Beginner’s Guide to Off-Road Vehicles

With the start of another new year, there’s no time like the present to begin your search for an off-road vehicle to get outside and enjoy one of the many forms of off-road adventure this year. Those wanting to experience the great outdoors have many forms of off-road recreation to choose from that allow you to navigate the backcountry. Whether that means two wheels or four, an internal combustion engine or electric, the off-road vehicle segment has a broad range of vehicle types explicitly designed to tackle the rigors of off-road recreation.

With such a broad range of options, a great place to start your search is to focus on a vehicle type first (4×4, ATV, side-by-side, bike, etc.), then move on to a vehicle brand (Jeep, KTM, Polaris), and model (Wrangler, 300 EXC, RZR). With this in mind, to better help you begin your off-road vehicle search, we have created the following high-level guide as an overview of the many types of off-road vehicles available, along with the segment each is best suited. 

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What is an Off-Road Vehicle?

An off-road vehicle is defined as any motorized vehicle manufactured or built to be driven (or ridden) across natural terrain. These include navigating sand, gravel, mud, rocks, streams, swamplands, snow, and other natural features and obstacles that begin when the pavement ends. Typical vehicle types include 4x4s, ATVs, side-by-sides (SxS), dirt bikes, and snowmobiles. Other unconventional types include amphibious vehicles, snow bikes, and all-terrain e-bikes.

Some features that make vehicles of the four-wheel variety off road worthy include long-travel suspension, higher ground clearance, rugged all-terrain tires, underbody protection, a torquey engine, and an air intake snorkel kit. Four-wheeled off-road vehicles allow you to carry necessary items needed to repair the vehicle in the backcountry—such as a winch, jack, and tire repair kit—while also carrying survival and rescue essentials that allow you to be self-sufficient on the trail.

A white truck parked in a wooded area

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The same can be said for two-wheeled off-road vehicles such as dirt bikes, where knobby tires and long-travel suspension allow you to navigate singletrack and rough two-track roads easily. Although lighter and more agile than their larger four-wheeled cousins, the trade-off is less packable volume to carry survival, rescue, and repair essentials. Instead, you’re relegated to storing these items on your person or in small vehicle-mounted luggage.

Keep in mind, by law, some off-road vehicles, such as many dirt bike and ATV models, cannot be plated and will not be street legal. As a result, these vehicles must be hauled to the riding area or trailhead by a trailer, pick-up, van, or other forms of transportation.

Different Types of Off-Road Vehicles

Let’s take a quick look at types of off-road vehicles and what makes them unique.


Ford Bronco off road vehicle on a trail in the foothills

Photo: Kingston Photography

As the name implies, 4x4s utilize some form of four-wheel drive or all-wheel drivetrain system that powers all four wheels. These include heavy-duty trucks, SUVs, vans, campers, and other vehicles designed to handle rugged terrain. The 4×4 category is one of the most popular vehicle types for off-roading because of its similarity to standard passenger vehicles. The difference is 4x4s models typically offer heavy-duty oversized tires, higher ground clearance, long-travel suspension, and lower gearing for slower speeds.

Popular Brands: Ford, Jeep, Lexus, Toyota, Range Rover, Rivian.


ATV off road vehicle on a dirt trail

Photo: Boyd Jaynes

All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) is a term used to describe four-wheelers or “quads” as they are sometimes called. Although they have four wheels, ATVs have handlebars, hand and foot controls, and a motorcycle-like seating position. Popular among hunters, farmers, and ranchers, ATVs are a practical, beginner-friendly way to enjoy off-roading without the need to balance the vehicle or place your feet on the ground when stopped. 

Popular Brands: Arctic Cat, Can-Am, CF Moto, Honda, Kawasaki, John Deere, Kymco, Polaris, Suzuki, Yamaha.

Side-by-Sides (SxS)

two ATV off road vehicles driving side by side on a trail

Photo: Jessy Nelson

A side-by-side, often abbreviated as “SxS” or “UTV” (Utility Terrain Vehicle), is a fast-growing genre of four- or six-wheeled off-highway vehicles that emerged from the ATV market as a standalone segment. Unlike ATVs, SxS vehicles are more car-like in appearance and function, with a steering wheel, foot pedals, and side-by-side bucket seating (hence the name) for up to six people depending upon the model.

