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OHV 101: Your Beginner’s Guide to Colorado Off-Roading

Some Colorado trails aren’t just for hikers and bikers. You can see far more of Colorado’s miles upon miles of rugged wilderness in an off-road vehicle along one of the state’s approved OHV or ATV trails. 

Colorado's many OHV-friendly trails promise lots of adventure.
Colorado's many OHV-friendly trails promise lots of adventure.

Just remember: While Colorado’s trails are for everyone, it’s also important to know which trails cater more to motorized sports than other activities by paying attention to signs and researching before you go. Here’s how to get started.  

First, know about the different types of vehicles 

Off-roading, or recreating in a motorized vehicle, isn’t limited to just one type of machine. You can motor along the landscape in a handful of ways. OHV means “off-highway vehicle,” and the term can refer to a bevy of transportation options: all-terrain vehicles (aka ATVs), four-wheelers, dirt bikes, motorcycles, snowmobiles and more. Whatever you choose to ride, make sure it has a current Colorado OHV registration sticker (non-residents must have a permit sticker, too) and stick to OKed trails.  

Let’s cover the basics of what’s out there:

• Full-sized 4x4 vehicles: Try a souped-up, 4x4 SUV — like a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Rover Defender or something similarly designed — for a 4x4 adventure. What makes these vehicles stand apart from other SUVs is the ability to use them on rocky roads that require high clearance. This is the only street-legal option out of the bunch.

• Utility terrain vehicles: UTVs are also called side-by-sides. Driving one of these babies is similar to driving an automatic car, but it’s much smaller (generally 50 or so inches across) and open on the sides. It usually seats two people, side by side, hence the moniker. 

• All-terrain vehicle: ATVs are nicknamed four-wheelers and quads. They’re smaller still (42–48 inches wide on average) and made to seat only one person at a time. Riders mount the machine like a bike and then balance with one leg on either side. Steering and braking is more like a bike, too.  

• Dirt bikes: These sporty two-wheelers can be challenging to control (you’re balancing while also managing the throttle, clutch and brakes), but here’s a perk: Once you’ve mastered the skills, you can ride them on most any Colorado trail that’s open to motorized use, which isn’t the case for many other OHVs (that are wider in width).  

• Snowmobiles: More of a winter lover? Try a snowmobile, which operates with the help of a clutch system and swiftly rotating gears. There are skis on either side of the machine instead of wheels. Drive it across snowy, open terrain and sometimes ice. Learn more about snowmobile and backcountry safety >> 

Not sure where to ride? Research ahead of time (for example, the U.S. Forest Service offers Motor Vehicle Use Maps), pay attention to signs and know your vehicle’s width. Anything that’s not street legal must be transported to a trailhead via trailer.

Know the essentials 

Now, let’s cover general safety rules and trail etiquette.

Get registered: If you’re going to ride on a designated OHV trail in Colorado, your vehicle must be registered and have a current Colorado OHV permit sticker. This includes vehicles with out-of-state license plates — and snowmobiles, too. Your registration fee funds trail maintenance, so you’re also giving back to future good times by staying legal. More on registration and permitting >>

Keep quiet: The vroom-zooming decibel of your OHV motor may frighten livestock, wild animals and other multi-use trail users (like hikers and mountain bikers who share land access). That’s why noise limits (and trail-use safety rules) are in place on public land. Make sure you’re doing your part and that your vehicle is operating within the law. More on vehicle noise >>

Gear up: Colorado’s terrain and weather can be unpredictable. Bring a backpack with food, water, layers of clothing, a map of the region, a flashlight and sunscreen. If you’re snowmobiling in Colorado’s backcountry, don’t go without a knowledgeable guide — and add avalanche-safety equipment and winter survival gear to the mix. Make sure you have the right kind of protective clothing — including long pants, a sport-specific helmet, goggles and riding gloves — to prevent injury from flying debris and trailside hazards. You should also have an emergency-repair kit in case you break down. More on OHV safety equipment >> 

Ride responsibly: There are many ways to practice politeness on the trail. When you’re staging your vehicle and equipment at a trailhead, make sure you’re not blocking access to the trail with your trailers and ramps and pack up before you go. Be aware of signs and only ride routes that are open to your vehicle type. Riders should always drive over trail obstacles, not circle around them, to prevent trail widening and erosion. And please don’t pummel the tundra: Stick to existing trails instead of making new ones through our wide-open backcountry. This is especially important because it can take years for fragile alpine vegetation to regrow after being damaged. More on trail signs and vehicle width >> 

Share the route: Pass other vehicles, people, animals and campsites with patience and care, and let faster vehicles pass you by pulling over. Vehicles going downhill should generally yield to climbing vehicles, especially on narrow roads. And, whatever you’re doing, it’s always important to communicate your intentions verbally and/or with hand signals to other nearby riders. OHVs should also yield to horses, hikers and bikers. More on passing etiquette >>

Pack it out: Keep Colorado’s beautiful, wild places pristine by toting out everything you came with. This includes trash, along with human and pet waste. Go the extra mile and pack out litter that others may have left behind, too.  

More off-roading etiquette tips >>

Now, it’s time to build your skills

You don’t need to own your own off-road vehicle to get in on the fun. You can join a guided tour or even rent one. By going with an outfitter, you’ll learn how to ride from the experts — and get lots of safety tips. Find a list of Colorado OHV outfitters here >>

Want more?

Learn about Colorado’s off-highway vehicle requirements >>

Find Jeep, ATV and other OHV rental and tour companies >>

Read about seven popular Colorado AVT and Jeep trails >>

Visit Stay the Trail, an OHV-focused Colorado nonprofit, for more tips >>

Check out more info on Colorado snowmobiling >>