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Driving tips

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I have never driven offroad, what do I need to know?

In all or guidebooks we offer driving tips and etiquette.

Stay on the trail: Always stay on marked trails. Never go off trail even to avoid an obstacle such as rough terrain, mud or rocks. If your vehicle is not capable of driving these things or you are just too lazy, then you will need a better vehicle or a different hobby. Turn around sooner than later if things start looking bad. Do not make new trails. Join organizations that promote correct trail use such as Tread Lightly and Stay the Trail.

Start slow. Practice on easy trails first to learn how to operate your off-road vehicle. As your confidence builds, you’ll want to try harder trails.

4-wheel-drive. Shift into 4-wheel drive or low range before it is needed. Stay in low gear as much as possible for maximum power. With standard transmissions, minimize use of your clutch. As you encounter resistance on an obstacle or an uphill grade, apply a little gas. As you start downhill, allow the engine’s resistance to act as a brake. If the engine alone will not slow you enough, help with light brake pressure. When you need more power but not more speed, press on the gas and feather the brake a little at the same time. 

Rocks and other high points. Don’t straddle rocks. Instead, drive over the highest point with your tire. This will help lift your undercarriage. If the point is too high, stack rocks on either side to create a ramp. IMPORTANT! Remove stacked rocks when done and leave the trail as you found it. As you enter a rocky area, look ahead to identify the high points. Learn the low and vulnerable spots of your undercarriage. In difficult situations, it may be necessary to get out of your vehicle for a better look or use a “spotter” outside the vehicle to direct you.

If high centered. If you get lodged on an object, first have passengers get out to lighten the load. Reinflate your tires if aired down. Try rocking the vehicle. If this doesn’t work, jack up your vehicle and place something under the tires. Try going forwards and backward. Repeat if necessary. 

Scout ahead. When unsure of what’s ahead, get out of your vehicle and walk the trail ahead of you. This gives you an opportunity to turn around at a wide spot of your choosing. Back up if necessary. Don’t try to turn in a narrow confined area.

Blind curves. When approaching blind curves, assume that there is a speeding vehicle in your lane coming from the opposite direction. This will prepare you for the worst.

Driving uphill. Use extreme caution when attempting to climb a steep hill. Shift into low range first.
Four factors determine difficulty:
1. Length of the hill. Momentum will help carry you over short hills, but not necessarily long hills.
2. Traction. A rock surface is usually easier to climb than soft dirt.
3. Bumpiness. Big bumps on steep grades may lift your tires off the ground and stop your progress, especially if your vehicle has poor articulation. Temporarily disconnecting your front sway bar will improve your articulation; however, this is difficult to do on some vehicles.
4. Steepness. This can be difficult to judge, so examine the hill carefully by walking up it first. Abort if you are not sure. If you proceed, approach it straight on and stay that way all the way to the top. Do not turn sideways or try to drive across the hill. Keep moving at a steady pace. Make sure no one is coming up the other side. Try not to spin your tires. If you lose traction, jiggle your steering wheel back and forth. This may give you additional grip in soft soil. If you stall, use your foot brake, and if necessary, your emergency brake, while you restart your engine. If you start to slide backward even with your brake on, you may have to ease up on the brake enough to regain steering control. Don’t allow your wheels to lock up. If you don’t make it to the top of the hill, shift into reverse and back down slowly in a straight line. Try the hill again, but only if you think you learned enough to make a difference. Ease off the gas as you approach top of hill.

Driving downhill. Make sure you are in 4-wheel drive. Air down your tires to improve traction. Go straight down the hill; do not turn sideways. In low gear, allow the engine’s compression to hold you back. Do not ride the clutch. Feather the brakes slightly if additional slowing is needed. Do not allow the wheels to lock up. If you start to slide sideways, ease up on the brake and accelerate slightly to maintain steering control. Turn in the direction of the slide as you would on ice or snow.

