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Nena Knows Jeeps: Off-Road Basics

Posted in Features on December 11, 2017
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With all of the time we spend studying advanced winch rigging techniques, comparing tire composition, and ogling the latest navigation applications, it is easy to forget the fundamentals. Ignoring these fundamentals cause the majority of four-wheeling difficulties we see on the trail. The difference between an enjoyable trip and a catastrophic one can be as simple as these four things: knowing and using your Jeep’s 4WD system effectively, airing down the tires, picking a good line through the obstacle, and having a functioning jack. These few basics should be the foundation of every Jeep driver’s education regarding his or her specific rig.

Many people get into snags on the trail simply because they didn’t use 4WD at the appropriate time. It’s easier to shift to 4WD before you need it, rather than spinning and chewing up your tires, digging up the trail, and making your situation worse. It doesn’t make you less macho to use 4WD—it means you are smart, have mechanical sympathy for the rig, and are respectful of the trail. Though running in 4WD all of the time on flat, tractive surfaces is not good for your rig’s driveline and steering, it is important to recognize when a little better distribution of power will smooth out the trip. What about the infamous hot oil light? Using 4L is the solution. A basic guideline we teach is to use 4H whenever you start on an unmaintained road, and 4L if you are going less than 10-15 mph due to narrow, steep, or rough surface.

The difference between an enjoyable trip and a catastrophic one can be as simple as using your 4WD system effectively, airing down tires, picking a good line, and having a functioning jack.

Sometimes the problem is that the driver simply does not understand how to engage 4WD properly. We have seen many drivers get stuck, thinking their 4WD isn’t working, when they actually just didn’t engage it correctly. Though most vehicles have shift-on-the-fly 4WD high range, every transfer case that we know of still requires you to stop, put the transmission in Neutral, and then engage (or disengage) 4WD low range. If you hear grinding, stop; put the transmission back in Neutral and try again. And, with many vehicles, especially those with electronic transfer case switches, turning the vehicle off and then back on again can also do the trick. Understand the basics of how your 4WD system functions. As a bonus, learn where and how it actually physically engages and disengages. This is helpful when troubleshooting or performing trail fixes.

I will mention tire management again and again in my articles. That’s because tires are pretty important. They are, literally, where the rubber meets the road. Take care of your tires. This may be hard to hear, but tires rarely go flat by themselves. Drivers make tires go flat. Learn what tire pressure works best for your rig on the terrain in question. Pick a line around the sharp rocks all the time, even on easy roads. I have lost more tires to baseball-sized rocks on 25 mph roads than I have scrubbing sidewalls in the nastiest granite canyons. Usually, that’s because we think that we don’t have to pay attention on easy roads. Yes, we do.

Plenty of opportunities here to inflict unnecessary wear and tear on yourself and your rig—use correct gearing and pick a good line.

When a tire fails and you find yourself needing to change a tire, do you have a moment of panic trying to remember where exactly the jack is? Or do you immediately and confidently reach for it, knowing it is ready to go because you check it before every trip? Does your jack have all of the components in good working order? Is it appropriate for the height and weight of your rig? These are questions that are best answered in the comfort of your garage, not out in the middle of the forest. At night. In the rain. And, do I still have to say that a hi-lift jack is not the best choice for changing a tire? Though a great tool to have for a number of other reasons, for changing tires, I go to my bottle jack or even factory scissor jack.

The bottom line: Do your homework. Research and exploration into your Jeep’s basic mechanics will provide you with the knowledge to deal with the majority of issues you are likely to encounter on the trail.

A good, basic guideline is to use 2H for pavement, 4H for unmaintained roads, and 4L for anything steep, narrow, or rough where you are going 10-15 mph.
Many new Jeeps have many more buttons to decipher. Know what they are and how they function.
The scissor jack is standard issue on newer Jeeps. Play with it at home to get used to how it works. Sometimes the hardest part is just figuring out how to get it un-stowed.
You can do quite a lot with the factory scissor jack. Here it is fully extended, lifting a 37-inch tire off the ground on unlevel terrain.
Can your sidewall do this? The tire in this photo is at extremely low air pressure for very slow-speed rockcrawling, but when aired down appropriately for the terrain, most modern tires are a lot tougher and offer more traction than you might think. Aired up to street pressure off-road is asking for a puncture, or at the very least, bouncing and spinning tires.
This looks like a road that you should be able to go fast on, but all those sharp rocks need attention. Go around, or slowly ease over them.

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