Forest Service Roads National Forests

How to Find Forest Service Roads

Some of my fondest childhood memories occurred on bumpy Forest Service roads.

Here’s how to find Forest Service roads: The U.S. Forest Service maintains an application named the Interactive Visitor Map that provides information on Forest Service roads. A road may be open for use depending on the vehicle class and the time of year.

In this post we’ll go over all the options you have when searching for forest service roads. From online mapping applications to printed Motor Use Vehicle Maps to layers in mobile applications, we’ve got you covered.

Check Out the Interactive Visitor Maps From the U.S. Forest Service

Unsurprisingly, your best option is an mapping application offered by the U.S. Forest Service: the Interactive Visitor Maps. It’s been around for a few years and offers a great deal of needed functionality.

For many years, anyone looking for information on Forest Service roads either had to be standing at the intersection where the road sign was posted, or they had to have a printed map handy.

Their have been Forest Service informational layers that were accessible in GPS units and smartphones with the right mapping applications. However, I don’t believe there’s been a map that so easily shows a road’s status to a specific type of vehicle at a specific time of year.

Overall, this application is a great option for anyone looking to use Forest Service roads.

How to Use the Interactive Visitor Map Application

While the truth is that there’s a lot going on with this application, the nice thing is that the U.S. Forest Service made a clean interface that works nicely.

Once you open the Interactive Visitor Map you should see a screen like this:

There are three main things to notice here:

  • The main part of the screen prompts you with an activity based menu
  • The left side of the screen has a few buttons, of which you only need to use the ‘Legend’ and ‘Clear Map’ buttons
  • There’s a top menu that contains a few icons, this is where we’ll change base maps and select activities

It’s also possible that you might find the application a bit slow if your internet is struggling. Hang in there, it just may be that there is a little buffering when zooming or switching base layers.

Select Your Vehicle Type on the Main Toolbar

Assuming you’re looking for Forest Service roads in order to drive some sort of vehicle on them, we’re first going to cover how to input your vehicle type.

As you may have noticed in the above screenshot, the last four activity icons in that main menu are all vehicles. Here is what they are:

  • Highway Legal
  • OHV > 50 Inches
  • ATV/OHV <= 50
  • Dirt Bike

If you happen to be familiar with Motor Vehicle Use Maps and this road system in general, you probably recognize these as the most commonly used vehicle classes used by the U.S. Forest Service.

Needless to say, clicking on the vehicle type appropriate for your vehicle brings you to a map that is tailored to that vehicle.

Expand the Legend to Translate the Road Colors Into Access

Now that you’ve chosen your vehicle type, go over to the buttons on the left side of the screen to expand the legend, like so:

It depends on how far you’re currently zoomed into, but you may notice that the legend updates as you zoom farther in.

As I clicked on the ‘Dirt Bikes’ option in the main menu, my menu added the following options once I zoomed in far enough:

You’ll notice that there are now three additional categories specified on the top of the legend. These red, yellow and green highlights specify the following about each U.S. Forest Service road visible:

  • Green: the road is specifically managed for that kind of vehicle
  • Yellow: the road is open for use for your vehicle class
  • Red: that Forest Service road is currently closed to your vehicle type

The green category isn’t available for Highway Legal Vehicles (as road maintained for highway legal vehicles would be a…road), but every other vehicle category has all three present.

Zoom Into the Area You’re Interested in Exploring

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to zoom into the area that you’re interested in. While zoomed in you can easily see all of the Forest Service roads in your local area.

There are two components to each Forest Service road that you’re seeing on the screen, both of which are clearly laid out by the legend on the left. First, the type of line represents the classification of road you’re dealing with. Here are the options (the options you see don’t change based on the vehicle class selected):

This information doesn’t have any bearing on whether the road is currently open to your vehicle class, but it’s helpful to know the type of roads available. Secondly, the ‘Roads and Trail Uses’ part of the legend indicates whether you’re allowed to drive that class of vehicle at this time of year.

As mentioned before, yellow and green highlights over the road both mean that it is open for traffic with your vehicle class. Here’s what the highlighted roads look like on the map:

The yellow and red highlighting are easy enough to see when contrasted against the default base map, but some of the other options can be a little busy when applied. Roads are always easy enough to spot, but the ‘Imagery’ and ‘USGS Topo’ base maps make it difficult to read the road information.

Explore Which Forest Service Roads are Open in That Area, While Checking Out the Different Base Layers

Speaking of the base maps, you can change the base map by first clicking on the gears icon on the top toolbar, and then clicking on the ‘Base Map’ button on the upper left.

The ‘USGS Topo’ base map contains the most information and is the standard Forest Service map that you may have run across previously. The areas shaded green are a reasonably accurate indicator of forested areas, so that may save you time shifting back and forth from the Imagery layer.

If you’ve found a Forest Service road that you’d like more information on, you can click the trail marker icon highlighted below:

Note that the icon highlighted is not for the same icon as the text box represents

When you click on the icon, it will pull up a window with data similar to the results shown on the screen. As you can see, the window has three separate panes available. You’ll most likely only be interested in the ‘Road’ tab, as the other tabs aren’t terribly valuable. The ‘Forest’ tab has links to that National Forest’s website, and the ‘Share’ tab allows you to get a URL for that map area, but it doesn’t pass on further variables (such as the activity selected).

Other Uses for the Interactive Visitor Maps

Be sure to check out the other activities covered by the Interactive Visitor Map, as those layers often contain valuable information.

It doesn’t appear that the different activities are consistently covered by the different National Forests, but they may have use to you. It seems like the best use for the other layers is more efficient way to navigate the U.S. Forest Service website, which unfortunately isn’t exactly known for its cutting edge design.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) are a Great Alternative

You may be familiar with Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) if you’ve navigated Forest Service roads in the past. While they don’t offer nearly the amount of functionality that the Interactive Visitor Map application provides, they are a clean alternative.

As they don’t offer information regarding the topographic or habitat of the National Forest, MVUMs are perhaps best used as a paper copy of the Forest Service roads and their information on vehicle classes. Physical copies of the MVUMs are generally available at local offices for your National Forest, so be sure to check them out.

If you’d like to know more about Motor Vehicle Use Maps, this post goes into greater detail on how to use them.

Mapping Applications Often Have Forest Service Layers Available

Many smartphone applications built for navigation include map layers that have details on the U.S. Forest Service roads. This is most valuable for those that would like a map they can reference in the field with their smartphones, as it’s often tricky to navigate Forest Service roads.

Foraging National Forests

How to Find Forests That Were Recently Logged

Admittedly, this probably isn’t a topic on the forefront of most people’s minds. Why would you want to find public land that was recently logged? Seems a bit odd at first.

I’ll get right to it: this is for nature lovers with a bit of a long game. Land that’s undergone logging does require some time to heal, but the healing happens fast. And with that healing comes all kinds of opportunities to watch how nature works over a relatively short time frame. From colonizing blackberries to fruit and nut bushes that have a hard time existing in a mature forest, there’s plenty of interesting things happening in young forests.

Our job here is to find the young forests that you’ll enjoy in the years to come. How can we find locations where logging has occurred or is ongoing? This post will cover a few different methods, and we’ll use all of the tools at our disposal.

Different Methods to Find Recently Logged Land

Before we get into the finer details about how to find recently logged land, I think it would be helpful to briefly discuss why this knowledge would even be valuable. I’ll go into greater detail at the end of the post, but here are a few reasons why a forest lover should be interested:

  • Finding areas with differently aged forests often creates the greatest opportunities for wildlife
  • Younger forests allow for different plant species than more mature forests
  • All forests age with time, so being aware of newly logged land may help you greatly in the near future

With all of that said, let’s get into the details of how to find logged land, then we can later discuss the why in more detail.

Accessing Forest Service Logging Records for National Forests

There’s a mapping application provided by the U.S. Forest Service that I’m going to be using a lot in this post. The application’s name is ForWarn II and it serves a wide variety of purposes, but it’s mostly used to scientifically measure the changes in our forests over time.

The ForWarn II application has many, many data layers available, and one of the most useful layers is the Forest Service logging records. These records go back 20 years and they provide the following types of details on historical logging activity:

  • The specific parcel that was logged, including an outline on the map
  • The total acreage logged
  • When the logging occurred
  • What type of logging was done (clear-cut, commercial thinning, etc.)

