Fat bike riding in "washes" - legality/morality of it?- Mtbr.com
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  1. #1
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    Fat bike riding in "washes" - legality/morality of it?

    I am curious what the legality/morality of riding in desert washes is?
    I've ridden on "trail" that is labeled as such on trailforks in the nearby area, but it is clearly a wash that floods every so often with storms. And with things opening up and more people on the easier to get trails, it got me thinking about exploring the desert more.

    Is it ok to ride washes/unmarked "trails"? Does it depend on the area (of course no private land)?
    Silly bike things happening.

  2. #2
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    Good question.

    Legality is the main thing. BLM/USFS? As long as it's not wilderness, or under some special administration scenario, go for it.

    Morality? Leave no trace. If you can enter and exit the wash in such a way as to not leave tracks on fragile soils, then go for it. Any/every ensuing rain will erase all evidence that you were ever in the wash.

    Some of the best, prettiest, and most rewarding riding on the Colorado Plateau only uses actual trails but briefly.

    Big Wheel Building: Trails? Fah.

    Big Wheel Building: Plan D.

    Big Wheel Building: Filthy.

    Big Wheel Building: Rock, ice, and water.

    Big Wheel Building: Old dogs, new tricks.

  3. #3
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    I agree, avoid the Wilderness Areas and National Parks and you should be good. I've done it myself and would do it again as long as it isn't under those land designations.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Redlands R&C View Post
    I am curious what the legality/morality of riding in desert washes is?
    I know that access rights in the west vs. east are very different, but the "ordinary high water mark" carries legal weight in discussions of navigability.

    River Law: Fact or Fiction - National Organization for Rivers

    I absolutely have ridden my fatbike on exposed sandbars/gravel bars along rivers with low water. I've camped on them, too. And not in the middle of public land of any sort, either...I've done it surrounded by private land. I'd say riding a bike on that sort of thing counts as nondestructive.

    Even this, as dumb as it was, was still legal (however, if they'd completed the crossing and driven on the opposite bank, it would have been illegal).

    https://www.citizen-times.com/story/...er/5038194002/

    I don't think morality is the word you're looking for. Ethics/ethical, I think, would cover it better.

    I do think that dry washes in the desert are likely considered a bit differently. That said, if it CAN be navigated when water is flowing, then I'd bet every doctrine surrounding navigable waterways can be applied. But considering how the water is going to rearrange things every time it flows, I think LNT ethics are pretty easy to conform to.

  5. #5
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    There are lots of desert washes in the public/BLM lands near where I live. Some are actually very, very deep and wide. If I hurt myself inside one there is no way I can climb out of it. My only way out would be to limp through it - if I can limp through it. A search and rescue team probably wouldn't find me. The ones near me are super sandy too. Even with fat tires they would be a challenge to float through.

    With so many other trails and service roads around I avoid these washes.

    Your area may be different than mine. Use your best judgement.

    -=- Boris

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikesee View Post
    ... If you can enter and exit the wash in such a way as to not leave tracks on fragile soils, then go for it. ...
    Are those "fragile soils" referring to the Biological Crust that is found with desert soils that are destroyed by walking, riding or driving on it as it then blows or washes away?

    Are fragile soils or Biological Crust obvious or does one have to be/become knowledgeable of the area?
    Crazy on this ship of fools...

  7. #7
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    I find myself drawn to the washes, gulleys, arroyos, whatever you call them in the desert west. Fun to ride, walk, hike and explore, and a true joy to be around (not in) during and after a flash event. Its one of the few places you can wander somewhat freely without tearing up soils. I've found many a point sitting pristinely on the surface of the sand, as if placed in plain view for all to see, after a wash has come through. I don't touch them anymore though...those things are bad juju.
    I would advise not taking my advice.

  8. #8
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    I used to ride the washes in the Owyhees of Southwest Idaho. Not hurting a thing. Usually have to walk through the sagebrush to get to them. One time we came into a narrowing canyon that ending with a rhyolite waterfall cliff that plunged about 100 feet. We had to hoof it out back through the sagebrush, watching for rattlers. I doubt very many people have ever been back there. I've spent a few winters in Oro Valley near Tucson and there's some yuuge washes there. I'm often surprised that I've never seen anyone on a fattie riding the washes. I've seen a few tracks. Was going to explore them myself last winter but broke my clavicle at the end of October (yes... over the bars). Don't hesitate to ride the washes.

