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Driving Responsibly in the Outdoors

--Exploring the great outdoors is a year-round pastime, from hiking and biking to off-roading and extreme sports. The popularity of sport utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and trucks shows how much consumers crave an adventurous lifestyle. But unless it's done responsibly, four-wheeling could have a damaging effect on the environment.

When driving off the highways and main roads, it's important to take extra precautions. Remembering a few practical tips can help make the trip enjoyable, while minimizing any impact on surrounding areas.

-- Plan and prepare a route that is safe, legal and within the limitations of your vehicle. Local agencies like the Forest Service, National Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management should have information on off-highway vehicle trails near you.

-- Stay on designated roads and trails. Drivers should only use trails designated for off-highway vehicle use, and should never make their own shortcuts or trails. Private land should only be crossed with the owner's permission.

-- Make sure to drive in the middle when on the trail. You'll avoid widening the lane and destroying vegetation along the roadside. If possible, also avoid driving through mud or soft soil.

-- Drive over fallen trees or other obstacles at an angle, one wheel at a time. Driving around them can destroy vegetation surrounding the trail, so sometimes it's best to either move the object or drive over it.

-- If you must cross a stream, do so slowly at a 90-degree angle, and only at trail fording points -- where the trail usually crosses the water.

The national nonprofit organization Tread Lightly! has developed a variety of educational materials to encourage responsible four-wheeling, mountain biking, ATV riding, sand duning, personal watercraft use, snowmobiling and off-highway motorcycling.