Is Off-Roading Illegal?


For many people, driving on a bumpy, rocky, or muddy road isn’t something to look forward to. On the other hand, lovers of off-roading are always on the lookout for a chance to get on the roughest terrain possible. This pastime is an activity engaged in by millions of Americans, but is it legal?

Off-roading can be legal or illegal, depending on the laws protecting the land you’re driving on. In most places, some laws determine where you can go off-roading and where you can’t. You need to be sure you are sticking to only approved public and private lands at all times.

If you break the rules guiding off-roading in any legislation, you could be facing steep fines or some jail time. The rest of the article will cover all you need to know about the legal side of this exhilarating activity, focusing on the US.

What Is Off-Roading?

Off-roading is a broad term that describes any type of driving on unpaved ground. There is no limit to the type of surface you can drive on as an off-roader. As long as it isn’t paved, it is a great place for some off-road driving. Some of the common surfaces frequented by off-roaders include:

  • Boulders
  • Gravel
  • Mountainsides
  • Beaches
  • Sand dunes
  • Muddy bogs
  • Riverbeds
  • Bushy fields

The vehicles used in off-roading include all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), dune buggies, dirt bikes, and four-wheelers. Most lovers of this activity do it because they love the scenery, while others just love the adrenaline rush that comes with maneuvering surfaces that are challenging.

A Closer Look at the Legality of Off-Roading

As we’ve seen above, driving a vehicle on surfaces that are not conventional roads is not illegal on its own. For instance, there is no law preventing you from taking your truck off-roading on your own land in the countryside.

However, once you begin to move into public land or properties owned by other people, there’s always the possibility of legal consequencesOpens in a new tab..

Some laws make it illegal to go off-roading on federal and state-owned lands in the US. Some of the lands completely ban all kinds of driving while others allow off-roading on select portions of the land. So, getting into your truck and going off-roading on any open terrain you find could end with you accumulating a myriad of legal problems.

First of all, you need to research the land to see the federal and state laws guiding it. If the land is private-owned, you need to get express permission (verbal or written) from the owner to avoid the possibility of legal proceedings. You could be arrested for trespassing and fined.

Even when you’ve gone off-roading on an approved land, there’s the possibility that you’ll be docked for dangerous driving. This is especially true if you are caught driving too fast or without any protection through wet vegetation, streams, or places like a beach where other people can be deemed to be at risk as a result of your driving.

Most off-roading enthusiasts seek out approved lands or work with private owners that lend their land for use by off-roading groups. This way, they can legally enjoy their activities. If you are unsure of what lands are approved, a quick look online should provide an answer. If you can’t find an answer immediately, it’s best to look elsewhere to be safe.

How Does Off-Roading Affect the Ecosystem?

Off-roading on lands that are not approved can be bad for the ecosystem as the activities can alter the natural habitat for some animals and damage the vegetation.

In 2010, the US National Forests mapped out designated areas for off-roadingOpens in a new tab.. The move didn’t go down well with off-roaders, but environmental activists heralded it. Here are the reasons and ways off-roading affects the ecosystem.

Illegal Off-Roading Can Disturb Wildlife

The noise from dirt bikes and ATVs can frighten animals. If the drivers keep coming back, the animals will most likely be forced to move further and further away. Even when the animals want to stay, tires churning up the soil or damaging roots can lead to the loss of their natural homes.

Illegal Off-Roading Can Upset Flora

Driving over plants will damage them, but most importantly, it can also lead to the introduction of seeds to areas where they can’t reach normally. In some cases, this means the spread of weeds that can decimate local plant populations. According to one study, a dirt-bike can distribute 2,000 seeds over 16 km (10 miles).  

Additionally, riding so close to the plants means a more direct introduction of carbon emissions to the plant’s habitat. Plants can absorb carbon, but in excess quantity, the result could lead to mass-wilting.

Illegal Off-Roading Can Damage Soil Systems

When off-road vehicles churn up the top-most layer of the soil, it can lead to the loosening of compacted soil and increase the chances of erosion. Other problems that can arise as a result of a damaged soil system include more sedimentation in nearby farms and waterways and increased dust storms.

