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How To Tread Lightly When Off-Roading

Tread Lightly! is an organization that promotes responsible off-roading, but knowing how to tread lightly when off-roading starts with the right attitude and right equipment. This includes bringing gear like garbage bags and tree saver straps and following rules such as staying on marked trails. 

View of the muddy road and green meadows in spring, Eastern Poland

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“Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

These words represent the most considerate way to enjoy the best outdoor experiences Mother Nature has to offer. Treading lightly is even more important in the off-road community. Whether you’re rock crawling in Moab, overlanding across America, or living the van life, having the right attitude (and equipment) will help you maximize your fun and minimize your environmental footprint. 

Treading lightly is critical to trails staying open and public land and parks allowing off-roading. Here’s what you need to know about how to tread lightly when off-roading:

off road car in the red Wadi Rum desert in Jordan

What Does The T.R.E.A.D in Tread Lightly! Stand For?

Whether you’re new to off-roading or you’ve been doing it for years, you’ve almost certainly heard the phrase “tread lightly.” The U.S. Forest Service first launched this catchphrase in the 1980s as a campaign to increase awareness of responsible off-roading, and in 1990, Tread Lightly! became a non-profit organization to achieve the same goals by educating and training drivers and protecting and preserving off-road trails. 

From operating off-road vehicles such as 4x4s, dirt bikes, and ATVs to enjoying outdoor activities like camping, hunting, and even drone usage, the five ways Tread Lightly! promotes responsible recreation is the acronym – T.R.E.A.D.

Travel responsibility

No matter where you’re going and how you get there, the most important thing is always to travel responsibly by staying on marked trails. And while it’s fun to get your vehicle muddy, minimize damage to the trail by straddling ruts and reduce speed, if possible, while driving through mud puddles. Be careful when you encounter serious water crossings to avoid sinking the vehicle or being swept away by the current. 

Respect the rights of others

Respecting the rights of others starts by staying off private property and closed trails. You won’t always see a “NO TRESPASSING” sign or a gate, so be aware of other indications of areas you shouldn’t be in including a mound of dirt blocking a trail or purple fence posts or tree markings, which means no trespassing/private property. And just like on the road, there are rules and etiquette to follow to ensure everyone stays safe and has fun. Be careful when driving around blind corners and, on steep inclines, always yield the right away to vehicles going uphill as their loss of momentum could result in ruts being dug deeper. 

Educate yourself

Before you head out on the trail, educate yourself about where you should and shouldn’t be driving by using a map or smartphone. Likewise, be familiar with the vehicle you are about to drive off-road; an easy way to educate yourself is to learn the proper operation of your 4×4 at a controlled event such as the Florida Jeep Jam.

Avoid sensitive areas

While most trails and private property are well marked, use common sense when it comes to avoiding sensitive areas. This is as equally important for the protection of the wilderness as it is for historical sites. If you’re driving through water, keep your speeds low, if possible. This avoids creating a wake, which can cause erosion of nearby soil.

Do your part

Follow all of these rules and equip yourself with the proper tools and knowledge, and you’ll be doing your part to be a responsible off-roader.

posted no trespassing on a metal gate

Why Tread Lightly!?

Off-road driving is a fun, adventurous, and cathartic activity, but it can be very detrimental to the land when done incorrectly and irresponsibly. Equally bad, the actions of just a few can have consequences for all off-road enthusiasts that include an increased presence of law enforcement officers, more fines and fees, and possibly even the closure of land and trails. So what can you do?

Best Way to Prepare for Safe & Responsible Off-roading

In addition to the helpful TREAD guidelines, the best way to prepare for an off-road adventure is to have the right gear and the right mindset (aka, your mental tools). 

Sedona Arizona USA. May 25, 2019. 4X4 jeep cars drive off road. Red orange desert  landscape, clear blue sky, sunny spring day

Best Tools for Treading Lightly!

