OHVs (ATVs) Work Well for Backcountry Access – But Why?

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 19, 2007      

This time of year my interest in backcountry transportation always heats up. Dry gated roads frustrate, while mud slogs get old fast. Thus we’re always looking for ways to quickly reach the alpine then spend our time on snow doing what we love.

OHVs work well in spring for Colorado’s gated roads and I’m partial to their use for such (as a necessity, not by choice). But OHVs have also become a major PITA for land use managers, as well as a frustrating thing for those of us who don’t own one and simply want to drive up a backcountry road, park at road’s end, and do our recreation on foot.

An interesting article on the New West website covers the OHV issue from more of a backcountry recreation perspective rather than coming from the “ban everything human” point of view. Guest writer David Lien, who is a hunter, describes how OHVs used by hunters (and others) are running rampant, driving game from hunting areas, and are thus hunting’s “Hydra.”

I’d agree with Lien that OHV use has gotten out of hand in numerous areas, but I’d go a step farther and say that the incredible explosion in OHV use is an unintended consequence of over-zealous efforts to close backcountry roads to regular 2×2 and 4×4 vehicles. Also, it’s a consequence of a nearly total lack of law enforcement when it comes to where OHVs can and can’t be used. It works like this: We’ve not had any additional significant road mileage added to 4×4 trails in many years, but OHVs can use narrower trails that are not classified as roads. More, OHVs area easily driving overland off-trail. I know people who used to own and drive 4x4s such as Jeeps, but have sold their larger vehicle in favor of OHVs that can go many more places (both legally and illegally).

What is more, and something many people don’t realize, is that many so called “roadless areas” actually have OHV trails, just not “roads.” Thus, if you own a regular 4×4 such as Jeep you are banned, but drive your ATV/OHV and go have fun! Indeed, could it be that creating our vaunted “roadless” areas has actually contributed to the OHV use explosion?

The facts are you can drive an OHV just about anywhere that’s not too steep, they’re small and easy to hide (many come in camo colors), and they’re easy to maneuver around closure gates. (Incidentally, they’re also kinda fun — at least till the rain starts.) Over the past couple of decades the Forest Service and other public land managers have gradually closed more and more access used by regular 4x4s (or even regular automobiles) that tend to stay on roads and obey closures if for no other reason than they’re much easier to bust than an OHV. As that trend progressed, ever resilient humans discovered OHVs and now go for broke just about anywhere they want — while owners of regular 4x4s such as myself are shut out.

As I always contend, my view is that a network of defined 2×2 and 4×4 roads that access the backcountry is frequently what we need to balance recreation with conservation. Closing and blocking such roads yet allowing OHVs pretty much unrestricted use of the land is a ridiculous trend and must be stopped. How, I don’t know. But for starters I’m going to be even more careful about what organizations I support. If a land advocacy or environmental group doesn’t understand how regular roads and 4×4 trails (along with well managed OHV trails, mountain bike trails and such) can function as a legitimate part of our backcountry, they’re contributing to the problem rather than solving it.

Your ideas? Comments on. Are OHVs the scourge of modern man, or perhaps have a place of some sort? Are backcountry roads evil? Are you buying an OHV as soon as possible?


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24 Responses to “OHVs (ATVs) Work Well for Backcountry Access – But Why?”

  1. Steve Pulford April 19th, 2007 7:26 am

    Lou, I agree with mosof what you are saying. Closing more roads is just reinforcement for more people to use OHVs to get where they want to go.

    But there are always more options… Check out Davenports trip report of Holy Cross last spring. They used bicycles and kiddie carriers to reach their objective, and it seems they had fun doing it. [ http://www.skithe14ers.com/p-mt-of-the-holy-cross.php ]

  2. Seth Flanigan April 19th, 2007 7:38 am

    Where closures make it more difficult to responsible users, I can’t really use them as justification for the misuse of those areas. I do anot agree with or support OHV use, but I know a lot of responsible users that are just as put off by those who choose to bust a move around closure gates or even through them (wire clippers anyone?). I can understand their uses and benefits, but the existance of laws does not justify the breaking of them. Support who you choose. That is the beauty of democracy, but you won’t see me roving around on an OHV (by my own choice) any time soon. Why not use bikes like Davenport? Or even horses and have a real back counry experience! And why not go out and enjoy the whole expereince of maybe an overnight and multiple day trip instead of being insuch a hurry that we have to be there NOW. The journey is 90% of the destination.

