How to be a responsible overlander or off-roader, according to the experts

For most dedicated outdoor enthusiasts, the principles of Leave No Trace are common knowledge: respect animals, dispose of waste properly, be considerate of others, and so on. But while this framework covers a wide area (so to speak) when it comes to human-powered recreation—think hiking and mountain biking—it doesn’t quite account for the additional impacts that motorized recreation brings. This is where organizations like Tread Lightly! Come in.

The national non-profit organization, which formed out of the US Forest Service in 1990, works to keep motorized recreation available on public lands through stewardship and conservation, education, and communications and outreach.

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According to Matt Caldwell, executive director of Tread Lightly!, land managers in state and federal public lands agencies are severely underfunded. “Tread Lightly! — and the volunteers and industry partners who step in to do this work on the ground — play a critical role in bridging the gap in these resources,” says Caldwell.

Motorized recreation can include everything from e-bikes to ATVs to four-wheel drive overland vehicles, but the goal in raising awareness and education is the same everywhere: to protect the trails and keep them open for future use.

closeup of one "Steps up easily" Sticker on the window of a car
Tread lightly! started as part of the US Forest Service and became a non-profit organization in 1990. | Photo: Sanna Boman

The terms off-roading and overlanding are sometimes used interchangeably, and while there is some overlap, they are not the same thing. Off-roading is driving on unpaved roads and paths. Overlanding can be described as a form of off-road travel that involves camping, often lasting several days or more, in a self-sufficient vehicle custom-made for the purpose.

Whether you’re focusing on off-road day trips or longer cross-country excursions, here are five tips for stewarding the trails responsibly.

1. Educate yourself

When it comes to motorized recreation, Matt Caldwell says the first step is to educate yourself. He points to the Tread Lightly! Website with overland-specific resources, online courses, and more. He also recommends contacting land managers in the areas you want to explore. “There are often courses near you, whether it’s recreational courses or off-road driving courses,” he says. “Anything you can do to participate is always a good place to start.”

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In addition to taking classes and researching best practices, it’s also wise to seek help from more experienced overlanders. Online forums, YouTube videos, and social media platforms are useful places to start, as is attending events like Overland Expo. Even experienced overlanders can benefit from a refresher on sustainable off-road travel.

“Be hungry for information and keep expanding your knowledge base as you expand your adventures,” says Caldwell.

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2. Know where to go

The term “overlanding” may conjure up images of vehicles traversing completely untouched terrain far removed from civilization. This is not necessarily true – in the United States, most overland and off-road activity takes place in designated areas of public land. While it’s true that these areas are often remote and largely deserted – some of the most appealing aspects of overlanding – that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to drive everywhere.

An off road vehicle driving down a dirt road in a desert landscape
It is important to stay on designated trails. | Photo: Sanna Boman

“Staying on track is one of the most important things new off-roaders need to know,” says Eric Ammerman, Quadratec’s director of creative content and an avid off-roader. Quadratec, a Jeep parts and accessories company, has partnered with Tread Lightly! participated in various public land management programs over the past 20 years.

“You don’t just dash through public land or forest and make your own new trail,” says Ammerman. “You have to stay on established paths so you don’t affect the environment around you.”

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Evan Robins, Education and Stewardship Manager at Tread Lightly!, recommends learning as much as you can about travel management systems in any area you want to explore. “If you’re in a vehicle, get a motor vehicle use card or MVUM,” he says. “A motor vehicle usage card is a very handy and readily available piece of kit to have.”

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MVUMs are detailed maps published by the US Forest Service (USFS) that show which roads and trails are designated for motor vehicles — including the types of vehicles allowed and what times of the year. They can also be used to find free camping on national forest land. Maps can be downloaded from USFS websites, or in some cases, printed versions are available at visitor centers and ranger stations.

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3. Unpack your trash

While the “pack it in, pack it out” mentality is rampant in the hiking community, not everyone in the off-road space has gotten the message. The basic idea is that whatever you bring to the trail, you should take it back with you.

“You might think that you always have to have a garbage bag with you in a vehicle, but it’s one of those things that not everyone immediately understands,” says Ammerman. He regularly sees remote campsites with no garbage disposal where people leave bags of garbage and has made a habit of picking it up himself. “I go to the site and always come back with two full bags of garbage,” he says.

Close up of a Tread Lightly garbage bag hanging from a jeep's spare tire with desert red rocks in the background
Bring a garbage bag and unpack the garbage you find along the way. | Photo: Sanna Boman

One of the easiest things you can do to be a responsible off-roader is to always pack your trash. Keep a garbage bag, such as For example, keep a garbage bag for a spare tire in your vehicle and consider picking up and properly disposing of any garbage you encounter once you’ve left the trail.

“We see a lot of litter and rubbish, and we work on that all the time,” says Robins, referring to Tread Lightly!’s TREAD principles: travel responsibly, respect the rights of others, educate yourself, avoid sensitive areas and do your part. “By incorporating this into your way of recreation, you will have a sustainable and enjoyable journey and we can all continue to go to the places we love.”

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4. Safety first

Focusing on safety is important to have an enjoyable experience where no one gets hurt, but it also helps not put additional strain on already limited public land resources. Rescue efforts can be costly and time-consuming — and in many cases, they can be avoided entirely with the right preparation.

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Bring extra water and food, sun protection, a first aid kit, layers and blankets, or a sleeping bag—even if you’re not planning on staying the night. Make sure you have extra gas, tools, and a vehicle recovery kit, which should include things like tow straps, recovery boards, ropes, and jumper cables.

A line of jeeps traveling in a red rock desert landscape
Always travel with more than one vehicle. | Photo: Sanna Boman

It’s also wise to travel in a multi-vehicle group and carry an emergency communications device.

“Tell someone where you’re going and when you’re coming back,” says Robins. “People get lost all the time, whether experienced or inexperienced doesn’t matter. Life happens and we’re not always in hospitable places. So take care out there.”

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5. Keep paying it

Once you educate yourself and make sustainable practices a part of your off-road routine, it’s hard not to pass it on and contribute to the education of others.

“We’re in a place where we have a lot of new people coming into outdoor recreation,” says Caldwell. Anything we can do to spread a positive message and make people aware of the opportunities that exist is of great benefit.”

A group of people in a red rock desert landscape carrying logs and building a fence
Tread lightly! Volunteers working on a fence project in Moab, Utah. | Photo: Sanna Boman

One of the best ways to give back to public lands is by volunteering with local or national organizations. According to Caldwell, Tread Lightly! is on track to complete more than 100 trail preservation, management and restoration projects nationwide in 2022. These projects range from rubbish removal to building fences and putting up signs, and usually also include an educational component.

“Everyone can play a part in preserving the trail systems and making sure we have them for today, tomorrow and for the next generation. And I think it’s up to everyone to figure out what that looks like for them,” Caldwell says. “I really encourage everyone to find out how they can help us protect the fun and adventure of future generations.”

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