Before we get into step-by-step instructions on how this works, there is one caveat about this method: you’ll only be able to find logging activity on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. So if the logging took place on National Forest land, you’ll be able to find information on it. But all other lands are not covered by this method.

Alright, now onto the actual tutorial. The ForWarn application allows users to share their exact map with a custom URL, so I’m going to save you unnecessary work by sharing my map I’m starting with: here’s the link.

screenshot of the home page of the forwarn ii application
Upon opening the link, this is about what you should see.

There’s admittedly a lot going on here, but here are the key points to understand:

  • The menu on the left is for the Map Layers, this is where we toggle data layers
  • The menu on the right contains the Legend for the visible data layers
  • You can see specs of color throughout the map, these are locations with U.S. Forest Service logging activity (more on that later)
  • The base layer for the map is set to ‘Imagery’

First, we’re going to want to navigate the ‘Map Layers’ menu to find the layers that we’re most interested in. Go over to the left menu and scroll up until you see the following:

screenshot of the map layers menu for the real-time change maps in forwarn ii application
By default, ForWarn II opens up to the ‘ForWarn II Near-Real-Time Change Maps’ layer group

You can see that we’re in the layer group as highlighted above. This isn’t where the logging activity is stored, so we’re going to want find a different layer group. To do so, click on the highlighted ‘ForWarn II Near-Real-Time Change Maps’ toggle and then the menu should be updated into the following:

screenshot highlighting the additional assessment maps for the forwarn ii application

See the ‘Additional Assessment Maps’ layer group the arrow is pointing at in the screenshot? That’s the layer with the Forest Service logging activity. Click on that option and then scroll down until you find the ‘USFS Logging Activity’ sub-group, which should look like this:

screenshot of the us forest service logging activity data layer in forwarn ii application

There are two things that you’ll notice:

  • The ‘2000-2021 Combined (FS)’ data layer is toggled on
  • The rest of the data layers correspond logging activity for individual years

As you may have guessed, the data layer that is toggled on corresponds to the specs of color that you see throughout the map. What these specs of color indicate is that this piece of land had logging activity by the U.S. Forest Service at some point in time.

For example, I’ve zoomed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and this is what I see:

screenshot of the data from the us forest service logging activity layer with all years turned on in forwarn ii application

Each of the different colors present represents a different year of logging activity. There are two ways to find out which year the color represents. First, you can go to the ‘Map Tools’ menu on the right and expand the ‘Legend’ option. Upon doing that, this is what you would see:

screenshot of the legend for the us forest service logging activity data layer in forwarn ii application
Each year has it’s own color on the map

You would then match up the color on the map with the color in the legend. This can work, but the major issue is that some of the colors look too similar for my tastes. This doesn’t seem to be an issue at first glance, but if you scroll down you can see how similar the 2004 and 2019 colors are.

Instead, I prefer to find which year the data represents by using the ‘Information’ button in the top toolbar. Turn on this setting by navigating to the top menu and click the highlighted button:

screenshot with a red arrow pointing to the information button in the toolbar for the forwarn ii application
If it is difficult to see, the button is the text bubble with an ‘i’ in it

What this allows us to do is click anywhere on the map and pull up all of the information associated with that part of the map. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: when I click on the location represented by the yellow dot below, you can see it pulled up a window with information:

screenshot showing the information bubble showing information on the year of timber harvests for the usfs data for a specific location in forwarn ii application

Take a look at the information highlighted in the above screenshot. As you can probably guess, what this is telling us is that the logging activity associated with this piece of land took place in 2019.

Unfortunately, this screenshot also highlights two main deficiencies associated with this data layer:

  • We have access to very limited information about this logging, only the year is available
  • The outline of the area on the map is pixelated, and therefore not accurate to the land actually logged

So, what can we do to get a better idea of what happened here? All we need to do is find the appropriate layer in the Map Layers menu. To do that, first toggle off the ‘2000-2021 Combined (FS)’ data layer. Then, scroll down to the ‘2019 (FS)’ data layer and toggle that on. After completing that, my map changed to the following:

screenshot of the vector layer depicting the individual year logging activity data for the us forest service data layer in forwarn ii application

As you can see, the outline for this data layer is much more accurate, and it represents the actual land that had logging activity in 2019. If I want to learn more about what happened, I simply click anywhere on one of the pieces and I’m presented with an information window like so:

screenshot showing data records for a shape in the us forest service logging activity data layer in forwarn ii application

While I certainly didn’t plan it, here’s a great opportunity to point out the one major caveat I have with these Forest Service data layers: not all of the information fields have accurate data.

This is not a deal breaker, it just means that there may be some years where you don’t have access to the finer details of what logging activity occurred.

Here’s an example of what a complete information set looks like for a single year data layer:

screenshot showing data records for a shape in us forest service individual year logging activity data layer in forwarn ii application

Here you can see that this parcel of land was clear-cut in 2009, and the logging completed on September 22nd, 2009. It also indicates that this parcel is part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Looking for parcels of land that have been clear-cut? You may be having a bit of a difficult time, depending on where you are searching. In my experience (based in the Upper Midwest), little of the logging performed by the U.S. Forest Service is clear-cutting. Most is either single-tree selection cutting or commercial thinning operations.

While the screenshot above does indicate a clear-cutting operation, understand that this logging occurred once a tornado devastated this patch of forest. So this might be more accurately considered a salvage operation.

Everything considered, I still believe that these data layers showing the logging activity of the Forest Service to be very relevant, they just have a few limitations.

For the Nerds: Severe Drops in Vegetative Productivity

I’m not going to lie to you: while incredibly useful, this next method may appear a little overwhelming at first glance.

While there is a lot of science that goes into this method, understand that we only need a rudimentary understanding of the science in order to employ this effectively.

With that being said, I think it would be most helpful for your to check out this post explaining the ForWarn II application if you would like to use this method.

Brief Explanation of How This Process Works

Before we get into the mechanics of how this works, I think it’s valuable to have a high-level discussion on the method itself.

What we’re trying to accomplish can be essentially broken down into two steps:

  • Identify land with a large drop in the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI)
  • Confirm whether or not that area has been logged with recent satellite imagery

What on earth is an NDVI? You might want to check out this post if you want a more detailed explanation, but here’s the gist of it:

The NDVI is more or less a measurement of the level of photosynthesis occurring on a unit of land at that time. A mature forest in early summer has a high NDVI, while land recently logged has a very low NDVI.

As you can probably guess, the NDVI patterns for mature forests are very predictable year over year. This means that the act of clear-cut logging land produces a steep drop in NDVI, when compared to the expected values of the former forest.

Finding Areas with Drastic Drops in NDVI Values

Alright, let’s get to it. Here’s how we can use ForWarn II to find land that has been recently clear-cut. Unlike the previous method, this works for all lands monitored by the ForWarn system.

Like the last method, I’ll give you a head start by providing a link to the exact map that I’m viewing. There’s only one caveat here: the data layer featured is updated every 8 days and is a measure of the current NDVI levels. Therefore, the map you’ll load should be different, as my view is specific to the time of my writing this (late September 2020).

Given all that, here’s about what you can expect to see:

home screen with ndvi results shown in the forwarn ii mapping application

Regardless of when you load this map, the reality is that there’s a lot going on here. Let’s break it down, piece by piece. First, the colored dots you see represent how the current NDVI levels change from the 90th percentile levels over the last ten years. As you can probably guess, the dark red color represents a large drop in vegetative productivity.

It’s important to note that a large drop in vegetative productivity can occur for many reasons, and this is why the ForWarn tool is so useful to so many different people. Not just indicative of logging, the red areas can be in response to any of the following activities or events occurring in a forest:

  • Damage from a storm or tornado
  • Excessive flooding affecting tree growth
  • Wildfires burning

And so on. Here’s a great example of this: at the time of this writing wildfires are currently ravaging large areas of California’s forests. As you’re reading this in the future, I don’t know how this all turned out. What I can say is that this data layer does an incredible job mapping out the extent of the damage done. Here’s a screenshot of the Bay Area, which is being hit particularly hard:

close up screenshot of ndvi damage mapping for california wildfires in the forwarn ii mapping application
Notice the dark red areas south of San Jose: these forests have an almost 80% drop in NDVI values when compared to past years.

