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Are You On-Board To Off-Road?

Take a look at this beginner’s guide to off-roading and see how prepared you are.

So you’ve finally decided to go for it. You’ve spent the past few months getting used to your new four wheel drive vehicle, and you’re ready to take it out on the trail. It’s a thrilling, powerful way to tackle the challenges nature has to offer. You’ll always want to outfit yourself to handle worst-case scenarios, but in the beginning it’s especially important that you prepare for anything and everything. There’s a lot to think about before you hit the trail, so use this guide (and others like it) to cover your bases. Safety is a paramount concern. Nature trails and rugged terrain can be very dangerous, especially if navigated improperly. What do you do when a great challenge is ahead? You prepare!

Let’s start by outlining some things you want to bring from a “person” (as opposed to “vehicle”) standpoint. An obvious one, that is easy to forget in the excitement-filled morning of your first trip, is food and water. Bring more than you think you’ll need, because if you (or someone in your party) gets stuck in a tough spot, it can take hours to get you out of there. Proper hydration and energy from food will keep you focused and make the effort more tolerable. In that same vein, it’s worth bringing a coat or some extra layers with you. Bring enough gear so that you’ll be comfortable as you lose the day’s heat. Also make sure you bring your cell phone, and make sure you have reception! Having a way to contact people outside of your travel group will bring a lot of comfort in the event of an emergency.

And that brings us to a big point: Don’t go alone! Travel with other people, driving in their own 4WD vehicles. You’ll be thankful for other, more experienced expeditionists (and the extra towing power!) if you get in a tight spot. Their experience might keep you out of the tight spots all together. Two-way radios, or walkie talkies are also good to have, communicating with the other vehicles in the pack can keep your party alerted to potential risks and hazards. Some other things to consider: pack a first aid kit if you don’t already have one in your vehicle, same with a flashlight.

What about things to bring for your vehicle? Bring a snatch-strap. This is first because it’s a big one. A snatch-strap is like a tow line but has a little more elasticity (a tow-line has virtually none). This is a key tool for pulling a bogged vehicle out of its trap. Make sure you do your research before making a purchase! Buy a snatch strap that is approved for your vehicle’s weight. Also make sure you’ve compensated for the extra weight factors from the suction of, say, a mud pit. Item two for the car? A spare tire! And not a donut. The good news is most standard 4WD vehicles come with a full-sized spare. The uniformity of the tires in four wheel drive is essential. Thirdly, Invest in a winch! A winch can help get you out of a bind. It is no replacement for traveling companions equipped with their own vehicles, but it is a clutch recovery tool to have in your off-roading arsenal. Some other things to consider: planks of wood can help you out of a pit or mud, extra gasoline will keep you running, and lowering your tire pressure once you’re off pavement will give you more traction (and will let the tire flex over the unevenness found on the trail).

Reading how-to’s won’t make you an expert, only terrain driving experience can get your on that path. Before getting started, check the specs on your vehicle. You should know the safe level to which it can be submerged. You should also “know the angles,” which means you’ll know how steep a tilt you can handle without scraping the bottom of your vehicle. All caught up with your owner’s manual? Good.

Now which terrains should you tackle first? Gravel is a very manageable starting terrain. Dry dirt is the same way. Mud can be a real problem (you don’t want to have to use your snatch-strap or winch already!) so it’s important that your first run on a dirt trail is a dry one. A final terrain for beginners is grasslands. These are all great tutorial terrains because they’ll let you ease into off-road driving without throwing anything too extreme your way. Even on these paths, you don’t want to tackle inclines or declines that are too steep. On most terrain, keeping the tires moving is beneficial. Moving tires means more traction, braking can mean sliding.

And a final tip: ‘ware the puddles! You never know how deep they’ll be, or what kind of jagged boulders rise from the depths to lurk just below the surface. Always take puddles very slowly. Even better? test the depth with a pole.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it should serve to get you thinking in the right direction (of extra preparation). Ask for advice from your group as you prepare, check online for trail information, and make sure you use caution. Never feel pressured into maneuvers you don’t feel comfortable with. You can find your thrill without ruining your vehicle or severely injuring yourself! Stay safe and enjoy the ride.