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How To Drive On Rocks: Rockcrawling 101

Posted in Project Vehicles on June 1, 2011 Comment (0)
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So, you’ve got your vehicle set up for the trail, or at least you believe you have equipped it with all the essential gear for serious rockcrawling. What’s next? Do you know how to pick a line, or do you just expect the stout underpinnings of your vehicle to do all the work? How much air pressure should you run? What do you do when your rig breaks down? With this story, we plan to highlight the finer points of what it takes to make a typical wheeler excel in the world of rockcrawling. Whether you’re planning your first trip through the Rubicon as a newbie, or looking to hone your skills before taking that yearly weekend camping adventure with friends, knowing what works and what to avoid in the rocks can make or break a trip.

Warm Up
First-time rockcrawlers should never try to keep up with the pros. Instead, pick a trail that provides plenty of bypasses in case your lack of experience gets you into trouble. Virtually every trail in the U.S. has some kind of rating, be it mild or extreme. Typically, you can find these ratings on a plaque near the trailhead, or a map or website pertaining to the particular trail. Just like the challenges a newborn baby faces during the first couple years of life, to triumph at crawling you will need experience, and you are much better off practicing in an environment that is forgiving and safe.

Know Your Equipment
Remember that old saying, Built, not bought? We like to think of it as a golden rule to follow when rockcrawling. If you build your rig yourself, you are much better equipped to handle challenges such as broken parts or electrical gremlins on the trail. We’re not saying you shouldn’t go rockcrawling if you paid a shop to put your rig together, but we are saying that it is good to have a general understanding of how each component on your vehicle is assembled. Just as you wouldn’t ask your parents to balance your checkbook, you shouldn’t rely on others to fix your broken U-joint on the trail. If you don’t understand how a specific part goes together, ask a friend or shop to show youthe knowledge is priceless.

Avoid Wheelspin
If at all possible, try to keep your tires from tearing up terra firma. Not only will this help keep our public lands open, but it will preserve your equipment for a longer service life.

Air Down
When rockcrawling, your tires will need significantly less air than what they require at street pressures. Airing down gives your vehicle a much wider footprint to find traction, and a more pliable carcass to envelop rocks. The specific pressure varies from rig to rig because of tire size, wheel and tire type, and vehicle weight not to mention driving style. A good starting point for technical rockcrawling with an average-sized rig is 10 to 13 psi. Lower than that, and you risk losing a bead; any higher, and your tires will struggle to find traction.

Pack It Out
As with any outdoor activity, we recommend adhering to a strict policy of housekeeping. Do not leave unwanted items behind, and do your part to remove trash from our public lands. Rockcrawlers are a tiny minority in this country, and all it takes is one careless jerk to spoil what little access we currently have available to us.

Take the High Road In most cases, the easiest route through a technical rock section is over the tallest visible rocks. With lockers engaged and tire pressure adjusted properly, it is advisable to place your tires as high up as you can in a given section to help your undercarriage clear rocky obstacles. This technique also allows the driver and spotter a better perspective on the task at hand. Once you get your first tire on top of the tallest rock, the opposing tire will automatically want to follow along over the adjacent side of the obstacle, thanks to the gravity and momentum of the high-side tire as it returns to trail elevation.

Slow Down
There’s a reason we call it crawling. If you’ve never driven rocks before, know that excessive throttle application almost always results in misfortune. Instead of pressing the skinny pedal when your rig ceases forward momentum, take a second to think about the situation, ask a spotter for assistance, or get out of the vehicle and take a look at what’s hanging you up. Most technical rockcrawling obstacles can be completed under 2,000 rpm with appropriate traction and vehicle placement. Don’t try to show off in front of on-lookers doing so typically backfires, and you and your friends will be faced with making a trail repair or recovery that wasn’t necessary at all.