Okay, now back to logging. If you live in a forested area that isn’t currently being greatly impacted by a natural disaster, we can use this map to find some possibly logged areas.

On my map I’ve zoomed into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and this is what I see:

ndvi damage map of northern michigan with a red arrow pointing to cluster of red pixels indicating heavy damage

I’m going to focus on the cluster of red pixels the arrow in the above screenshot is pointing at. Now that I’ve located a piece of land that I’m interested in checking out, I’m going to perform the following moves:

  1. Zoom in close to the red cluster of pixels
  2. Toggle off the NDVI data layer
  3. Observe the satellite imagery from the base map
  4. Toggle on a layer showing recent satellite imagery

Here’s how this looks, step-by-step. First, I’m zooming well into the cluster of red pixels:

up close ndvi pixel values overlayed over a satellite image
Each pixel covers more land than you might think, so you’ll probably want to zoom in closer than expected.

Next, I go over to the ‘Map Layers’ menu and toggle off the highlighted data layer, which can be found in the ‘ForWarn II Near-Real-Time Change Maps’ data layer group:

screenshot of the 10 year 90th percentile ndvi drop toggled on in forwarn ii application

Confirming Logging Activity By Comparison of Satellite Imagery

Once that data layer is toggled off, I observe what the satellite imagery of the base map looks like. Here’s what I see:

screenshot of satellite image of forest prior to logging

I know that this satellite imagery is from a colder time of year where deciduous trees don’t have their leaves, so I can see that this is likely a plantation of pines or some other evergreens.

Now that I understand what this area looked like in the past, I want to see how this compares to the near-present satellite images we can access in ForWarn.

When it comes down to finding recent satellite images in ForWarn, there are really three different options. Here are the options, in order of quality from worst clarity to best:

  • Medium-Resolution Landsat 8 Imagery
  • High-Resolution Sentinel Imagery
  • Imagery

I should note that the ‘ Imagery’ data layer is only available to the following states: IL, IA, IN, KS, NE, OH, WI, ND, and SD. If you live in an area that does not have the layer, check out the Sentinel layer next.

As the location I’m checking out is in Michigan, I’ll be using the Sentinel imagery. Here’s what I find when I toggle that layer on and let it load:

recent satellite image of forest after clearcut logging

Would you look at that! While I haven’t been able to physically confirm that this area has been logged, I can confirm that this is consistent with other logged areas I’ve visited.

As cool as all of this is, it does come with one major caveat. Please understand that simply finding logged land does not mean that you have public access to check out that land. That’s an entirely different question, and you’ll have to do the research to determine if you have access.

With that being said, I hope that you found this as valuable as I believe it can be.

Be on the Lookout for Logged Land While Out and About

While this isn’t necessarily a separate method, I do think it’s important to park this idea away in the back of your mind. If you live in a forested area and you start to notice logging trucks hauling away trees, it may be worth looking into.

Obviously, I would never recommend that you drive around chasing logging trucks, but keep the thought in mind. It’s always helpful to understand how the forests around you are changing.

You also can look out for the impact of logging on the land, not necessarily for the logging trucks themselves. To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, I’ve included some photos of recently logged land.

This land was logged earlier in the year, as you can tell that plants have yet to come back from the machinery’s impact:

On the other hand, this is what some National Forest land looks like after healing for a year:

The Benefits of Finding Recently Clear-Cut Land

You’ll notice that the land from the last picture is much greener. I believe that is primarily wild raspberry plants, in the form of first-year canes. I look forward to confirming that classification next year, possibly in the form of buckets and buckets of raspberries.

I hope this point illustrates why I’ve generally taken a neutral stance on logging in this piece. Regardless of how I feel about logging, if the land is to remain wild then nature will begin it’s reclamation process in no time. So in my mind it’s not necessarily about good or bad, but instead about making the best of the situation.

Habitat Diversity Can Really Benefit Local Species

It may sound counter-intuitive, but have a your forests be of diverse ages can do wonders for the local wildlife.

For example, the ruffed grouse is dependent on the existence of aspen trees. More than that, they thrive when they have access to aspen groves of differing age classes. As aspen grows so vigorously on recently cleared land that is the right habitat, logging has the opportunity to provide the young habitat the ruffed grouse needs. There are many other animals with similar relationships to diverse habitats, such as deer and turkey.

Great Opportunities for Foragers

There’s no other way to put it: recently logged land has the potential to be a forager’s paradise with time. From that first bumper crop of blackberries to the fruit and nut shrubs that can thrive with the increased light, a lot of good things can come from logged lands.

It’s even better when the logged lands are intermingled with mature forests in the area. This mixing of differently aged habitats produces a wonderful opportunity for plants and wildlife. For as much as it makes sense to love and appreciate a mature forest, not many things can thrive in a habitat that consists of miles and miles of a single tree species.

National Forests

Can You Hike Off-Trail in National Forests?

Hiking trails is fun and I’ve always enjoyed it. But hiking off-trail through the National Forest? There are few things better in my mind.

Can you hike off-trail in National Forests? While not explicitly recommended by the U.S. Forest Service, hiking off-trail is allowed on the vast majority of National Forest land. Going off-trail requires additional discipline, as navigational skills are much more important. Check with your local Forest Service office for restrictions.

With that being said, there’s a lot more to consider if you’re looking to head off-trail in the National Forest.

You Can Hike Off-Trail Almost Everywhere in National Forests

Brief overview of what will be covered in this H2 section. One or two sentences at the most.

Avoid Going Off-Trail Near Heavily Used Trails

This may sound a little counterintuitive, but please do everything you can to avoid hiking off-trail if you’re hiking along a trail that gets heavy traffic.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the truth is that there is a limit as to how much human foot traffic a habitat can take. Second, if you’re hiking off-trail near a well worn path, you’ll almost certainly inspire some others to do the same.

As such, it’s your responsibility to stick to the trail when in commonly used areas. Otherwise it’s more than possible that the beauty of the trail will only worsen as the nearby plants suffer from the increased traffic.

With that being said, I don’t think that people interested in learning to hike off-trail are that interested in seeking out such concentrated trails anyways.

Generally Not Recommended by Forest Service, but Allowed Almost Everywhere

The truth is that while it is perfectly legal to hike off-trail, it isn’t necessarily a practice that the U.S. Forest Service recommends. This makes sense if you think about it: there’s no way to avoid the fact that hiking off-trail is a riskier activity than staying on the trail. So in order to prevent a certain amount of extra work for themselves, they prefer that people stick to the trails, which is more than understandable.

The implication here is this: hiking off-trail through the National Forest can be risky stuff and it is your responsibility to ensure that you are adequately prepared.

hiking through national forest land in winter with a coat of snow on ground

Another thing to keep in mind is that there may be a few exceptions to be aware of. It’s possible that hiking off-trail wouldn’t be allowed in certain areas like research stations. Therefore, it’s important to read the rules that apply to your local area.

Going Off-Trail is the Only Way to See Much of a National Forest

There’s no way around it: the National Forest covers an absolutely huge area of land, as it is almost 200 million acres in size. While the Forest Service does a great job building and maintaining trails that open up the National Forest to hikers, there simply is far too much land to have it all reachable by trail.

national forest land not accessible via trail with snow on ground

In fact, some of my favorite places in the National Forest require hiking around a half-mile from the nearest trail. You can take my word on it: there’s a lot of really cool stuff out there, and going off-trail is a fantastic way to see it.

Tips and Tricks for Successfully Hiking Off-Trail

Now that we’ve established that you can hike off-trail through the National Forest, let’s get to the more important part of this post: how to hike off-trail successfully.

Introduce Yourself to Off-Trail Hiking With No Leaf Cover

If you don’t have experience hiking off-trail but you’re still interested, please take this next point seriously:

Make your life easier by first hiking off-trail when the leaves are off.

It may sound odd, but having the leaves off makes a tremendous difference when you’re attempting to navigate a forest. Also, for as much as I love hiking in the woods in winter, do your best to avoid that too.

Your best times to dabble in hiking off-trail are in the spring and fall. This helps you avoid the bitter cold temperatures of winter, and allows you to navigate more freely.

