Best Side-by-Side UTVs for Riding in the Mountains

Every side-by-side owner will have their own personal preference of where they like to ride. The east coast has lots of woodland area as well as some smaller mountain ranges like the Shenandoah mountain valley.

While down south has more mud trails, crowded forests and the occasional swamp or bog. I grew up in the midwest, in the cross-roads state of America, Indiana.

There we did a lot of trail riding. Indiana is pretty flat, because of that, we didn’t have any problems with finding the “right” side-by-side because any of them would work.

However, for those of you who live out in the western parts of the United States, you have lots and lots of mountains and unlike our “anything will do” attitude in Indiana, finding the right side-by-side for the terrain that mountains pose is an essential part of staying safe and having fun.

Luckily for us, there are a plethora of different brands and models to choose from. It can be hard though, at times, to figure out just what model is capable to do what, and if certain suspensions, drivetrains, or shocks really play an important role in being able to climb through the mountains.

Long story short is…they do. Mountains pose a lot of steep inclines, unstable gravel, and loose rocks that some side-by-sides just can’t handle as well, while others are much better equipped for the job.

So the question then becomes what is the best fit? Is it the Polaris RZR that is always being bragged about? The Can-Am Maverick X3? Or does Honda, Kawasaki, or Yamaha have the better fit for an adventure in the Rockies?

Well, that is precisely what we are going to cover in this article. We will look at various brands, the models they have to offer, and which of those models would be best to have when confronting mountainous terrain.

Polaris

We will go ahead and start off with one of the most well-known and trusted side-by-side name in the business, Polaris. They have been around for years and have, and continue, to dominate the side-by-side market.

Polaris actually offers quite a few side-by-side options that would do great at traversing mountain ranges, however, to me there is one side-by-side overall that would be up to the task and more and that is the Ranger XP 1000 Back Country Limited Edition.

Ranger XP 1000 Back Country Limited Edition: $19,899

Key Features:

  • ProStar 1000 Engine
  • 82-hp & 62 ft-lb torque
  • 2WD/AWD & Turf Mode
  • 13 inches Ground Clearance
  • 4,500 lb Winch
  • 1,000 lb cargo capacity & 2,500 towing capacity

Typically I do not talk a lot about the various special edition side-by-sides in my articles, I tend to give overviews of the different base-model vehicles, and occasionally mention that there are other packages that can be bought.

However, with this particular article, I feel the need to be a bit more precise in my explanations and mention particular “special edition models” or “packages” because those are what is going to make your average trail rider side-by-side into the mountaineering side-by-side that you are looking for.

Even if you were to get the base model Ranger XP 1000 EPS, you would be in good shape. The Ranger XP 1000 EPS, including the Back Country Limited Edition, utilizes Polaris’s ProStar 1000 engine.

If you are going to be going into the mountains, then the first thing you are going to want out of your side-by-side is power and torque.

Forget about speed, because you won’t want to take things fast, having enough power to get you through rough patches, and enough torque to climb steep inclines is what is necessary and the Ranger XP 1000 has all that and more.

The Ranger XP 1000 produces 82 horsepower and 62-ft-lb of torque. Those kinds of specs are what you would expect out of one of the industries top leaders in side-by-sides.

Not only does this vehicle have the power and torque necessary, but the suspension is fit to challenge as well. It has 11 inches of travel and 13 inches of ground clearance.

Torque, Ground Clearance, and Cargo/Towing Capacity are important factors when picking out a side-by-side for mountain riding.

Ground clearance is another important factor you are going to want to look into when getting a side-by-side specifically for driving in the mountains.

Most of the folks I know that take their side-by-sides into the mountains are hunters, and so having the clearance to get you to where the big game is at is an important factor in having a successful hunting trip.

The last important factor to look for when selecting the correct side-by-side for mountain riding is the vehicles towing and cargo capacity. This is necessary to know for anyone looking to buy a side-by-side, but especially a hunter.

You are going to want to make sure that your side-by-side is capable of hauling anything you might actually bag out on your trip.

The Ranger XP 1000 has this qualification in the bag as well seeing as it sports a towing capacity of 2,500 pounds and a cargo bed capacity of 1,000 pounds so there is no need to be afraid of going for that 12 point buck.

If hunting in the mountains is not the only thing on your mind and perhaps you have some work to do, then the Ranger XP 1000 also makes storing things easier with reinforced tie-down points, and 5-gallon bucket rings embedded into the cargo box.

The cargo box itself is 36-in x 54-in x 12-in so it is fairly large in and of itself.

Another great feature of this side-by-side that makes it perfect for traversing mountainous terrain is its braking system. You can head downhill with a 1,500-pound payload capacity and still handle and maintain the vehicle just fine.

The electronic braking system will help you to remain in control of the vehicle all while minimizing wear and tear to the brakes themselves.

