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Off-Road Driving Basics - Wheeling 101

Front View
David Kennedy
| Contributor
Posted April 19, 2005
Photographers: The 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

So you bought your first 4x4

Congratulations! You just got your first 4x4 and you're already reading Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road. You're one of us now. And we're here to help you figure out how to do everything from putting your 4x4 into low range to building a hard-core rig worthy of our cover. How deep you get into the hobby is up to you, but we know just how to get you started with your new toy.

We have to warn you though, off-roading can be very challenging, a little pricey at times, even a little heartbreaking, but it's always a lot of fun. Welcome to our world. We'll take good care of you.

Four-Wheel Drive Defined
A four-wheel-drive system is nothing more than a way to send engine power (torque) to all four tires so you get as much traction as possible on rough terrain. A gearbox we call a transfer case sits behind your 4x4's engine and transmission and distributes torque to the front and rear axles through driveshafts. Most of the vehicles we talk about use a transfer case that sends half the torque to the front and half to the rear. We call this "part-time" four-wheel drive that you only use part of the time. On the street a part-time four-wheel-drive vehicle cruises around in two-wheel drive. When you hear the term "full-time" four-wheel drive or "all-wheel drive," it means that the transfer case can bias how much torque the front and rear axles receive through an internal differential. Vehicles with this kind of transfer case can take advantage of four-wheel drive even on dry pavement. Because off-road driving can be very challenging, most transfer cases have an additional gear reduction (called low range, or simply 4-Lo) that the driver can shift into to get more torque to the wheels.

Start Off In the Dirt
To get comfortable with your 4x4 off-road you need to start off easy. So find a dirt road near where you live. The buddy system is very important off-road, so don't even think about going wheeling without bringing a friend's 4x4 too! A lot of the time four-wheeling or off-roading is more about driving around obstacles than driving over them. Look for a trail that has a mix of mild hills, ruts, and gravel so that you can get a feel for how your 4x4 operates. Shift your transfer case into 4-Lo for best traction and keep your speed under 5 mph. With the extra gear reduction of the transfer case you shouldn't need to use much throttle or braking. Drive forward slowly, choosing the smoothest course you can take, and place each tire precisely where you think it will get the best grip. This is called picking your line, and it usually means looking for, and then driving over, the easiest path you can find.

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