As you might be guessing, when leaves are attached to trees in a forest they make a great impact on your visibility. This impacts you in two ways. First, leaves in the canopy of the forest greatly reduce the amount of sunlight that makes it to the forest floor.

hiking through national forest in fall with yellow trees and leaves on ground

Second, immature forests may have leaves that are close to the level of your eyes. This impacts you by severely limiting your view of the forest in all directions. This makes navigation much more difficult and may induce anxiety in less-experienced hikers.

If you insist on hiking off-trail with the leaves still on the trees, do your best to locate a mature forest with a high canopy. This will reduce the likelihood that your vision is blocked while you’re trying to navigate. Remember: while navigation is obviously important for on-trail hiking, it is much, much more important in off-trail hiking.

Take Extra Precautions to Ensure Your Safety

This goes without say, but if you’re hiking off-trail through the National Forest, you really need to take additional precautions to ensure your safety.

It’s a good idea to take your time with your research of the area you’re looking to hike, as any little bit of knowledge could help when you’re out there. Here are some things to think about when planning your hike:

  • What kind of habitat will I be hiking through? Is it mostly deciduous trees, mostly evergreens, or a mix?
  • Are there streams or lakes that I should be on the lookout for?
  • What kind of topography can I expect in this area?
  • Where are the nearby Forest Service roads?
  • Is this a mature forest with trees spread apart or is this a densely treed young forest?

And so on. The point is to have a decent idea of what you might expect, so that you could have any markers in your mind if the hike goes wrong.

In addition, really think about how you plan on navigating while off-trail. Navigational apps and phones are wonderful tools, but you’re in a better position if you’re capable of navigating with only a map and a compass. Treat the phone as a backup solution and you’ll save your battery in case you truly need it later on.

Start in an Area Where You Just Can’t Screw Up

Here’s the bottom line: unless you’re naturally gifted with navigating forests, it is extremely easy to get turned around when navigating off-trail.

Do your best to consciously think about how you want to handle a mix-up when navigating, because it’s almost guaranteed to happen. Maintaining your composure and quickly solving the problem because you prepared is a much better position to be in.

If you’re interested in hiking off-trail for the first time and are trying to figure out where you want to hike, give yourself a break and choose a location that you can’t screw up.

Find yourself a starting point and a destination, where if you went in the wrong direction in any direction, you would come across a road or Forest Service road. This is valuable because roads of any kind are extremely valuable when you’re hiking off-trail and you lose your way.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you got some value out of this article and you’re considering doing some off-trail hiking through a National Forest if you’re ready. While a bit intimidating at times, there really is something freeing about hiking through the land without a perfect path.

If you need more ideas about fun things to do in our National Forests then check these articles out:

National Forests

11 Awesome Things to Do in the Nicolet National Forest

I had the great fortune of spending much of my childhood bumming around different areas of the Nicolet National Forest. Densely forested and peppered with lakes of all sizes, this is a special area that offers all sorts of outdoor opportunities.

Please note that the locations in this post are only for the Nicolet National Forest, and they do not cover the Chequamegon National Forest. While these are technically two separate national forests, they are managed together under one entity: the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

This sometimes leads to confusion, but you’ll have to trust me that the locals still consider them to be entirely separate forests.

Go Hiking in the Anvil Lake Recreation Area

Discover a little bit of everything in the Anvil Lake Recreation Area. With everything from a paved boat landing to more than a dozen campsites, Anvil Lake has something for everyone.


2511 WI-70, Eagle River, WI 54521

Situated about 10 miles east of Eagle River. This trail-head is a little over two and half hours from Green Bay.


Parking for day use is $5 and is covered by the $30 annual pass. Camping starts at $15 per site.

What to Know

There are seven separate trails present on the Anvil Lake National Recreational Trail. These trails offer a little bit of everything for the outdoorsy and are rated from Beginner all the way up to Expert.

Be sure to check it out in the winter, as both cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails are available.

Enjoy the Solitude of the Whisker Lake Wilderness

Consisting of 7,500 acres of wilderness on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan, the Whisker Lake Wilderness Area is a perfect opportunity to get away from the “busy” parts of the Nicolet National Forest.


National Forest Rd 2150, Florence, WI 54121

A little over two hours drive from Green Bay and only an hour drive from Eagle River.



What to Know

As it is classified as a wilderness area, there are many restrictions on the types of vehicles and equipment you can use while on the site. The bottom line is that you’ll either be paddling or walking when you’re exploring the Whisker Lake Wilderness area.

This provides and excellent opportunity to unwind and do everything from trout fishing to berry picking in the peace of the wilderness. Be sure to check out the few large pines remaining on the shore of Whisker Lake, which inspired the name given the “whisper-like” appearance of the trees.

Witness the Towering Pines of Cathedral Pines

Get a little lost admiring the majestic old-growth pine trees that tower above you at Cathedral Pines.


Cathedral Dr, Lakewood, WI 54138

A quick drive, Cathedral Pines is about an hour and a half from both Green Bay and Wausau.



What to Know

Small but mighty, the small grove of old-growth pine and hemlock trees tower over you as you walk the short trails leading from the parking area. These trees have been growing since the early 18th-century and are known to house nests of great blue herons.

While there’s no doubt that visiting Cathedral Pines will be a short visit, it is more than worthwhile, as the experience of walking among those giant trees is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Get Busy Birding on the Halley Creek Bird Trail

A variety of bird species are found here from springtime to early summer.


Latitude: 45.5167 Longitude: -88.5023

About two hours north-northeast of Green Bay. The trail is found on Forest Service road 2103 in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.



What to Know

Established more than 30 years ago by the U.S. Forest Service and the Northeastern Wisconsin Audubon Society, this trail is a great opportunity for birders to explore all that Northern Wisconsin has to offer.

Go for a Paddle Down the Peshtigo River

A river that offers a little bit of everything while winding through miles and miles of the Nicolet National Forest.


The Peshtigo River runs through much of the Nicolet National Forest and features a variety of access locations.



What to Know

A winding river that flows through many miles of the Nicolet National Forest, the Peshtigo River makes a day trip when the waters are high enough.

picture of downed logs in northern wisconsin in the Peshtigo river in summer

There are a variety of access locations along the river, and while downed logs do make navigation a bit tough at times, this river is a great way to spend a lazy Sunday.

Forage for Berries Along a Forest Service Road

From wild raspberries to blackberries to wild strawberries, the Nicolet National Forest is abound with berries to pick.



While not everywhere, many trails and Forest Service roads feature a variety of berries growing alongside the edge of the trail.



What to Know

Lace up your hiking boots and start the search for the wild berries of your choice. Many forest service roads and trails will have wild raspberries or wild blackberries growing along the edge. You might also have luck searching for areas that have recently been logged.

ripe blackberries alongside the trail in the nicolet national forest

If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out our post on how to find wild blackberries. All of the examples from the post are located within the Nicolet National Forest.

Accessibly Fish the South Branch of the Oconto River

A tremendous resource that brings accessibility to the world of fishing, the South Branch Oconto Barrier Free Fishing Trail is well worth checking out.


County Road T, Mountain, WI 54149

You’ll find the trail-head approximately 2.5 miles south of the intersection of County Road T and Highway 64. The entrance is on the west side of the road.


Parking for day use is $5 and is covered by the $30 annual pass.

What to Know

There aren’t many places like it, and that alone makes this location special and worth checking out. The site consists of a short trail that provides easy access to 11 different fishing sites along the South Branch of the Oconto River.

Brook trout and brown trout are both present in this stream. The different fishing sites employ a variety of setups, which allows for the fishing at this location to be accessible as possible.

Go Backpacking Through the Headwaters Wilderness

Located in the headwaters of the Pine River, this wilderness offers some of the best solitude in the state.


Eagle River, WI 54521

Approximately a two and a half hour drive from Green Bay, while being less than a two hour drive from Wausau.



What to Know

You’ll need to contact your local U.S. Forest Service district for information on hiking, but your reward will be 18,000 acres of wilderness. The entire site is restricted only to non-motorized or mechanized equipment, so you can expect the peace and quiet you’re seeking.

Have a Picnic and Go for a Swim at the Boot Lake

A great spot for the family to do a little bit of everything, the Boot Lake Campground offers


Camp Rd, Townsend, WI 54175

The Boot Lake Campground is less than an hour and a half from Green Bay. You can find signs for the campground along County Road T.


