How Responsible Off-Roading Works

Safari Image Gallery Although off-roading poses many environmental risks, there are ways to reduce or avoid harm. See more safari pictures.
Safari Image Gallery Although off-roading poses many environmental risks, there are ways to reduce or avoid harm. See more safari pictures.
Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

When you think about off-roading, environmentalism probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind. For many people, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and motor boats don't go hand-and-hand with the peace and quiet of nature. Off-roading -- the use of motorized vehicles to travel natural terrain or waterways -- doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to being green. Increasingly, though, environmentally-conscious outdoor enthusiasts have been coming up with ways to make off-roading less harmful to the planet.

The term off-roading leads to a lot of misconceptions. Many outdoor recreationalists never leave the road at all -- they simply leave the asphalt. So, although they're used less often, the terms off-pavement or off-highway are more accurate descriptions of the activity. Many national and state parks, for example, offer pre-existing trails for use by ATVs, four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles. Using maintained paths minimizes the impact that off-road vehicles have on the surrounding environment.


The real controversy surrounding off-roading arises when those vehicles leave the trails. While some state and federal lands have been set aside for this purpose (often referred to as open-use), the practice has long been a subject of debate among environmentalists and off-roading enthusiasts. For its part, the U.S. Forest Service has stated that ATVs and other off-road vehicles do indeed have a place on public lands, so long as their use is regulated [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture]. Other groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, are concerned that these open-use areas will continue to grow while protected wilderness areas shrink [source: Center for Biological Diversity].

Given all of the controversy, why is off-roading so popular? In some cases it's a necessity rather than a choice: Some remote wilderness areas are accessible only by off-highway vehicles. You can also cover more ground on an ATV or snowmobile than you can on foot. But some people really do love off-roading for the sake of the sport, and there are even competitive off-roading events such as hill-climbing (navigating your ATV or dirt bike up a steep, obstacle-strewn slope), dune-bashing (traversing sand dunes), and mud-bogging (driving through deep mud while trying to avoid getting stuck).

So what are the environmental dangers of off-roading? How can you off-road responsibly?


Green Off-Roading

Dani Sordo drives past a wind farm during the Wales Rally GB in Llangurig, Wales.
Dani Sordo drives past a wind farm during the Wales Rally GB in Llangurig, Wales.
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

A lot can go wrong if you're careless when off-roading. Soil erosion is a direct result of recreational sports like hill-climbing, and it can lead to even bigger problems such as flash-flooding. Vegetation is also vulnerable to motorized traffic. In places where the ecosystem is already fragile, such as deserts and wetlands, the presence of off-pavement vehicles can have serious repercussions for the environment. Environmentalists are worried about pollution, too: Toxic emissions, particulates, and soil or water contamination are all possible consequences of off-roading [source: Wildlands CPR].

Perhaps the most important rule of thumb for responsible off-roading is to leave no trace behind. Use only established trails where possible. If you do leave the path, rake out your tire tracks to prevent others from using your trail and creating a new road [source: Recreation]. When crossing a river or stream, be sure to do so at a place where the established path intersects the waterway. Build a camp fire only when necessary, and use existing fire rings and fallen timber where available. And, in order to stop the inappropriate spread of plant life, wash your vehicle and gear before and after every trip [source: Tread Lightly!].


Guidelines such as these have been endorsed by various federal and state agencies in order to curb the potential damage done by off-road vehicles. For example, Tread Lightly!, Inc. is a national non-profit agency that has partnered with the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Each of these agencies has their own individual regulations when it comes to off-roading. The Forest Service has set aside designated land for off-road trails and open-use, and strictly prohibits any off-roading outside of those specific areas. Forest Service law enforcement agents have the authority to cite or even arrest violators of the federal regulations [source: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility].

