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Going Off Road? Make Sure You Know the Rules!

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Summertime is here; at least that’s what the calendar is showing. Folks are gearing up for their summertime camping trips and adventures in the woods. For some, that includes motorized recreation such as riding ATVs, or motorcycles, generally referred to as Off Highway Vehicles (OHV). Some folks think that public land has no rules that regulate the use of OHVs so I’ll attempt to cover those in this column so riders can have a better understanding. 

OHV use in Idaho had grown exponentially over the past 20 years; subsequently the regulations are becoming more detailed and change often. An astonishing 81,000 OHVs were registered in Idaho last year compared to a little over 6,000 in 1988. With such a quick growth in popularity of off road vehicles, conflict has resulted among user groups, especially those who prefer to travel without motors. The evolving rules are geared toward minimizing conflict and encouraging safety.

There has been a huge growth particularly in the Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTVs) section of the off road vehicle market. These are the larger two-seater vehicles that some people refer to as mules. Unfortunately, folks don’t realize that UTVs are illegal on most Forest Service ATV trails due to size restrictions. USFS restricts all vehicles over 50 inches wide from their motorized trails. Most UTVs are 50 inches or more in width, with the exception of the Polaris Razor, so please don’t travel on motorized trails if you own a UTV; stick to the main roads travelled by full sized vehicles. If you ignore those restrictions and you are caught, the fine is $180 according to the Forest Service.

Before heading out on your OHV, one needs to get the machine registered with the state, like any other motorized vehicle. The only exception is OHVs that are used exclusively for agricultural purposes.  As of 2009, Senate Bill 1098 changed the requirements for OHVs. Restricted use plates for Idaho residents will no longer be required if riders are operating on state or federal lands, only the off-road sticker is required. However, the restricted use plate is still required for operation on local and county roads open to such use. To make it simpler, if you are going to ride on state and federal grounds buy an off-road sticker. If you want to ride on both county and state roads along with federal and state ground, buy a plate along with the off road sticker. Non-resident operators can purchase Idaho plates and off road stickers or if their OHV is properly registered in their home state they don’t need to register them in Idaho. Clear as mud? Contact your local DMV office for more information or to purchase required plates and/or stickers.

When you are out enjoying the trails and roads by OHVs, lead by example.  Stick to the open trails and roads, as going off road does serious damage to the soil and vegetation and will get you a visit with the local judge. There is absolutely no excuse for damaging public ground; please report anybody you see operating an OHV off established trails and roads. Also, use some common sense when riding on muddy trails. For some out there, their manhood or womanhood is directly related to the amount of mud displayed on their vehicles; unfortunately that causes permanent damage to the trial or road. Wait until the trail dries out a bit and slow down when traversing muddy areas. If enough people use discretion when riding that may make the difference in keeping that trail or road from being closed.

Also, use some trail etiquette when approaching other trail users. When coming upon horses and or hikers pull to the side of the trail and turn off your motor. Having respect for other users goes a long way; more people become tolerate of others when the right attitude is displayed.

OHVs are considered a motor vehicle on county roads or in the woods, it doesn’t matter. You need to have a valid driver’s license and proof of insurance when operating an OHV. That means your child under 16 can’t operate the family ATV when on public roadways or land. Children under the age of 18 must wear a helmet at all times when operating or riding on an OHV, and really all people should be protecting their melons regardless of age. 

During the fire season, May 10 through October 20, all OHV operators must carry a shovel and bucket with them when traveling on Forest Service land. Your helmet can substitute for a bucket so all you need is a shovel!

A couple of reminders before I sign off, and it includes my usual spring warnings. Please bear proof your homes and businesses. If the bear has a reason to be there like bird feeders, garbage, dog food, dirty BBQ grills etc., it will never go away.  If you have a dumpster at your business ask Waste Management for a bear proof lid, or find a way to bear proof it yourself. Also, please do not pick up baby wildlife of any kind; you are only doing more harm than good. 

Happy trails to all you riders out there. Please tread lightly and remember to set a good example for all to see. See you out there.


Leave No Child Inside 


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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

Tagged as:

hunting, The Game Trail, OHV, off road vehicles, four wheelers, UTV, utility terrain vehicles

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