Parking for day use is $5 and is covered by the $30 annual pass. Camping fees are $18 per site.

What to Know

Boot Lake contains a variety of species of fish present, and offers a great spot for a refreshing swim. Boot Lake is a great spot for motorized boating, so everything from water skiing to tubing is on the table.

The lake has a maximum depth of 38 feet and the northwestern shore of the lake (the inner part of the boot) is public land that steeply descends down to the shore.

Cross-Country Ski on the Lakewood Cross-Country Ski Trail

Featuring 14 miles of trail open to a variety of uses, this is a great opportunity for those in the Nicolet National Forest to experience something different.


Lakewood, WI 54138

Found off of Old 32 Road, this is about an hour and half drive from Green Bay.



What to Know

A trail maintained by the Lakewood Cross Country Ski Club, this area offers both summer and winter activities. In the summer the trails are open to both mountain biking and hiking.

Trails are groomed by the ski club in winter times, and it’s recommended that you reach out to them in order to confirm trail conditions.

View the Catastrophic Storm Damage from 2019

A 2019 windstorm ran through Northern Wisconsin and decimated hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands.


Diamond Roof Road, Wabeno, WI

Diamond Roof Road is accessible from Highway 32 on the north side, and connects to Sawyer Lake Road on the southern end.



What to Know

Last but certainly not least, this item on our list is an opportunity to feel humbled by the power of nature. This storm came through and left a tremendous impact that will be felt for decades to come. Much of the land impacted was National Forest, and taking a drive to inspect the damage is a haunting yet beautiful experience.

downed trees after the wind storm in northern wisconsin 2019
Downed trees on the morning after the storm. I have to admit: this one is personal for me.

Some of the lands most heavily impacted can be seen driving down Diamond Roof Road. Not only is this a good opportunity in the immediate aftermath of the storm, I think it will be interesting to see how the National Forest land recovers in the decades to come.

downed trees in the nicolet national forest after the 2019 wind storm
Downed trees within the Nicolet National Forest.

Reports estimate that at least 63,000 acres of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest were affected by the windstorm. As you would expect, the clean-up is expected to last years.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this article gave you some fresh ideas about what to do the next time you’re up in the Nicolet National Forest. With a wide range of activities and more natural beauty than you could ever see in a lifetime, it really is quite the special spot.

If you liked this article, you may find these related articles to be an interesting read:

Foraging National Forests

Can You Forage in National Forests?

From picking blackberries to harvesting delicious ramps to finding wild ginseng: there are plenty of opportunities for foraging in National Forests.

Can you forage in National Forests? Foraging is generally allowed but rules and regulations are highly specific to each National Forest. Paid or free permits may be required for harvesting, and many plants have restrictions on quantity harvested or areas allowing harvest.

Keep reading and you’ll find out just what you need to know make the most out of your nearby National Forest, while following the rules and regulations established by the U.S. Forest Service.

How to Determine What You Can Forage in Your National Forest

Before we dive into the nitty gritty details of foraging on National Forests, it would help to spell out where to find the info you need.

First, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and find your National Forest in the drop-down menu on the right side of the screen (you should probably use a desktop or laptop, as unfortunately the U.S. Forest Service website isn’t terribly mobile friendly as of this writing). Click the ‘Go’ button and you’ll end up on the site devoted to your National Forest.

Next, we need to find the part of the site that discusses foraging and any rules that may apply. Fortunately it appears that all of the National Forests keep that information in the same location. To get this information, click on the ‘Passes & Permits’ link in the navigational menu located on the left side. Then you’ll want to click on the ‘Forest Products Permits’ option in this section, as highlighted below:

This will bring you to the page that will store all of the information on foraging in that National Forest, as wild edibles are considered a product of the forest.

Rules on Foraging are Unique to Each National Forest

This likely won’t be a surprise to you, but the rules and regulations surrounding foraging for wild edibles are highly specific to each National Forest. This makes sense if you think about it: no two National Forests have the same species present, nor do they receive the same level of pressure from foragers.

Like it or not, a National Forest within a short drive of a large urban area will always have more rules and regulations than another location that is in a much more rural area. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Olympic National Forest is a short drive from Seattle. Mushroom foraging is allowed, but a paid permit with restrictions on the volume and duration of the harvest is required. On the other hand, the harvest of wild berries is allowed without a permit, but there are daily harvest limits and an overall limit for the season.

In other words, the way that a National Forest regulated foraging is not consistent and the structure of those regulations varies from one location to another.

But, there’s one more thing: not every National Forest specifies the rules on foraging on their site. You may have call or visit a local office of your National Forest in order to determine what rules may or may not apply to your foraging.

Different Plant Species Will Likely Have Different Rules

A thing to always keep in mind is that how a National Forest regulates foraging is often specific to the individual species you’re interested in.

For example, the National Forests of North Carolina allow for foragers to harvest both ginseng and wild ramps. However, each plant has their own unique rules to follow and even their own areas of the National Forests that allow harvesting. In addition to the limited areas that allow for the harvest of ginseng, North Carolina utilizes a permitting process that includes a lottery.

While the rules are different for each National Forest, there are some general trends you can observe.

First, think about the level of disruption that occurs when you harvest that plant. Picking some ripe wild blackberries? There’s hardly any disruption that occurs in that case and you can generally expect berry foraging to have less restrictions.

floor of national forest with wild ramps growing in may

Digging up wild ramps and taking the whole bulb? As that action is killing a rather slow-spreading plant, you can almost always expect to face certain restrictions and need a permit in order to proceed.

Harvesting for Commercial Use Treated Differently Than Personal Use

I think this is a rather obvious statement but it’s still well worth stating: if you’re planning on harvesting plants for commercial purposes you can expect permits. I don’t think many people reading this are foraging for commercial purposes, but still.

The simple reality is that any commercial operation (big or small) harvesting plants from a National Forest should focus greatly on compliance. Maintaining a good relationship with the Forest Service is key to the longevity of your operation. Like it or not, these rules are here for a reason, and their main objective is to ensure that their native plants aren’t over harvested into oblivion.

Tips and Tricks for Foraging in National Forests

Now that we’re a bit more familiar with the rules and regulations we might expect when foraging in National Forests, here are some quick tips and tricks to get the most out of your experience.

Get to Know the Forest Service Road System

I’m not going to pretend that most of the people interested in foraging have the high-clearance trucks or ATVs needed to navigate the full extent of the Forest Service road system. That’s totally OK, as Subarus can park on the side of the road just as easily as most other cars.

With that being said, a little bit of familiarity with how Forest Service roads operate can go a long way towards making foraging in a National Forest a much less intimidating adventure. The reality is that even if you don’t have the vehicle neccessary to drive down a deeply rutted dirt road, this network of roads still offers the best access to the most land.

In case you’re interested in learning more, you can check out any of the following articles on the Forest Service road system:

Be Careful to Verify You’re Never Trespassing

This may go without saying, but it’s really important that you always know that you are foraging on public lands.

In certain National Forests this will be easier than others. Many times you’ll be in an area where all the land you can see in every direction belongs to the National Forest. Great! Have a good time exploring and maybe not worry so much about this part.

However, many National Forests contain parts that have private parcels of land that are interspersed throughout the National Forest land. In this case you’ll have to be much more careful about thinking about where you’re standing. Nobody ever wants to be in the position of accidentally harvesting plants off of someone’s private land, whether they see you or not.

So take care to well research the ownership details of the areas you’re interested in. It’s ultimately your responsibility and there are many solutions available in our modern times.

Stick to the Trails and Logging Roads When Starting Out

Last but not least, it’s a good idea to stick to the network of roads and logging trails when you’re first foraging in National Forests.

looking down a forest service road in national forest with mix of mature and young trees

Yeah, I understand the appeal of navigating the woods off-trail and finding that real gem of a spot that few others have ever found, but it’s best to take it slow. The reality is that navigating off-trail requires great skill and comes with even greater risks. No one ever wants to get lost in the woods, and that’s always a possibility in a National Forest. This is especially true once the leaves come out, as the forest grows shadier with even less visibility.

It’s a better idea to keep your foraging limited to within a close distance of the Forest Services roads. This will help keep you safe when wandering around. And honestly, due to increase light penetration it is very likely that the trails are a better foraging opportunity anyways.

