How Responsible Off-Roading Works

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?