Essential guide to greenlaning

The UK's unsealed road network is a great way to explore the country

Land Rovers on a greenlane

by Neil Watterson |

Driving greenlanes – or unsealed roads – in England and Wales has been a part of Land Rover life since the very first model was introduced in 1948. In fact, some of the roads that featured in the very first magazine test of the Land Rover are still greenlanes today.

But before you venture off tarmac, you need to know what you’re doing. It’s not just a case of driving any track you see – you have to be sure that what you are driving is a road. Plus, you have some responsibility about when you can and when you shouldn’t be driving the greenlanes; just because you can legally drive one, doesn’t mean you should.

On top of that, while most greenlanes can safely be driven in a standard Land Rover, it’s worth carrying some additional gear, just in case. But what do you really need, and what can you leave at home? Hopefully we’ll answer all your questions and get you inspired to venture out on to the greenlane network, so you can enjoy it in a sustainable manner.

What is it?

Greenlaning is driving the roads that managed to escape tarmac, so your Land Rover still needs to be road-legal, you must have a driving licence and wear a seatbelt. There are two main types of greenlane: Byway Open to All Traffic, also known as a BOAT or byway and Unclassified County Road (UCR), but some rural ‘C’ roads are also deteriorating into greenlanes.

How do you find greenlanes?

Byways are indicated by a series of plus and minus marks on Ordnance Survey maps; UCRs are shown by a series of dots (but not all roads marked like this are greenlanes). Both of these are pink on 1:50k maps and green on 1:25k maps. Be aware, though, a series of green dots on 1:50k maps signifies cycle routes, so try not to get confused. The best maps to carry are the OS Landranger (1:50,000) or Explorer (1:25,000) series. Landrangers tend to be better for greenlaning because they cover a larger area per map than the Explorer versions. That said, sometimes the 1:25k maps have just that little more information that helps you find where the road goes – for instance, whether it’s east or west of the fence. You cannot drive Restricted Byways, Bridleways or Footpaths. Nor can you drive along private roads and tracks. Bing Maps is great to look at routes: it allows you to toggle between OS mapping and aerial photos. Google Maps doesn’t have OS mapping, but it does have Streetview, so you can see what the ends of the lanes are like. We will be restarting our greenlaning guides – the LRO Adventure Trail – in the magazine shortly.

A rutted section of greenlane
It's better to avoid waterlogged lanes to allow them to recover ©LRO

Will they all be driveable?

In a word, no. There can be numerous reasons why a greenlane may not be driveable. It may be too narrow to physically get along it or there may be official restrictions – temporary or permanent – preventing use. We have found that if the byway or UCR marks on the maps are bounded by solid or dashed lines (to indicate fenced or unfenced roads), they will generally be physically big enough to drive. If they aren’t, they may not be – and may not even exist on the ground. If the route isn’t clear, walk if first. If it still isn’t obvious, don’t drive it. If that means refraining from using the ‘muddy lanes’ over winter, then that is what we must do.

Are they always open?

Byways and UCRs have a right of way over them. This means that there is an underlying right to use them any day of the year. That said, restrictions can be put in place for maintenance – as you would get on any other road – or for other reasons. Many greenlanes where the ground is softer – The Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, for instance – have winter Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) that can restrict vehicular use and they can also be closed after a period of heavy rain. Some local councils will also put up Voluntary Restraint (VR) notices to prevent damage during or following bad weather. Dale Wyatt, Green Lane Association (GLASS) co-founder, says: ‘Greenlaning is a fab thing to do, yet in recent years we’ve seen wetter autumns and winters. On the whole, our green roads are in a better condition that ever before. However, having lost more than 50 per cent of the unsurfaced road network in 2006 due to a change in the law [NERC Act], driven by the anti-4x4 lobby, it’s now even clearer that we have to protect what’s left. And if that means refraining from using the “muddy lanes”, then that is what we must do. We tread a fragile line, and if we want to protect our vehicular rights of way network for our children, then it’s simple – seek out sustainable routes over the winter period.’

Range Rover Velar on a grassy greenlane
Many greenlanes are open all year, others have winter closures ©LRO

Should I join a club?

Organisations like the Green Lane Association (GLASS) and All Terrain UK (and the Trail Riders’ Fellowship for motorcyclists) do a huge amount of work maintaining greenlanes and helping preserve access. For a modest annual fee you can help keep greenlanes open – or find companions to go greenlaning with.

What tyres should I fit?

All-terrain pattern tyres with a decent amount of tread are the best. They will see you across most terrain you’re likely to encounter on a greenlane and be good on the tarmac sections linking them. They’ll also impose a limit on you when it comes to softer lanes, where it’s better to back out and leave it to dry out rather than making ever-deeper ruts. We find that most of the damage done to the land to the side of greenlanes (off-piste driving) and deep ruts on softer greenlanes can be attributed to 4x4s shod with extreme tyres.

Sawing a fallen tree
A gardening kit can be handy to deal with fallen trees ©LRO

What do I need to carry?

You’ll need maps for the area, a mobile phone – though coverage on some of the more remote greenlanes can be patchy – plus food and drink. Russ Dykes, former GLASS area rep and greenlaning guide, says: ‘Carry a basic safety kit, including first-aid kit, fire extinguisher and glass hammer together with a tow rope and saw – all properly secured in the vehicle. And, if you’re out in a group, find out if there are any trained first-aiders with you, because that saves time if there is an incident.’

Is it worth going with others?

Greenlaning with friends is great fun – get CB radios or wallkie-talkies to keep in contact with each other and keep the banter flowing. Keep to small groups – a maximum of five vehicles (four in National Parks and on Salisbury Plain). That way you’ll limit your impact on both the lanes and other users’ opinions. Plus, its more enjoyable to go out in a smaller group because you don’t feel like you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Making a cup of tea on a bonnet
Going greenlaning with others means you can share experiences ©LRO

Is there a database of greenlanes?

The Green Lane Association (GLASS) has a fairly comprehensive map of lanes on its Trailwise database, and All Terrain UK is building up its similar Smart Trail. Both give details of the lanes and allow drivers to leave reports about the greenlanes, so you’ll have a better idea of what to expect. Most councils these days have their Definitive Map online – and that shows the public rights of ways (byways), though not necessarily the unclassified county roads. These are a good guide, but may not be as up to date as the actual Definitive Map, which is held at council offices. If you’re after information about fords, check out the fantastic wetroads.co.uk. Stay away from fords after heavy rain – loads of drivers get caught out and their vehicles, including Land Rovers, washed away during flooding.

Is digital mapping worthwhile?

Yes! It makes it far easier to know where you are – a dot on the map shows your position. The best mapping to have is Ordnance Survey, because it shows the greenlanes. There are a few mapping apps; these are free, but you have to buy the maps. Memory Map, Viewranger and Ordnance Survey’s own app are the best known; they work offline, using GPS. Other mapping, such as Google maps, doesn’t show the status of a road, so it may be a private track, rather than a greenlane.

'Digital mapping has made it far easier to know where you are – a dot shows your position'

Land Rover heads towards a fiery sunset
Remember to take your camera with you ©LRO

Are they signposted?

Public rights of way – byways – should be signposted from the road network, but UCRs won’t necessarily be. Some counties have signs saying ‘Unmetalled Road’ or ‘County Road’, and many have large blue ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’ signs at each end. A sign doesn’t mean it’s driveable, legally or physically. Permissive Byways can be driven, but aren’t rights of way – they can be closed at any time.

What about notices?

You should always stop and read any notices at the end of greenlanes. More often than not, they will refer to planning applications on adjoining land, but there can also be voluntary restraints, proposed Traffic Regulation Orders, or other official information. Read them and heed them and take a pic of the notice for the greenlane database.

Land Rover Discovery being guided over a washed-out section of greenlane
Sometimes you'll need a spotter ©LRO

Do I need driver training?