Concluding Thoughts

I want to thank you for reading this and I hope you learned a thing or two along the way. I’m always excited to share things that I love, and foraging in National Forests combines two of my absolute favorite things.

If you need more articles that get into the nitty-gritty details of foraging, then check these out:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

How to Read a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM)

There’s no way around it: reading a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) from the U.S. Forest Service can be a bit of a daunting task.

How should you read a MVUM? Motor Vehicle Use Maps contain valuable information about U.S. Forest Service roads, such as the open dates, vehicle classes allowed, and any rules for special vehicle classes. They are an invaluable navigation tool to have on hand when exploring National Forests.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to competently use a Motor Vehicle Use Map. Keep reading for step-by-step instructions.

Step by Step Instructions on Reading a MVUM

Before we get into the details on how you read a MVUM, it will be helpful to quickly cover how to find them on the Forest Service website.

First, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and find your National Forest or Grassland in the drop-down menu. Clicking the ‘Go’ button will take you to the website specific to that location.

Once you’re on the website for the specific property, you’ll need to click on the ‘Maps & Publications’ menu item as highlighted in brown on the navigation pane below:

motor vehicle use maps for the chequamegon nicolet national forest, highlighting the different mvums available

Once you’ve landed on the Maps & Publications page, you’re next job is to search that page for any mention of Motor Vehicle Use Maps or the MVUM acronym. Each National Forest or Grassland organizes this page differently, so you may have to dig around a little bit in order to find the MVUMs.

You’ll notice that the MVUMs are clearly called out on the above screenshot. The Motor Vehicle Use Maps we’re searching for come in the format of PDF files, so clicking on any of the above links will open up the PDF file of the MVUM for that region.

Reading the Folding-Style Maps on Your Computer

Now that we’ve got the MVUM open on your computer, you may notice that part of the map displays upside down. In my experience this only occurs on the part of the MVUM that corresponds the cover page. Of course, when I talk about the cover page you have to keep in mind that MVUMs are designed to be printed as a folding travel map, which explains the layout.

Before we get into some of the details on the MVUMs, you may want to consider setting up multiple browser windows to more easily reference the key later (this assumes you’re on a desktop computer and have sufficient screen space). To do this I open up another copy of the MVUM (Chrome users can use the ‘Duplicate’ option by right-clicking on the current tab) and place it in a new browser window.

Typically, what I’ll do is have two windows. The left window is narrow and this is where I have the MVUM fixed on the ‘Legend’ and the ‘Explanation of the Legend Items’ parts of the map. The right window takes up the majority of the screen and this is where I’m viewing the actual map and exploring around.

Here’s a screenshot showing what I’m talking about:

close up view of motor vehicle use map with the legend on the left

While it takes a little extra effort to set up, this will allow for much easier use of the MVUM later on. Otherwise I’ve found, that I’m constantly zooming in and out, going back and forth from the legend to the part of the map I’m interested in. As these maps are large files that detail an expansive network of roads, it’s easy to lose your spot if you keep going back and forth.

One last thing to mention about the PDF forms of the MVUMs is that not all of the maps are searchable. Being from the generation that got spoiled with the advent of the ‘Ctrl + F’ functionality, I just thought it was worth mentioning that it’s possible that you might not have that available. Most MVUMs do appear to allow for search, though.

Read the ‘Purpose and Contents of This Map’ Section and Beyond

Alright, so now we’ve reached the part of the post where I dust off my ‘compliance professional’ hat and I remind you to read the rules before getting to the fun stuff.

While MVUMs across the different locations use the same general formatting, it’s important to recognize that each National Forest or Grassland is unique and therefore may have slightly different rules or recommendations.

Therefore, you’re best served by finding the ‘Purpose and Contents of This Map’ section and start reading. Carefully read all of the text that is present in paragraph form (the text in the tables is usually road specific and you can reference that later).

Yes, much of this may be the same from one MVUM to another, but the different sites do include information that is specific to their land. Anytime the Forest Service decides to include site-specific information they’re most likely either trying to save your life or keep you from getting arrested, so pay attention.

Check the Tables for Additional Information That May Affect Your Trip

Before getting started with the trip planning or exploring part of this, it makes sense to quickly check out what kind of information the tables of the MVUM contain.

The reality is that the type of information contained in the tables for each MVUM may be different, as the different sites have unique information they wish to convey through the MVUM.

Here are some of the types of information you may expect from tables of MVUMs:

  • Lists of roads too short to be found on the MVUM
  • Seasonal and Special Vehicle Designations for specific roads
  • Dispersed camping rules and details for specific roads

As you can see, the tables found on MVUMs are a great resource when you have additional questions about the map.

Have a Destination or Purpose in Mind Beforehand

Okay, we’re finally getting to the point where we dig in and start exploring the map. There are a few things to keep in mind when planning a trip with a Motor Vehicle Use Map.

First, it’s really important to understand the limitations of MVUMs. As they’re designed to effectively convey a lot of information about a large complex network of roads, the simple truth is that MVUMs are missing a lot of crucial information. These maps contain no topographical information and little information about habitats present. As such, it’s critical that anytime you’re using MVUMs to plan a trip, that you should be using them in conjunction with other maps that allow a more complete picture.

Second, I think it’s likely easier to have a destination or purpose of your trip in mind before you ever start referencing the MVUM. Think of the MVUM as a tool designed to inform you about how and when you can use the different roads.

How exactly you go about planning your trip is really up to you and this will vary highly based on your plans.

Verify That Your Vehicle is Allowed for That Trip

When you’re using a Motor Vehicle Use Map to plan a trip, the best way to think of your job is that it is your responsibility to ensure that your planned route and vehicle of choice are legal.

It’s important to read the rules in order to properly classify your vehicle according to the Forest Service various categories. You may need to know certain specifications for your vehicle. Here are some of the more common vehicle classes that the Forest Service refers to:

  • Highway Legal Vehicles
  • Wheeled Vehicles 50″ or Less in Width
  • High Clearance Vehicles
  • Non-Highway Legal Vehicles Wider Than 50″
  • Motorcyles

In addition to the different classes of vehicles, understand that many roads only allow access to vehicles during certain open seasons. This limited access may also differ for different vehicle classes. I’ll explain with an example: a Forest Service road may allow year-round access to Highway Legal Vehicles while restricting the months when wheeled vehicles less than 50″ in width can drive.

One last tip is to occasionally check the Forest Service website of your National Forest or Grassland for roads that may be temporarily closed. Anything from construction to natural disasters may force the Forest Service to close a road, so checking every now and then for updates can’t hurt.

Print a Hard Copy of the Full Route You Plan on Taking

Last but not least, if you don’t already have a hard copy of this MVUM (which can possibly be obtained by visiting a nearby U.S. Forest Service information center), do be sure to print off at least the portion of the MVUM that contains your planned route.

Yes, if you’re of the smartphone generation than you’ve already likely downloaded the PDF file of the MVUM onto your phone or laptop, but it’s always a good idea to have a hard copy as a backup. Better yet, obtain a hard copy and then use that for navigation, as you’re perhaps wiser to save your battery and treat your smartphone as the backup.

Download a Digital Copy of the MVUM on the Avenza App

By far, one of the best applications of the Avenza app is having the ability to navigate a MVUM straight from your smartphone. In case you haven’t heard of it, Avenza Maps is an app available on Android on iOS that offers the ability to integrate traditional maps like a MVUM with your location data.

The only downside is that you’ll need to sign up for an account in order to use Avenza Maps. The U.S. Forest Service kindly provides Motor Vehicle Use Maps as a free download on the Avenza network. Once you’ve downloaded the app and signed up for a free account, all you need to do is search for your MVUM in their store.

