Tread Lightly: The Guide to Responsible and Ethical Recreational 4×4 Use

    Four-Wheel Drive vehicles are an incredible resource for those looking to access, explore and foster a deep appreciation for the great outdoors.

    In a fast-paced society where our time is significantly constrained by the demands placed on us by careers, family and other obligations, having vehicles that transport us from the daily grind to the backcountry in a reasonable amount of time is invaluable.

    And once we’re there, our 4x4s can be a lot of fun and provide hours upon hours of enjoyment through recreational driving experiences, and also enable us to enjoy other outdoor pursuits by providing us passage to areas we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

    Many of us have lamented the fact that certain areas on public lands have been closed off to motorized vehicles in recent years, but those of us that are ecologically and environmentally conscious understand that there needs to be a balance between motor vehicle recreation, other land uses, and environmental stewardship.  And there are certainly plenty of areas that have been deemed suitable for off-road excursions on 4x4s, ATVs and snowmobiles for us to explore.

    With access on public lands being a hotly debated political issue in certain regions, it becomes even more important for motorized recreation advocates to ensure that our passions are pursued in a manner that are responsible from a conservation standpoint.

    An Undeserved Reputation?

    Frankly, I believe that most Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) users naturally follow sound and responsible recreational practices.  Despite this, there is a perception that off-road enthusiasts are a reckless and negligent bunch that gets their kicks primarily from destroying the landscape.

    My experience tells me that this notion is a fallacy – the vast majority of off-road and outdoor buffs that I know and have run across are not the types that would want to destroy or detract from the splendor of their natural playground.  In fact, I’ve found that those that utilize public lands frequently tend to be the best land stewards, as their pastimes and lifestyle give them a vested interest in the long-term preservation of natural resources and the terrain.

    “Tracks” sign photo by David Hiser

    Those of us that spend a lot of time in the outdoors – both in an out of our vehicles – instinctively know that irresponsible land use can not only severely impact the landscape itself, but also have dire and detrimental effects on ecosystems, water quality and fish/wildlife habitat.  When these outdoor essentials are damaged, our enjoyment of the land is also diminished.  I don’t know any outdoor enthusiast that wants that.

    We have a responsibility to engage in responsible use practices and also to share our knowledge with others so we can emphasize the importance of landscape restoration and habitat security, and how the future of our recreational opportunities is tied directly to the proper and responsible land stewardship.  We simply cannot allow a small handful of bad seeds to spoil the pleasure that so many responsible OHV users get each year from their hobby.

    Tread Lightly

    I encourage all off-roaders, four-wheel users and snowmobiles to become active in the “Tread Lightly” movement at the local level.  Tread Lightly is an organization that works with land managers and the general public to promote an ethic of responsibility and stewardship among those who utilize public lands for recreation purposes.

    Many of the practices endorsed by Tread Lightly will come across as common sense to those of us that have been using public lands responsibly for many years, but for others the rules may not be so intuitive.  It’s important for OHV users to heed the following advice to ensure that the proper balance between recreation and conservation can continue for years to come.

    • Stay on designated road, trails or areas.  Avoid charting new courses that widens trails or blazes new trails.
    • Be constantly mindful of the rights of others, including private property owners and non-motorized recreationalists like hikers and campers.
    • Take the time to educate yourself (and others) before heading up into the mountains.  Get the necessary maps and travel restrictions and make sure you know how to operate the vehicles you are going to be using in a safe and legal fashion.
    • Be constantly aware of sensitive environmental areas such as waterways, wetlands and riparian areas.  These ecosystems contain vital wildlife habitat and sensitive soils that can be damaged by reckless OHV use.
    • Don’t be an idiot and leave the area you recreate in worse off than when you found it.  If you come across an area that has been degraded by someone else, do the right thing and help to repair it by disposing waste and taking other mitigation efforts.

    It is our responsibility to ensure that the unfair stereotype of the 4×4 lover as a reckless redneck with no environmental morals is proven to be untrue.  By using Tread Lightly practices, we can ensure that public lands can continue to be our playground for generations to come.

    Jack Payton is an automotive lover, an outdoor enthusiast and a longtime advocate of the responsible use of motor vehicles on public lands.  He has written extensively on a number of topics related to the auto industry and on land management issues. He currently operates as a freelance writer for the online tires retailer tires-easy.com. 

    Featured image courtesy Nancy Yantis

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