Four Wheeling

Revised Fall 2008 - Jenni


Montana is a fantastic place for all kinds of outdoor recreation, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and nature enjoyment. Another very popular outdoor activity is four-wheeling. The term 'four wheeling' is usually a reference to the use of ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) in the outdoors. In recent years, four-wheeling has become more popular as well as more affordable. Four-wheeling is seen by many as a relaxing and enjoyable way to enjoy nature. It allows humans to hunt, camp and fish in areas that might otherwise be inaccessible.It is often refferred to as a great way to relive stress. Four-wheeling is an activity that can be enjoyed year round. There seem to be more people riding during the summer months, but four-wheeling can be enjoyed during any season. Winter months are fun, in part because of the sheer beauty of Montana during the winter months. It is also a challenge to manuever a four-wheeler on snow and ice. It's also fun to slide around and spin circles, which is something that can't be done as easily on dry land. During fall and spring, there tends to be a lot of standing water and mud which can make four-wheeling a dirty activity, but for a lot of four-wheelers, that's a big part of the fun. It can be an incredible feeling to spin ones tires through muck and mud- and end up absolutely filthy. While most four-wheeling is done in the mountain ranges and in national parks, four-wheelers can also be used on on designated race/offroad tracks or on public roadways provided they have fufilled the legal requirements.

Juridic Controls

Owning a four-wheeler can be a lot of fun, however, it carries with it certain risks as well as rules and requirements. Some of the rules or laws are implemented by the government; others are simply common courtesy.For example, nearly every four-wheeler carries a sticker that states the following rules: "No one under the age of 16 should operate the machine. Never ride doubles unless your machine is made for doubles. Always wear the proper safety gear." Most of the time an individual isn't fined by the government if they aren't wearing the appropriate safety gear, however, if they are under 16 and are caught without the proper certification, a fine can be issued. Some of the safety gear that riders are required to have includes: a helmet, goggles or visor, pair of gloves, long boots, and long pants and sleeves. Anyone under the age of 16 is required to complete a four-wheeling safety course offered by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP). It is illegal to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while operating a four-wheeler.

There are required fees to pay and decals that must be obtained when registering a four-wheeler. There is a $20.00 one-time fee in lieu of tax, a one-time fee of $19.25 and another $2.00 fee. A four- wheeler can not be operated off-roads unless labeled with the appropriate decal saying that all of the fees are paid and the four-wheeler is registered. Failure to possess the proper decals will result in a $50.00 fine if caught. If for some reason the decal is lost, a new one can be purchased for $5.00. If a nonresident of Montana wants to go four-wheeling they must pay and obtain a $5.00 nonresident sticker from any MFWP refuge center. Those operating a four-wheeler on public roads and highways are required to have the proper lights, tags and safety equipment. On regular traffic roadways (those used by cars) if one doesn't have the things required they can be ticketed up to $500.00 and could possible spend time in jail. According to Josiah Breck of MFWP in Billings, "The wardens and cops are really cracking down on this whenever they can. People seem to think that just because it's not a car they don't have to pay taxes on it. Guess what? They still do."

When it comes to where one can ride a four-wheeler, there are many areas within national parks that are designated for just that activity. However, there are many regulations while riding on publicly owned lands. When riding a four-wheeler one must stay on designated routes because off-route travel may damage the surrounding habitats and disturbing the local wildlife could prove very dangerous to the rider.There are frequently signs banning off-route travel. The usual argument for banning off-route travel is to protect local flora and fauna. It has been observed by scientists, naturalists and park rangers that when four-wheelers are operated off of the approved paths they can and have destroyed shrubs, burrows and natural habitats that animals need for survival. There are also boundaries and closures that must be observed. There are also seasonal closings to allow animals to reproduce without all the noise and interference. Signs posted on the trails usually let four-wheelers know if they can go into a certain area. On occasion, trails are closed due to danger from wildlife; trails are also sometimes closed because the ground has become unstable or the trail itself isn't safe. Often, trails are closed because of fire hazard- especially in the 'dry' seasons. The fear is that an errant spark from a four-wheel vehicle may cause a fire.
Some rules are for human protection as well. For example, when entering a campsite an operator must get off of their vehicle and 'push' it into the campsite. In the even that this is impossible, the operator must ride slowly and very cautiously. In the even that an operator should encounter a horse and rider it is deemed necessary that he/she should pull over on the downhill side, turn off the motor wait until the horse and rider have passed. In recent years and months, certain parks have closed large areas to four wheeling altogether. Josiah Breck of MFWP in Billings commented that "four-wheelers are usually okay. But you do have a certain group of jerks who feel like it's necessary to just go in and tear the place up. They make messes with the ATVs and leave garbage all over the place. The wardens are really watching these guys and trying to get stiffer laws into place. It's not great for the folks who are trying to be good and responsible but that's what happens." Decisions to not follow these rules can result in fines, removal of licenses and tags as well as possible jail time.

The Burden

When it comes to the rules and regulations regarding four-wheeling, most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about them; it seems that most people either aren't even aware of some of the rules or do not find them unreasonable. There are those, however, who do find them annoying. There are individuals who take offense at the idea that they aren't good enough riders to go without a helmet- or at the assumption that they may crash. Others frequently imbibe alcohol before operating their four-wheelers, perhaps unaware that doing so can carry the same penalties as operating a car while impaired. It irritates people to be told how to handle their recreational toys. Others do not like having their manners or behaviors called into question and some people flat out don't want to be told how to behave. Part of the fun, for some, is 'getting away' from the rules and controls of civilization. They find it frustrating to 'get away' only to find out there this another arm of the law and that there isn't really anywhere that one can totally escape the 'rules.' However, game wardens and rangers seem to be stretched thin at the moment, as Josiah Breck commented, "There aren't enough of us [game wardens and park rangers] to catch them all and there are bigger things like the fires for us to deal with." The rules are really only truly burdensome to those who choose to acknowledge them.


In order to 'escape' the rules and laws for four-wheeling, one could choose to not partake in the activity. They could stay at home and watch the Discovery Channel or just go sit in their back yard. Instead of careening through the woods, an individual could hike or ride a horse. They'd still enjoy nature, but at a slower pace. A horse would require more care, but would still allow them to pack in as many goods as a four-wheel vehicle. Either activity would be less dangerous and would be better for the wildlife, as well as not carrying many regulations. One could also choose to ignore the rules. Many people make this choice; they choose to imbibe alcohol while operating their ATVs, they don't wear helmets or appropriate gear, they allow underage children to operate the machines and they refuse to comply with the taxes. They ignore posted bans and destroy natural areas. These individuals risk the fines and penalties but are less burdened than the law abiding ATV users. Another option is to ride exclusively on private lands; authorities rarely trouble themselves with private land use unless someone is injured or they are summoned.

There are ways to lessen the strictures of four-wheeling. However, the only way to completely escape the burden of the rules is to not go. Most people feel that the rules are worth putting up with in order to enjoy the activity.

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