First, click the orange plus sign in the lower right corner of the screen and then click the ‘Download or import a map’ button, like so:

screenshot of the avenza mapping app with the download or import a map button in the corner

Next, you’ll want to click on the ‘Get a map from the store’ area, and this will take you to their “store” for map layers. We’re not looking to spend money on digital maps, so the first thing we’re going to do is to click the ‘Filter’ button at the bottom of the screen and then toggle on the ‘Free’ filter on the ‘Map Price’ part of the menu:

screenshot of the avenza mapping filter option with an arrow pointing to the 'free' price filter

Click the ‘Apply’ button and then we’ll want to click on the search menu at the top of the screen. This will bring up a screen that looks approximately like this:

avenza mapping application auto selecting your current gps location

You’ll see that it will automatically assign a value to the ‘Location’ field based on your current location. If you would like to search a different location, click on that area and then type in your preferred location. This should bring up a bunch of different options that might match. Find the option that matches your desired location and click on it. Next, you’ll simply want to type ‘mvum’ into the ‘Keywords’ search box like below:

searching for motor vehicle use maps in the avenza mobile application

To download a MVUM for this area, all you need to do is first click the ‘Free’ button and then click it once again when it changes to say ‘Download?’

finding free motor vehicle use maps with the free download button highlighted with red arrow

This will download the map in the background and once the download is complete you’ll have it available for offline use anytime you’re out on some Forest Service roads driving around.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you got value out of this post and came away with more of an appreciation for the often disregarded MVUM.

If you liked this article, you may find these related articles to be an interesting read:

National Forests

Do You Have to Pay to Get Into National Forests?

National Forests offer a great combination of two of my favorite things in the world: beautiful forests and free stuff.

Do you have to pay to get into National Forests? Activities like rock climbing, ATV/UTV riding, boat ramp usage, and the harvest of certain wild edibles generally aren’t free. Other activities like dispersed camping, hiking, and birding are free to the public.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through how to navigate the financial side of visiting a National Forest.

How to Determine Whether You Have to Pay

I know what you might be thinking: aren’t the National Forests free because the public owns them? Not so fast, as it’s very possible you might have to pay based on a few considerations.

What Kind of Activities You’re Interested In

First things first, the types of activities you want to do in National Forests can have a great impact on your wallet. Love hobbies that require a lot of gear or require the use of anything with a motor? Be sure to check the rules, as odds are likely that you may have some kind of fees to pay.

Here are examples of some of the activities that you can expect to require some kind of fee or permitting:

  • Rock climbing
  • ATV/UTV riding
  • Certain kinds of foraging (e.g. harvesting wild ramp bulbs)
  • Using boat ramps
  • Shore fishing at developed sites
  • Camping at developed campsites

This makes sense if you think about it: almost all of the activities on the above list require the attention and care of Forest Service employees. The only exception to that list is foraging, but in that scenario you’re removing a natural product from the forest, so it’s reasonable to expect some kind of permit or fee necessary.

Activities That Tend to be Free

What about those fellow lovers of free stuff that just want to enjoy a day in the woods? Freeloaders, you’re in luck: our National Forests support a diverse array of activities that are totally free to the public.

Think of it like this: if the activities you’re interested in generally “leave no trace” and don’t require the time and attention of Forest Service staff, you’re unlikely to require any fees.

Here are some of the activities you can expect to not require any permitting or fees:

  • Trail hiking
  • Bird watching
  • Visiting remote waters without access for vehicles
  • Winter sports on trails that aren’t maintained actively
  • Dispersed camping

In my mind, the best part about all of this is that the free activities are what you encounter when you really “open up” the possibilities of what the National Forest offers.

picture of a forest service road cutting through a forest
There’s plenty of free places to explore in National Forests

Think of it like this: people in the United States are extremely fortunate to have millions and millions of acres of Nation Forests available for use. Don’t just limit yourself to the activities and locations that the vast majority of visitors stick with. Get out there and check out all that these wonderful locations have to offer!

Everything is Local: Check the Rules for Your Nearby National Forest

While the different National Forests are all run by the same agency (the United States Department of Agriculture), the reality is that each National Forest has their own rules.

Your best bet is to go to the website for the Forest Service and find your National Forest in the drop-down list on the right side of the screen. Then find the ‘Passes & Permits’ section of the brown menu on the left.

There are usually no more than 4 or 5 options on this menu, so your best bet is just to open up every page and see what they say. I know, reading rules isn’t the most exciting recommendation, but that’s really the only option here.

Let me explain what I mean: each National Forest is unique and has its own management requirements. Take foraging for example: the different National Forests have differing needs. This makes it entirely possible for you to be able to freely gather a plant species in one National Forest, but have another location that either requires a permit or doesn’t allow gathering entirely.

What’s the bottom line? Read the rules as best you can, as it’s your responsibility to have your permits and fees in line when enjoying all that our National Forests have to offer.

Understanding the Options for Paid Forest Service Passes

So you’ve determined that your activities in a National Forest will require fees or permits and you’re wondering what your best options are. Next we’ll go over a few things to keep in mind when navigating the options out there.

Forest Service-Wide Recreation Passes

The U.S. Forest Service has a web page that outlines the various kinds of recreational passes available. Regarding annual passes, most people would be interested in the pass that costs $80 at the time of this writing.

However, people 62 or older, military veterans, and disabled individuals may have either free passes or reduced costs passes available.

Also, the Forest Service offers a free pass for those that volunteer more than 250 hours in a calendar year.

Check for More Affordable Local Options

It’s also worth noting that it’s possible that your local National Forest may have other recreational passes available. As they dont’ cover such a great number of locations, you can expect that these local passes may be available for less than the national pass.

For example, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest offers a year-long recreational pass that is only $30. This pass doesn’t necessarily offer as many features and options as the national pass, but many people would find it more than adequate for their needs.

Stop By the Local Forest Service Office for More Info

If you’re having trouble figuring out what is best for you, you can always stop by a local U.S. Forest Service office to get help. To find a list of offices that service your local National Forest, go back to the web-page for that National Forest and look for link mentioning ‘District Offices’ near the bottom of the left-hand side navigation pane.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and got some helpful information out of it. Our National Forests are a tremendous resource and there are plenty of opportunities for people of all budgets.

If you liked this article, you may find these related articles to be an interesting read:

Forest Service Roads

How are Forest Service Roads Numbered?

If you’ve ever driven through a U.S. National Forest and saw a small sign with a series of numbers and letters posted at the start of a road, you’ve found yourself a Forest Service road.

How are Forest Service roads in U.S. National Forests numbered? Each National Forest in the U.S. assigns a short number and letter combination to each Forest Service road. The road numbers are unique for each state and a few different naming conventions are employed.

So how exactly does that work? Read on and we’ll go into greater details on how this great system works.

How the U.S. Forest Service Numbers Their Roads

Before we get started, it’s important to know that there is no universal naming convention employed by all the National Forests. Many National Forests employ similar conventions, but each is ultimately free to choose their own method, so your mileage may vary.

How to Find the Forest Service Roads for your National Forest

As this process is specific to each unique National Forest, the first step is to go to the website for the National Forest you’re interested in exploring. Simply enough, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and find your National Forest in the dropdown box, then click the ‘Go’ button.

Once you’ve found the website for your National Forest, find the navigation pane and go to the ‘Maps & Publications’ part of the menu. This should be available for each National Forest, as it doesn’t appear that the navigation menu changes in any way. However, what you see once you’ve navigated to the Maps & Publications section is unique.

What we’re looking for now is something called the ‘Motor Vehicle Use Map,’ otherwise referred to as the MVUM. Every National Forest should have the MVUM somewhere on this page, it’s just that the different forests format this page differently. Once you find the MVUM, you should look for links to PDF maps of the Forest Service roads. Most National Forests will have several different maps that showcase different sections of the forest, but some may have only a single map.

screenshot of the motor vehicle use map section for us forest service website in missouri
Here is the Motor Vehicle Use Map section for the Shawnee National Forest

Each MVUM should have a key that explains what the different stylings mean. There also will be tables that provide more information about roads that have restricted use, whether that be restrictions based on vehicle type or seasonality.

Difference in Numbering Methods for Different National Forests

Most National Forests name their Forest Service roads with a three to five digit combination of numbers and letters. Each National Forest is free to name their roads with whatever conventions they like, so understand that there isn’t a singular method applied universally.

However, know that most of the National Forests use numbers to designate the main roads, and then letters are used as modifiers that are most commonly used with smaller branches of roads. A hypothetical example: a National Forest has a main road with a number of 1234, with a branched road of 1234A. More on that later.

Quick Note: as the Forest Service maintains tens of thousands of roads throughout the vast network of National Forests in the United States, you can expect that some numbers will be reused. It’s important to note that the numbers for all Forest Service roads are unique to that state, so keep that in mind.