The Ranger XP 1000 also has a newly designed PVT clutch system that has a 32% larger drive belt than previous models. This is to give the transmission a longer belt life, something I personally always worry about with belt-driven transmissions.

The drivetrain on this Ranger is pretty much the same when compared to earlier Ranger models with an AWD/2WD function as well as the VersaTrac Turf Mode that Polaris has on some of the new Rangers to give it a softer ride on turf.

All of the aforementioned specifications are included in all of the Ranger XP 1000 models. The Back Country Limited Edition comes high mount air intakes, a 4,500 lb HD wench, and arched A-arms that give a wider 13 inches of ground clearance.

The air intakes help with if your vehicle was submerged so that the engine still receives air, and the wider stance of the suspension will help with traversing large rock outcrops and so forth.

So as you can see with everything that comes standard for this side-by-side and with the add-ons of the Back Country Limited Edition, this Polaris Ranger is a great vehicle for riding in the mountains.

General 1000 EPS Premium: $18,299

Key Features:

  • ProStar 1000 engine
  • 100 Horsepower
  • ZF Sachs Twin Tube Shocks
  • 12 inches Ground Clearance
  • 1,500 lb towing capacity 600 lb cargo capacity
  • 4,500 lb HD Wench

The General 1000 EPS Premium is another side-by-side by Polaris that I believe would be a good vehicle to take on some of the tougher trails that a mountain has to offer.

It too has a 999cc ProStar 1000 engine like the Ranger XP 1000. You will find that in this article I will reference a lot of 1000 model side-by-sides.

That is simply because I believe that for mountainous terrain, these larger engines are going to produce the power and torque necessary to have to get through the terrain itself.

The engine in the General 1000 EPS Premium has a best in class 4-stroke engine that produces 100 horsepower so it certainly is not skimpy in that regard.

I will say that compared to the Ranger XP 1000 the General 1000 Premium EPS lacks a bit in the suspension area. While it does have better shocks than the ranger, those being the ZF Sachs Twin Tube, its suspension is just the Double A-arm and those only give 12 inches of ground clearance.

Plus the General 1000 EPS only can do 1,500 pounds in towing capacity and the cargo box capacity is only 600 pounds. The premium edition does include a 4,500 lb HD wench just like the Back Country Limited Edition Ranger does, so that is a factor as well.

The transmission of the two vehicles are the same, this one having the new PVT belt that the Ranger has. The drivetrain for this side-by-side is also the same as the Ranger with the AWD/2WD/Turf Mode options.

The front bumper is a selling point for this premium version, It gives the vehicle a bit more protection upfront and is something that the winch can attach onto.

Overall I would take the Ranger XP 1000 over this side-by-side for mountain riding, however, if you want something that can just as easily handle mountainous terrain, as well as be a bit sportier with some extra horsepower then this is also a good option.

RZR S 1000 EPS

Key Features:

  • ProStar 1000 Engines
  • 100 Horsepower
  • Dual A-arm suspension
  • 12.5 inches Ground Clearance
  • Walker Evans 2.0 Needle Shocks
  • AWD High-Performance True On-Demand
  • Towing Capacity 1,500 lb & 300 lb Cargo Box Capacity

I am pretty careful with mentioning RZR models here on this article. I personally do not feel that quicker sports models are the best way to go if you are riding mountain trails.

The RZR S 1000 EPS is Polaris’s top trail tackling model in the lineup before you get into the Xtreme Sports/Performance section though, so I believe it to definitely be worth the mention.

If you are riding in the mountains just having fun and exploring and hunting, hauling, and towing are not your prime objectives on the trip, then I would say that this RZR S 1000 EPS model is your best choice from the Polaris lineup.

The RZR S 1000 EPS uses the same ProStar 1000 engine that the aforementioned models do, and this side-by-side also pushes out 100 horsepower just like the General 1000.

The suspension on this side-by-side is also one of the reasons that it is deemed “the alpha trail machine” because it has a dual A-arm suspension with over 13.2-inches of travel and right around 12.5 inches of ground clearance making it just shy of the Ranger XP 1000.

Still, that suspension is nothing to shake your head about when it is coupled with Walker Evans 2.0 Needle shocks. With those shocks, you are sure to have a comfortable, stable, and smooth ride over even the toughest rocks on the mountain.

With a 60-inch width for the vehicle set atop 27-inch Dirt Commander tires, this RZR S 1000 EPS will surely be able to climb the steepest of inclines all while maintaining a wide and stable stance.

One of my favorite features of this vehicle’s suspension is the sway bar so that if you do get to a point in the trail where you want to step on the gas you can corner tight and not worry about your tail spinning out from under you.

The drivetrain on this RZR is similar to that of the other Polaris side-by-sides albeit the AWD on this vehicle is Polaris’s “High-Performance True-On-Demand” meaning it is just specifically tuned for the high output that this vehicle produces.