  3. John Rosendahl April 19th, 2007 8:01 am

    You might wnt to define your acronyms, I have never seen OHV before, so I had to look it up. Now that I know it stands for Off Highway Vehicle, I am firmly against them – anywhere.

    It’s not that they can’t be used responsibly. But it seems that people who power themselves tend to have a stronger conenction and a greater respect for the wilderness they are in. There is something about motorised transport that prevents this connection. Without a connection to the wilderness, even well meaning people can do an incredible amount of dammage, without trying too hard or knowing that they do it. At least with 4x4s the dammage is limited to 50 feet or so from the road.

  4. Lou April 19th, 2007 8:04 am

    Agree the bicycles are an option for gated roads. But bicycles need a decent road if used for backcountry skiing access with big load of skis and such, why should that road be only used for bicycles? What I’m saying is that since that road is closed, it encourages the use of OHVs when if that road was open we could just drive up it in our SUV or “TAV.” When OHVs use such roads they tend to go off on thread trails to the side and at the end of the road. When full-size drivers use it, some might still stray but much less so.

  5. Lou April 19th, 2007 8:07 am

    John, while I’d disagree about being firmly against OHVs anywhere, I’m glad you see my point about how 4x4s tend to stay on defined routes.

    (All, please don’t bombard me with examples of how 4x4s stray, I know they do. I’m just saying they’re much easier to manage than OHVs and don’t stray near as much, and thus restricting full sized 4x4s has caused an explosion in illegal trails made by OHVs.)

  6. Brianstory April 19th, 2007 8:07 am

    Although there are many over zealous road closures on the National forests, I would say the majority are for letitimate resource conservation. OHV use on mountain roads can generate A LOT of sediment. So, I’d suggest maybe the majority of road closures on national forests are justified? Also, I guess I haven’t seen a clear link between road closures and a resulting increased destructive OHV presence below the closures. It seems that many of the destructive/irresponsible OHV users will do their thing regardless and are not all that interested in cruising around on roads passable in stock 4×4 vehicles. Also, with the exception of truly remote wilderness areas, I have never accepted the logic of restricted access as “enhancing the experience.” As long as having good access is compatible with resource conservation, I would certainly prefer to spend my time in the alpine rather than the “experience” of slogging up yet another muddy access road. Even if it means a few more people. Of course, these are all just my opinions and many exceptions exist. For good or for bac, the reality is that many of us have limited time to spend outdoors, and reasonable access to alpine terrain is simply wonderful.

  7. Paul April 19th, 2007 11:06 am

    FYI: ATV retail sales (in thousands) with YOY comparisons

    1990 150
    1991 149 -0.7%
    1992 169 13.4%
    1993 195 15.4%
    1994 228 16.9%
    1995 293 28.5%
    1996 318 8.5%
    1997 359 12.9%
    1998 434 20.9%
    1999 545 25.6%
    2000 648 18.9%
    2001 729 12.5%
    2002 770 5.6%
    2003 799 3.9%
    2004 813 1.7%
    2005 780 -4.0%
    2006 748 -4.2%

    you can see that the explosive growth has declined in recent years, similar to the way sled sales did prior to that.

  8. Lou April 19th, 2007 11:20 am

    That’s interesting Paul, thanks.

  9. Paul April 19th, 2007 12:42 pm

    Glad I could add something to the discussion.

    Also of note is the recent trend toward ‘side-by-side’ vehicles (that carry more than one rider side-by-side), so one vehicle on the trail, where there used to be two.

  10. wolfy April 19th, 2007 2:14 pm

    I think your argument makes sense.

    I think also that with the costs in money and time of purchase, storage, maintenance, transportation and usage, ATV/OHSs are vastly more elitist than even Telemark skiing. Should the fact that so few who can do so much damage have so much affect on the direction in which we take the management of our public lands? They put up all the cash to buy the quad, the truck, the trailer and the garage and then cry like babies when they can’t run all over the landscape for free.


  11. sherryb April 19th, 2007 2:15 pm

    All this discussion about powered units to access the backcountry makes me depressed. I know this is a simplistic view but it comes from the heart… I am waiting for the day when fossil fuels are either so precious or expensive that motor powered access to the backcountry is prohibitively expensive and I can ski right outside my back door, not having to drive even myself far away from home to find some snow not trashed by snowmobiles or trails out of earshot of the OHV crowd. I know… in a perfect world.

  12. Mark Burggraff April 19th, 2007 7:26 pm

    You know I kind of agree with you sherry except for this. I don’t live in the mountains. I married a woman who would prefer we live in South Dakota. The flat part. I am comfortable with that because we have a very small but efficent local area that allows me to do my uphill training while I patrol. However when I do access the backcountry I have to use the ultimate trail vehicle, a 757. Now don’t think it doesn’t cause me some guilt, it does. The funny thing is my wife would consider moving to a mountain town except for the fact that we are essentially priced out of most mountain areas. And I’m not talking Aspen or Jackson either. So I sometimes get a little irritated at people who take a slightly elitist attitude about trailhead access. I look at places like Driggs and think what a cool place to live but I also think that the development that happens there is far more damaging to the “wilderness” than my living here. I guess I’m rambling a bit but it’s awfully easy to see only one side of an issue when you live in your own paradise. For the record I do own an ATV but it only plows my 1/4 mile long driveway.

  13. steve April 19th, 2007 7:36 pm

    Some people would consider the use of OHV’s…’aid-skiing’.

  14. Jon April 19th, 2007 9:13 pm

    Sensible use in moderation, please. In the winter, I ski the 4.5 mile route to my remote cabin site. In the summer when I’m hauling supplies or otherwise, I use my ATV to get there. I have driven the Tacoma on occasion, but it is much less efficient due to the burly road. My point is, ATV’s have their place as long as the users have common sense and respect for what they should and should not do. What really yanks my chain is the ‘bilers that head into the Legal Wilderness at Silver Creek/ Meadow Mountain (CO). It is so remote there in the winter that nothing can stop them and their impacts on the locals (mt. goats). How do we address that?

  15. Mike April 19th, 2007 9:30 pm

    From what I read, we are not just talking about OHV use, but more specifically ATVs or quads. The term OHV is broad, typically meaning any vehicle not licensed for highway use. Quads, side by sides, motorcycles, some jeeps (rock crawlers), rails and buggies all fall under the OHV designation.
    I do like to ride a motorcycle (off-road bike now street legal). I’ve used it to help me get closer to where the skinning or hiking starts. I don’t have a problem with quads themselves, but I do have a lot of problems for many of the people that ride them. I think the problem comes when you make anything easy enough that anyone can do it. When there are no barriers to entry, you tend to get a lot of knuckleheads doing an activity. Riding a quad or even personal watercraft let a bunch of people into an activity where all they have to do is push a button and go. No shifting or balance required. Kind of reminds me of the problems with snowboarders years ago. The problem wasn’t the board itself, it was the person who was just introduced to the mountain and resort environment, they progressed much quicker than they probably would have on skis, and they never learned any mountain etiquette. That being said, I’ll probably be using a motorcycle to help me access some snow in the Uintas this weekend. Nothing offroad (too muddy) just to go on the pavement above the gate that is still closed.

  16. Scott Stolte April 20th, 2007 7:23 am


    Let me get this straight….now we’re bashing on telemark skiers by comparing them to ATV users? Come on folks, let it go. If free heeled bliss isn’t your thing, fine. Shut up and slide down the hill however you like. I know and ski with a lot of ATers and Tele skiers and I must say that from where I stand the “elitist” crap is being spewed more from the mouths of the AT contingent. When is the last time you saw a tele skier “bash” on AT on one of these posts? Is it that much fun to bash on things that you can’t do or don’t understand (or both)?

