What To Know When Off-roading?

Some off-roaders enjoy the natural scenery, while others love the technical challenge that driving on unpaved ground presents. Whatever type of off-roading you’re into, it can be a great pastime as long as you know what you’re doing.

The natural terrain is uneven and can be unpredictable, so it’s important that you have the proper equipment for off-road driving. While technically you can go off-roading in any vehicle, trucks, SUVs and other high-riding vehicles are best suited to handle the bumps and bruises found off the beaten path. 

You might also want to use four-wheelers, dirt bikes, dune buggies or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which are specially designed for off-road driving. If you’re taking up off-roading as a hobby, a low-riding compact car probably isn’t going to cut it.

Depending on what type of off-roading you’re into, the type of vehicle — and vehicle modifications — you will need can vary. 

For instance, the same tires you use to drive over steep dunes probably aren’t going to be great for traversing boulders.

One of the best things about off-roading is that you get to adopt a new vocabulary. For example, are you into mudding, rock crawling, dune bashing or green laning? 

Do you know the break-over angle on your car? Do you know how to pick a good line? Find out more about these terms and what they’re all about in the next sections.

Today’s trucks are amazing machines. They’re built to handle highways comfortably but are just as adept once your turn off the pavement and onto the dirt. 

And what’s the point of 4×4 if you’re not going to use it, at least occasionally? But simply going off-road isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s an adventure that can be challenging and confusing, especially if you’re not prepared. 

To help remove a little of the worry, we talked to some experts and asked them to explain some of the basics of heading into the wilderness on four wheels.

You want to take your new 4×4 off-roading for the first time, but have no idea of how, what you will need, what your truck is capable of, or even how to work some features of the vehicle.

What tires are best for the terrain? What vocabulary do you need to know? What’s the difference between 4×4 high and low? What’s a diff lock? Should you cut your teeth on general off-roading or go straight to the mud? What do I do with my thumbs to prevent breaking them? Can I get competitive with off-roading when I get better? Strap in and get ready to dig yourself out with answers to these questions and more.

Off-road driving can take several forms. From the weekend trail rider to the die-hard rock crawler, off-roaders the world over know that there are few better ways to get your jollies than taking total control of your vehicle as you take it places most people never knew they could go. 

Let’s take a brief look at some of the places you might find yourself when you decide to leave the pavement behind, keeping in mind that this is just an introduction and is by no means all you need to know when hitting the trail. 

Remember, the most important elements of a successful off-road adventure are safety and preparation.

A Brief Lesson In Off-road Vocabulary

  • 4×4 High: All-purpose four-wheel-drive mode used in most cases. As opposed to 2 wheel drive, all four wheels are engaged and powered by the powertrain. “High” refers to the gear ratio, meaning that the gear ratio is unchanged from the ratio used in 2 wheel drive.
  • 4×4 Low: Four-wheel drive mode where a lower gear ratio is engaged, thus delivering higher torque to the wheels and lowering maximum speed. Useful in slower off-road situations, rock crawling, and for getting unstuck when things go south.
  • Locking Differential: Also known as “diff lock,” this refers to the speed at which the wheels turn. In most standard 4×4 modes, the wheels spin at different speeds to compensate for loose or uneven terrain. When the differential is locked, wheels all move at the same speed—a tool used in advanced off-roading and for getting unstuck.
  • Approach Angle: The maximum incline angle that a vehicle can climb or descend without any part of the body or suspension, making contact with the driving surface.
  • Wheelbase: Distance from the centre of a truck’s front wheel to the centre of the rear wheel on the same side of the vehicle.
  • Wheel Travel: The maximum distance a wheel can move up and down—the greater the travel, the more capable the suspension system and the better on and off-road traction.
  • Rock Massage: What you get when you attempt rock crawling without taking the necessary precautions and being properly qualified.

Figure Out What Types Of Off-roading You Want To Do

Before you start preparing your rig for the trail, it’s important to know what type of off-roading you want to do. Your location can have a major impact on what’s readily available.

Those in the Eastern U.S. should be able to find light trails and good mudding locations. If you’re west of the Rockies, desert terrain and rocks might be plentiful. Even though you can always take trips to other off-roading destinations, knowing what’s close by can affect the choices you make for your vehicle.

