Staying Legal On The Trails
Up until just a few months ago staying legal on US Forest Service (USFS) trails was quite the challenge due to the incredibly hard to navigate Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) provided by the USFS. Recently though, the USFS has published a new map tool which is incredibly easy to use and extremely intuitive. Using this map will make staying legal while out on the trails much easier. There may be some aspects to staying legal that you haven’t been taught, ever heard of before, or know anything about. We want to help you stay legal and keep the USFS happy, so we’re going to try and cover those things in this post.
First, and most importantly, stay on the trail. Leaving the trail (for any reason) causes damage to the land you’re traveling over and cutting new trails (for any reason) is illegal and can cause confusion to other enthusiasts about which trail is the open/legal trail. If you come up to an obstacle in the trail you’re not sure if you or your rig can handle, just turn around. Don’t make a bypass, don’t create a shortcut to get around it, and don’t drive next to the object (widening the trail). All those activities are illegal, and just like speeding down the highway, may result in hefty fines if you’re caught doing so. Simply aim to go straight over/through the obstacle, or turn around if you feel it’s not possible to do so without damaging the terrain, you, or your vehicle.
Here are a few tips from TreadLightly on proper trail use…
- Travel only in areas open to four-wheel drive vehicles.
- Drive over, not around obstacles to avoid widening the trail.
- Straddle ruts, gullies and washouts even if they are wider than your vehicle.
- Cross streams only at designated fording points, where the road crosses the stream.
Second, be sure the trail you’re on is actually shown on the current Motor Vehicle Use Map as an open/legal trail. If the trail you’re on isn’t on the MVUM, then it’s probably not a trail and you may be breaking the law.
Unfortunately illegitimate trails are cut all the time by people trying to bypass a tricky obstacle, take a shortcut, or to get to a cool land feature; but just because there is a dirt path through the woods doesn’t mean it is an official, legal trail. If you’re caught on one of these illegitimate trails, whether by accident or not, you may face fines and it’ll be a check mark against OHVs in the area. Often when traveling down an official/legal trail there may be many offshoot trails. Most of the time these trails were either cut illegally and shouldn’t be there in the first place, are old trails that have been closed to traffic due to environmental or safety concerns, or are closed to certain types of traffic seasonally. It may be hard to fight off that itch, but please resist the urge to explore that random trail heading off into the woods before researching whether or not it’s open and legal to your type of travel. By staying on official/legal trails you’re doing your part to keep public lands open to OHVs by making the job of the USFS easier, minimizing impact on the environment, and you’re helping to give a good name to all overland travelers.
Below we will cover how to determine which trails are open/legal to drive, and which trails are not, within any US National Forest, using the new USFS Interactive Visitor Map.
Here’s a link to the USFS Interactive Visitor Map >>> https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/maps
Here’s a link to more information about the USFS Interactive Visitor Map >>> https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/about-visitor-map
When you first open the link above, you’ll need to choose your type of activity. We’ll be selecting the “OHV > 50 Inches” option (OHV = Off Highway Vehicle). This ensures the map is showing the trails that are open to overland vehicles.
Like any map, the Interactive Visitor Map has a “Legend” to show you what each marking on the map signifies.
The USFS Interactive Visitor Map also has a “Layers” feature, which allows you to toggle on/off Weather Watches & Warnings, Fire Activity, and other options that can be shown on the map.
Another cool feature of the Interactive Visitor Map is that each trail has an identifier attached to it, if you click that identifier a small window pops up with all sorts of info about that specific trail, including which types of traffic are legal on that trail and what date ranges throughout the year it’s open to each type of traffic.
Our favorite feature of this Interactive Visitor Map is that is shows ALL the trails, open/legal or not… but signifies which trails are open/legal and which trails are not. Most maps available do show all the trails, but do NOT signify which trails are currently open and which trails are currently closed to traffic. This map does! Open trails are clearly marked according to the Legend, and closed trails are shown in light red with grey Xs and have the Road # along with “Road Closed” following.
This Interactive Visitor Map really is extremely easy to use and very intuitive, and we’re very thankful to the USFS for publishing such a powerful tool. The only downfall we’ve discovered to it so far is that it’s not available offline. That means you will have to do your research before heading off into the woods, cross-referencing your planned route with the Interactive Visitor Map to make sure all sections of your planned route are on open/legal trails. This should be done before each and every trip, because road closures can happen at a moments notice and even though a road was open for you on a past trip it may not be open currently. Calling ahead to talk with a USFS Ranger in each of the Ranger Districts you plan to travel though is also a great way to obtain information that may not be shown on the map, plus you can let them know you’ll be in the area in case of any emergency situations. Also, the Ranger can inform you of any road closures that may not show on the map due to recent weather events, fires, or emergency situations, and can also inform you of any special permits that may be required to travel through the area.
Being able to travel through US Forest Service land via Off Highway Vehicle is a privilege and one we must always fight to keep. Being responsible and staying legal is the best weapon we have to fight with. We, as a collective, must be good stewards of the land when on US Forest Service property by staying on open/legal trails, packing out everything you pack in, and treading lightly.
Hopefully this article has helped you learn how to stay legal on USFS trails and shown you how to use the new Interactive Visitor Map. If you have any questions or concerns about anything mentioned in this post, please feel free to comment on it, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d be happy to help in any way we can! Now… GO EXPLORE THOSE TRAILS!
- Responsible Four Wheeling from TreadLightly! >>> http://www.treadlightly.org/quick-tips-for-responsible-four-wheeling/
- On the Right Trail! A Forest Service Program for OHV Access >>> https://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/ohv/ohv_use.pdf
- Executive Order 11644–Use of off-road vehicles on the public lands >>> https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/11644.html