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.
Mud is the scariest off-road terrain on the planet because it's always changing. Our best advice is to drive around as much of it as you can. When you have to drive through it, pick a line that looks shallow and as dry as possible. Most drivers will shift the transfer case into 4-Lo (to keep the engine from bogging down) and use Third and Fourth gears in the transmission to keep the tires spinning pretty fast. Vehicle speed is important. Drive fast enough to keep your momentum up, but slow enough that you're still in control. You'll want to avoid standing water because if you blast through it too fast you could suck water into the engine. If you go through it too slow, you'll get stuck in the soft mud usually hidden underneath. When you do get stuck (and trust us, you will) try backing out the way you came in, while sawing the steering wheel side to side with just enough throttle to fling the mud out of the tires. If that doesn't work, give up and start digging! Stuff anything you can under the tires to get traction. Jacking the truck up out of the mud can help, but if the mud is deep most jacks will just sink. If the mud is really soupy, your stuck vehicle will tend to sink. So the faster you can get your 4x4 out, the easier it's going to be.
Rockcrawling is arguably the most technical form of off-road driving. For better traction, begin by deflating your tires to approximately half the air pressure that you run on the pavement. Take a second to note if anything under your 4x4 looks vulnerable to damage so you can make an effort to avoid dragging those parts over rocks. While you're out of your 4x4, walk over the section of rocks you plan to drive. You want to look for the smoothest path you can take and you also want to find anything hazardous that might damage you or your tires. After you've picked your line, get back in your 4x4 and shift your transfer case into 4-Lo and your transmission into First gear. Roll down your windows (so you can see and hear better) and begin to creep forward following the mental line that you've scouted out. Listen for tires slipping and rocks hitting your undercarriage. If there are rocks that are too big to straddle, you'll want to place your tires on top of them and attempt to drive over them. Be smooth and move slowly over each rock like you were picking your way through a minefield. If you lose traction, back up and look for a new line that may be easier.
Driving on the sand should be done with the transfer case in 4-Hi and the transmission in Drive. Again you'll want to deflate your tires down to half the air pressure you run on the street. Keep in mind that sand can be tougher to drive on during the day when it's hot, dry, and loose. Like in the mud, momentum will help get you through the toughest (loosest) places, so keep your speed up in the 10 to 15 mph range. Steering and braking will take longer in the sand so scan 30 to 50 yards in front of your 4x4 for obstacles, vehicles, and people. When you do stop, find some firm ground. Parking on a downhill slope will help keep you from getting stuck. If you do get stuck, try to back up in your tracks and pick a new line. If you bury yourself to the point you're just spinning your tires, stop! You need to dig the sand away from around your tires and axles so you're not trying to drive out of four holes at once. We've also had good luck lifting the vehicle with a Hi-Lift and putting a piece of wood or spare tire under each wheel to get the 4x4 back up on top of the sand. And one more warning: We know it's tempting, but don't ever drive through salt water--it's awful for every part of your 4x4!