Light Trails

Light trails will generally include any unpaved or rough road. Fire roads are a great example. Most places that are off the pavement but not at an actual off-road park will fall under this category.

This is the best place to start for newbies, and it’s the most accessible type of off-roading in general. You’ve probably already done some light trail off-roading if you’ve been to a remote hike or campsite. Unmaintained gravel surfaces, moderate puddles, and ditches are common. Most vehicles with AWD will have no issues here.

Overlanding And Camping

Overlanding involves driving through isolated areas over extended periods of time. This type of off-roading seems to be getting more and more popular every year, and for a good reason. 

There’s a close-knit community that’s easy to get involved with. The driving itself isn’t much more technical or difficult than hitting a light trail. It can be made as easy or as tough as you want, depending on where you go and how long you stay.

On the most extreme scale, you can take your vehicle on a cross-country or even cross-continent Overlanding trip. This requires lots of preparation. You’ll be relying on your vehicle and supplies, for the most part, meaning that off-roading and mechanical know-how are a must. It will also be much more expensive than your typical day trip to an off-road park.


Mudding involves taking your rig through large amounts of mud. At off-road parks, trails are usually rated as green, blue, or black, in order of ascending difficulty. 

You might be ok with AWD on a green trail, but blue or black will require 4WD. No matter which mud trails you choose, good off-road tires are required.

Most trails will have some amount of mud unless they’re in a desert location. The terrain can also feature large amounts of standing water. 

Moreover, the deep areas of mud require finesse. Enough speed is needed to avoid getting stuck, but not so much that control is lost. Too much throttle will cause a vehicle to spin the wheels, deepening itself in the mud. Hidden obstacles can pose a danger, as well.

One of the toughest types of mudding, mud bogging, involves races where you try to get your vehicle through the mud as quickly as possible. You’ll see all sorts of massive trucks with huge tires at these events.

Rock Crawling

Rock crawling is a more specialized form of off-roading. It involves getting up and over very uneven rocks. Because there are such large gaps and differences in height, drivers will go at a slower pace than if they were mudding.

Without a rig that can articulate (tilt left and right), you may struggle to get over obstacles. It’s important to take it slow and steady. 

The trails will get a bit more dangerous here, so start with lower-level trails before progressing to more advanced ones.

Rock crawling also requires some specialized gear you might not need for other types of off-roading. These include skid plates, lockers, a lift kit, high clearance bumpers, Beadlock wheels, and a winch.

Sand/Desert Racing

On the coasts, beaches offer easy-going sand driving. However, you still need to be careful not to get stuck in dry, uneven sand. 

In the Western U.S., many light trails can involve sand. Soft sand can be even tougher to get out of than mud if you get stuck.

Desert racing is its phenomenon. It’s the highest speed type of off-roading and involves zooming across desert terrain. 

This will include climbing and descending hills and dunes and even jumps. For those that get seriously into desert racing, some events will push their vehicles to the limit. The pinnacle of which is the Baja 1,000, a race that goes for hundreds of miles and is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world.

Sand and desert trails pose specific problems for off-road vehicles. Therefore, it’s crucial to have shocks and a suspension that is up to the task. 

Off-road lighting is important to allow you to see much farther ahead in lowlight conditions. An air filter cover will also help prevent sand and dust from entering your intake.

Beyond these modifications, emergency supplies become even more critical due to the harsh terrain and distance from potential help.

Off-road Driving Tips

Speed Is Not Your Friend

The off-road driver’s mantra is “As Slow As Possible, As Fast As Necessary.” (The original author of this quote is uncertain, but I first heard it at a Land Rover driving school.) 

Sometimes a little speed may be required to climb a hill or conquer a hazard. However, if you think the obstacle requires even ten mph, you’re probably not going to make it. And you’re going to damage something or get stuck.

Sometimes You Can’t Get There From Here

This is true even with a well-equipped vehicle and a skilled driver – and was certainly true of an unskilled teenager in a poorly equipped vehicle. It’s far easier to discover an alternate route than to find someone willing and able to come to your rescue. Walking the rest of the way is better than walking home.