If you are a competent driver, you shouldn’t have a problem, but we do see some drivers who have confidence exceeding their talent, and they make mistakes. You’re driving slowly – 12mph max – and you need to ‘feel’ what the Land Rover is telling you. It’s worth signing up for a driver training course, such as those run by the LRO Adventure Club. Vince Cobley, LRO’s driving guru, says: ‘Inexperienced drivers are not used to the feedback from the vehicle, especially on slippery ground – it’s not uncommon for people to drive along ruts with the steering turned in one direction. Not only does this widen ruts, it pushes the sidewalls of the tyres into the edges of ruts and they can sustain damage from objects in the ground. But if the tyres do suddenly find grip, the whole vehicle can slew round and end up at 90º to the track.’

Do I need any other skills?

Driving is one thing, but knowing where you are is another. GPS makes things easier, but you still need to be able to read a map. ‘Poor map-reading skills mean that sometimes people take the wrong route,’ says Vince Cobley. ‘This is especially the case in places like Salisbury Plain, where there are loads of different tracks. Making a mistake with navigation can see you driving into a hole that a tank has left – full of water – or put you into a very dangerous place. We also see problems with people not bothering to check the route on foot – conditions can change over a few months, especially if there has been heavy rain in the intervening time.’

‘Lots of wives and girlfriends come along, but I wonder why there aren’t more who want to drive’

Series Land Rovers on a greenlane
All Land Rovers are suitable for greenlaning ©LRO

Can anybody drive them?

Anyone with a driving licence and suitable vehicle can go greenlaning, but LRO contributor Vicky Turner says: ‘As a woman joining a club laning day, I find myself a bit of a rarity. Of 20 or so vehicles setting out for the day – in appropriately sized groups – I’ll often be the only woman driver. But as a proportion of the population, we are under-represented. Lots of wives and girlfriends come along as passengers, but I wonder why there aren’t more who want to drive. I suppose there are fewer female Land Rover owners but still… if you’re out for the day, why not hop behind the wheel? Is it a lack of confidence? A natural deference to let the bloke drive? I’d be interested to hear your views. Drop me a line at info@LRO.com.’

What about trips?

Organised trips such as those run by the LRO Adventure Club and others advertised in the magazine and in our events list are a great way of cutting your teeth. Most guides are extremely knowledgeable, and companies will have routes suitable for greenlaning novices. They’ll also know the best greenlanes for the scenery and will stay away from unsustainable lanes through winter.

Cow licking a Land Rover
You'll may find wildlife is curious of you ©LRO

And if it all goes wrong?

‘A spade or jack can get you out of a lot of problems,’ explains Vince Cobley. ‘You’ll possibly be in an unfamiliar, and unstable, working environment, and any problems will inevitably occur away from a flat, firm piece of ground. So the best thing to do is to take a step back and assess the situation. It’s best to take the time to make a plan, rather than rushing in and creating even more problems.’

The LRO Greenlane code

  • Please follow these guidelines when driving byways or UCRs (unclassified county roads).

  • Only drive those greenlanes that have known vehicle rights. Don’t ever be tempted to drive on restricted byways, bridleways or footpaths.

  • Avoid tracks that are badly rutted or sodden.

  • Stick to the defined track.

  • Stay under 12mph and always stop for walkers or horses – switch engines off for the latter.

  • Don’t travel alone, but be sure to keep to a maximum of five vehicles (four on greenlanes within the Lake District and Peak District National Parks and Salisbury Plain).

  • Leave gates as you find them – they may have been left open on purpose.

  • Don’t damage trees or hedgerows, except for cutting back branches to allow you to drive the lane.

  • Take recovery gear and spade, keep your mobile phone charged and carry paper maps.

  • Always take your litter back home with you.

  • Supervise dogs and children, especially when you’re passing near livestock.

  • Don’t drive waterways unless you’re certain of the right of way. Check the current isn’t too strong to cross safely. If you’re in any doubt, however slight, turn back – there will always be another way to proceed.

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