The National Parks each have their own regulations regarding off-highway vehicle use, depending on the unique characteristics of each park. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, for example, is home to several varieties of endangered turtles. These turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in sand pits. Once the hatchlings emerge, they use light cues from the moon and stars to guide them back into the water -- meaning that they can easily be led astray by lights from vehicles. Accordingly, the Park Service institutes restrictions on off-road vehicles between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM from May to mid-November [source: National Park Service].

Turtles aren't the only animals vulnerable to off-road vehicles. What can you do to keep wildlife habitats safe?


Protecting Animals While Off-Roading

Riders in an off-road vehicle watch an elephant in front of them.
Riders in an off-road vehicle watch an elephant in front of them.
David De Lossy/Getty Images

You're out on your ATV, and there isn't another person for miles -- but that doesn't mean you're alone. One of the biggest concerns when it comes to off-roading is how it impacts wildlife. The most obvious danger is that an off-road vehicle can wound or kill an animal that has wandered onto the trail, and that's certainly something drivers must always be on the lookout to avoid. You can reduce the risk of such an incident by familiarizing yourself with the local wildlife before you go. Talk to park officials and land administrators about where the animals live, what times they're most active, and what signs you should check for to determine whether an animal is in the area. Find out what areas are to be avoided entirely, such as the habitats of endangered species or fragile ecosystems like wetlands.

But it's not just direct encounters with animals that cause problems. Off-trail driving can damage animal nests and burrows. Snowmobiles can crush small animals dwelling between the snow and the ground. Damage to vegetation impacts shelter and food sources for local fauna, as does chemical pollution from the machines themselves. Vehicle noise deters some species entirely, driving them from their preferred habitats. And, even if the animals do not vacate the area, the presence of machines can cause stress and a change in behavior [source: Natural Trails and Waters Coalition].


So what can you do to lessen your impact while off-roading? Choosing the right vehicle can help. Many off-highway vehicles and watercraft are available with either two- or four-stroke engines. Four-stroke engines are the more environmentally-friendly preference, as they create less pollution, use fuel more efficiently and produce less noise than two-strokes [source: Surfrider Foundation]. Using your vehicle responsibly is also important -- avoid high speeds, and don't spin your tires or do any unnecessary idling. New advancements in biofuels also give off-pavement drivers a cleaner choice. Biodiesel, made from animal fat or vegetable oil, can be used in standard diesel engines when you blend it with petroleum diesel. Modified engines are capable of running on 100 percent biodiesel [source: National Biodiesel Board].

So take heart, environmentalists -- off-roading doesn't have to mean you're hurting the environment. See the next page for lots more information about responsible off-roading.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Center for Biological Diversity. "Travel-Management Planning."(Nov. 15, 2009)
  • National Biodiesel Board. "New Biodiesel-Approved Offering Hits the Off-road." Oct. 3, 2006. (Nov. 16, 2009)
  • National Park Service. "Nighttime Driving Restriction on Cape Hatteras National Seashore Beaches Begins May 1." April 27, 2009. (Nov. 15, 2009)
  • Natural Trails and Water Coalition. "Impacts on Wildlife." (Nov. 11, 2009)
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "U.S. Forest Service Selected Off-Road Vehicle Law Enforcement Incidents By State, April-November 2007." (Nov. 16, 2009)
  • "Off-highway Vehicles." (Nov. 13, 2009)
  • Surfrider Foundation. "Minimizing the Impacts of Personal Watercraft Part II: Seeking a Solution." August/September 1998. (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • Tread Lightly! "Tips for Responsible Recreation." (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. "On the Right Trail!" Summer 2005. (Nov. 11, 2009)
  • Wildlands CPR. "A Review of the Impacts of ORVs on Soil." Sept. 30, 2009. (Nov. 11, 2009)
  • Wildlands CPR. "ORV Pollution." Dec. 31, 1998. (Nov. 11, 2009)
  • "What is the difference between a two stroke and a four stroke engine?" Oct. 1, 2009. (Nov. 16, 2009)