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What is trail etiquette?

What is trail etiquette?

In light of a yet recurring theme in the news regarding the off-road community I figured I'd at least try to do my part in educating members of this forum and those who seem to pass by. 

The 4x4 off-road community in general has been dancing a fine line with keeping the public lands in public hands and incidents like what happened recently are not helping. This post here is to educate those who are new to the community or even those who may not know and have been around for a while.

If there is anything that you'd like added to this post that is productive, please post below and I'll a update it.

For starters, not everyone is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. It is from those mistakes that we learn and progress forward. This thread isn't intended to call out or bash people who have made these mistakes to please refrain from calling out specific incidents. Instead, maybe share this thread with anyone who you feel might benefit from learning off-road etiquette. 

Alright let's get started. 

1 ) Educate Yourself!

Every state has its own unique rules and regulations for how their trails are run so please make sure to look into the local laws before heading out onto the trails. There are many good resources online as well. I'll list a few below (some are specific to a region or state) but as a general rule of thumb these tend to be pretty universal.

Tread Lightly is a good starting place and has some state specific material.
Leave No Trace's principals are crucial to help maintain our lands and allow others for generations ahead of us to continue to enjoy the land that we love and cherish for generations to come. 
Stay The Trail is very good for pointing out some things that experienced Off-Roader's would consider common knowledge but newer members of our community may not know. If you like info graphics they make a few pamphlets that are very straight forward.

2 ) Read the Signs and Gates

If you pass a sign, take a glance at it. Chance's are that you'll be fine, but always make sure that your vehicle is on the local agency's approved methods of transportation for that trail. If it says "no OHV", "No motor vehicles beyond this point", "No Trespassing", Private Property", "Access Denied", or anything related, that's okay, there are more trails. You should turn around. The definition of Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) may vary from state to state but generally OHV are vehicles, that are not licensed to drive on public roads. This could include motorcycles, dirt bikes, three-wheelers, ATVs, and ​​dune buggies that a​​re operated on public land or trails. Check your local laws to verify what your state identifies as an OHV. 

What Consituties an OHV: Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) include motorcycles, dirt bikes, three-wheelers, ATVs, and ​​dune buggies that a​​re operated on public land or trails

If there's a gate, and its obvious that others have been going around it, don't go around it. The gate is closed for a reason, which may or may not include trail rehabilitation (because of mud or destructive drivers), animal migration or mating season, wildlife sanctuary and more. 

3 ) Plan ahead!

This brings me to the point of planning ahead. Research the trail that you intend to drive or ride for any given trip. Just because its been fine before doesn't mean that the trail might have changed or been blocked for natural or conservation reasons. There are plenty of resources to turn to and get this information but one of my favorites is using Trails Offroad. Trails Offroad is a community of like minded off-roaders who love the outdoors and adventuring in their 4x4's. They also post when trails are down for seasonal closure, or other reasons in addition to stating trail conditions. 

In addition, park rangers are typically very helpful when attempting to figure out information about the area. You can easily find the contact information, online by searching the national forest that you're attempting to look into and adding park ranger to the end of that or searching for the national forest on their website,

4 ) Tread lightly and Stay the Trail

If by chance you didn't get around to looking at the information in the first section, this section will cover it lightly.

Stay on marked trails and do not go around obstacles. This causes trail widening and damages the local vegetation. This includes taking shortcuts to avoid going over rough terrain or when you can see the path doesn't really get anywhere curving in all directions. 

5 ) Leave it better than you found it

Be prepared to create waste. Whether its food wrappers, water bottles, cans, etc and come prepared with trash bags. Pack out what you pack in. I try to do my best by picking up others trash when on the trails but that isn't always possible. 

An example was a campsite I stopped for lunch on a trail ride and found empty beer cans, Gatorade bottles, and large bone scraps from what I'd assume was a large chunk of beef. Fortunately, we had a few trash bags to spare and was able to clean up this campsite for the next users to enjoy. 

