, but these are pretty rare. I don’t recommend using your snowmobile off the snow unless you have experience or are with other riders who have done this before. 


Here are some of the most frequently asked questions relating to snowmobiles versus ATVs. 

Snowmobile vs ATV: Which One is Better for Ice Fishing?

Generally, snowmobiles are used more often in ice fishing settings. But you can use an ATV if that’s what you have. ATVs aren’t as well-suited to deep snow, but if you just drive them on ice, you shouldn’t have any issues. 

Are Snowmobile Helmets and ATV Helmets the Same?

Snowmobile helmets and ATV helmets are not always the same. While you can use them interchangeably, a snowmobile-specific helmet can be a little too much for warm-weather ATV riding. And an ATV-specific helmet might not be warm enough for cold-weather snowmobiling. 

Are Tracks on ATV Worth it?

I don’t think that ATV tracks are worth it unless you have money to throw around and want a novelty machine. You won’t be able to use the ATV in the summertime, which kind of defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. 

Final Thoughts

If you like to snowmobile, you will like to ATV and vice versa. Both of these machines can let you have a lot of fun in the wilderness and are worth trying out. Just make sure to dress accordingly if you are out in the snow, and always keep safety in mind!     

About Chaz Wyland
I’m a snowmobile fanatic. I live for riding and am out on the trails or backcountry as often as possible during the winter months. I was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains and have snowmobiled in dozens of North American locations. When the snow is falling, you’ll find me on a sled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *