I love introducing people to off-roading. I like bringing anyone, but especially those who never gave it much thought, or didn’t think they had an interest, but the best are those with negative preconceived notions. A day on the trails opens their eyes to a whole new level of fun and excitement.
Everyone I take has more fun they expect and are impressed by the terrain we cover, but some of the best feedback I get is surprise at how cerebral wheeling is. In addition to physical skills and hand-eye coordination, off-roading takes a lot of mental capacity. It’s not just a bunch of rednecks and hillbilly’s mindlessly bashing their vehicles through the woods using nothing but the skinny pedal, even if it sometimes looks that way. (No offense to my redneck and hillbilly friends…) It’s an activity about thought, planning, reading the terrain, strategizing, balancing brake, gas & steering input, thinking outside the box and maintaining a cool head. It’s a constant balance between adrenaline and fear, with incredible thrills, and satisfaction along the way. Off-Roading is also a great learning experience. Every time out you learn a little more about yourself, and your machine, on many levels.
Almost everyone I’ve taken gets this just from sitting in the passenger seat. So, when you’re ready to get behind the wheel, here are my top ten (+2) bits of advice for actually driving the trails:
- As slow as possible. As fast as necessary: Sounds simple, but what does it mean? The idea is to let momentum carry you smoothly over obstacles, always maintaining forward progress, while going slowly enough to stay fully in control. The goal is to minimize rocking and lurching – especially the lurching. (Best Mods to help: Lockers and low gears.)
- Get to Know Your Sensitive Side: Spend time getting to know the underside of your rig. On most modern solid axle 4x4s, your front differential is on the driver’s side, and the rear differential is in the middle of the vehicle. These are among the lowest hanging parts on your vehicle, and the stock inspection covers won’t hold up long on the trails. Get to know your steering linkage, specifically the tie-rod which runs horizontally from the passenger side tire to the driver side tire. Pretzel that and there goes the steering… Other very important items of note are the engine oil plan, the transmission pan, that plastic evap canister on JKs, the front and rear driveshafts, the muffler, gas tanks and rear shock mounts. Know where all these things are, be able to picture them from the driver’s seat. Try to avoid hitting them on anything when out on the trail. Also know if you have skid plates and where they are. They are the sacrificial metal protecting other parts. If you have to drag something, use the skid plates. Lastly, and while technically not part of the undercarriage, those rocker panels, (the area between your front and rear tires) are pretty low to the ground, and they’re definitely susceptible to damage. You’ve been told. (Best Mods to help: Skid plates and rocker protection, aka Rock Rails or Rockers.)
- Low Pressure: Air down your tires, all four of them. A tire with low air pressure gives and flexes; it conforms to obstacles as it goes over them. It also gives you a wider footprint, or contact patch, with more biting edges pulling and grabbing. Airing down is not only important for improved traction, but it also smooths out the ride and helps reduce punctures. Start with about 20 psi per tire and see how it works. You may have to go down to 15 or even slightly lower. I’ve gone as low as 12 on a non-beadlock wheel.
- Aim High: So, now that you know where your sensitive bits are, the easiest way to keep them safe is to keep them up, out of harm’s way. The best way to do that is aim for the high spots, the bumps, rocks and stumps on the trail. Place your tires on these high spots. It’s exactly the opposite of what you do in most normal driving situations, especially in high speed situations, but on the trails putting a tire on that boulder will lift the underside of your rig off the ground and away from hazards. If you’re running low pressure like you are supposed to, it won’t hurt the tires. Though honestly, I’d much rather lose a tire than bash in my front diff, the oil pan, the trans pan, pretzel the tie rod, lose a driveshaft…you get the idea. (Best Mods to help: Suspension lift, taller tires, low tire pressure.)
- Find Your Wolf Pack: Like with anything else, the right people make all the difference. Never wheel alone, especially if you are a novice. Go with at least one more experienced wheeler, preferably someone who knows the trails you’ll be wheeling, who has a similarly sized vehicle that is built to about the same capabilities. Small groups of 2 – 4 vehicles are perfect for your first trip or two. Don’t like the trail, turn around. Take extra time to walk the trail, analyze an obstacle or even call the day short. That group of 2 – 4 close friends won’t mind. You won’t always find this flexibility in a group of 15 or more rigs or “beginner” class, and there’s nothing worse than being in over your head and feeling like your choices are turn back and give up on the day, or push it and potentially break something. Though most wheelers as a group are great people. (The Wolf Pack…)
- Watch and Learn: Watching a more experienced wheeler in a similarly sized and built rig will give you confidence that your vehicle can make it. If you watch closely, you should also see what line works best. (Stay observant and pay attention to detail.)
- Trust Your Spotter: What’s a spotter? This is usually that more experienced wheeler who is going to guide you over difficult obstacle. They are on foot, only 5 – 15 yards in front of you and closely watching everything about your rig (the tires, the underside of your rig, the front, the back, the sides), the trees, rocks and stumps as you slowly traverse the obstacle before you. They will tell you where to place your tires, how much throttle and brake input are necessary and exactly when to successfully navigate the challenge at hand. (Trust your spotter, though it isn’t always easy. Only use one – you can’t safely follow direction from two people at once. Also, they’re generally right in front of you, and potentially in harms’ way, so don’t run them over.)
- Find the Line: Just like in golf, you’ve got to read the terrain while off-roading. You need to be able to identify your way over or around the obstacle. You need to find the path, even when there isn’t one. Also, like in Chess, you have to think a few moves ahead. Where is your right rear tire going to be when your driver’s side front is up on the boulder? If the answer is down a hole it might put you in a real tippy situation. Are you going to pivot perfectly around that tree or rock when the rear tire bumps it? What’s mud and slick, wet rock going to do to traction? How far will you slide and where will you regain traction? (This comes with seat time and experience.)
- Hit the bricks: Seriously, get out and walk a good 10 – 50 yards of the trail in front of you. Before you blindly drive down the trail, know what is around that bend, beyond that rock and over that hill. The harder the obstacle, the more important this becomes. While walking it, try to find the line you’ll take at each section of trail. Get out and walk as often as you need to. (Wear good boots.)
- Know When to Say When: Try to keep the ego, and the skinny pedal in check. It’s sometimes hard to take the bypass or the easy trail when the adrenaline’s pumping and you’re getting egged on by friends – and you’ll no doubt catch some sh!t for it. That said, at the end of the day, it’s your rig, you’ve got to live with it, and you’ve got to invest the money and time to get it fixed. There’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution, especially your first time or two out. (Get a feel for it before you go nuts.)
- Creaking, crunching and scraping sounds are generally normal: Suspensions creak, especially when flexing. Four wheel drive systems pop, especially those front axles, especially if you haven’t used 4wd in a while, and when those front wheels are turned. Transfer cases clunk when going into 4-lo. They also sometimes whine. You’re eventually going to scrape something on a rock, a stump, or even just the hard pack…even if it’s just a skid plate, or the very bottom of the differentials. The first time you do this, the feeling and sounds are unnerving. Most of the time, as long as you are going very slowly, and gently skimming the rock or stump you’re OK. (Most of the time…) You’ll quickly learn normal from abnormal sounds. Trust me, you’ll know. (Again, skid plates.)
- Go For It!! (within reason): Have confidence in your abilities and your machine. Get out there. Give it a shot. Have fun. Live a little. You’d be amazed at some of the stuff I’ve conquered, and seen other people do. Stuff I would have never thought possible. Just like anything else, off-roading is a learned skill and you will get better with practice. (Don’t be afraid to try, even if you don’t make the obstacle.)
But Before You Go:
So, above are the 10 (+2) things I would tell any new wheeler to help them on the trails. But even before you get to that point it’s a good idea to know your rig before your first trail ride. Your first wheeling trip the perfect time to learn how your rig works, and about all those features you’ve never needed to use before, like 4-lo or lockers. Try to have a basic understanding of how your 4×4 works, and know what technical capabilities it has – even if you don’t know how to use them. Know how to put your 4×4 into 4-hi, and 4-lo. Even if you don’t know how to operate them, at least know if your vehicle has lockers or disconnecting sway bars. Know where your spare tire, the jack are, the lug wrench and those wheel locks are. Know how to change a tire. Know where the engine oil goes. Know where the battery is. This is your first trip or two, but if wheeling is something you get into, tools and extra fluids are great to bring, along with the knowledge of how to use them and where they go… I’ll save it for another post.