The hitch towing capacity on this vehicle is similar to that of the General 1000, that being 1,500 pounds and the box capacity is that of 300 pounds. So as I said before if you are not worried about towing or carrying any cargo then this side-by-side is perfect.

Now there are other RZR models that move into the Xtreme Performance section of side-by-sides.

These models could do just fine in the mountains, however, when I think of riding in the mountains I think of trail-oriented models not sports/racing models so I will leave those out of this particular article.

Can-Am

Can-Am is another top name in the side-by-side industry and they have many various vehicles that compete directly with Polaris, making them very similar in performance, suspension, and even style.

That being said, Can-Am has an amazing 2020 lineup in all of the different sections for their side-by-sides this year. With 14 different options in the Defender category alone, it is hard to choose which side-by-side is right for you.

Seeing as I am addressing the best side-by-sides to ride in the mountains I am only going to address the top three models, that I believe, will be the best for riding in the mountains, once again leaving out the extreme performance models, that being the Maverick X3 series for Can-Am.

Don’t get me wrong, you could most definitely ride in the mountains with the X3 series, but they have much wider stances, are much heavier, and with power levels reaching 195 horsepower with turbos, I simply think it is too much power to be messing with when traveling through, oftentimes, tight and tricky terrain.

Defender XT-P: $18,999

Key Features:

  • Rotax HD10 V-twin engine
  • 82 horsepower & 69 ft-lb torque
  • Arched A-arm suspension & TTA suspension
  • 13 inches Ground Clearance
  • Heavy Duty Skid Plate
  • Towing Capacity 2,500 lb & 1,500 lb Cargo Box Capacity

We will start out with the Defender XT-P, if you were to compare this to a Polaris model it would be compared to the Ranger XP 1000.

The Defender XT-P has what you would want in any utility vehicle that is meant to climb, haul, and tow. Powering this monster of a machine is Can-Am’s Rotax HD10 V-twin engine which produces 82 horsepower and 69 ft-lb of torque.

This side-by-side produces much more torque than the Ranger, which as I stated before is something you are going to want when climbing steep inclines in the mountains or hauling the big game back home after a hunting trip.

The Defender XT-P has been redesigned to give off some heavy-duty suspension using an Arched Double A-arm suspension in the front and an Arched TTA rear suspension. This suspension helps provide the vehicle with 11 inches of travel, 13 inches of ground clearance, improved strength, and more stability.

One feature that I really admire in the Defender XT-P is the heavy-duty skid plate that is attached to the bottom of the vehicle. When you are hauling things, or even just riding the trails, the last thing you want to do is scrape the undercarriage of the vehicle.

With all of these various features such as the skid plate, the Arched TTA rear suspension, and the 13 inches of ground clearance, this side-by-side will do tremendously in the mountains.

It is a very tough machine. This particular does not have some of the other features, that the Polaris backcountry model does, but with the high ground clearance and durability that the vehicle has, I believe that this side-by-side would keep up just fine, especially with the added torque.

Maverick Trail DPS: $13,099

Key Features:

  • 50-inch stance
  • 51 or 71 horsepower
  • Dynamic Power Steering
  • 2WD/4WD
  • 10 inches Ground Clearance
  • 1,500 lb Towing Capacity & 300 lb Cargo Box Capacity
  • Double A-arm and TTA suspension
  • Steel Cage and Skid Plate

In all honesty, I have a love-hate relationship with this model from Can-Am and I debated whether I should even mention the vehicle at all for mountain trail riding. However I figured that if this was a vehicle meant specifically for trail riding then I should mention it.

The first notable attribute that his side-by-side has, which I do like actually, is the 50-inch stance that it boasts. That is a super small stance, that will allow this side-by-side to get into the tight spaces that most side-by-sides can not access.

The engine on this side-by-side also has some pretty decent power attached to it. The Maverick Trail DPS comes in two models, an 800cc model that produces 51 horsepower and a 1000cc model, which I recommend, that produces 71 horsepower. Both engines are Can-Am’s Rotax V-twins.

The dynamic power steering allows for greater control over the vehicle and is nothing new to side-by-sides and the majority of the side-by-sides that have been listed so far have a version of this steering.

The DPS allows for greater assistance at walking speeds, requiring little effort to control the vehicle, while at high speeds the assistance is reduced to keep maximum steering feel for the driver.

The Maverick Trail DPS offers a Quick-Response System (QRS) CVT transmission and also has a 2WD/4WD option so that you can have maximum traction wherever you are at. Once, again this is nothing spectacular and is often standard in vehicles such as this.

I do like the high ventilation airflow though, which will function much like the high mount air intakes, on the Polaris Ranger, so it will help the engine receive airflow, when in high water and other rough environments.

Another cool feature of this vehicle that would be really helpful in mountain trail riding, is the electronic hill decent feature. This feature helps the keep the riders and vehicle safe while maintaining stability when descending steep hills.

The Maverick Trail DPS has a suspension set-up very similar to the Defender XT-P with a double A-arm front suspension and a TTA rear suspension.

The one thing that I dislike about this vehicle and was why I had reservations adding this side-by-side to the list was its suspensions travel and ground clearance.

The Maverick Trail DPS only has 10 inches of travel up front and 10.5 inches of travel in the back, giving it only 10 inches of total ground clearance.

I believe that to be a very low clearance level, and would be questionable when taking to some steep mountain trails where large rocks and such will most likely need to be traversed.

The Maverick Trail DPS may make up for the lack of suspension in its LinQ attachment spaces though.

There are ten different places of the Maverick Trail that you could put various attachments such as a gun rack, gear bags, gear mounts, or any of the 100 different attachment options that Can-Am has to offer.

So with that extra space, the Maverick Trail DPS does offer superior storage space capabilities so that you can haul a lot of your gear through the attachment areas.

Plus the Maverick Trail DPS has a 300-pound capacity cargo box and has a towing capacity of 1,500 pounds with a tow hitch so if you needed to tow something small around you have the option of doing so.

Another area in which the Maverick makes up for its lack of ground clearance is in the steel cage and extra-durable skid plate on the bottom of the vehicle. Since the vehicle is a bit lower to the ground it is important for the bottom to be protected.

The Maverick Trail DPS protects itself fairly well with the steel cage that surrounds the vehicle and the skid plate helps deflect any rocks or debris that may hit the bottom of the side-by-side.

As you can see the Maverick Trail DPS is nothing to scoff at. It certainly has the power enough to handle steep inclines, and it has the full skid plates as well as the steel bumper and frame to keep it protected on the sides.

I still worry about the lack of ground clearance, but I think that the 50-inch wide body to fit in small spaces, added protection, and electric hill descent, make up for that worry.

So I think that if you were to take this vehicle into the mountain it would probably perform just fine, but if you know you are going to encounter terrain where you will need a higher ground clearance then perhaps this would not be the best fit model for you.

Maverick Sport X XC: $20,199

Key Features:

  • 64 inch width/stance
  • Long Suspension
  • Smart Lok 4WD System
  • Fox PODIUM 2.5 Piggyback Shocks
  • Double Arched A-arm & TTA Suspension
  • HMW Skid Plate
  • 15 inches Ground Clearance
  • 1,500 lb Towing Capacity & 300 lb Cargo Box Capacity

Out of all of the side-by-sides listed here, the Maverick Sport X xc is probably the best equipped side-by-side for mountain trail riding. It has the power, the suspension, and everything else that one would want when tackling the toughest mountain terrain.

The Maverick Sport X xc has a 1000R Rotax V-Twin engine that produces 100 horsepower. So you will have more than enough power under the hood to get where you need to go.

This side-by-side is a bit wider than the Maverick Trail, with a width of 64 inches, so while it certainly isn’t the widest side-by-side that Can-Am has to offer, it is not the smallest either. You will still be able to get into some tight spots, it just won’t be as small as the Maverick Trail.

The reason that the Maverick Sport X xc is so fantastic at mountain riding, is because of its suspension that is longer than normal and is tuned in a manner that makes the vehicle excel at rock crawling.

The Smart Lok 4WD system also helps this side-by-side excel in the mountains. With the Smart Lok system, you can fully or progressively lock the front differential depending on what you need, and with the Trail Activ mode, you can obtain maximum traction when cornering.

The 29-inch, 8-ply, Maxxis Bighorn 2.0 tires also help this beast of a machine traverse the mountains. Those along with 14-inch cast aluminum Beadlock wheels allow for maximum traction and stability when climbing your local Mt. Everest.

The Maverick Sport X xc also boasts an awesome suspension being equipped with front arched double A-arms, rear arched TTA with a sway bar, as well as Fox 2.5 PODIUM Piggyback shocks with QS3.

All these suspension components will ensure that you have a clean, stable, and comfortable ride that will give a precise responsive performance on all four corners of the vehicle.

The Maverick Sport X xc is a very well protected vehicle on top of everything else. It has a High Molecular Weight skid plate that protects the bottom of the vehicle, not that it needs it because this side-by-side has 14.75 inches of travel and 15 inches of ground clearance.

While we have seen some awesome specifications from the various side-by-sides listed, I think that this side-by-side is superior to the rest.

It has the ground clearance necessary to climb over even the tallest of boulders, the suspension is set up in a way that makes the vehicle excellent at rock crawling, and the engine produces enough power that can propel this vehicle over the steepest of inclines.

Matthew King

I'm 23 years old and love to hike, camp, and shoot guns. I also know Spanish which can come in handy!

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