Parking on a steep hill. Put your vehicle in low-range reverse gear if pointing downhill or in low-range forward gear if pointing uphill. For automatic transmissions, set your emergency brake hard and then shift to park. Do not rely on “Park” to hold your vehicle. Always block your wheels to avoid vehicle creep.

Side hills and tippy situations. Side hills can be very dangerous, so try to avoid them if possible. No one can tell you how far your vehicle can safely lean. Travel in a group and watch similar vehicles. Although SUVs have a high center of gravity, don’t get paranoid; your vehicle will likely lean more than you think. Drive slowly to avoid bouncing. Use extreme caution if the road surface is slippery. Try to keep the vehicle as level as possible and avoid turning while on a side hill. Turn around if necessary.

Passing on narrow shelf roads. When possible, wait for road to clear. If surprised by an oncoming vehicle, don’t panic. By law, the vehicle going uphill has the right-of-way, but in the real world common sense should apply. It might make more sense for the uphill vehicle to back up if a wide spot is closer. Often one vehicle can back up easier than a large group. Don’t be forced too close to the outer edge or to tip your vehicle excessively on a high inside bank. Both situations are dangerous. If necessary, talk to the other driver.

Crossing streams and water holes. You must know the depth of the water and what your vehicle can go through. Fast flowing deep water can float you downstream. You don’t want water in your air intake or to cover your engine computer module. If you don’t know where these things are, consult your owner’s manual or talk to your dealer. You can learn much by traveling with vehicles similar to yours. Low cooling fans can throw water on your engine and cause it to stall; you may have to briefly disconnect your fan belt. I’ve seen people cover their grill with cardboard or canvas to push water to the side. This only works if you keep moving at a steady pace. Check differentials later for possible water contamination.

Always cross streams at designated water crossings. Don’t drive upstream or downstream except in areas where it is allowed.

Mud. Plan ahead, equip your vehicle with proper tires and carry tire chains. Install tow points and, if possible, differential lockers. Go around mud if it doesn’t widen the trail. Make sure you are in 4-wheel-drive. Low range may or may not help. If you enter mud, use momentum and keep moving at a steady pace. Try not to spin your tires. Follow existing ruts. If you get stuck, try backing out. If that doesn’t work, dig around tires to break the suction. Borrow tire chains if you don’t have any. If tire is spinning on one side only, try feathering your brakes while accelerating gently. If all else fails, ask a friend or passerby to strap you out.

Ruts or washouts. If a rut runs parallel to the road, you might be able to straddle it or drive in the bottom. The goal is to center your vehicle to remain level. Cross ruts at a 45-degree angle using momentum. However, without differential lockers or good articulation, one wheel may spin in the air while the other does nothing.

Sand. Dry sand is more difficult to cross than wet sand. Make sure you are in 4-wheel drive. Airing down will improve traction. Keep moving using momentum as much as possible. Stay in high gear and try to power through without spinning your tires. Be aware of the Leeward side where the sand is soft.

Snow and ice. The best advice is to avoid snow and ice completely. Call ahead for trail conditions. Have proper tires and carry tire chains. Make sure you are in 4-wheel drive. Ice or snow on a shelf road is extremely dangerous especially when going uphill or downhill. Remember that gravity will always win when there is no traction available. If you are returning over the same route, remember that water can freeze later in the day. Abort if necessary.

Washboard roads. Washboard roads are annoying to everyone and can’t be avoided in the backcountry.  Air down your tires to improve traction and soften the ride. Experiment with different speeds to find the smoothest ride. Slowing down is usually best, but some conditions may be improved by speeding up a little. Be careful around curves where you could lose traction and slide. Check your tires to make sure they are not over-inflated. 

Tires. The tires that your vehicle came with from the manufacturer should be replaced if you are wanting to really go out on the trails. We have used stock vehicle tires for light offroading successfully but we do not recommend it. Look for good sidewall traction and protection typically in the “all-terrain” category. More info about tire can be found here.

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