With these potential damages, it is not surprising that laws now exist to ensure people are not indiscriminately engaging in off-roading. The laws are especially important when you consider the fact that around one million off-road vehicles are sold per year in the US.

How to Go Off-Roading Legally and Safely

To go off-roading legally and safely, here are a few things you should do.

Find Out What the Law Says About Off-Roading

As we’ve mentioned above, the first thing you should do when you are thinking about going off-roading is to look at the laws in your area. Are there trails or lands that have been designated for off-roading?

If you can’t find any, check your local parksOpens in a new tab. to see if they’ve mapped out some areas. If they don’t, you could get some guidance from the staff.

Don’t avoid this responsibility as ignorance of the laws can be used as an excuse when you are dealing with the legal backlash. Even when everyone else is going off-roading to a particular place, don’t assume that it must be legal without your own research.

Remote areas may look perfectly fine, but if the location hasn’t been approved formally, there is no telling when a crackdown might happen.

Talk to Local Off-Roading Enthusiasts

If you cannot find legally approved locations for off-roading that also appeal to you, talk to local off-roading groups in the area. With millions of people engaging in this pastime across the country, it’s easy to find like-minded people and get some advice from them.

They’ll know the best legal off-roading spots, and also offer you some tips on areas to avoid. Their guidance can save you a lot of time, energy, and expenses since you don’t know the area. You don’t want to drive into a spot that can damage your vehicle.

Be Adequately Prepared

Once you’ve found some spots for off-roading, it is time to get ready to explore. You need to ensure adequate preparation at this stage. Get a map to look at the area. Make a note of all the areas that you’ve been asked to avoid, and pack all the necessary gearOpens in a new tab., including a communication kit.

It could be hard to find reception in certain parts of the trail, so you need to have other means of reaching the park attendants or other drivers and riders on the trail.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the weather. Navigating treacherous trails is indeed the fun of off-roading, but rain or snow can make a surface almost impossible even for the most experienced off-roaders.

Use the Right Vehicle for the Trail

We’ve seen some examples of vehicles that can go off-roading. However, all of those vehicles will deliver different results in different trails. Your family truck might get by on bumpy low lying ground, but it might struggle in mountainous terrain. In such an environment, only real heavy-duty ATVs will work.

If you’ve spiced up your vehicle with some modification for off-roading, you need to be sure that those changes aren’t illegal on the track you are going. For example, some tracks will consider tires that are too big or some type of lifts to be illegal.

Don’t Go Alone

If you are a newbie to off-roading, going alone is not a good idea. You need to bring someone that understands the trail and is more experienced along on the trip. If you can’t find someone experienced, you should start with a trail that is easy to slowly build up your skills.

The Best Legal Off-Road Tracks in the US

Are you looking for legal off-road tracks in the US today? Below are some of the most popular options you will find.

Alpine Loop Trail

Located in Silverton, Southwest Colorado, the Alpine Loop Trail should be high on your list if you are looking for off-roading destinations that also double as tourist delights.

The trail cuts through lots of uninhabited or sparsely populated towns, and you’ll enjoy the views of the San Juan Mountain range.

It is a 63-mile trail that you can easily navigate with most off-road friendly vehicles. This makes it a huge hit with newbie off-road enthusiasts.

Sand Flats Recreation Area

The Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab, Utah, is on the list of most off-roading regulars. The city itself is regarded as the off-roading capital of the US—and possibly the world—in many quarters. The Sand Flats Recreation Area is spread across 9,000 acres, with surreal views decorating the landscape.

The vastness of the trail means that almost anyone can visit and get their fix of adrenaline-pumping fun. When you are done exploring the recreational area, you should explore the rest of Moab’s off-roading sitesOpens in a new tab..

Hollister Hills SVRA

Located in Hollister, California, Hollister Hills was the first State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), and till today, it continues to attract dozens of off-roading enthusiasts. It is made of over 24 miles (37 km) of bending trails that cut through the Salinas Valley and the Gabilan mountains. 

The trail has an artificial obstacle course, including a giant mud bog. It doesn’t attract only drivers. Every weekend, crowds come to watch as drivers try to navigate the difficult obstacles without getting stuck.

