10. Start Slow
Literally. Unless you’re racing in the Baja 1000, off-roading is not about speed. A leisurely pace allows you to enjoy the outdoors and relax behind the wheel, and gives you plenty of time to read the trail ahead and plan where you want to go. There’s an old saying about driving off-road: Go as slow as possible and only as fast as necessary.
11. Easy Does It
If you have zero experience driving off the pavement, don’t start out on gnarly, rated-nine-out-of-10 trails. Find graded dirt roads in your area to get the feel for how a vehicle, even a 4×4, slides around on loose surfaces. Work up to more challenging terrain with as you gain wheel time.
12. Look Up
It’s easy to fixate on whatever is right in front of you on the trail. A better strategy is to look ahead so you can plan your approach.
13. Scout Ahead
If you can’t see the trail ahead—what’s past the crest of a steep incline, or the depth of a stream crossing, for example—walk the route. Sometimes trails veer sharply one way or another at their crest. Likewise, streams are notorious for hiding deep holes that swallow 4x4s. Neither is a fun surprise.
14. Listen To Your Spotter
In tricky terrain, a buddy or fellow 4×4 driver on the trail can guide you across an obstacle that you can’t see from inside the cab. Be sure to return the favor.
15. Momentum Is Your Friend
Especially in very loose or slippery conditions, like mud and sand. Don’t stop until you’re on firmer ground to reduce the risk of getting stuck. Note “momentum” is not “speed.” If you need to park, position the 4×4 with its nose pointed downhill to make it easier to get started again.
Three Do’s (And One Don’t) When Off-Roading
Photograph Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.
Do Stay on Marked Trails: Off-roading isn’t done in wilderness. Minimize your impact on the land by sticking to the roads and trails designated for vehicular travel. Ford streams only where they cross the road. Drive over, not around, obstacles so as not to widen the trail. These and more tips are available from Tread Lightly!, which promotes responsible recreation on land and water.
Do Go with a Buddy: Whether it’s a companion in the cab or in another vehicle, there’s safety in numbers on the trail. A buddy can spot you over tough obstacles, tug you out of a stuck, and get help if needed.
Leave No Trace: Leave the area you’ve traveled in better condition than when you found it. Pack out your own trash and pick up other trash you come across. If you made a firepit, bury it.
Don’t Drive Over Your Head: Expert-rated terrain is for expert four-wheelers. Nothing spoils a day (and your new 4×4) faster than toppling off a rock or into a deep mud hole. Trails are rated as to their difficulty level, sometimes with a number, others with colored shapes. (Green circle? Yes! Black diamond? Not yet.) Those difficult trails will still be there when you and your rig are ready to tackle them.
16. Straddle The Ruts
When traveling over a deeply rutted trail, straddle the ruts when you can to help maintain traction and so your front wheels don’t just follow the ruts automatically. If there’s no room to straddle, drive up on the rut edges, again to help maintain control.
17. Mind Both Ends
After you’ve successfully negotiated the front of your 4×4 over an obstacle, don’t forget to take as much care with the rear end, too. This is especially true for pickup trucks, which have longer (and more vulnerable) rear overhangs than SUVs do. 18. Don’t Spin The Tires A spinning tire is not getting any traction and won’t move you forward. It will just dig in and get stuck. If a wheel is slipping, let off the accelerator pedal. Try again with lighter pedal pressure. Still spinning? Stop, back up and take a different line on firmer ground.
18. Don’t Spin The Tires
A spinning tire is not getting any traction and won’t move you forward. It will just dig in and get stuck. If a wheel is slipping, let off the accelerator pedal. Try again with lighter pedal pressure. Still spinning? Stop, back up and take a different line on firmer ground.
Photograph by Drew Hardin
Signs posted at trail heads will indicate the trail’s level of difficulty. They will also alert you to trails that are closed for rehabilitation, washouts, or other reasons.
19. Turn and Grip
In some situations, like when driving through mud or up a hill in loose dirt, if your front wheels start to spin you can find traction by turning the steering wheel back and forth. That allows the tire treads and the biting edges of the sidewalls to look for purchase.
20. Go Easy In Snow
Driving a 4×4 in snow is similar to driving in sand or mud as it’s a surface with very little traction. Momentum helps to keep from getting stuck, as does the wider tire footprint from lowered tire air pressure. All driving inputs—accelerating, braking, steering—should be applied gently and smoothly.
21. Back Off The Gas To Transfer Weight
In an understeer situation on snowy roads, when the truck’s nose is going wide of where the wheels are pointed, let off the accelerator to transfer weight over the front tires and help them grab. Watch for patches of ice that will diminish the already minimal traction. (For a more in-depth look at cold-weather ’wheeling check out our “4×4 Master Class—How to Conquer Snow and Ice.”