ATV Riding--How To Avoid Confrontations On The Trail

Here are 5 tips that will earn you respect and prevent confrontations with hunters when you take to the trails this fall on your ATV or UTV.

ATV Riding--How To Avoid Confrontations On The Trail
Photograph by David Halsey

Autumn is one of the best times to take to the trail on your ATV or UTV to catch the fall colors and enjoy game viewing at its best. But you’ll not be alone in the woods. Fall hunting seasons are open and many hunters use ATVs and multi-passenger utility vehicles (UTVs) to go deeper into public lands on logging trails and forest roads, and to haul out their deer, elk or other tagged animals when their hunt is over. However, other hunters who have either backpacked in or accessed the backcountry on horseback are simply annoyed by ATVs when their hunts are interrupted or ruined by riders blasting by.

Photograph by David Halsey
Nothing makes those seeking solitude more upset than to have their time in the woods interrupted by noisy riders. Come fall, remember, you will have plenty of company in the woods. Ride respectfully.

Sometimes, confrontations between ATV riders and hunters on horseback using the same trail have turned dangerous when pack animals on steep mountain trails were spooked by ATVs, putting everyone in danger.

Likewise, bowhunters and traditional grouse hunters want to walk the woods with their bow or shotgun, and not see or hear any ATVs in the area they hunt. Others, however, especially those with older legs, are able to hunt a little longer and easier with the help of their ATVs.

The bottom line is, it’s up to ATV owners to ride responsibly and within local regulations during hunting season. Using ATVs irresponsibly may create hard feelings and conflicts, and increase pressure on wildlife management agencies to restrict ATV use during fall hunting seasons. Here are 5 tips that all off-road riders should use to avoid confrontations on the trail during the hunting season.

Know And Follow Local ATV Regulations During Big-Game Season

Photograph Courtesy of NOHVCC
Make sure you are aware of what the regulations are for the area you want to explore on your ATV. During fall hunting season, access rules for many areas may change.

Regulations regarding OHVs (off highway vehicles), including ATVs, side-by-sides, dirt bikes and 4-wheel drive trucks, may change during the hunting season. In Minnesota, for example, to reduce disturbance during prime deer hunting hours, hunters are only allowed to use their ATVs before legal shooting time (one-half hour before sunrise), from 11 am to 2 pm, and after legal shooting hours (one-half hour after sunset).

When buying your hunting license, pay close attention to the details in the hunting regulation book for whatever state you’re hunting in regarding the use of OHVs. Cross-country travel via ATV is prohibited in all national forests. And ATV use may be restricted on state-managed lands, or allowed only to retrieve downed animals. It’s your obligation to know the rules.

Respect Those Who Are Hunting Without ATVs

Photograph Courtesy of BLM
Always respect those who have hiked into remote areas by keeping the noise and impact of your ATV to a minimum.

There’s nothing worse than having your hunt—be it for big game, small game, upland birds or waterfowl—interrupted by a group of ATVs or utility vehicles motoring by. Have respect for hunters and everyone you encounter when riding on trails, logging roads and forest roads. Slow down or stop your ATV when you encounter hunters, hikers and campers. Visiting with them for a minute can help reduce tension and avoid conflicts. When going around them, pass people in a slow, safe and courteous manner.

Quick Tip: Before you head out, find out what county, state or federal agency manages the public lands you’ll be riding on. Contact them for the latest information on road and trail closures due to weather, fire danger or logging operations.


Service Your ATV Before Hunting Season

Photograph by David Halsey
Servicing your ATV before the fall season with an eye toward reducing noise levels will help make everyone’s experience better. Consider purchasing an aftermarket muffler to reduce engine noise even further.

Over the past few years, ATVs and utility vehicles have become both larger and more powerful. They are also louder. Keep your ATV properly maintained and muffled to reduce the impact on your hunting area. Consider buying an aftermarket muffler that reduces the decibel level of your vehicle.

Know The Rules Of Trail Etiquette When Meeting Horses

Photograph Courtesy of NOHVCC
ATV and UTV riders should always give way to horses and pack animals. Cutting your engine and removing your helmet will also keep horses from spooking.

Trail etiquette is especially important when meeting horses or pack animals while riding your ATV. Horses always have the right of way on trails, because of their unpredictable reaction to other trail users. TreadLightly! —a national organization that promotes responsible off-road recreation—has published guidelines ATV and dirt bike riders should follow when encountering horses on a multi-use trail or forest road. They include:

  1. Pull to the side of the trail far enough for horses to pass safely as soon as you see them.
  2. Pull to the downhill side of the trail if possible since horses tend to perceive unknown threats on the uphill side as predators.
  3. Shut off your motor as soon as possible and remove your helmet. The horse will be more likely to recognize you as a human.
  4. Speak to the rider and horse in a friendly, relaxed tone. 

Even when off-road riders stop their vehicle and turn off the engine, horses may still be spooked, especially if the rider doesn’t remove their helmet. A YouTube video posted in 2014 demonstrates that. Titled “Crazy dirt bike horse encounter,” shows the importance of following all the rules to prevent trail conflicts. The lead horse, with two pack horses in tow, and its rider, end up on the ground of a steep single-track trail. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. 

Video Courtesy of Kurt Linford

“A helmet covering a person’s face can confuse the horse, so that’s why I generally ask someone to take their helmet off,” said Mark Himmel, past chair of the Back Country Horsemen of Montana.

Quick Tip: Find out if your riding habits are on target and respectful of others, or if they need a little work. Visit Ride with Respect—a nonprofit group working to protect natural resources while accommodating diverse recreation on public land—and answer yes or no to their list of questions.


Keep Safety As Your Number One Priority

Photograph by David Halsey
Safety should always be a top consideration for ATV riders. During hunting seasons, donning a hunter orange vest is always a good idea even when riding your ATV.

People participating in all forms of recreation on public lands have a common interest: enjoying the outdoors and all that wild areas have to offer for exercise, quiet solitude, and memorable adventures. Whether you have a gun scabbard on your ATV or not, keep safety top-of-mind.

Riding your ATV safely and respectfully will help reduce the impact of off-road travel during hunting season, prevent conflicts, protect wildlife habitat, and improve the overall riding and experience for everyone. It will also reduce the need for more restrictions on ATV use and protect the ATV riding opportunities you now enjoy.

Follow the Golden Rules of ATV Safety, found on the website of the ATV Safety Institute. Rule No. 1: Always wear a DOT-compliant helmet, goggles, long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots and gloves. If you’re new to riding side-by-sides, which ride and handle differently than a regular ATV, take a free safety class on-line at the website of the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA).

Have an opinion on riding ATVs during hunting season or a tip to share? Start the conversation with other Step Outside users by adding your thoughts in the comment section below.

About The Author: David Halsey has been riding snowmobiles for 50 years and writing about sleds and ATVs for 35 years. He is president of the 400-member Woodtick Wheelers ATV/OHM Club in northern Minnesota, and writes articles for the MN OffRoad magazine and the newsletter of the ATV Association of Minnesota (ATVAM).