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Mud Rules: When And How To Drive Through It

Posted in Features on March 3, 2017
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Driving through mud is fun. However, I have learned that the moment of fun is usually accompanied by many not fun consequences. In some parts of the country, mud is the primary form of wheeling because, well, that is pretty much all there is. I choose to tiptoe through mud as much as possible these days for many reasons, but it is important to understand the methods and consequences of dealing with mud.

When you encounter mud, you have to make some choices. If you drive too slowly through the thick stuff, you risk getting stuck and having to slosh around on foot to execute a recovery. If you go too quickly through the soupy stuff, you will splash mud up and over and into places you will be discovering for months or years and even risk much more serious mechanical issues.

What does this sign say to you? Too often, we see fresh tracks going around road signs. The roads are not closed to spite you, but often to reduce damage to a saturated trail.

How do you know what is the correct momentum? Mostly years of trial and error, but here are a few tips. Do you see recent tracks going in and back out the other side? The thick, gooey, brownie-batter, soul-sucking mud will either stick you to the bottom or fill back in tracks, not leave a clear imprint. So, if you can see the tread imprint of boots or tires, then you can usually assume that just an easy, steady approach will coast you through with easy throttle and steering corrections. This is where a good mud-terrain tire pays for itself.

For the soul-sucking brownie-batter variety that doesn’t leave tread imprint, you will need to exert considerably more momentum to try to float your way across. This is also where wide, aired-down tires earn their keep.

For watery mud, be aware of the traction situation on the bottom, as well as potentially hidden obstacles like logs or rocks. Do you know how deep it really is? I like to throw a stick spear-style into the middle to estimate depth, or lob a rock to judge by the depth of the splash. Also, remember that the far bank climbing up the other side needs to be given just as much consideration.

While the conservative fording depth for mud and water is axle deep, or half the height of your wheels, Wranglers are engineered to handle water up to the headlights. However, if the water is fast moving, you have now provided a lot of body for that water to push on. And if that water is standing, you will likely have a silty, sticky bottom. While you may be able to cross soupy, watery mud, like this photo, thick and gooey mud will likely add too much resistance once it is touching your axles.

Don’t forget that turning around and going back the way you came is an option. No need to push forward at all costs. Either way, you will be paying for hours of cleaning for a few seconds of fun.

Mud is not good for anything on your Jeep, from your paint to your lubricants and the expensive components they are in. My favorite is an axle breather tube that is unknowingly disconnected at the axle, sucking mud into your gears. It is always a good idea to check your fluids after a particularly “submersive” day. Fan clutches and alternators are a common victims of mud and debris, often days or months later. Give your radiator fins and fan clutch area a good flushing out with a hose on low pressure until water runs clear.

Notice the shrubs to the right of the puddle have been splashed and covered in red mud. This chokes the shrub, and if it doesn’t rain soon, will kill it. Dead shrubs along trails are not only unsightly, but become a fire hazard, and once gone, there is nothing to slow the erosion.

In the dry and arid regions where I choose to do most of my wheeling, “mudding” has consequences beyond just the inconvenience of cleaning and threat of mechanical issues. Damaged trails lead to trail closures. In much of the Southwest, the guideline is this: if you are driving on the road surface and sinking an inch or more, it’s time to stay off the trails. What if 20 rigs roll over that same piece of saturated trail? The environment is normally so dry that rutting out the trails during a brief wet period will harden and stay rutted. Splashing mud on the surrounding flora will choke it out because it is likely to be weeks or months until the next wet period. Mud-smothered shrubs will die before they can be washed off and breathe again. Dead shrubs mean exponentially worse erosion. Erosion means sedimentation throughout water systems, road stability issues, public safety concerns, and more, but all equal closed trails.

Though environments that receive regular rain don’t usually have to worry about rutting trails and choking vegetation, the risk of damage to vehicles still exists. Being a responsible trail user means weighing those consequences and accepting accountability for them each and every time you go out. There is a price for everything!

While splashing through mud can damage trails and rigs, going around them can also cause damage. When trails get widened or braided, like the routes winding in and out in this photo, the entire area becomes scarred with tire tracks, and that’s the sort of thing that can lead to land closures.
If anyone recognizes this woman, she owes me a Jeep washing!
Mud can make getting in and out of your Jeep very dirty business.
A small group of rigs can displace a significant amount of trail.
This is what we call brownie batter mud—the stickiest, thickest stuff and it’s very difficult to drive through. The deeper it is, the exponentially more likely you are to get stuck or rip parts off. It is also not fun to clean off your Jeep.

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