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    Off-Road Etiquette | Summer 2005 Out Here Magazine

    ATV riders who follow the rules allow those sharing the trail to also enjoy the great outdoors.

    Steer clear of improper riding

    By Noble Sprayberry

    Photography by Photodisc

    A simple equation drives the popularity of all-terrain vehicles: small prices equal big fun.

    But ATV fans should remember there's more to the mix, says Bill Burke, who teaches backcountry driving and proper off-road vehicle use.

    "I think motorized recreation almost has to police itself and the people who operate those machines should have an ethic," he says.

    Ignoring the rules of the trail can not only bring danger to the rider and others, but also can lead to trail closures, ending off-road fun for everyone, he says.

    While many rules apply for everything from trucks to motorcycles, it's ATV operators who represent a growing, visible presence in the nation's backcountry.

    Price drives the popularity, says Burke, owner of 4-Wheeling America, a Fruita, CO, company that teaches four-wheel driving, safety, trail etiquette, and environmental awareness.

    Expensive sport utility vehicles and four-wheel-drive trucks don't fit everyone's budget, but it's possible to buy a quality ATV for $1,000 to $5,000, Burke says.

    "You can afford to have the whole family riding and it's good fun for everyone," he says.

    The search for fun, though, sometimes results in improper use.

    Public land managers are spread thin and often there are too-few posted signs to spell out all of the rules, putting the responsibility on the rider, Burke says.

    Riders should travel only in areas where they know they're allowed, and it's their responsibility to do the necessary research, Burke says. Often a quick Internet search or a visit to a local motorcycle shop can clear up possible confusion.

    Always respect other trail users, whether it's a mountain biker, hiker, or horseback rider.

    For example, if approached by someone on horseback, it's usually best to stop the ATV and turn off the engine. Let the horse rider indicate when it's safe to continue, and follow the same rule in meetings with pack animals, such as llamas or alpacas.

    Also, leave gates as they're found. Don't close a gate that's open or leave a closed gate swinging free, which is particularly important in lands with cattle and horses.

    Know the territory, including how to navigate with map and compass. ATVs should never travel on narrow trails designated for single-track uses, such as hiking, and it's the rider's responsibility to know the difference.

    Stay on the trails and avoid one of the most common infractions — if there is a tree or other obstacle blocking a trail, don't just go around and create an unofficial bypass.

    Either clear the obstacle, go over it, or turn around and go the other way, Burke says. Ghost trails created around obstacles can damage the land and lead to erosion.

    "You have to respect the land," he says, "because otherwise it's real easy for management agencies just to close it."

    Noble Sprayberry is a freelance writer based in Dallas.