This goes as well for targets. We all love to shoot, but when there are cans hanging off trees left behind that had been targets for those shooting, it gets slightly irritating. Pick up your targets.

In addition, carving into rock walls, spray painting graffiti, altering or changing any form of natural landscape or structure is considered VANDALISMand likely legally punishable. 

If you create any form of habitat or alter anything for your campsite, return it to its natural state from when you found it. Part of leave no trace, is to make it look like you were never there.

Leave No Trace!​

6 ) Right of Way

I like the way this article puts it so I'm just going to quote them.

"On multi-use trails, yield right of way to mountain bikes, hikers and horses. Slow down and give them plenty of room and keep in mind to not dust them out. Take special caution when encountering saddled horses, they can be easily spooked by loud noises and unexpected movement. If you come across a horse on the trail you should pull over to the side, shut off your engine and ask the rider how to best proceed."
To add to this, when traveling over steep terrain, give the vehicle traveling in the uphill direction right of way. They may need to maintain momentum to get over the terrain. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule if there is a good pull out for the up hill driver to pull over and allow the downhill driver to pass. I'll quote the same article again.

"When two vehicles meet on a steep hill, the vehicle traveling up the hill has the right of way. This is because the vehicle traveling uphill may need to maintain momentum, and because it is more difficult and dangerous to back down a steep narrow trail. Common sense should prevail though; if it is easier and there is room for the uphill vehicle to pull over, it wouldn't make sense to expect the downhill vehicle to back up the hill. Either way backing up is tough. If you are going up a big obstacle like a long, steep rocky climb, it may make sense to send a spotter up on foot to make sure the trail is clear and to warn any on-coming vehicles."

7 ) Avoid Sensitive Areas

There could be lots of areas that are sensitive to travel by motorized travel and they should be avoided. These areas have a delicate ecosystem and in order to maintain that, we should avoid these areas at all costs. This could include but isn't limited to swamps/marshes, areas with a dense population of wildlife, historical/archeological sites, lake shores, and stream beds. 

8 ) Help those in Need

If you see a vehicle pulled over on the side of the trail, stop to see if they're okay or need any help. Hopefully it's a simple task like plugging a tire, but that won't always be the case. Be prepared to take care of yourself but bring extras just in case someone else needs parts as well. 

This also goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. NO MAN LEFT BEHIND! If your friend is stuck, or broken down, nobody in the group leaves until everyone is ready to keep moving. Be prepared when you go out, and carry extra supplies, which might include spare parts, but also includes extra food and water. Things can get pretty sticky out in the sticks.

Story time! I was driving up a trail and crossed paths with a side-by-side. They stopped and asked if I had a pump to fill up tires, which I did, to help their friend who got a flat at the top of the hill. When we get to the side-by-side, I looked at the tire and there were at least 4 or 5 punctures in the side wall and they had already used all of their plugs. Fortunately I had some extra plugs to spare and let them use what they needed to get back down the hill and to their trailer. I wasn't worried because if something did happen, I had a full sized spare tire to swap out. They tried to hand me 20 bucks, but I told them next time someone needs help, pay it forward. I just hope when I'm in need, someone would help me out just the same. The community of off-roaders is fantastic, and some of the friendliest people I've ever met. 

9 ) Secure Your Gear!

Strap your gear down and have a good vehicle load plan! 

This is especially important for any gear inside your vehicle cabin in case of a vehicle roll over. Last thing you want is your fire extinguisher or Hi Lift jack hitting you in the head.

This is all for now. I'll probably get back to update this post in the near future to add more. 


Leave No Trace
Stay The Trail
Driving Line article on Off-road Basics
Tread Lightly
Forest Service and Ranger Station Info
Trails Offroad


If you haven't, or would like to learn more, please take the time to learn from Tread Lightly's 30 minute online course (web only)

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