Roads Branching Off a Main Road

A common theme running through many National Forests is that a main Forest Service road may have smaller roads branching off of it, and those smaller roads are often named in a way to easily highlight that relationship.

For example, the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois names their Forest Service roads with a 3-digit number, and then appends a letter to the end if that road branches off a main road. Below you can see a screenshot of on of the Motor Vehicle Use Maps, which shows the main road (750) and the attached sub road (750D):

up close screenshot of roads in motor vehicle use map with road numbers visible

Not just limited to one level of branching, you can see in the below screenshot that there can be branched roads off of other branched roads. This creates a situation where an already branched road (Forest Service road 307C) can have two roads branching off of it, with names that indicate that relationship (roads 307CA and 307CB).

motor vehicle use map with branched roads visible

While this all may be a little confusing at first, I promise you you’ll appreciate the value the first time you get a little lost exploring a National Forest. In this case, if I got turned around while driving on FS 307CA it would be easy for me to get back to FS 307C, and then I could reach FS 307, which appears to be a regular road.

This is all very helpful from a navigation standpoint, as being able to quickly navigate from the remote trunk roads back to the main road keeps people from getting lost. Anyone who’s tried to navigate a dense forest without a map will appreciate that.

How Forest Service Roads are Marked in the Forest

As helpful as it is to explore the National Forests with the maps, most of us would prefer to spend much more time actually in the forest. So, how does the Forest Service mark the different Forest Service roads in the actual forest?

From my experience, the Forest Service roads are posted with a sign at the spot where the road bisects another road. For example, the Forest Service road 743A would have a marker posted at the spot indicated in the below screenshot:

road intersection point for motor vehicle use map

This would likely be the only marker on that road, as the road is a dead end that doesn’t encounter any other road.

It’s also helpful to know that most of the time Forest Service roads have very limited signs posted on them, so I wouldn’t expect to see signs posted anywhere else on this road. Remember, you’re deep in a National Forest, not on the interstate. Don’t expect to be constantly reminded which road you’re on, so it is your responsibility to pay attention and notice the signs you’re given.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you and you picked up a few things that you didn’t know before.

If you need more ideas about making the most out of our National Forests then check these articles out:

Forest Service Roads

Are You Allowed to Drive on Forest Service Roads?

There’s something freeing about exploring our National Forests, and nothing gives us better access to this treasure than the vast network of Forest Services roads.

Are you allowed to drive on U.S. Forest Service roads? Road-type, vehicle-type and time of year may affect access to Forest Service roads. While roads are accessible to the public, each road has a specific rules. Check the website of your National Forest and find the Motor Vehicle Use Map for more information about Forest Service road access.

Now that we’ve gotten the easy answer out of the way, lets dive into the nitty-gritty and see exactly how this works.

Is This Forest Service Road Open for Use

As Forest Service roads contain a variety of widths, purposes and road types, not all roads are open to use the entire year round. Forest Service roads in more remote locations or less-trafficked roads might not be open for a variety of reasons.

Before we get started, you should go to the Forest Service website and find the website of the specific forest you’re interested in. Then, find the Maps & Publications section on the navigation panel. The different forests organize this section differently, but the part most important for our purpose is the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) section, which will contain the specific information we need. Find this section and then explore the different maps and webpages that make up the MVUM.

The season in which a Forest Service road is open is specific to each road, and therefore you will need to determine if you’re in the “open season” each time you are interested in driving down a road with a limited season. Most of the time Forest Service roads are closed during seasons like winter or spring where heavy snowfalls or wet spring conditions would make the road difficult to navigate.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Forest Service roads may also be closed during the open season, as natural disasters, planned maintenance/construction, or logging activity all can temporarily close a road. For example, a tornado-like windstorm in 2019 devastated thousands and thousands of acres of the Nicolet National Forest. Overnight, this event shut down dozens of Forest Service roads as they were inaccessible due to downed logs. This also dramatically increased the logging activity in the months to follow as they did salvage work.

Is Your Vehicle Allowed on the Forest Service Road

Once you’ve determined that the Forest Service road is open for use, you then have to determine whether your vehicle legally qualifies to drive on that road. The first thing you can do is check whether your vehicle would be considered a Highway Legal Vehicle according to the Forest Service. This is as straightforward as it sounds: if your vehicle is legal to operate on public roads in that state then it would be considered a Highway Legal Vehicle.

Other vehicles that might not be highway legal, such as ATVs and UTVs, would be designated as Special Vehicles according to the Forest Service. As you might guess, the Special Vehicle category is further split into different categories, depending on the specifications of the vehicle. Typically this comes in the form of the type of vehicle (ATV, UTV, etc.) and the width of  the vehicle.

To further confuse things slightly, it’s possible that a Forest Service road could be open for use, but your specific vehicle might not be allowed at the time. For example, some Forest Service roads allow year-round access for Highway Legal Vehicles but restrict when Special Vehicles like UTVs and ATVs may use that road.

A Real Life Example

It’s late April and I’m exploring the northwoods of the Nicolet National Forest near Eagle River in Wisconsin. For vehicles I have my truck with 4-wheel drive and an ATV with a width of 47 inches.

First, I go to the Forest Service website and find the webpage for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. I click the ‘Maps & Publications’ menu item and find the Motor Vehicle Use Map in the second section, as highlighted. As I’m near Eagle River, I click the first map listed and it opens a PDF of the MVUM for that entire region.

screenshot of the motor vehicle use map section of the chequamegon nicolet national forest website

I’m interested in exploring the area near Halsey Lake, so I zoom to the following view of the map:

screenshot of a motor vehicle use map from the national forest with forest service roads visible

To determine where I can ride my ATV and where I can drive my truck, I have to use the key while referencing any of the relevant tables. This is where it helps to have multiple windows open, or better yet, a physical copy of the map.

Looking at the Special Use table for FS 2076, I can see that in late April I would be able to drive my truck (as it is a Highway Legal Vehicle), but not my ATV, as the season for ATVs runs from May 1st through March 14th of the following year. If I came back in May I would be able to ride my ATV down FS 2076, as then the road would be open for that vehicle.

Also, I would be able to drive only my truck on Forest Service roads 2156M, 2156N, and 2158A, as those roads only allow access to Highway Legal Vehicles.

Other Things to Take Into Consideration

The last thing to keep in mind is that just because you can drive down that Forest Service road, doesn’t mean that you should drive down it. Forest Service roads are in a wide variety of conditions, and many roads that are designated as “Open to Highway Legal Vehicles” may have significant rutting that may require a vehicle with high clearance, such as a truck or Jeep Wrangler.

This is where its best to approach the road with a good bit of common sense, as while my Toyota RAV4 may technically be considered a SUV, I know that it would be highly likely to bottom out on a road with deep enough ruts.

Weather and the road conditions are also important to keep in mind. A dirt road with ruts may be difficult to navigate in a wet spring, while that same road can be much easier to navigate once frozen solid and the “shape” of the rut isn’t so malleable.

Interactive Visitor Map: the Best Option for Real-Time Information

I cover this more in this post, but the U.S. Forest Service provides an Interactive Visitor Map that takes care of a lot of the confusion regarding Forest Service roads.

When you land on the website you’ll be met with a screen like the following:

screenshot of the main menu of the interactive visitor map from the us forest service

At this point you should look at the last four options on the menu. Choose the category that best represents your vehicle and then you’ll be taken to a map specific for that.

It’s pretty straightforward to use, but what you need to know is that the Legend on the left side of the screen contains everything you need to interpret the results of the screen.

You should specifically note is that each Forest Service road on the screen has two elements:

  • A color shading indicating whether it is currently open to traffic from that class of vehicle
  • A line styling that indicates what class of road it is

You can then explore around the map to find roads open for your purposes. Here is about what you can expect a screen to look like:

screenshot of the interactive visitor map with open roads highlighted in yellow

Note that the yellow shading indicates that those roads are open for traffic by this type of vehicle, while the faint red shading indicates that it’s closed. You’ll want to verify beforehand that your route of choice is open to traffic at that time.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully after reading all of this you feel better about taking advantage of the great asset that our U.S Forest Service roads are.

If you liked this article, you may find these related articles to be an interesting read: