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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.

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By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.