By Gary Wollenhaupt
There’s nothing like turning off the pavement and driving into the wilds. No matter if you occasionally ride two-track trails through the woods or tackle an imposing pile of rocks, off-roading can take you places you never thought you could go.
While it can be a blast, off-roading is serious business. You and your vehicle – no matter if it’s a four-wheel drive hatchback or a fully buffed-out rock crawler – have to be ready.
Remember, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Before you go, learn the basics of off-roading to protect yourself and your vehicle.
The owner’s manual is your friend. Read up on how all the drive train and suspension features work before you encounter that first trail.
Drivetrain: Understand whether your vehicle has full-time wheel drive or all-wheel drive. You need four-wheel drive to go off-road. To tackle steep or slippery terrain, you need a four-wheel drive with low range for sure-footed scampering or getting unstuck.
Locking Differential: Advanced off-roading requires locking differentials. Usually, wheels on the same axle turn at different speeds. When the locking diff is engaged, the wheels move at the same rate. Wheels won’t slip or spin on wet ground or slippery rocks. Some vehicles come with center locking differentials from the factory. Or you can source components from aftermarket providers as you upgrade your vehicle.
Angles: Understand the approach and departure angles and the ground clearance of your vehicle. This gives you a sense of how steep an angle that vehicle can climb or descend without getting hung up. Some vehicles, like luxury SUVs, have good four-wheel drive systems, but the approach or departure angles keep them from tackling the roughest terrain.
Traction Control: Most modern 4x4s have some level of traction and hill descent control. It could be as simple as an on/off switch or as complex as a system with settings for different types of terrain. The traction control coordinates the brakes and the four-wheel drive system to limit wheel slip and route torque to the wheels with the best traction.
Many vehicles are ready to go off road right from the dealer lot. But some upgrades will make your stock vehicle more capable.
Tires: Specialized tires with treads designed for off-road use will make your excursions more enjoyable. Look for tires that match the terrain you’ll be driving on most often.
Sand and gravel tires are different than tires designed for mud. For all-terrain tires suitable for on- and off-road use, check out the BF Goodrich T/A KO2 or the Nitto Ridge Grappler. All-terrain tires have stronger sidewalls and tread to handle mud and gravel, but you may not want the road noise for daily driving.
For full mud terrain use, check out the Cooper STT Pro with more aggressive treads.
Larger diameter tires may also be a good option, but keep in mind that if you go up several sizes, you’ll need to upgrade the suspension and brakes accordingly. Go large enough, and you’ll need stronger axles and new front and rear differential gears. Bigger tires will require a lift kit to fit the body over the tires.
With larger, taller and wider tires, you’ll need new wheels to properly fit the tires and ensure optimum performance. You may even need to downsize your wheel diameter to accommodate a tire with more sidewall for better grip.
Suspension: The shocks work with the tires to handle all the abuse the trail can dish out. A body lift kit isn’t the same as a heavy duty off road suspension so be sure to get the appropriate gear. As you add more gear, beef up the suspension to handle the weight and provide adequate suspension articulation.
Bumpers: Replace the front stock bumper with an aftermarket set up, also known as a bull bar, to protect the front of the vehicle from rocks, brush, trees and other hazards. A new front bumper may also include a winch to recover the vehicle from a precarious situation.
Many rear bumper modifications allow you to move the spare tire from underneath the vehicle to the rear tailgate where it’s easier to reach.
Tow Straps: If you need help getting pulled out of mud, snow, sand or whatever the situation might be, carry a heavy duty tow strap (preferably two), chain, Hi Lift, Max Trax traction aid and make sure you have secure points on the front and rear on your vehicle to attach the straps so you can be pulled to safety.
Air Down: You’ll want to adjust your tire pressure for the surface conditions and the type of tires you’re using. Lowering the air pressure too much will risk the tire coming off the wheel bead and going completely flat. Carry a high quality air gauge to fine-tune pressure between 10-80 psi, along with a portable air compressor that can raise the pressure back to normal levels for safe on-road travel.
Other gear you may need
Be sure to follow the unwritten laws of off-roading. The vehicle going uphill has the right of way. You should yield to them by giving them the space needed to pass without losing momentum
It’s common practice to let on-coming traffic know how many vehicles are in your group. Narrow trails with limited visibility alert other drivers they need to pull over to let your group pass. A raised fist means: “I’m the last vehicle.”
On multi-use trails, the right of way goes to bikes, hikers and horses. Reduce your speed and give them extra space. Take special care around horses – they can be easily spooked by loud noises and unexpected movement. The most considerate thing you can do is pull over, shut off your engine and ask the rider how they’d like to proceed.
A few more quick tips: stay on designated paths and avoid sensitive habitats like lake shores, wetlands, streams, tundra and nesting or breeding areas. Don’t disturb historical, archeological or paleontological sites. And very importantly, “pack it in, pack it out,” meaning leave with any garbage you bring in. Be sure to pick up litter left by others as well. Do your part to leave the area better than you found it.
Plot Your Trail
Don’t be the kind of off-roader who just turns off the road and starts kicking up a bunch of mud. You’ll need to know if the trail is public or private. Use some common sense and know where you’re going before you leave. Also, take care to protect the soundscape by preventing unnecessary noise caused by a poorly tuned engine.
Here are some places where off-roading is allowed:
National Forests and Parks
The U.S. Forest Service maintains legal off-road trails throughout the country. Find more information on the Forest Service site or by visiting a local Ranger Station.
The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) maintains public land with Off-Highway Vehicle trails. You can learn more by visiting the BLM site and search for Off-Highway Vehicles under the activity list. Or, contact your local BLM Office.
Private and public off-road recreational parks typically have trails and “play” areas where you can practice your skills. Some may also offer driver-training courses. Also look for OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) Recreation Areas managed by state park systems.
Look for a guidebook for the region you want to explore. You’ll find trail maps and coordinates as well as historical and cultural information on what you’ll see along the way.
If you’re new to off-roading, know the limits of your vehicle and your own skills. Be comfortable with the level of difficulty, especially as a beginner. And if your off-road runner is also your daily drive, don’t take big risks that could leave you hitching a ride to work.
The most important rule is never off-road alone. There are plenty of online resources to find people who love to share their knowledge. Sites like MeetUp host off-road clubs. Also look for owners’ groups for your vehicle and regional chapters of national clubs. Prep your vehicle and yourself and hit the dusty trail!