MVUM: What Is It and How Do I Use It?

You may have seen or heard someone talking about the famous MVUM when directing someone to a spot or area in the national forests. Perhaps you’re not quite sure what it is, or maybe you don’t know how to use it to find out where you are going. Hopefully this article can help clear up any questions you have may. It will be in a question and answer format and I plan to update the article with any questions that I may get afterwards. So here goes!

Q: What is the MVUM?
A: The MVUM, or Motor Vehicle Use Map, is a black and white map created by the USFS (United States Forest Service) that designates legal, open trails inside the national forest. In fact, it only shows the open trails and public roads. If it is a closed or illegal trail, it will not show up on this map. The map is usually updated every year but there is no regular update cycle. They update it as needed to reflect trail closures or newly opened trails.

Q: How do I use the MVUM?
A: The trails shown on the MVUM are the only legal trails that you can venture down off of the county or forest service roads. Since the MVUM only shows open forest service trails and not all public roads and highways, you will need some sort of base layer that shows these connecting roads. Whether it be a physical or digital map, you can then find trails on the base map and cross reference them with the MVUM to check their legality and status. Using a combination of forest service maps and the official MVUM PDFs just to verify that the trails are legal, you can piece together legal trails and create a good route to explore the forest. You can find a great video on how to put together a route in the national forest below from my friend Matt.

Q: Where can I find the MVUM?
A: If you’re wanting to explore the national forests whether it be the Ozarks or Ouachitas, you will need to obtain a copy of the current MVUM. There are many ways to do so, but the only official version is the one that you can download from the USFS website. I will leave a link below for both forests in Arkansas. Another way to get the MVUM is to download the Gaia GPS mobile app on your phone or tablet and subscribe to the premium membership giving you access to their premium layers. The MVUM layer is one of those premium layers. You can then use this layer on top of whichever map source you want and it will show you the MVUM trails in the area. (Disclaimer: The MVUM layer in Gaia GPS maybe not be 100% accurate. Trust it at your own risk. You will want to verify your route against the official MVUM PDF to make sure.) You can also download and app called Avenza which will allow you to import the PDF from the forest service website and will show your location overlay on top of the map. Although I have not used this app, I do hear it is a great free alternative to Gaia if you’d rather save $40 per year.

Q: Why do I need the MVUM? Can’t I tell which trails are open when I get there?
A: Many trails in the forest are not marked open or closed. There are some that have a trail marker, but even then that doesn’t necessarily mean it is open. There are some trails with no gate, no sign, and no marker that are still illegal to travel on. Using the MVUM is the only sure way to know whether a trail is open or closed.

Q: What are seasonal or special designations?
A: Some trails are only open certain times of the year. Each trail will have the dates that it is open listed on the PDF versions if you look close to the legend. In Gaia, you can tap on any trail with the MVUM layer added and it will also show you the seasonal openings. Some trails are closed during certain hunting seasons or logging seasons. Others are closed when flood waters may be high or the road may be unstable or unusable during that time period. Also, some trails are only open to certain vehicle types whether it be highway legal or OHV (UTV/ATV).

Q: How do I know if a trail is open or closed?
A: Well that is exactly that the MVUM is for. The simple answer is: If it is on the MVUM as a designated trail, and it doesn’t have a seasonal closure, its open. If it is not on the MVUM it is either closed, or not a forest service trail and may possibly be a public county road. One example of this is a popular trail in the Ozarks that leads to Spainhour Falls called Spadra Creek Road. It is not listed as an open designated trail on the MVUM because it is actually a public county road not maintained by the forest service.

Ozark National Forest Maps including the MVUM:

Matt’s YouTube Video series on navigating with Gaia GPS:

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