  17. Lou April 20th, 2007 9:08 am

    A lot of people must not understand riding an ATV, or can’t do it?

  18. Scott April 20th, 2007 9:41 am

    I was referring to tele skiing Lou! But I think you might have known that. As for the ATVs, I only support the use of three wheelers, quads are for sissies.

  19. nick April 20th, 2007 9:28 pm

    I’m not in total agreement that the perceived increase in road closures is purely an act by the land managers to shut out those backcountry enthusiasts not owning an ATV. I think the access problem is two-fold. Obviously, driving a 4×4 on a muddy road will cause some damage. But if 10 4×4’s were to drive the same road there would be much more damage. So, possibly with the increase in backcountry usage, land managers have had to limit access to roads they had historically left open. But also, even though there are more people traveling into the backcountry, there are fewer dollars being allocated towards managing that backcountry. Which has the obvious consequences: not enough staffing, no money for road grading, etc.

    Its unfortunate that the response is to acquire another fossil fuel machine and circumvent the closure.

  20. Lou April 21st, 2007 6:04 am


    Good to give the Federal government the benefit of the doubt. After all, just about everything else they do is well thought out and beneficial to everyone (g).

    Seriously, I’m not saying the effect of seeing more ATVs because of road closures is deliberate. It’s possibly an unintended consequence of eroding access to regular licensed vehicles. I agree that some roads are problematic regarding erosion and that needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. But many roads appear to be gated just because they can be gated. Proof of that weirdness is that many such gates are still used by private land owners who have property past the gate, and other users such as outfitters, miners, etc. Irksome, since we own the public land, and if a private land owner can open a gate and get to his land, why can’t we use the same road to access ours?

  21. Peter February 1st, 2008 11:54 am

    Motor uses are a slippery slope. If we close roads where impacts are likely and significant, smaller more maneuverable vehicles proliferate and closures are circumvented. Access to public land is important, but we don’t have the capability to enforce or adequately manage/police use of the public domain. So, imposing more onerous use restrictions is the easiest way to clamp down on abuse and disproportionate impacts from thrillseekers who don’t really give a shit about the resource and don’t pay any heed to the notion that public lands are a shared resource…. “shared,� of course, is about utilizing the resource in a sustainable and respectful way, not about the god-given right to do whatever gets you off.

    Finally, the existence of a road on public land does not, in itself, justify the existence of that road. With more road miles on public land than in the interstate highway system, it is obvious that some backcountry roads are unnecessary.

  22. Carpinterian April 12th, 2009 12:59 am

    I think for the most part OHV and ATV use will decline from 2009 on, if people are OUT OF WORK, they will sell their toy’s first…

    The General Public does not understand the NEED for recreation, so the sell off their Toy’s and quietly go insane…

    America is rapidly becoming a Nation of SHUT IN’s…

    I was off my Quad for 14 years, now when I go out to ride, there is nobody there…

    I can ride all day long and see no one…

    I got a 1999 Honda Foreman 450 ES 4X4 with 225 miles on it for $1500.00 I sent it to Honda and had it checked out and dialed in, it cost me $500.00…

    So that was $2000.00 for a New 4X4 Quad, when I go to the designated riding locations, my truck is the only one there, as a Ham I report directly to The Forest Service, or the County Sheriff, simply because they know I’m out there and There is nobody Out There…

    Problem Solved…

    But I am talking Santa Barbara California,
    Los Padres National Forest…

    The Hunters from here take their Quads and go to Colorado and Utah…

    There are still Weekend Worriors, but most of us are over 50, how wild is that going to get ???