  9. #9
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    Not desert but similar, here we have a lot of flood plains. Unless its private property or signed "no trespassing" it has never been a problem. Some areas we have been flat out told we can do whatever we want as long as no trash is left behind because the area floods every spring. Perfect for the off season when trails are closed all the time, at least as long as you know better than to run expensive parts and have no issues with constant maintenance/repairs lol.

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  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by tigris99 View Post
    Unless its private property or signed "no trespassing" it has never been a problem.
    Yeah, according to the link I shared above, those things are irrelevant. A private landowner cannot legally exert control over land that's within the "ordinary high water mark" since the waterway predates private ownership of the land. I'm not talking about 100yr floodplains, either. Typical seasonal high water marks that are obvious on tree trunks and other vegetation will give you a solid indication of where this is.

    Of course, the farther you push this limit, the more likely you are to piss off some nutjob. This is why I tend to stick to the sandbars/gravel bars within the channel and WELL within the high water marks. I've tried some totally dry channels (in the east) before, but those don't usually have enough flow to clear out enough debris. Winds up being better to hike that stuff.

    Dry washes out west are really cool to explore. Never explored any by bike, but I've hiked plenty of them.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harold View Post
    I know that access rights in the west vs. east are very different, but the "ordinary high water mark" carries legal weight in discussions of navigability.

    River Law: Fact or Fiction - National Organization for Rivers

    I absolutely have ridden my fatbike on exposed sandbars/gravel bars along rivers with low water. I've camped on them, too. And not in the middle of public land of any sort, either...I've done it surrounded by private land. I'd say riding a bike on that sort of thing counts as nondestructive.

    Even this, as dumb as it was, was still legal (however, if they'd completed the crossing and driven on the opposite bank, it would have been illegal).

    https://www.citizen-times.com/story/...er/5038194002/

    I don't think morality is the word you're looking for. Ethics/ethical, I think, would cover it better.

    I do think that dry washes in the desert are likely considered a bit differently. That said, if it CAN be navigated when water is flowing, then I'd bet every doctrine surrounding navigable waterways can be applied. But considering how the water is going to rearrange things every time it flows, I think LNT ethics are pretty easy to conform to.
    We have that here, it's state law, but "navigable" doesn't apply to every waterway and definitely not to washes. It does get us to a lot more places, especially in the winter. Many, especially the far-right crowd, consider this to be one of the inherent things about Alaska. Interestingly, that same crowd that supported this right for a guy that decided to navigate his hovercraft through federal lands went absolutely ballistic when the ones around Campbell Lake realized that their "private" lake, which had long-forgotten easements established, was not "private" and also open to the public in the same way. The ethics of this is fairly clear, since it's law, but in general riding something like a fat-bike through sand dunes or on a packed scree-slope is a grey area. I think it depends somewhat on the area. In general, I would say go for it.
    "It's only when you stand over it, you know, when you physically stand over the bike, that then you say 'hey, I don't have much stand over height', you know"-T. Ellsworth

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  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harold View Post
    Yeah, according to the link I shared above, those things are irrelevant. A private landowner cannot legally exert control over land that's within the "ordinary high water mark" since the waterway predates private ownership of the land. I'm not talking about 100yr floodplains, either. Typical seasonal high water marks that are obvious on tree trunks and other vegetation will give you a solid indication of where this is.

    Of course, the farther you push this limit, the more likely you are to piss off some nutjob. This is why I tend to stick to the sandbars/gravel bars within the channel and WELL within the high water marks. I've tried some totally dry channels (in the east) before, but those don't usually have enough flow to clear out enough debris. Winds up being better to hike that stuff.

    Dry washes out west are really cool to explore. Never explored any by bike, but I've hiked plenty of them.
    Despite some of the claims in the link above, this isnít quite the case. Their advocacy is related to navigation and floating. Ownership status of stream bed does vary from state to state. In Montana, the state owns the stream bed so what you wrote is true. But thatís not uniformly the case across the West. For example IIRC Utah state law allows for private ownership of stream beds. In this case, yes, you can float though as the link claims, but you can be cited for trespassing if you wade. Youíve left the navigability argument behind. And riding a dry channel would be the same. This is a big deal for anglers, as you can imagine.

    Thereís constant tension here in Montana with new landowners with expectations and understandings that arenít consistent with state law. We also have several prominent out-of-state landowners who make a run at changing our stream access laws every few sessions.

    But all the above is related to private property. If the OPís question is about dry washes in everyday managed BLM or USFS, thereís no legal prohibition. Not much of an ecological one either, since the tracks will be reworked with the next gully washer.

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