Going off-roading for the first time can be an exhilarating adventure into both speed an extreme maneuvering in tricky situations. Like with anything in nature, off-roading must be respected. For a beginner looking to start his or her journey into the backcountry it is imperative to take the time and learn about your vehicle, the terrain and how to properly navigate in some of the most common situations. This article will explain in detail what you need to know about 4WD and/or rock crawling for the first time.
1) Managing Expectations –
For your first time four wheel driving you are not going to be doing any off-road racing or crawling massive boulders. Before you can run you must walk. To start you are going to want to pick a trail that is rated for beginners. The good news is there are plenty of fun trails to choose from. Pick a trail that is close to home, easy to navigate and preferably in an area where there is a lot of support in case you run into some trouble.
2) Picking an Off-Roading Trail –
There are plenty of great trails in every state. This website has a great infographic of some of the most popular trails in every state. Some of the best trails for beginners are OHV or ORV Parks. An OHV Park (Off-Highway Vehicle) is a designated area usually a public area owned or maintained by the U.S. Forest Service only for off-roaders. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also has a great number of designated OHV areas. Pick a gravel or dirt trail that doesn’t have too many hills to traverse. It is important to respect nature and accept your own limitations. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in a dangerous position on a trail due to inexperience.
3) Plan and Prepare –
Once you have selected the trail you wish to traverse take some time to prepare for your journey. Do some research on the trail and the surrounding area. Know if there are any steep elevations, narrow passes or water crossings. How will your vehicle handle those situations?
Study where the main entrance and exits are located as well as the main trail arteries. Once you are out in the bush it is easy to get lost. Many trails are unmarked or have signage that is old or hidden by growth. All it takes is one wrong turn and you can end up on a trail that is not properly maintained or rated for OHVs. If you are in a National Park know where the ranger’s stations are located at.
Before heading out on the trail check the weather conditions for the at least the next 48 hour into the future. Is the weather expected to change midday? Is a storm coming in tomorrow? Expect the best but always plan for the worst. Conditions can change in an instant in nature. Be aware of flash floods or potential blizzards depending on the region you are driving in. Check the National Weather Service for real time weather updates.
5) Pack for the Worst –
If you do get stranded in the wilderness it is best to have extra clothes, provisions, food & water as well as gasoline/diesel to get you out of a jam if necessary. It is recommended to carry an emergency beacon or SAT phone if you can. Before heading out you can rent this equipment from most outdoor retailers like REI. For example the SPOT Gen 3 Personal Phone uses a GPS Satellite which enables the users to send status updates, non-emergency messages and call 911 from anywhere in the world.
Equipment to bring:
• Additional Water
• Warm Clothes
• Heavy Duty Gloves
• Traction Kits or Sand
• Tow Ropes and Recovery Gear
• Additional Gas/Diesel Fuel
• Sleeping Bag
• Air Compressor and Tire Gauge
• Tire Repair Kit
• Matches & Fire Extinguisher
• First Aid Kit
• CB Radio
• GPS Nav System
• Jumper Cables
• Oil and Coolant
6) Tell Someone Your Plans –
Before heading to the backcountry always make sure to let someone know exactly where you are going and what time you are expected back. Never go up alone. Off-roading should always be done with at least one other vehicle in-case you do get stuck or in trouble.
7) Pack Recovery Gear –
These off-road trails do not have AAA right around the corner. If you do get in a bind, whether it’s getting stuck in the mud or flipping over, most likely you are going to have to dig yourself out. Pack a synthetic or steel winch line, winch line extensions, tree rigging lines, snatch blocks, hooks, shackles and crush proof thimbles. If you do get stuck do you know how to use your recovery gear? Make sure your vehicle has a properly rated tow hook and trailer hitch. Do not use a linked chain as those things can snap. A 48" or 60" hi-lift jack can be a life saver for getting out of tricky situations.
8) Know Your Vehicle –
Before going up really get familiar with your vehicle. Read that owner’s manual! Learn some basic 4WD vehicle maintenance tips such as how to change a tire, how to use a jack and how to lock your vehicle in 4 x 4 mode. Make sure all of your mirrors and windows are clear of dirt and debris. Being able to see the trail ahead is crucial to not making mistakes. Also before heading out do a basic check of the oil and fluids in your engine. Is the coolant level normal? If you are doing a fair amount of off-roading it is important to properly maintain your engine. Make sure the camshaft, crankshaft, cylinder head, pistons, liners, rings, and bearings are all properly lubricated. Make sure your aftercooler, water pump and oil pump are also in working order before going up. In addition to the main engine components inspect all belts, hoses, clamps, the gearbox, tires, brakes and differentials. Off-roading can put a lot of stress on an vehicle. Do your homework before heading out on the trail.
9) Check the Ground Clearance –
Before heading out for the first time learn about your vehicles ground clearance. Jeeps and Land Cruisers are built with high ground clearance specifically for off-road adventures. There are three angles to consider: approach, departure and break over angles. The approach angle is the angle between the front of the vehicle and front tires. It is the steepest angle a vehicle can take without hitting the front bumper into the slope. The break over angle is the angle in middle of the vehicle and between the front and back tires. This angle is the maximum angle the vehicle can take before getting stuck on steep terrain ie the ground clearance. The departure angle is the angle between the back tires and the rear bumper and represents the highest angle before the vehicle can take before hitting the back bumper on the ground. When approaching logs and boulders try to tackle the obstacle at a 30-45 degree angle. This method ensures that at least 3 tires are on the ground at all times. If you are unsure of an obstacle use a spotter to check out the trail ahead.
10) Consider Skid Plates and Lift Kits –
If you do not have enough ground clearance you are going to do some damage to the undercarriage of the vehicle going over boulders, rocks and brush. Also without proper clearance your vehicle is more prone to getting stuck (centering) on obstacles. Most people going off-roading opt for lift kits to increase ground clearance and suspension. Skid plates are steel plates that protect the undercarriage of your vehicle especially the gas tank, rocker panels, differentials and oil pan. If you are rock crawling you are definitely going to want to invest in skid plates because it is almost a given to scrape the underside of your vehicle.
11) Axel Suspension Modifications –
In the off-roading community there are two differing opinions when it comes to wheel articulation. The vast majority of people prefer a solid axel vs. independent front suspension. Solid front axels are locked together and work in tandem with each other vs. independent front suspension offers each tire its own suspension with an A-Frame connector. Solid axel suspension is most preferred for general off-roading as it provides more wheel articulation. Independent front suspension offers a smoother ride for long and flat desert racing. Having a solid axel suspension also means having a more robust heavy duty frame. All parts of a solid axel system are rated for large loads including the motor mounts, tie rods and shocks. If you are installing a Cummins 4BT or 5.9 diesel engine having a modified suspension is imperative to make handle the added size and counter the front end weight balance. No matter what type of off-roading you end up preferring installing a roll cage is going to be a big benefit. One of these will not only save your life but also prevent your vehicle from completely buckling in case of tipping over.
12) Upgrade Your Tires –
The stock tires on a Jeep or Land Cruiser are not going to cut it for very long off-road. You are going to want to put some new tires on your ride. Look for larger tires that are all terrain or mud rated. They should have deep treads, robust sidewalls and be manufactured with heavy duty rubber composite that is rated for off-road applications. Off-road tires are usually 27 - 35 inches but some guys will go up to 44”+. It is also important to note that many enthusiasts will let air out of the tires to better grip the surface of the terrain. Simply deflating the tires a bit will increase the surface area of the tires and give better grip on rocks. These guys at Offroaders have an excellent guide on how to purchase mud tires for your vehicle.
13) Invest in Locking Differentials –
If you are more advanced you are going to want to invest in locking differentials. Most standard vehicles have open differentials meaning the wheel with the least amount of traction will receive additional power. This works great on a slippery highway but not ideal when off-roading where you want additional power to your front wheels. The front wheels are doing the majority of the legwork. Most hardcore off-roading enthusiasts will opt for a closed locking differential with vicous coupling, meaning a dilatant fluid heats up when there is a difference in wheel speed, locking the two axels together. There are also brake lock differentials which prevent wheel spinning situations. When one wheel is spinning without traction the caliper lock will send power to a different wheel with more traction. There are also pneumatic and solenoid differentials which lock the two front wheels together ensuring they spin at the same rate and receive the same amount of power equally. Overall, take some time to research differentials and modification shops.
14) Install a High Mounted Air Intake Hose –
Every engine is equipped with an air inlet system. If you are going off-roading in conditions that have water you are going to need a modified air intake hose that is high above the water line. You do not want to suck water into your engine which is called hydrolocking. You can easily ruin an engine this way. Many hardcore enthusiasts opt for a “snorkel” which is mounted as high as the roof of the vehicle. For beginners you will be fine as long as you do not cross any deep creeks.
Before going up learn about using low gear and high gear. Gearing makes all the difference. On flat or paved areas where you wish to cruise as fast as you can use a higher gear. Lower gears are made to provide low end torque to the tires. A low range transfer case doubles the torque to the axles to make steep terrain or obstacles much easier to traverse. Low gearing in the differentials is also crucial especially if you have larger tires on your vehicle. Lower gears provide a higher axel ratio which means there are many more teeth engaged in the ring gear instead of the pinion gear. Each vehicle is different but typically there is 2 Wheel Drive High (Perfect for Paved Roads), 4 Wheel Drive High (Standard Setting for Most Off-Roading Trails), Neutral (Setting used for Towing) and 4 Wheel Drive Low (Highest Transmission Setting for Traversing Toughest Terrain). It is important to know your vehicle. Some vehicles require you to fully stop before switching gears. If you switch gears from high to low while the vehicle is moving it can ruin the transmission.
Going off-roading for the first time can be a lifetime changing experience. We suggest you go up with some friends or a local off-roading club to see if you enjoy it first. If you decide to purchase an off-road vehicle take it up on the trail with all of the stock features before going to a mod shop. It is best to get a feel of what the vehicle can do at baseline compared with what future modifications will give you. Overall enjoy it and make safe decisions!