    Happy Trails…

  23. Ray Martin November 12th, 2009 2:01 am

    I, too, believe the National Forest Service has enforced the ATV ban in National Forests overzealously. I can understand emphasizing closure in those areas expeienceing unprecended use and , as result damage, by atv use by those who don’t stay on trails or break out cross country. With the burgeoning baby boomer population reaching the age of arthritis and other physical disabilities, the Forest Service has gone well beyond the scope of the intent of the law to prevent ATV use. Just today, I spent all day traveling the approved roads in my truck, trying to find a place to park my camper so I could take my 81 year old father deer huning. With chronid obstructive lung disease, it is just not reasonalbe to expect him to be able to traverse some of the trails on foot. He just simply cannot physically do it. on foot, while an atv would provide a means for him to continue a life long tradition without feeling he is a criminal. He has only taken to riding an ATV has his health detoriated. I know there are some previsions for a disability waiver, but have you ever tired to tell your father he is disabled and just can’t hunt like he used too. It is not a pretty sight. This from a man who have fought for the rights of U.S. citizens to express their freedom by participating in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
    I submit to you that the interests of the logging and timber company interest, oil and gas interests, are providing examples of far more damage to the enviroment than any group of ATV’s would. Not only has use been revoked in many places, the Forest Service has over-zealously blocked off many roads that provided primitive camping spots for those of us who wish to enjoy the privacy the National Forest can provide. Not everone wants to camp in a ready made campground, with parking pads, fire rings, and picnic tables, but no potable water, electric hookups, or sewage sump stations and essentially provide a place to park you ATV for 10 plus dollars a day in established campgrounds when it is possible to them primitively camp in the national forest. But alas, the forest service has so overzealously blocked all entrances off traveled roads so as to prevent pulling a travel trailer over near the road and camping. I believe in the best good for the most, but I hardly think this philosophy is being utizled in this case. It is time for the people of the Untied States to urge their representatives and Senators, and get the Forest Service under control with a study of current practices and, hopefully, revised polices to provide the most for the common good. Write your Senaors and representatives today. There is far too much government regulation on resources that are owned by all through some 150 or so years of Forest Service policy. There is such a thing as too much regulation, regualtion that inhibits the intersts of the young people of our nation into seeing the wonders and beauty of our natural surroundings.

  24. Lou November 12th, 2009 7:23 am

    Thanks for the comment Ray. I just re-read my blog post and realized I probably could have been more clear with my points. The main thing I’m saying is that ATVs, for better or worse, have become a sort of “back door” way for people to continue using vehicle access for public land, even as land managers close more and more roads, and hardly ever build or designate a new road. In some cases this is bad, in other cases it’s good.

    As for regulation of ATVs, around here (west central Colorado) ATV drivers pretty much do what they want, which is another point I was trying to make.

    Ultimately, I’d like to see our public land managed to accommodate motorized and mechanized uses in a more friendly fashion, but with a balance of conservation combined with such use. My point is that by just willy nilly closing automobile roads (and not building new roads), the USFS and other land managers have contributed to the explosion in ATV use. This is not only an interesting unintended consequence, but something that needs to be addressed by both land managers and conservationists who tend to just focus on an area being “roadless” and ignore the proliferation of ATV trails.

    In the case of your dad, that’s a good example of why an appropriate network of roads and ATV trails is indeed something we should have in certain areas of backcountry land. On the other hand, if ATVs just ran rampant on that land where you like to take your father, and it was crisscrossed by a web of eroded and heavily used ATV trails, then the backcountry hunting experience you seek would be compromised. Thus, it’s a matter of balance. I’m sure you’d agree.

    By pushing for the closure of roads and pressuring the USFS to not build new recreation roads, conservation groups have opened the door to alternative forms of motorized transport. 4×4 roads are much easier to manage and regulate than stealthy ATV trails. But due to policy, we now have ATV’s all over the place and they keep closing roads. Again, the law of unintended consequences.

    Last point: Environmental groups around here pushed like maniacs for “roadless designations” of various sorts over past years. All the while they ignored the fact that ATV trails are still allowed under most so-called “roadless” rules. Not only did this make me loose almost all my faith in our local environmental groups, but it also contributed to our odd imbalance of our ever increasing popularity of backroads 4×4 travel on ever less road mileage.

    Basically, all just a big mess.

    My main focus now is to see if those of us who enjoy backcountry recreation, ATV, climb, hike, mountain bike, snowmobile, backcountry skiing, whatever, could start working together to sort out this mess. This instead of the “ban this and ban that” groups that are presently causing us all to butt heads as meanwhile nearly all of us loose rather than gain recreation opportunities.

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