In the southwestern United States, many interesting spots are only reachable via off road trails.

Rental car contracts seem always to include a clause that disallows driving on such roads (even when renting an SUV).

How can I visit those areas?

What do I risk if I ignore the clause and drive on such trails?

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    Welcome to travel.SE. Just as an obvious thought. You'd be responsible for all damages occurred to that vehicle.
    – Karlson
    Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 15:52
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    Have you actually seen such clauses? I lived on an unpaved road for years (it has since been paved) and have rented cars when mine was being repaired. Never have I seen such a clause Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 19:20
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    it mighr be useful to distinguish between "unpaved" roads, aka gravel roads, and "unmaintained" roads, which are far wilder. I would not expect to be able to drive a rental on an unmaintained or "unimproved" road. I would expect to be able to drive on on the graded and maintained road that I and my neighbours lived on for decades. Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 20:31
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    SUVs are NOT Off Road capable vehicles. While they'll do better because of their greater ground clearance than say a Mustang or Civic, they're not off roaders. That goes for civilian versions of military vehicles as well, usually. And notice there's a big difference between off road and unpaved road. I've lived on unpaved roads for years, a regular car can drive them if you're a bit careful about the potholes :) Of course some lawyer who's never left the big city may not know that.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 7:24
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    I've booked my car via a German agency (holidayautos.de). Their contact is in German and says that driving on "unbefestigt" roads is not allowed wirh most rental car companies. I interpret "unbefestigt" as dirt road, but it could also mean "unmaintained".
    – oefe
    Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 18:26

5 Answers 5


Doing it without permission: Worst case you pay for a new car.

Getting permission: Ask!!!.

Find a person who has the authority to approve your request and explain what you are trying to do and why. It actually worked for us.

It's important to find somebody who is able to authorise your request. Dealing with someone who is sympathetic but lacks authority will get you nowhere.

Real life example below.

We rented a car in Australia a few years ago - ALL rental companies had similar "no off road" clauses in their contracts. They were generally specific enough that you could probably drive an Australian "outback" road but not take "unformed road" trails down to picnic areas, dams, lookouts etc.

We had our two adult children with us - we wanted to introduce them to a small glimpse of the "real" outback. We decided to visit and stay at the world famous in Australia "Glengarry Hilton" (yeah, right!!!) - down about 50 km of roads that you wouldn't usually call roads near Lightning Ridge.

Some of the agreements said "without written approval".
The endeavour seemed doomed. Non of the counter staff we spoke to had any expectation that such approval could actually be gained. Nor did their supervisors.

Having identified the company that had the car we most wanted I did an internet hunt for company upper management and found a phone number of a State manager. Instant success. Full understanding of what we wanted to do. Good explanation of WHY they had the policy - and a note that roads to picnic sites etc were fine - all they wanted was a road that had a formal description so the breakdown wagon knew where to find you :-).

He had only one question - "How did you get my number " :-).

Full album here - to stay in roll mode, scroll don't click

enter image description here

Glengarry Hilton - Wikimapia - zoom out until you see where you are :-} . Yes. No problem with driving there. Don't be misled by the "green" surroundings :-).

  • you pretty well always know you're going to succeed once you get to "how did you get my number?" - it's my favourite marker of a conversation that could, handled properly, go extremely well Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 17:14
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    there's of course a difference between "off road" and "unpaved road" :) I've never seen a clause barring use on unpaved roads. Off road use is typically indeed limited unless the vehicle is specifically designed for it (which SUVs, despite their appearance, are not).
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 7:21
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    Well, calling upper management won't scale, and as a non-native speaker I'm not sure that my English skills were up to such a task (I'm talking a lot with English-speaking coworkers, but this is something different...). But thanks for the story and the pictures!
    – oefe
    Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 18:31

What do I risk if I ignore the clause and drive on such trails?

Long story short you risk voiding any coverage you have on the vehicle, which will make you responsible for any and all damages that may happen. Also most modern SUVs are not designed to be take off road and some don't even offer 4x4 capabilities, so it is very possible that you may not even be able to get to where you're going.

So how do you get there?

There are 4x4 and ATV tours like this one for Grand Canyon. So if there is anything worth seeing your will have tours and if not you're likely to have places to rent similar vehicles.

  • How are they going to determine whether damage happened off-road or on-road?
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 22:18
  • @gerrit GPS tracking for example
    – Karlson
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 0:35
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    GPS tracking would tell them where I've been, not where the damage happened. And do they really do that? Are they allowed to keep track of where tenants are? Sounds pretty invasive to privacy...
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 10:24
  • @gerrit There is still a debate about the subject of privacy in this case but IANAL. As far as where damage happened in this case you will have hard time proving that it didn't happen off road and if they can prove you have taken the car where it's not supposed to be violation of the Rental Agreement could stick you with damages no matter what.
    – Karlson
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 12:43
  • I don't think any car rental company is going to equipt their cars with GPS just to track whether or not their customers went off-road. Aside from privacy issues (I don't think they're allowed to track my every move) it simply isn't worth the effort. Back to the original question: You may not be able to tell if every damage resulted in an off-road track, however if you break your axle and stay stuck on some kind of dirt road - I think that's definitely a way to determine that you went off-road. Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 14:31

How can you visit those areas? Simply take the right turn. There are quite a few unpaved roads which are clearly marked - just look for them.

I've personally been on a few unpaved roads in Death Valley, Capitol Reef National Park and Monument Valley. Use common sense: Sometimes the roads are quite easily accessible, even if they're unpaved. Drive slowly, watch for potholes and if you don't feel comfortable: Turn back!

However: If your contract says that you're not allowed to drive on these kinds of roads and you get stuck or have any other kind of accident I suppose it'll get quite costly. But as they say: No risk, no fun! :)

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    +1 for no risk, no fun. As long as you don't break anything, you're fine.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 10, 2013 at 8:36

We've had this problem for a number of years as we have relatives that live along gravel roads in various parts of Alberta. Having looked at all the local rental companies there are basically two variations of the rental contract depending on the company.

The majority of the companies stipulate that the vehicle can only be driven on paved roads, which means we would be in violation of the rental agreements whenever we visited any of the relatives who live along gravel roads. The others stipulate that the vehicle can only be driven on regularly maintained roads, which in the case of Alberta includes the gravel roads. Talking to the various rental companies one said to us that if they restricted the rentals to paved roads only entire towns would be inaccessible by rental car.

Update: Since I wrote my original answer for this we have now found one local Alberta rental company who explicitly allow some of their vehicles to be driven on the gravel roads rather than allowing it via a loophole, but only those in the SUV classes. We came across them quite by chance because they are now the Fox Car Rental franchisee at Edmonton Airport and I talked to them directly to confirm. My basic advice though remains the same, the major rental companies will generally restrict usage to paved roads, but the key thing is to talk to the local rental offices as they may well operate different policies based on where you are going.


Fined 300 EUR for driving on Non Asphalt Roads. In May 2014, we rented a car via Raddisson Hotels from Fastrent, Tallinn, Estonia. As we were about to drive off the lot, the attendent said be sure not to drive off asphalt roads. We did drive on one well maintained national park sand road. Fastrent charged us 300 EUR for driving off asphalt road. A well hidden line in Conditon 6 of 33 on the back of the contract says "Lesse can drive the car only on the asphalt roads."

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    How die they find out?
    – oefe
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 20:17

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