THE (GOLDEN) RULES OF THE OFF-ROAD
It’s happened to everyone, in one way or another. You’ve done your research and picked out the perfect trail to explore on a beautiful, sunny Saturday. You’re out driving over a few rocks, taking your time, enjoying the fresh air and the scenery, maybe getting a little muddy while you’re at it. But as you’re enjoying the nice breeze and the open air, you hear a noise coming from behind you. There’s suddenly another vehicle on the trail, going much faster than you are, and it’s right. on. your. bumper. Because there’s no room to move over without driving into the grass, you stay on the main trail until you find room to pull off. The other vehicle then speeds around you angrily, leaving you coughing in a cloud of dust and, generally, making a mess of your peaceful Saturday. This other driver has breached several rules of off-roading etiquette. Unlike driving through your neighborhood or on the highway, there are no laws in place that regulate off-road driving, but there are a few basic principles that are worth keeping in mind while you’re out on the trail. Many of them are rooted in common sense and generally boil down to basic respect for the trail you’re traveling on, the people you’re traveling with (and those you may encounter while you’re out), and, ultimately, for yourself.
RESPECT THE LAND.
- Be mindful of private property.
First things first, before you venture down an off-road trail, it’s a good idea to know who owns the land you’ll be traveling over, across, and near. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for a Forest Service road to run adjacent to, or through, someone’s private property. Often, there will be signage along the trail indicating that the land on either side is privately owned – in such cases, treat those property owners how you’d want to be treated in the same situation: respect their signs and don’t enter or damage their property.
- Be aware of any fees, passes, or other regulations that may apply to your chosen trail.
Though most off-roading trails generally aren’t burdened by access fees for vehicles that are driving through, if you’re planning on camping, shooting, or bringing a pet along, additional regulations or permits may apply to you and your trip. Also, while you’re driving along, be mindful of any signs that may have been posted along the trail; many times, certain areas may have restricted access due to poor conditions, or may be reserved for cyclists, horses, or smaller ATVs. If that’s the case, just remain on your designated portion of the trail and keep having a good time!
- Stay on the trail.
As tempting as it might be to drive around some significant rutting or splash through that extra-special mudhole that’s off to the side, don’t get off the established trail to do it. If you come to an obstacle, do your best to drive safely over it rather than leaving the trail to go around it. Along the same lines, don’t drive over grass and other vegetation. Even if a faster moving vehicle comes up behind you, wait until you find a wider portion of the trail that will allow you to pull over and let them pass. By staying on the main trail, you’re causing as little damage to the surrounding land as possible, which, in turn, ensures that more people will be able to enjoy the trail for years to come.
- Pretend you were never there.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying “pack it in, pack it out.” Don’t leave behind anything that you brought with you on the trail. As winter approaches here in Colorado, volunteers have been working to clean up some of the trails from a long summer of use and enjoyment – including removing things like chairs, broken glass, plastic bottles and bags, and left-behind clothes. Don’t be part of the problem, guys! It’s never any fun to hit the trail, hoping for a nice, picturesque trip, only to be faced with… garbage. When you’re out having a good time, remember to clean up after yourselves (and your pets!). As an added bonus, make it a point to try to pick up after others who have come before you. It only takes a few extra seconds to grab an empty bottle that you see on the ground, and doing so will make the trail that much more enjoyable for others.
- Avoid altering the trail on purpose.
It happens to everybody. You’re well prepared for your trip, you’re driving along, having a great day, and, out of nowhere, you come to an obstacle that you just…can’t…quite…make it over or through. One way that folks will get themselves out of this situation is to stack a few rocks to even things out a bit, allowing them to pass over the obstacle with ease, without leaving the marked trail altogether. Bonus points! You stayed on the trail, right?! Well, not exactly. It’s a fine solution every once in a while if you find yourself in an unexpected situation and you can do so without causing significant harm to the trail. On the whole, though, if everyone is out there doing it, manipulating the environment like this can permanently change the nature of the trail. If you do decide you need to stack, remove the rocks from the trail once you’re safely through. (As a side note, if you find yourself stuck in this situation often, and your only way out is to make a nice stack of rocks to drive over, you may be over-estimating what your vehicle can handle.)
- Keep the dust to a minimum, when you can.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, driving on a dirt trail can kick up a lot of dust, even if you don’t think you’re going very fast. Not only can it be messy, but even a light dusting can impair someone’s breathing or vision. It’s one thing when you’re alone on the trail, your windows are down or your top is off, and you want to get up a little speed and get dirty. It’s fun, right?! But when you’re passing other vehicles or ATVs, hikers, cyclists, and campsites, slow it down a notch. You’ll create much less dust, and the people around you will thank you for it.
- Don’t follow too closely.