Here’s a quick list of helpful items that you should include when planning your next off-road trip:

tree saver strapped around a tree

Tree saver straps

When winching, a tree saver strap should always be used to protect the tree as well as preserve the integrity of your winch cable.

car tire stepping on a traction board

Traction boards

Traction boards are bulky and expensive, but they can be a lifesaver when it comes to getting out of loose sand or thick mud. And they are also incredibly helpful when it comes to treading lightly as they prevent the vehicle from digging deeper ruts.

two way radio


Cell phones aren’t always an option when deep in the forest, so having other forms of communication is helpful. Old-school CB radios are still a solid option, but newer forms of mobile communication include handheld, two-way radios. One of the most popular and affordable radios right now is the Baeofeng UV-5R

spill kit

Spill kits

Accidents happen, but you should do your best to clean up any fluid spills that might harm the environment or animals. This could include coolant due to an overheating engine, a gasoline spill while refueling on the trail, or oil leaks that result from transaxle damage. No matter what fluids are spilled, clean them up.

close up of a garbage bag on white background with clipping path

Garbage bags

The cheapest way to clean up trash is to carry along plastic grocery bags or even a cardboard box. If you want to get fancier, there are numerous options for in-car trash disposal that clip onto seat backs.

Mental “Tools” for Treading Lightly!

All the gear in the world can’t replace good, old common sense, so here are the things you should know –         before you head out on the trail – to keep you safe. Hope for the best but plan for the worst.

Anticipate weather

As much fun as it is to enjoy the outdoors, Mother Nature sure can make things difficult if you’re not ready. When you’re planning an off-road excursion, scope out the weather report a few days before your trip and check the forecast again on the day of. Plan and pack accordingly. 

Know your terrain

While you can never fully plan for unpredictable weather, you should always know your terrain before heading out on the trails. This will help you prepare for what recovery gear you might need or how you need to operate your vehicle (ie, airing down when rock crawling). If you encounter uncertain terrain while driving (including puddles, rocks, or water crossings), get out and inspect before committing to the obstacle. 

Slow and steady

Don’t be in a hurry. Driving through water or mud might make for great pictures, but this is usually an easy way to get stuck, damage your vehicle, and disturb the surrounding nature. Keep your speeds slow and steady when going over or through obstacles, and this will give you the best chance of making it to the other side unscathed.  

Bring essentials

Think ahead. Start by filling up your vehicle’s gas tank, and pack food, water, and spare clothing just in case you get into trouble. Cell phones usually won’t get great reception on the trails, but you should still try to make sure it’s fully charged throughout the day.

Retro style off-road car moving across water


Keeping your vehicle properly maintained and serviced  before and after any adventures is the ultimate way to ensure thar you’re off-roading safely and responsibly. For this, make sure you have the FIXD sensor and app to stay up to date on all vehicle maintenance with automatic maintenance alerts, and know the severity of any Jeep’s check engine lights including DIY information for repairs.


How do I get involved with Tread Lightly!?

Following the tips above will make you a responsible off-road driver, but if you want to do more, you can get involved directly with Tread Lightly! There are multiple ways to be associated with Tread Lightly! including memberships, partnerships, and events, so make sure you head to treadlightly.org to find out how you can get involved.

Do I need to air down my tires when off-roading?

Airing down (or removing air from your tires) is only required when you’re driving over rucks or loose sand. This helps to protect the sidewall of the tire while also providing a wider “footprint” for the tire to limit the chances of getting hung up or stuck. That being said, only air down when you’re able to add air back into the tires when you get back onto the road. Driving on the highway with underinflated tires is unsafe and can lead to expensive damage to your tires. 

Can I drive off road without 4WD?

You don’t necessarily need a vehicle with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive to enjoy driving off road as long as you have planned accordingly to make sure the trails aren’t too challenging. A great way to do this is to coordinate with local off-road groups (social media is the best place for this), who will be able to suggest trails for all types of vehicles and off-road driving experience.

Jeffrey N. Ross

Lifelong automotive enthusiast with a soft spot for offroading. Wrencher turned writer, but I still love to tinker on just about anything with an engine. Dream car: tie between a ‘71 Hemi ‘Cuda and a ’91 GMC Syclone. #GirlDad #SaveTheManuals

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About the Author

Jeffrey N. Ross

Jeffrey N. Ross

Lifelong automotive enthusiast with a soft spot for offroading. Wrencher turned writer, but I still love to tinker on just about anything with an engine. Dream car: tie between a ‘71 Hemi ‘Cuda and a '91 GMC Syclone. #GirlDad #SaveTheManuals

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