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.
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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?