Trail and ‘Off-road’ Regulations

As with so many legal aspects of living or traveling I Spain it is essential to know something of her geography and constitution, so at the risk of repetition from other posts: Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous regions, fourteen on the mainland, the Balearic and Canary Islands and the two enclaves on the African mainland, Ceuta and Melilla, which border with Morocco. Here I’m only dealing about mainland Spain.

The regions have both differing levels of autonomy and ‘attitude’ as to what extent they interpret and use these rights. In general all laws in Spain are generic, what I call ‘Mother’ laws, and the regions modify these to suit their local conditions, including society’s ‘attitude’ to whatever is going on – in the case of riding off-road, green lanes or practising ‘Enduro’. So you can see why each region’s attitude is a vital factor in interpreting these ‘mother’ laws.

The key laws are:

  • Ley de los Montes (Law relating to wild spaces): this is the most important and controversial regulation as far as trail bike riding is concerned. This law controls any uncultivated space, not just forests or mountains but agricultural land that is reverting to nature, small woods (how big these are depends on the regional governments) and also cultivated forests or lands that are planned to go that way. But it doesn’t control nature reserves and national parks, etc. – see below.
  • Ley de Conservación de los Espacios Naturales (Law controlling conservation of natural environments): this law defines and classifies protected environments, i.e. nature reserves, and provides for special regulations to be applied within them.
  • Ley de Vías Pecuarias (Law controlling livestock routes): this law is about rights of way on Spain’s numerous cattle trails, some of which, the Cañadas Reales, are long distance. Most of these have their own rules but the Ley de los Montes applies to any that don’t.

I’m not going to discuss the Ley de Vías Pecuarias as this is outside the essential basics of riding rules, pertaining to specific routes and trails. What I’m trying to do is give folks the wherewithal to plan an excursion in their own region of interest with and idea of what to look out for.

The essential part of the Ley de los Montes is that it prohibits all motor traffic from any trail or pathway less than four metres in width. It also defined ‘sports’ events and sets out restrictions and controls on these, basically limiting them to set tracks and courses – some autonomous regions like have modified this considerably with no difficulties. Finally this law prohibits all circulation on non-asphalt roads during periods of high fire risk, leaving it up to the environmental department, which are run on a regional basis, to decide how to implement this.

However the Ley de Montes was amended in 2015 so that each Autonomous Regions can modify the generic rules to include allowing access to narrow trails, speed limits, etc. and each region has, and are continuing to make their own amendments that are more or less restrictive according to the local conditions, including politics …

The Ley de Conservación de los Espacios Naturales defines and categorizes the protected areas, which add up to about 9.2% of the territory, i.e, 17,744, 316, give or take a football pitch or two – or put in round figures, over twice the size of Wales  – OK, give or take a rugby pitch then! – with Shropshire thrown in for good measure (I’ll let the Welshmen on this forum illuminate us as to why I suggest Salop!).

The important thing about the Ley de Conservación de los Espacios Naturales is that it gives the regions greater authority over the management of reserves within their territory, including controlling vehicular access; part of management is ensuring the public have access to ‘their’ natural spaces, so it’s ironic that often trails in natural parks (note the difference from national park) are easier to use as they are unequivocally signposted for use. OK, this is usually at the expense of many trails being specifically prohibited, but in my experience there’s plenty of trails to go around, and sometimes it’s easer not to get lost!

OK, now for the regions. In general the regions haven’t been able to change the width rule, see above, but what they have done is to define use; as well as reinforcing general rules such as road legality, speed limits, etc, they also specify numbers of vehicles that can roam together, regulations for sports events, rallies, etc. I’m counting the latter as beyond the remit of this topic.

For the details take a look at this Spanish site/blog for the regions in detail.

