The off-roader's hand book

By the staff of Dirt Wheels


Like any motorized activity, riding ATVs and UTVs has an element of risk. That thrill is part of what gets us addicted to the sport, and we wouldn’t trade that feeling of exhilaration for anything. However, there are safe ways to ride, and some common-sense rules that will lessen the chances of injury and increase your chances of having fun and returning home safe. We hope you’ll find some useful tips on the trail etiquette that we live by. Hopefully, you will teach them to others so we can keep our great trail systems open!


Riding alone is the most dangerous way to go. If you break down or crash, you will have no one around to help. Most of us prefer to ride in groups of more than three riders. We always place riders with various skill levels in certain positions. First up is the leader.



A group leader has a tough job. They must direct the group down trails that suit all the skill levels involved, remember landmarks, and keep track of what trails were ridden to not get the group lost. They must also choose the times to group back up and be the first to spot riders coming in the other direction. A ride leader is in charge of leading the group safely and still makes it a fun time.

If you tend to be at the head of the pack, we suggest you get yourself a nice GPS system for your machine and keep your head on a swivel. Take somewhat frequent breaks to let the slower riders catch back up, and make sure everyone is still safe and accounted for. If the trail splits in different directions, make sure you stop and wait for the group so they know where to go, or appoint another member to wait and point the rest of the riders in the right direction.

Another good way to keep all riders going in the right direction is to tell the group ahead of time that each rider should wait at a trail split until the next one catches up. Then, the waiting rider continues in the right direction while the one who caught up waits. The rest of the group continues the process until the last rider is headed in the right direction. Off-road legend Malcolm Smith of MS Racing fame has led innumerable rides. He has the second person in line wait at a turn until all of the riders in the group pass. Then the new second-place rider waits again at the next turn. This way you ensure that every rider makes the turn, and all get to ride near the front.



If you have to stop the group for a break, the best place would be the most visible to your group and other groups of riders. Never stop in the middle, right before, or directly after a turn. Stop in an open setting that gives other rides enough time to slow down easily when you are spotted.


Hand signals are also important. We enjoy tailing each other pretty close on rides, and not all of our machines have rear brake lights. If you are about to make an abrupt stop, or you spot something dangerous like a washout, raise your hand straight up before you apply the brakes to allow the rider behind you to know your intentions.

If you are changing directions, stick your arm straight out to the direction you plan to travel. If you plan to turn left, stick your left arm straight out in a safe manner before putting that hand back on the controls to complete the turn.



We tend to place riders and machines in a specific order out on the trails. For starters, if you have a group of ATVs with a group of UTVs, generally a UTV would be the first vehicle in the pack. The large machine offers protection from oncoming machines. Now that our favorite trail systems are full of large UTVs, it’s best that possible head-on collisions occur between UTVs. UTVs are larger and generate more dust or throw more mud, but ATV riders have far less protection. The dust could cause lesser-experienced riders to get lost or even crash, so teach them to stay back out of the dust.

Realistically, the leader needs to be one of the more advanced riders in the group. Generally, we have the rest of the advanced group riding upfront except for one. Behind the advanced group would be intermediate-level riders, and then the novice and beginner levels follow suit. And last, the designated follower should be another advanced-level rider who is in charge of the group ahead of them. They can oversee the stragglers, and since they are advanced, they won’t be pushing their limits and are the least likely rider in the group to crash. The leader and follower also get the task of the headcount. Always count every rider present, and that number should never change!



There is an unwritten rule where riders should inform other riders of how many are in each other’s groups. That is the safest way to pass by other groups. For example, in a group of six riders, the leader is counted as the first rider, but you won’t count yourself while signaling an oncoming group. So, if you are leading and there are five riders behind you, you should hold up your hand with your fingers and thumb all outstretched. The rider in your group that is following you will then hold up their hand with only four fingers up. As you guess, the next rider in your group should hold up three fingers.

If you are the last rider in the group, you will hold up your hand in a closed fist. That tells the oncoming group of riders that there is no one behind you. Once you have signaled that there is no one behind you, that lets the oncoming riders know that they can pick up their pace again and not have to watch out for anyone else that is in your group.



The terrain we love to ride on can offer just as much danger as riders piloting machines beyond their skill level. A very important rule of riding is to look ahead when you ride. The quicker you can see the terrain ahead of you, the easier you can avoid hazards. This technique is beneficial when coming up to hilltops and blind corners.

When approaching the top of a hill, it is best to slow down and hug the right side of the trail. Until you know what is at the top, or if other machines are coming up the backside, you should always assume there are hidden hazards and reduce your speed. You should be ready to stop or take evasive action if oncoming traffic suddenly appears.

This same technique should be utilized while approaching a blind corner. Stick to the right side of the trail, and slow your pace before the start of the corner until you can see what is around it. Trail users on foot or those on horseback have right of way on multi-use trail systems. Riders traveling uphill have the right of way over riders heading down. It is safer for a machine and rider to continue down a hill after stopping than to get their vehicle moving forward up a hill after stopping.



An unprepared machine and rider could easily result in a bad riding experience for you or your group. Being prepared starts with your machine. Make sure it is properly maintained, which means having your oil changed, air filter cleaned, coolant level correct, tires properly inflated and everything else your machine requires for a ride. Loose hardware, worn-out brakes, low engine oil, and much more can cause your machine to break and ruin, or at least delay the ride for all. That wastes money and valuable recreation time.

It is always a great idea to pack for potential problems. We carry spare tools to fix common issues and some less common ones. This includes tire plugs, a mini inflator that can be connected to a battery, zip-ties, electrical tape, JB Weld, baling wire, and tools. We also make sure to have plenty of water and snacks that are full of good nutrition, like trail mix or granola bars.


If you and your fellow riders follow the unwritten rules of the trails, we can bet that most of your rides will be more enjoyable. Keep your group together, watch out for oncoming traffic and pack correctly. Also, maintain your machines, keep an eye on upcoming terrain, and go out and have a blast!


It should go without saying, but we will say it anyway: follow the written rules of the riding area as well. Park in approved areas, ride open trails, and make sure your machine meets legal requirements. For example, flags are always a smart idea in open terrain and may be required. Police your parking/camping area, and pack out your trash. Most areas restrict speeds near camping areas. If it isn’t required, slow down anyway. Ride like your family was parked there. Be respectful of others and authorities. And finally, following the rules makes the ride better for all.

To subscribe to Dirt Wheels Magazine in print or digital form click here



Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.