Just as we drive on the highways at home, it’s important to leave enough space between your vehicle and the one in front of you. Certain road conditions or obstacles will increase your breaking time, so be mindful of that as you’re driving, and take care not to get too close to the vehicle in front of you. Generally speaking, there’s no need to rush through a trail…you’re out to have a good time! The general rule is to let one vehicle get over an obstacle at a time. Seems reasonable, right? Let the person in front of you navigate over an obstacle without rushing them through it (and offer to lend a hand if they are having some trouble!). Their vehicle might not have the same clearance or capabilities as yours, or they might not be as experienced as you are. Or, maybe they see you coming up behind them and, because they are taking care not to leave the trail, they are waiting for a wider spot to let you safely pass. Whatever the reason, be patient. Don’t be the guy or girl that tailgates someone up a rocky slope, only to have them slide back down on top of you. It’s not going to end well for you, friend.
- NJLB: No Jeeper Left Behind.
When you’re traveling as part of a large group, or even with just one or two others, be mindful of the vehicle behind you. Every so often, glance back to make sure they cleared the last obstacle, or that they haven’t otherwise run into trouble. And if you come to a fork in the trail, slow down and make sure the folks following you see which direction the group is going. It only takes a few seconds, and doing so will ensure that you don’t travel a mile or two down the trail after having unknowingly left your buddy behind. If, for some reason, you do lose sight of the vehicle behind you, slow down, give them a call (either by phone or radio), and let the people in front of you know that you’re slowing down to let someone catch up.
At the same time, of course, pay attention to the vehicle that’s in front of you. Perhaps you’ve had some trouble navigating an obstacle, and the rest of the group hasn’t noticed yet. Maintain contact with them, and catch up when you’re safely able to do so.
- Look, but don’t touch – give the wildlife some space.
Technically, you’re on their turf, so when you come across some wildlife on or near the trail, just let them be. Snap a few pictures from afar– but don’t get out of your vehicle to approach or follow an elk, bear, or deer. For the most part, if you don’t harass them, they, too, will leave you alone to enjoy the rest of your day. And don’t feed any of the animals, either; doing so encourages them to approach humans, which could be disastrous for someone else down the line.
- Lend a hand to fellow Jeepers.
If you come across a fellow traveler in need, stop and see if you can help them out. Maybe they just need help changing a tire, or maybe they have gotten turned around. In any case, treat others how you’d like to be treated in a similar situation. Not too long ago, my husband and I came across two guys who had gotten themselves stuck in a pretty slippery mudhole, and they didn’t have a means to get themselves out. We hadn’t seen too many people on the trail that day, so if we hadn’t come along, those guys might have been there for hours. Equipped with a winch, we were able to pull them out with minimal effort in just a few minutes, and everyone was able to go back to enjoying the day. We’re all part of the off-roading community, and when we’re out in remote areas, we all, to some extent, rely on the kindness of others to get us home safely. Don’t shy away from lending a helping hand! You might make a new friend, and you never know when you might need to ask for help yourself.
- Slow down and yield the right-of-way to people and non-motorized vehicles.
When you’re driving around your neighborhood, you’ve got to yield the right-of-way when necessary; the same is true when you’re driving off-road. It’s important to keep in mind that many trails are multi-use, meaning that you’re sharing the space with hikers, cyclists, smaller ATVs, and even horses. When you come across others on the road, slow down a bit, give them some space, and, to the extent possible, keep the dust to a minimum. And, if you do come across a group on horseback, be particularly careful, since horses spook easily with loud noises.
- Pass with care.
Even on the most remote trails, it’s always possible that you’ll encounter another vehicle. Sharing the road is a must! For example, if you’re navigating a flat, narrow trail, and another vehicle or ATV approaches you (either from behind or from the front), pull over to the side as far as the trail will allow to let the other vehicle pass. If, on the other hand, the trail is particularly hilly, the vehicle traveling uphill has the right-of-way in order to maintain momentum. If you are approaching a vehicle driving uphill as you’re driving down, pull over so that he or she can complete the climb.
- Only stop in designated areas off the main trail.
For a variety of reasons, you may find yourself needing to stop for a while. Maybe it’s time for lunch, or you need to check your map or GPS. Whatever the reason may be, don’t stop on the main trail. Doing so creates an unnecessary hazard for other vehicles, and puts you and others at greater risk for an accident. If you need to make a stop, wait until the trail widens enough to safely pull over, leaving enough room for other vehicles to pass you. Don’t stop in a curve where other drivers cannot see you, and don’t leave the trail to go park under a tree for a short nap.
- No drinking and driving
The same rule applies for when you’re out on the trail as when you’re out on the town: don’t drink and drive. If you’re planning to camp out overnight, then save the drinks for after you’ve settled in for the night. And be sure not to overdo it, since you’ll be back behind the wheel the next morning. Drinking before driving is dangerous in any situation, but especially so when you’re trying to navigate over difficult obstacles in remote areas. Don’t put yourself and others at risk!
TAKEAWAYS: Like I said before, what it all boils down to is showing a little respect. When we respect our surroundings and other people, we have a better time, and we help others enjoy themselves as well. That’s what it’s all about – just having a little fun!