The Redneck Yacht Club

The Redneck Yacht Club is a wild off-road camp in Punta Gorda, Florida. It is the largest off-roading park in Florida, so it’s no surprise that it tends to get quite busy. It is spread across 800-acres and features mud holes and a mud track.

As a proper camp, you’ll find almost everything you need here, ranging from accommodation to feeding. For the best experience, you should only go to the Redneck Yacht Club trail with a four-wheeler with a jacked-up suspension.

The community is a friendly one, so you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help or get guidance from more experienced drivers.

The Cliffs Insane Terrain Off-Road Park

This highly challenging off-roading trail is located in Marseilles, Illinois. It is a heavily wooded park known for its mud holes that can trap the tires on most trucks.

The park’s management does a great job of pointing drivers to the best trails for their experience level. Once you get to the toughest trails, you can understand why it is called Insane.

The Trans-America Trail

The 5,000-mile Trans-America trail starts in Southeast Tennessee, stretching to Southwest Oregon. It truly lives up to its name. The trail has all kinds of terrains you can imagine. Wherever you may be, you only need to make your way to the nearest point of the trail from you to get into the groove.

If you choose to conquer the trail, you’ll have to prepare to travel through more than ten states. It’s definitely a huge challenge but is richly rewarding. You will enjoy all kinds of experiences and take in unforgettable sights and sounds.

While driving this trail, you need to be ready to face snow, sand, rocks, and mud, depending on the weather. Have your camera handy as you’ll come across all kinds of wildlife while on this trip. You’ll have to look long and hard to find an off-road trip bigger than this in the US. Prepare to put your off-roading skills to the test.

Mojave Road

Driving through the Mojave Road in Arizona and California is one of the best ways to go on an off-road trip. The road starts in Bullhead City Arizona, and terminates in Newberry Springs, California. The trail is 140-mile long, and, as you would expect, there are lots of historic landmarks spread across the picturesque thrills.

Some of the landmarks include the Soda Lake, Rock Spring, Joshua Tree Forest, and the Colorado River. There’s also no shortage of wildlife. If you ever have to park and leave your vehicle and come down, you should watch out for snakes!

The road has a rich history. It was originally paved by Native Americans and has been traveled by the US Army, Spanish Explorers, and more for centuries. It is the trail to go with if you are looking for some real adventure. Don’t forget to pack your essentials (especially water) as the trail can get lonely for stretches.

Rubicon Trail

Located 80 miles (129 km) east of Sacramento, the Rubicon trail is one of the best off-roading locations in the US for experienced drivers. It is just 22 miles (35.4 km) long, but not many people have successfully conquered this incredibly challenging terrain that also doubles as one of the best rock crawling trails in the region.

The Rubicon trail cuts through the Tahoe National Forest and El Dorado. The combination of the challenge the trail poses and the picturesque scenery means that it is high on the list of many off-roading lovers.

If you’re thinking of adding this trail to your list, you need to be sure you have a vehicle with a three-inch (8cm) lift, 33-inch (84cm) tires, and adequate rocker guards. This is the only way to avoid taking a lot of sheet metal damage on this terrain.

These are some of the top off-roading trails in the US today. Go over them and make a note of the options that are closest to you, considering your experience level. All of them are legally approved for off-roading, so you don’t need any special licenses. However, rules on safe driving still apply while on most of them.

Final Words

Off-roading is a fun pastime that is popular with millions of people in the US. You can enjoy it legally by seeking out approved trails in your location, or driving out to any of the popular trail locations elsewhere in the country. Being a responsible off-roading enthusiast doesn’t just keep you on the right side of the law; it also ensures you do not contribute to the ecosystem’s damage.

Are you new to the activity? Be sure to only start with off-roading trails that are beginner-friendly and slowly work your way up to the more popular and more challenging options.

Jeremy Hoxie

Born and raised in beautiful Northern Michigan, I've have spent two decades enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer. When not working on RigForge, I spend my time Overlanding and tackling off-road trails while sharing my experiences and testing gear along the way. My current rig is a 2013 Jeep JKU Moab.

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