What you need to know about riding safely and legally off-road

With the continuing popularity of adventure bikes plus the recent introduction of more lightweight, dirt-capable versions such as Yamaha’s Ténéré 700 and KTM’s 790 and 390 Adventures, the interest in ‘trail riding’ or going ‘off-road’ has never been greater.

But if you’re a novice or have never done it before where can you ride legally – and what do you need to know?

So here, all in one place, MCN Compare takes you through the basics of where you’re legally allowed to ride, what bike you need, what precautions you should take, and how – if you catch the bug – you can receive training and improve your skills and knowledge to take things to the next stage. After all, there’s a whole world of biking out there – and much of it is GREEN!

Where can I ride?

The terms ‘green-laning’, ‘off-road riding’ and ‘trail riding’ are often bandied about and cause some confusion but legally it boils down to public, legal routes you can ride, of which there are currently two types, plus private land such as off-road parks. We’re concerned with the former, public types here.

The first public type is the Unclassified Road (or UCR), which are minor public roads which may be paved or unpaved and are marked white on Ordnance Survey maps. Normally these are what they sound like: relatively flat, car-width, undemanding tracks that will give novices a gentle introduction to loose surfaces.

The second and usually more demanding type, has, since May 2006, been termed ‘Byways Open To All Traffic’ (or BOATs) and also has a specific marking on Ordnance Survey maps. These are the often narrower, unpaved tracks, which most mean by the old term ‘Green Lane’. Riding on any other form of public right of way such as Footpath, Bridleway or Restricted Byway (which allows horses and cyclists but not motor vehicles) or on any open or common land is strictly prohibited. It should also be noted that, while BOATs may be used by motor vehicles they are legally defined as being ‘mainly used by pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders’ so those groups should receive appropriate deference and consideration.

Maps showing BOATs and UCRs are available online but we’d also recommend the Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF) both for help and specific guidance on which routes you can use.


What bike do I need?

If intending to ride on a BOAT or UCR it’s vital to remember that, legally, it’s still a road, albeit unsurfaced, that is maintained by the Highways Authority. Strictly speaking therefore, you’re not ‘off-roading’ at all and any vehicle (or rider) using it is subject to the same legal requirements as normal, namely registration, MoT, road tax, driving licence and insurance. If riding on private land obviously these don’t apply, but even if you have insurance it won’t be valid as you’re not riding on a road.

Any type or size of bike can be used but, particularly if you’re a novice, the lighter, more manageable and more dirt-suited, the better. Obviously conventional, road-biased adventure and trail bikes are legal, but more competition-orientated enduro or trials machines, which come with lights etc, are, too, as long as registered, MoT-ed and insured. Full competition motocross machines, however, are not and should only be ridden on private land.

Anything else?

You should have dual-purpose tyres at the minimum and it’d be prudent to remove unnecessary luggage or extras both to save weight, improve manageability and avoid damage. Clothing can be your normal bike gear, at least at first, but ensure it doesn’t restrict movement or make you too hot. Dirt riding is invariably more demanding and physical than riding on the road.

Can I get training or have a try-out?

Yes, and we’d definitely recommend it. The TRF have lots of local groups who are there to help. While the likes of BMW, Honda, Yamaha, Triumph and KTM all offer manufacturer-backed off-road and adventure bike schools and experiences designed to introduce you to dirt riding, teach the basic skills and be fun while doing so – all without risking damage to your own bike. See the contacts below.

And finally….

Some final words or advice: Don’t ride alone, especially if a novice or new to dirt riding. Make your first trip a short one and build up distance bit by bit. Check your bike thoroughly before the off. Let a third party know where you’re going. Take some water and perhaps energy bars and a small toolkit or multitool and last, but by no means least, take at least one fully charged mobile phone.

Extra info/useful contacts

How to ride your motorbike off road – MCN.

The home of trail and adventure riding in the UK 

The byway map – online map of dirt routes accessible on your bike

BMW Off Road Skills School

Triumph Adventure Riding Experience 

Dave Thorpe Honda Off-Road and Adventure Centre

Yamaha Off-Road Experience

KTM Adventure Bike Experience 

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