Off-Road ATV Laws in California

Off-Road Atv Laws In California

Driving an All-Terrain Vehicle is one of the most amazing wonders of life if one can afford it. However, things might not be so simple for those looking to do it in California.

We all know the desire to take your ATV to off-road terrains is inevitable, but even though it might suck to hear this, there are laws for off-road riding and driving.

Regardless of where you’re from, you must abide by the California state laws specific to off-roading on your ATVs. This is why you need to read the following to make sure you’re in the clear:

What is an OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle)?

The law doesn’t make it specific to regard an ATV as a separate class of vehicles, thus encapsulating them all in the term OHV.

OHVs are motor vehicles that are operated off-highways. This means that a highway-licensed vehicle that is operating off-highway also becomes an OHV, including All-Terrain Vehicles, dirt bikes, recreational utility vehicles, etc.

As per California Vehicle Code 111, an ATV is a vehicle that is:

  • Being fifty inches or less in width
  • Weighing nine hundred pounds or less
  • Unladen with three or more pressure tires
  • Having a single seat designed to be straddled (have one leg on each side)
  • Having no more than one passenger seat
  • Steered and controlled via a handlebar

What are the equipment regulations in CA for off-highway vehicles?

Many people are confused about whether they should comply with highway or off-highway motorcycle equipment laws when they are going both ways.

Here’s all you’ll need on your bike to comply with CA’s OHV standards:

  • Brakes in good working order
  • Properly maintained muffler or spark arrester
  • Headlamp(s) during hours of darkness
  • Taillamp(s) during hours of darkness
  • Additional equipment as mandated by the public land manager due to specialized conditions, e.g., fire hazards, other hazardous conditions, etc.
  • Pollution control device

With regards to the lights, California’s authorities have a clear intention to make it so that there is no confusion between emergency and non-emergency lights.

This is why you can’t have red or blue lights that look like warning lights. Hours of darkness imply the duration that lasts half an hour after sunset to half an hour before sunrise.

How do you register your OHV?

OHVs in California can operate either if the vehicle carries a green or red sticker. These stickers are issued by the DMV and are given to each vehicle as per emission standards reported by the manufacturer.

Green stickers are for California residents’ vehicles that comply with the emission standards as directed by California Air Resources Board (CARB).

You can register your vehicle and get a green sticker for $52 if your vehicle’s VIN number doesn’t have a C or a 3 as its eighth value or if the manufacturer has registered the vehicle as non-compliant.

The green sticker is valid for 2 years and needs to be renewed afterward.

Otherwise, the vehicle will get a red one.

What’s important to note here is that the state acknowledges emission standards as presented by the manufacturer and not the individual.

This means that regardless of how much you customize it if the manufacturer has declared it unfit for the environment, your OHV will get a red sticker.

A red sticker means that your vehicle is restricted to seasonal riding in areas that allow it.

While there are areas that are in season all year long, these lists of areas are subject to change every now and then depending on how CARB views the air quality.

For Non-Residents of California

If you’re coming in from another state, you need to have an OHV with valid registration from your home state. Learn about the license requirements here.

You’ll be exempt from having a Green or Red sticker if you have a valid OHV registration or a California Nonresident OHV Use Permit.

This permit is available to non-residents and costs only $30 per vehicle. You can get yourself this permit and operate your vehicle freely.

Spark Arresters on OHV

The California Vehicle Code (CVC) requires you to carry a spark arrester with you whenever you enter a forest-covered land. The same principle applies to any green landscape, whether it’s brush-covered, grass-covered, etc. You can always have additional space on your ATV in the form of ATV saddlebags.

The spark arrester should be well maintained and in effective working order. This mandate can be determined by any land management agency that holds jurisdiction over the area you’re riding in.

This is regardless of what the weather may look like on a specific day or season of the year.

Age Limit for Operating ATVs

It’s crucial that the operator of the ATV carries an ATV Safety Certificate. This certifies that you’re aware of the hazards and dangers of the vehicle and are equipped to handle situations involving an ATV.

While adults are not required to carry one by law, they can be if they are traveling with a minor.

For operators that are 18 years of age and older, it’s not necessary for the rider to carry an ATV Safety Certificate, though it is recommended.

Operators that are under 18 but over 14 years of age need to have an ATV Safety Certificate if they are riding an ATV. Otherwise, they’ll need to have an adult who is certified (carries a certificate).

Any kid under the age of 14 looking to ride an ATV will need to be directly supervised not just by an adult but by the guardian/parent or an adult authorized by the parent/guardian.

You can find various ATV Safety Training programs that are offered as incentives by manufacturers for anyone who makes a new purchase. This doesn’t mean that everyone who purchased the vehicle 5-6 years ago isn’t eligible for the training. Manufacturers take in all customers, past and present.

If for some reason you find yourself unable to join the manufacturer’s programs, you can attend one that is subsidized by the OHMVR Division under contracts with ATV Safety Institute.


Make sure to have a large Enduro rear bag for your trips to off-road trails that contain all the essentials you’ll need on your adventure. Moreover, while it’s not legally required, it’s still recommended that you wear a DOT-approved helmet during off-road riding.

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