Stay On The Trail

Trying to blaze my trail not only got me stuck, but it also left ruts that remained for years. Drive on previously used paths – you’ll know it’s possible to make it through there, and you’ll do less damage to the environment. 

A warning: just because somebody else made it doesn’t guarantee you will. Maybe they had a better vehicle, were a more skilled driver or went through before it rained.

Walk It First

If you can’t negotiate mud, sand or other obstacles on foot, it’s highly unlikely your vehicle can make it. It’s critical to check out a water-covered route: Unless you’ve seen another vehicle go through it, you can’t be certain it doesn’t hide a huge hole.

Be Willing To Walk Back

Never tackle a questionable obstacle unless you’re able to walk back to where help awaits. If you’re going off-road, your cell phone will be useless. 

Even if there is coverage, there’s nobody to call unless you’ve made a prior arrangement. The road-service tow-truck driver won’t leave the pavement, the farmer with the tractor might not be home and the guy in the SUV you wave down on the highway may not be able or willing to help. Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive and a tow strap.

Re-tire To Succeed

Even the most technologically advanced four-wheel-drive system can’t make up for tires that are not meant for the job or lack adequate tread depth. Some original equipment tires on SUVs and pickups can’t conquer anything more rigorous than wet grass. Also, even the best mud tires become useless off-road well before they run out of the tread.

Help Yourself

If you’re planning to travel the road less paved regularly, bring along some things that’ll help you out of small jams: a hand winch (aka “come-along”), tow strap, high-lift jack, shovel, some wood blocks and a first aid kit. 

If you’re going farther than you can walk out, bring enough stuff (extra clothes, water, sleeping bag) to survive until somebody finds you.

Tell Somebody

Tell somebody where you’re going and when you expect to be back. At least they’ll know when and where to start searching.

I got out of that ancient incident unscathed, largely because within a short hike there was a tractor with the keys in it and a long chain. Bringing along some luck never hurts.

A Few Final Things To Consider

Be Cautious Of Whip

On difficult terrain, try to keep your thumbs outside the steering wheel, to account for something called “whip.” If the wheel is suddenly snapped in one direction or another, it can hurt your wrists, or worse, break your thumbs. 

Keep in mind this is mostly a problem in vehicles without a power steering damper box. Generally speaking, newer cars with damper boxes won’t suffer whip.

Don’t Oversteer

Try not to oversteer when in ruts and on angles. When one side of your vehicle is up on an incline, but the other is on flat ground, it feels natural to counteract the weight shift or unnatural lean by steering up toward the incline. 

Try to avoid it, as keeping the wheel straight is safest. Also, there will be times when your tires are locked into ruts previously cut by other vehicles. These ruts will be weirdly cut and cause your wheels to wander to the right or the left. Do not, however, let the steering wheel wander to the left or right. 

Even though the vehicle is still tracking straight, due to the ruts, your steering system could be at full lock. The issue here is that as soon as you leave the rut and fully regain traction, your vehicle might steer sharply to one side or the other, leading you into a tree, rocks, or other trail impediments.

Left Foot Braking

If you’re going to be doing lots of off-roading, it’s a good idea to master a technique called left-foot braking. 

And it’s as simple as it sounds. Keep your right foot on or over the accelerator pedal and apply the brakes with your left foot, rather than using your right foot for both pedals, the way we were all taught. Why? 

Because it can save you precious seconds and also give you a lot better vehicle control when you’re in rocks or another technical terrain.

This technique can also be used to apply power more evenly. You can use your right foot to keep your engine at 3,000 RPM and use the slow release of the brake with the left to apply that even level of torque to the ground. Utilize this technique sparingly, however, as you can burn out the brakes.

In off-road driving as well as life in general, nothing beats knowledge. Prepare for every circumstance, and know what you are getting yourself into. 

Familiarize yourself not only with the environment you are entering but with the vehicle itself. Sure, you know how to switch on the air conditioning, but do you know the location of your air intake or onboard computer in case you get into some deeper water and risk submerging them? 

Familiarize yourself with your vehicle’s manual, and you will be best equipped for the unexpected. Most importantly, never, ever go alone. Have another driver in another vehicle with a tow rope and be sure you have cell phone reception in case of an emergency.

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