Popular Brands: Arctic Cat, Can-Am, CF Moto, Hisun, Honda, Kawasaki, John Deere, Kymco, Polaris, Yamaha.


Dirt bike off road vehicle on a trail in the desert

Photo: Emery Photo

“Bike” is a blanket term applied to vehicles with two wheels. These include dirt bikes, dual sport motorcycles, e-bikes, and scooters specifically designed to tackle rugged terrain. Bikes are a lightweight solo way to ride singletrack trails and navigate technical terrain often not accessible by larger vehicles.

Popular Brands: BMW, GasGas, Honda, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, KTM, Sherco, Suzuki, Triumph, Yamaha.


Snowmobile on a trail in the mountains

Photo: Dylan Dowson

Unlike other off-road vehicles with tires, snowmobiles utilize a track drive system to allow users to navigate snow-covered terrain and trails. Unless groomed trails are nearby, snowmobiles must be transported to a riding area with a truck or trailer, although some states allow snowmobiles on roadways. We recommend checking local laws in your state before proceeding.

Popular Brands: Artic Cat, Lynx, Polaris, Ski-Doo, Yamaha.

Unconventional Off-Road Vehicles

The last category of off-road vehicles is for those hard-to-define models that fall between types. These include amphibious UTVs, snow bikes, hoverboards, e-scooters, e-skateboards, onewheels, and go-karts. Each vehicle in this small but unique off-road category has been modified to tackle off-highway terrain and navigate through dirt, sand, mud, water, and other extreme conditions.

Popular Brands: Argo, Backfire, Coleman, Dualtron, Fantic, Onewheel, Timbersled, UBCO.

Most Popular Off-Road Vehicles

With 4x4s being one of the more accessible ways to enjoy off-roading, some of the more popular 4×4 models enthusiasts drive to enjoy backcountry exploration include the following popular brands and models.

Jeep® Wrangler

The Jeep 4×4 is the original adventure vehicle that has become legendary in the off road market. With its rugged, recognizable timeless design styling, the Wrangler is a favorite among hard-core off-road enthusiasts and casual explorers.

Ford Bronco®

Arguably one of the most exciting new model releases in years, the re-launch of the Ford Bronco gives off road adventure seekers a new way to explore the outdoors. Based on the original iconic Bronco model released in the late 1960s, the new Bronco features an innovative design for extreme durability combined with modern amenities and technology.

Toyota® 4Runner

The 4Runner has been popular with 4×4 enthusiasts for many years thanks to its rugged and reliable design, off-road capability, and abundance of aftermarket accessories. The 4Runner tackles off-road conditions and streets equally well, which makes them ideal for those looking for one vehicle they can use for everyday driving and weekend adventure.

Toyota 4Runner 4x4 off road vehicle on a treelined trail

Photo: Justin Wirtalla

Where Can You Go Off-Roading?

Once you’ve purchased your off-road vehicle, unless you own or have access to a large piece of private property, you’ll likely want to locate a place to off-road in your area. Lucky for us, the many off-highway vehicle (OHV) parks, national parks, and public lands available in the United States are all ideal for off-road recreation.

Our “Find Beginner Offroad Trails Near Me” feature is a great place to start that takes advantage of the power of the onX Offroad App. Here you can enter a location, and the onX Offroad App returns a list of places to recreate in the area with a trail difficulty rating of three or less. (Trails rated one through three are considered beginner trails.) 

Get Outdoors and Enjoy Off-Roading

With so many vehicles to choose from and thousands of places to ride and drive in the US, you’ll soon discover the joys of off-roading. But before you head out on your off-road adventure, onX Offroad recommends reviewing rules and regulations before visiting designated OHV areas and public lands. Tread as lightly as possible and if you pack it in, be sure to pack it out and leave a light footprint so we can all continue to enjoy the beautiful landscapes only accessible by an off-road vehicle.

Find Trails For All Vehicle Types

Our trail descriptions have trail ratings to give you an idea of how difficult the trail will be. Try it today.

Dale Spangler

Dale Spangler is a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast introduced to two wheels at the age of eight and began racing motocross at 12. After chasing his dream of being a professional motocross racer through the mid-90s, he moved on to a career in the powersports industry, where he’s spent the last 28+ years as a marketing specialist, writer, and content creator.