Use a Spotter
Unless you’ve driven over a specific obstacle in the past, take suggestions and/or directions from a spotter very seriously. When you are behind the wheel, you can’t see that sharp rock edge sneaking up on the inner side of the passenger-side tire, or what line might have worked for the guy four or six vehicles before you. A spotter is always your best line of defense against would-be problems on the trail. Get to know the various hand signals and communicate often. Once you are familiar with the basic signals, practice establishing and maintaining eye contact with your spotter throughout the entire attempt of an obstacle. Even when you hear an unfamiliar sound, do not turn your head to find the source, instead, continue looking at your spotter’s face and have faith in his or her ability to keep you informed. Maintaining eye contact establishes a level of trust between you and the spotter. This in turn creates a calming effect that aids both the driver and spotter, allowing each to do the job more effectively. Don’t be afraid to ask your spotter questions about the situation you may just learn something from the outside perspective.

Keep Tabs on Animals
If Rover must accompany you on the trail, be sure to keep him away from wildlife and or areas that are potentially dangerous. We often see dogs wandering free, getting in the way of the intended route of travelnot good. Keep your pets inside the vehicle when in motion, and always bring Zip-Loc bags to clean up any foul donations they try to leave behind. Nobody wants to step in doggy doo on the trail.

Protect Your Digits
Practice driving with your thumbs outside the inner area of the steering wheel. This tip is especially applicable to older rigs without power steering. It only takes one abrupt blow from an unseen bolder to rip the steering wheel from your grip, and if your thumb happens to strike a spoke of the steering wheel, your day can turn out very bad indeed.

Pick Lines, Not Fights
As with any vehicular sport, rockcrawling comes with a general expectation that those involved will act with respect and courtesy towards one another. However, sometimes things get heated when disagreements arise over which line to take or which gears to engage. When faced with a confrontation on the trail, remember that incidents can go one of two ways. Don’t let your inner bully take charge because such behavior only makes rockcrawlers as a whole look bad when things get physical. Take time to cool off and remember that everyone’s different, and someone will almost always disagree with your opinion.

Cross With Care
In rockcrawling, it is inevitable that you will encounter streams and/or rivers to cross. Be careful when negotiating these crossings; they are typically the first place the environmental activists look for evidence of misuse. Consider each and every water crossing to be a precious lifeline to the trail systems they intercept. If the water is too deep or moving too swiftly, plan a different route or cut the trip off early. An afternoon back at camp is better than a lost vehicle or life.

Armor Up
Installing items such as rock sliders, skidplating and heavy-duty steel bumpers, where applicable, will allow you to full take advantage of said equipment’s benefits in specific trail scenarios. Don’t be afraid to use your equipment to help you pivot the weight of the vehicle as you negotiate an obstacle. External rollcages and rock stingers are a huge asset when it comes to tight technical sections, but be careful not to inflict damage on trees and other vegetation as you pass through a tight squeeze.

Descend Safely
When traversing steep drop-offs or downgrades, use low gearing to slow the vehicle rather than the traditional braking. Avoid pressing the clutch and maintain a safe and steady speed.

When in Doubt, Winch It Out
This is typically what separates the experienced rockcrawler from those in the novice category. The experienced crawler will attempt to climb an obstacle until it is obvious that his or her rig is not up to the challenge, then without embarrassment ask the spotter to pull the winch cable. Conversely, a newbie will get to the same point and continue to hammer his or her rig until something snaps, or worse. We typically avoid winching if at all possible, but sometimes it’s much smarter to accept your vehicle’s limitations and move on to the next section of trail.

Carry Spares
We’ve seen it happen to the best of them. No matter how well-equipped you think your rig is, breakage is simply a fact of life in rockcrawling scenarios. At the very least, we suggest carrying spare U-joints, hubs, and or axleshafts, and even a front or rear driveline. These are the most common trouble spots we see break regularly. Other items such as extra wiring, fuses, nuts, bolts, and liquids are also good things to consider.

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