Two 4X4 pickup trucks are charging down a muddy creek bed, hitting the throttle and digging through deep ruts, when suddenly everything comes to a stop: the leading truck is stuck. The off-road tires of the high-centered vehicle are spinning and spraying mud into the dense foliage above.
Although the driver was disappointed, he was fortunate because he followed one of the most important and essential unwritten regulations for off-roading: always go with a friend. His friend was close by to help pull the vehicle out of the mud.
Although driving a 4X4 truck on boulders, through rivers and over terrain no street car could handle is a thrilling adventure, it’s also fraught with peril. An accident could leave the off-roader stranded, injured, or faced with an expensive repair bill.
While techniques for tackling off-road obstacles vary, some are clearly right while others are obviously wrong—and a few are matters of opinion. No matter what track and terrain is chosen, or technique selected to overcome them, one factor is critical to safe driving, avoiding damage to the 4X4, and the guaranteeing an exciting and enjoyable experience: preparation.
Off-road driving can also be a fun family adventure, but a safe outing requires knowing the abilities and limitations of the driver and the vehicle. Don’t go unprepared. Avoid off-roading mistakes and you’ll spend less time fixing problems and more time enjoying the trek. Here are ten basic off-roading tips (and ten mistakes guaranteed to get the driver and passengers stuck).
20 Tip: Know How Traction Works Off-Road with 4WD
To move all four wheels at once on a 4WD vehicle requires front and rear locking differentials. Off-road traction control can emulate a locking differential by braking the spinning tire and sending power to the other wheel, which has more grip. Check the owner’s manual or look online to find out about the vehicle’s differentials and transfer case.
Does it have traction control? Is it electronically controlled? Does the vehicle have a limited slip differential (LSD), which improves traction when the driven wheels experience significantly different levels of grip? On a 4WD vehicle, experts recommend that low-range be engaged with the proper gear for the situation before it is needed. On a vehicle with a center differential lock, it should be disengaged once traction is regained.
19 Tip: Know Your Ground Clearance and Approach Angles
The approach angle is defined as “the maximum angle of a ramp [or obstacle] onto which a vehicle can climb from a horizontal plane without interference.” The same definition applies to the rear bumper and wheels. Knowing a vehicle’s approach angle and departure angle clearances will make negotiating obstacles off-road a lot easier.
The angle between your tires and the middle of a vehicle’s underside is called the break-over angle. When coming down off an obstacle, like a rock, the driver must know how much midsection clearance is available to avoid scraping the rock. With insufficient clearance, the vehicle may even wind up balancing on the rock like a teeter-totter, with all the wheels off the ground.
18 Tip: Use the Lowest Gear Available
Driving off-road frequently requires overcoming a very steep incline, a big rock, or other condition with reduced traction. The best method to deal with these extreme situations is to shift into a low gear range. However, if the off-road vehicle is not equipped with a dual-range transfer case, using the lowest gear available is recommended.
Most older trucks and 4WD SUVs have low-range transfer cases that are activated by a switch or lever integrated with the 4WD system. When low range is engaged, a second set of gears multiplies the vehicle’s power at lower RPMs. The off-road vehicle equipped with low range has the power to go places those without low range can never go.
17 Tip: Lower the Tire Pressure
Tire manufacturers have recommended inflation pressures for driving on a smooth paved surface. At those pressures, the tires require the least amount of energy to move and therefore contribute to better fuel economy and give the vehicle its best handling characteristics. However, for off-road conditions—away from the perfectly groomed pavement—higher tire pressures can cause the tires to bounce, resulting in a rougher ride and loss of traction.
For off-road driving, tires with less air pressure ride better and absorb more impact reducing chances of harm to the vehicle or tires. At low pressure more of the tire touches the ground resulting in a better distribution of the vehicle’s weight. When driving on sand or mud, more surface area means more of the tire’s treads can grab ahold of something on the low traction surface.
16 Tip: Never Go Off-Road Alone
Although off-roading can provide hours of fun and entertainment, as well as the opportunity to explore the desert or a mountain wilderness, it is risky. Perhaps, part of the appeal is the inherent danger it offers and the challenge of overcoming obstacles and difficult terrain. It is hard to predict everything that might go wrong on an off-road adventure but being prepared with recovery equipment and a maintained vehicle will reduce the impact should a mistake or accident occur.
Never go off-roading alone. Even on a short trip, a vehicle can break down or someone can get injured. A friend in another vehicle can tow you out of a bind, they can get help if a professional tow is needed, or provide assistance if there is a medical emergency. Your chances of getting home safely are significantly improved.
15 Tip: Use a Spotter
The driver of an off-road 4X4 often needs to know what obstacles are in front, out back, and on both sides of the vehicle. Negotiating difficult terrain can be dangerous without an extra set of eyes to monitor progress and advise the driver how to position the wheels for the best traction. This is the job of a spotter, a trusted individual who has experience driving off-road and knows the limits of the vehicle making the maneuvers. Often, a spotter can help prevent damage to the vehicle by seeing what the driver cannot, instructing the driver which way to turn, telling him how fast to go, and when to stop.
14 Tip: Follow the Rules of the Trail
Although there are no "official" rules of trail driving, off-road etiquette exists that consists of practical and safe driving techniques to make sure participants have fun and enjoy the experience. Tread lightly by staying on marked trails, on the track, and in the ruts. Volunteers and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) organizations maintain many of the trails. Help make their job easier. To minimize the environmental impact, avoid veering off and making new trails.
Stay out of designated wilderness areas. These are preserved habitats for a reason. Before entering private property, ask permission from private landowners. Follow the common saying, “Pack it in, pack it out, leave no trace.” No trash should be left behind. Obey posted signs and closures. They are there for a good reason.
13 Tip: Be Flexible
Off-roading involves parts that break, changing weather conditions, routes that unexpectedly close, and things that don’t go as planned. When the unexpected occurs, it is best to be flexible, to adjust plans, and adapt to the circumstances.
When an off-road vehicle is stuck on a trail or having a difficult time with the terrain, it may be time to re-think the plans and re-evaluate just how safe or smart it is to continue. The worst decision may be to keep the original strategy and put the driver and passengers at risk. No one is ever criticized for making a decision based on safety but there is a liability when the wrong choice results in damage or an injury.
12 Tip: Read the Owner’s Manual
Few people want to take the time to read their car owner’s manual. However, the information contained in the manual can be useful and perhaps even save a life. For the off-roader, with no ready access to emergency services, it is even more important. To make things easier, many car and truck manufacturers are making the manual available via different mediums.
Many carmakers have come to realize that today’s consumers are as likely to read the voluminous owner’s manual found crammed into the glove box as they are to read a printed telephone book. So, auto manufacturers are increasingly are using apps, videos, onscreen displays, and other technology to inform the digitally adept buyer about the countless number of features in their highly computerized vehicles.
11 Tip: Prepare the Vehicle
Preparation is the key to a successful off-road experience. Make a list and conduct a thorough inspection before heading off the pavement. The basics include all fluids and the tires. 4×4 wheeling puts a lot of stress on the engine and generates a lot of heat. Coolant should be maintained at the proper level. If the vehicle is due for an oil change, do it before departing. Check windshield washer fluids (and check the condition of the wiper blades). While dirty windows are a sign of having fun on the trail, zero visibility can ruin a good time. Make sure the tires are at the recommended pressure for trails or crawling. Be sure to reinflate before returning to the highway.
10 Mistake: Being Overweight
The weight of a 4WD that travels exclusively on city streets is important for several reasons—but it is critical for an off-road vehicle. The more a 4WD vehicle weighs, the more stress it puts on the components; everything from the chassis, suspension, and wheel bearings to the motor. Excessive weight on an off-road vehicle impacts the performance and can make the difference between climbing out of a deep rut or sliding backward.
Exceeding the manufacturer’s weight allowance can also void the warranty and put the driver at risk of a traffic citation. Insurance is also affected. Most policies require a roadworthy 4WD. If an off-road vehicle is overweight, it is considered not roadworthy (or off-road worthy) and any insurance claims may be reduced or declined.
9 Mistake: Being Underprepared for an Emergency
Off-roading isn’t just about having fun and enjoying the outdoors. It is also about survival. An unprepared off-roader may encounter unexpected situations with no quick solution, such as sleeping in the 4WD overnight during freezing weather, an injury with no bandages, or an easy-to-fix engine breakdown but no tools to repair it.
Before going off-road, prepare a minimum emergency kit and pack it in the 4X4. The package should include a first aid kit, warm clothes, a change of shoes, overnight gear, lantern, flashlight, tools, tow chain, maps, extra food and water, and long-range walkie-talkies. There is a fine line between packing too much gear and not enough, but an experienced off-roader can help by making recommendations.
8 Mistake: Using Poor Behavior
The obnoxious off-roader who aspires to be a professional rallycross driver on public tracks by leaving donuts on claypan soil, spinning wheels mercilessly in mud bogs, and using excessive speed on crowded trails will not make friends among the off-roading clan.
Not only does such behavior tear up the countryside, but it gives off-roading a bad name that can be used against the pastime when environmentalists and disapproving lawmakers make regulations restricting the activity. Go out there in a 4X4, overcome obstacles, and reach places others can’t go; test the limits of the off-road vehicle but just do it the right way. Use the 4WD as a means to visit quiet, beautiful, and remote areas, not as some kind of cheap thrill.
7 Mistake: Buy Low-Quality Gear
Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “In this world, you get what you pay for.” It is a time-honored adage and one that is generally true. Spending a little bit more to buy something of quality is more economical than paying less to purchase a cheap article over and over. Brand-name purchases are sometimes the exception with recognized product names demanding higher prices with no apparent difference in quality from lesser-known products.
In the case of purchasing aftermarket products for an off-road vehicle, quality is critically important. The inherent risk to off-driving can either be augmented by using cheap components or reduced by purchasing more costly, but higher quality, parts. The choice is easy.
6 Mistake: Not Attending a Training Course
Very few people would consider flying an airplane without taking a training course (and spending many hours practicing). Although the risks of driving off-road are not nearly as high as flying an aircraft, the dangers do exist. Taking a quality 4X4 driving course is easily one of the best things an off-roader can do.
It is beneficial for the driver, other off-road drivers that travel in the same area, and the off-road vehicle itself. The biggest mistake is to think that there is nothing to learn. Whether a driver is new to the adventurous activity or has been trawling the tracks for years, without question, there is much to learn in a good quality driving or recovery course.
5 Mistake: Not Scoping Out the Route
Most off-roaders have stories about encountering unknown terrain, plummeting down a steep incline, or falling into a deep rut and causing damage to their vehicle (or worse). The main mistake is not adequately researching the planned route. Unexpected conditions and problems can be avoided by asking someone who has taken the route before and buying (or downloading) maps of the area.
A high-tech solution available to off-roaders today includes viewing the terrain with Google Earth or taking some aerial photos with a drone before departing. Without information about a track, a once-over on foot or a view from a safe vantage point to check out the condition could save hours of recovery time or worse, damage to the 4x4.
4 Mistake: Not Testing the Water Depth
Although it seems obvious, testing the water depth before venturing across a river or other body of water is an absolute must. Countless off-roaders get stranded in deep water simply because they didn’t know the depth or bottom conditions before venturing across.
Standing water often hides the type of thick mud that grips the tires and river crossings can be a disaster if the water is deeper than the vehicle can handle. If the buoyant force of water (1,500 pounds for each foot of water) exceeds the vehicle’s weight, it will start to float and traction on the bottom will be lost. The breathers on the manual transmission, axles, and transfer case can suck in water on contact and if the engine’s air intake takes in water, the result can be severe.
3 Mistake: Refusing to Turn Around
Off-roaders can get into trouble when they fail to recognize an obstacle that is too difficult for their vehicle. A typical challenge is a steep slope. The driver must decide which method to use for overcoming the obstacle: momentum or control. In the case of climbing steep dunes, momentum and speed are the critical factors for success—while climbing a rocky slope, traction is the critical element.
Speed and a high gear will provide the needed momentum but if the slope is bumpy, the wheels may bounce, resulting in loss of traction. The best off-road drivers can recognize when an obstacle is too difficult, choosing to turn around rather than risk failure.
2 Mistake: Not Checking the Weather
While most 4WD vehicles are better equipped for bad weather than street-only cars, adverse weather conditions can present unique challenges to the off-roader. Checking the weather conditions before departing can help avoid getting caught in a massive storm of rain, snow, or sleet.
Driving off-road in any adverse conditions requires some preparation. At the very least, warm clothes and a flashlight should be kept in the 4X4, but the following items may also prove invaluable: food and water, sleeping bag, specialist tires and snow chains, a well-maintained winch, recovery equipment such as correctly rated ropes or straps, “sand” ladders or other traction aids, snow shovel, ice scraper, and other common-sense items.
1 Mistake: Being Too Aggressive
Speed and momentum are seldom the solution for tackling obstacles. Driving too fast can work a vehicle too hard and increase the risk of damage. Land Rover promotes an off-road driving technique, “As Slow as Possible, As Fast as Necessary” that can be invaluable to the off-road driver.
For example, when encountering a boulder on the trail with a muddy incline that needs to be skillfully scaled, the first method that comes to mind may be to charge it and hope for the best. However, if there is a steep, muddy drop on the other side of the incline, the excessive speed may cause the vehicle to fly out of control. The proper technique would be enough speed to get to the top, but not too much to prevent negotiating the next obstacle.
Sources: Cartoq, Tough Toys, Rock Chuck Summit, Mr 4x4, and NYTimes.