As the snow is finally starting to melt and temperatures are slowly climbing out of the sub-freezing range, many of us are looking forward to pulling our vehicles out of storage and hitting the roads. Or, more specifically, hitting the off-road. While there's certainly no rule against off-roading through the snow and ice, the warmer months offer a little more freedom and, as an added bonus, no wading through snow if you find yourself in need of a push or tow.
Though a fair amount of cars on the road have 4×4 capabilities, only a fair few get to actually take that off-road. If you're gearing up to do some off-road driving this spring for the first time, here are a few tips to get you started:
It's hard to overstate how important safety is to off-road driving. Before taking off, make sure your car is in good condition. Check the engine – be sure the hoses aren't cracked, that all battery ports are properly connected and that you're not low on any fluids.
Aside from the engine, the wheels are the most important part of your off-roading vehicle. Check that the tires don't need to be replaced. The simplest way to do this is to measure the depth of the tread, which should be at least 1/16 of an inch. You can check it without breaking out your ruler – just put a penny with Lincoln's head down into a couple treads in different parts of the tire. If you can see the top of the Great Emancipator's head, it's time for new tires.
But tire safety doesn't stop with making sure they're not bald. Inflating them to the manufacturer's specifications is the best way to get solid grip on most surfaces – with the notable exception of sand – and to prevent a blowout. Keep a tire gauge with you and check the pressure frequently, preferably before you drive the vehicle and the tires are cool.
There are also a handful of things you should always have before you set out off-roading. Keep a cell phone with you at all times, and be sure it's either fully charged or have a car charger on hand. Even if you're going somewhere without great reception, it's useful to have one in an emergency. If your phone doesn't have one, invest in some sort of GPS navigation system. Not only will it make finding where you're going easier, but if you happen to get stuck and need help, it will be helpful to know your coordinates. Be sure to keep a first-aid kit on hand, as well.
Though Jeep parts and accessories, along with other vehicles designed for off-roading, usually include a full-sized spare, pick one up if your truck doesn't have one. And, just as you need to take care of the tires you're driving on, be sure the spare doesn't have holes or a worn-down tread.
A jack, tow rope, vehicle-mounted winch and shovel are also good things to have on hand in case you or a buddy run into problems.
If you're a rookie off-road driver, you may have visions of powering up hills or fording rivers at high speeds, but keep in mind that a huge majority of off-roading is done quite slowly – think less than 5 miles per hour.
Before you tackle anything crazy, start easy. While driving on gravely trails or dry dirt may not feel as adventurous as you were initially hoping for, it's an important first step. Accelerating, turning and breaking on loose gravel or dirt is extremely different than on pavement, and it's important to get a feel for your vehicle before taking it on more difficult terrain. Look for nearby state parks that have trails designed for vehicle travel to start on.
Once you get going, here are a few tips for your first few off-roading adventure:
- Down-shifting: In general, the lower gears are your best friends when off-roading. First or second gear will give you more power to help you get traction.
- Momentum: If you're on terrain that has poor traction, your best bet is to keep moving and use the momentum of your truck to get through the rough patch. Once you stop, you may find you have trouble gaining traction to get going again.
- Throttle: Using the accelerator is more of an art than a science. Too much power, and you risk going out of control, though too little will obviously mean you aren't going to get where you need to go. Practice makes perfect, so put your hours in to get accelerating right.
- Stay on designated trails: Even if you're feeling particularly adventurous, always stay on paths and avoid adventuring out into uncharted territory. Not only can this be dangerous, but you risk doing damage to the area or getting kicked out of the park.