Catalonia: make a distinction between informal groups and organized groups, so if you’re all going the same way following a route, you’re an organized group. The size limit of informal groups is 7 or less – above that and you’re a mob! – that is to say, by default an organized group. Organized groups must get permission from the competent local authority, and satisfy a list of conditions for compliance.             These aren’t too onerous but the main difficulty is you have to pay an indemnity – a sum of money has to be paid up front to cover material damage caused by an organized event. Finally the fines range according to the degree of the infringement; from leve, ‘mild’ (€60-300), through severe grave, ‘severe’ (€300 – 3,000), and then muy grave, ‘very severe’ (3,000 – 30,000). Regarding the groups thing: mild penalties apply to participants, i.e. riders in an oversized group, whereas the ‘leader, i.e. the rider in front when observed by the police, face a severe fine.

It’s worth noting that Catalonia positively encourages access to its nature reserves. There’s more on the ‘attitude’ of Catalonia below.

Aragon: essentially the same as Catalonia but the limit for groups is reduced to five – although a friend who organized a rally there in November 2012 was advised that four is the limit.

The importance of these two regions setting limits is that in practise this means that riders are ‘safe’ as long as they are complying and are riding along what is obviously a vehicle worthy trail, i.e, that there are at least two ‘tracks’ from vehicles or that is wide enough for a motorcar to pass.

Castilla-la-Mancha and Madrid: are at the other end of the spectrum, rigidly enforcing the ‘four metre’ rule despite the fact that it doesn’t make much common sense, e.g. where do you measure the width from and what about trails that are over 4 metre for most of their trajectory but below the limit for stretches – according to Spanish forums this has happened. Nor do these ‘communities’ facilitate access to nature reserves. I understand that they also apply a blanket ban on vehicle access during the whole of the summer season, irrespective of the fire risk, which is not necessarily applicable in many mountainous regions.

Cantabria: is home to the Picos de Europa mountain range, which attracts as many riders as complaints that trail riding is forbidden there, whereas in fact Cantabria is one of the most ‘laid back’ of the regions, making no special restrictions on numbers of riders, closed seasons, etc. What is important is that the Picos are one of Spain’s thirteen national parks, as opposed the protected areas and nature reserves, and that motor traffic is banned in all national parks – with a few tiny exceptions; there is a legal trail in the Picos but it’s such a well kept secret even I don’t know where it is!

So, that’s the state of play as of now, December 20th, 2012. But this situation is fluid to say the least. In 2011 a new draft of the Ley de los Montes was presented to parliament with considerable revisions, including the banning of all motor vehicles in all wild spaces – as defined above. This part of the legislation didn’t get passed into law bit the reaction from the public of all stripes was extreme – as you can imagine, even SEPRONA, an elite squad of the Guardia Civil that specializes in environmental crimes – mostly big business sand corrupt governments! – protested that the law was ridiculous.

As a result of this the Catalan government presented a new law to apply there. The new rules, when they come into force, will allow motorbikes to go into trails of over two metres wide. All well and good, but this comes at a price: rider will have to have a special ‘Green’ License, the Carnet Verde as it has been dubbed, that pertains to trails. Furthermore, the legal trails are being specified and will appear on a definitive list. OK, so you know where you will be, but, owners or others – read environmental activists – will be able to apply for individual trails to be removed from this list. So, ominously in my opinion, the situation that causes so much angst in Great Britain seems to be winging its way here.

All this is still work in progress. But the Spanish forums are tending to welcome the measures, some going as far as saying that the Catalan legislation will be used as a model by other regions. That’s a matter of political analysis that is beyond my competence – al least in public – but it’s an encouraging sign if it works out like this.

The other theme that emerges out of the Spanish forums while all this is going on is to stress that ‘delinquent’ behaviour on the part of the tiny minority of rider who seriously flout the rules, good riding practice and plain common sense are now jeopardizing the rights that everyone enjoys now more than at any other time. The environmental lobby is getting some serious clout these days, as are the ‘citizens’ movements, so these threats have to be taken seriously.

Update – January 2015: in Andalusia there is no particular rule about numbers, seasons, etc. just some generic ‘country code’ style guidance about fire risk, nose, respect for the environment etc. Here’s the rule in details linked to the relevant page: