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How to Prepare For the Worst - Trail Readiness

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on July 1, 2001
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Whether you're leaving the pavement in a stock 4x4 or driving a fully modified trail rig, how you prepare for the backcountry can make the difference between a pleasurable trip and a bad experience. And in some cases, it may make the difference in whether you return.

We can't begin to count the number of stuck, broken down, and "spent the night in a vehicle" stories we have heard. Recently, a guy was driving a Hummer alone on a mountain road and the snow became too deep for the vehicle. While he was turning around, the vehicle slid off the road and got stuck. Using a cell phone, he and his friend provided their location to the authorities and then waited for daylight to be rescued. When a Sheriff's helicopter showed up in the morning, the cold and hungry pair were rescued, but they had to abandon the Hummer.

Another time, two vehicles were running a local trail when one of them broke a tie rod. Using the other vehicle, they drove about 18 miles to a nearby city. By the time they reached town, it was dark and all the shops were closed. With very little money in their pockets, they slept in the front seat of their Wrangler. In the morning, getting the tie rod welded was the easy part of their ordeal. Unfortunately, it had snowed during the night, and by the time they found their way back to the trail, the snow was too deep for the stock Wrangler. Leaving the Wrangler at the trailhead, they walked nearly 3 miles through the snow to repair the broken vehicle only to find that it, too, was not able to drive through the newly fallen snow. When frostbite set in, they gave up and walked back to the Wrangler. One of them required treatment at a local hospital.

Each of these situations happened within 20 miles of a major city, and each time the stranded four-wheelers had a cell phone and were within the service range. Imagine how their situations would have turned out if they didn't have cell phone service or if they were traveling in a remote area.

Regardless of whether you're hiking, riding, or driving into the backcountry, there are a couple of basic rules to follow. First, tell someone (who cares) where you're going and when you intend to be back. Leave a map with your destination circled. Then on the way back, call home when you reach pavement. That way, if you don't make it home, the rescue party will know where to start looking for you. Second, pack items that will take care of your needs. Water, food, a first aid kit, and clothing for the expected and unexpected weather are at the top of this list. If you're planning a one-day trip and end up spending a week out there, how comfortable would you be? And third, prepare your vehicle. This means performing routine maintenance and packing the vehicle with tools and a few spare parts. It's a good idea to include those tools and parts that are unique to your own vehicle or hard to find. Even if you don't have the experience to repair a vehicle, it's easier to find someone who can fix a vehicle than it is to search for a specialty part or tool. A good rule of thumb for carrying parts: If possible, carry any part you have broken more than twice and cannot be upgraded any further.

When leaving the safety of the pavement to venture into the backcountry, what you should carry and how to equip your vehicle depends on the roughness of the trail you intend to run and, of course, how long you're planning to stay.

Furthermore, there is no need to carry extra axles on a picnic to the local mountains. On the other hand, if you're traveling into a remote area of Mexico or planning to run the 33-mile Dusy/Ershim Trail (a trail set between two wilderness areas), you'll need to carefully plan and prepare for the trip. The Forest Service rates off-highway trails as Easy, More Difficult, and Most Difficult.

In order to bring some sense of reality and organization to trail preparation, let's review the items to pack and the vehicle enhancement by the Forest Service trail ratings.

Beginning with Easy Trails: An Easy 4x4 route is a trail that can be negotiated by a high ground clearance, two-wheel-drive vehicle. While a four-wheel-drive vehicle will make the trip safer and easier, it's not required. (It's similar to ski run ratings: Circle designates Easy, a square designates More Difficult, and a diamond means you'd better be experienced or it's not going to be fun.)

Regardless of your destination, it's always important to do preventative maintenance before any trip. Finding a problem before it causes a breakdown is definitely your best course of action. Next, selecting the items to pack in the limited space of a 4x4 for a multitude of situations requires some careful thought. The basic items carried on an Easy trip will also be carried on More Difficult and Most Difficult trips. But as the trails become more difficult, so does the list of items you want to carry.

You should create your own list, but food, water, a first aid kit, warm clothing, and a CB radio or cell phone should always be at the top of everyone's list. Here are some suggestions for collecting basic items: Buy a first aid kit and add your own personal needs to it. Spend a little extra money on a fire extinguisher that has a gauge to indicate its condition. Never buy or use a tow strap with a hook attached to the end. Hooks are added weight at the end of the strap, which can become flying projectiles. In addition to a jacket, carry a hooded windbreaker in a small bag. Give priority to items that have more than one use. For example, a large trash bag can also be used as a rain poncho, sleeping bag, or windbreaker.

A basic toolbox should be in the vehicle anytime it leaves the pavement. There are plenty of basic tool sets to fit anyone's budget. As the difficulty of the trails increase, the toolbox will expand. If your vehicle is assembled with metric bolts, then buy metric tools rather than SAE or buy a combination metric and SAE set of basic tools. Even a pair of pliers, a crescent wrench, and a couple of screwdrivers may be all you need to make a simple repair that without any tools would have been impossible. One of the best ways to collect tools in your 4x4 is to work on the vehicle at home with the tools you carry in the vehicle. That way, if you're not carrying a tool and need it, simply add it to the toolbox.

Now that we've covered basic trail preparations, let's step up to the More Difficult trails.

Unlike an Easy trip, a More Difficult trail requires 4WD. You'll need the traction from all the wheels working to pull your 4x4 over the rougher terrain of a More Difficult trail. The rocks are bigger, the hills are taller, and the trails are tighter. You'll also need to consider a few vehicle upgrades, and, of course, pack more stuff. Most vehicles negotiating More Difficult trails are running at least 31-inch-tall tires. Carrying a heavier jack to lift the vehicle from an awkward position is important since most OEM jacks are not strong enough to take the abuse. Small hydraulic jacks are sturdy and can be placed on a stack of rocks and, of course, Hi-Lift jacks are strong and provide a wide range of uses. We carry both the hydraulic and Hi-Lift jacks.

Packing for a More Difficult trail means thinking about breakdowns and trail repairs. For flat tires: Bring a tire repair kit and air pump. Break a power steering hose: Bring a new hose, clamps, and fluid. A brake line breaks: Bring a section of brake line, fluid, and a plug (we carry a double flare tool). The toolbox also begins to expand: test light, assorted nuts and bolts, tie-wraps, fuses, special tools, and more. Suddenly, traveling with other vehicles is important. If you decide to be aggressive and become stuck, then someone is there to help you. The sport of four-wheeling is no different than any other sport: As your skills improve, the vehicle is upgraded to improve capability, the stuff carried onboard accumulates, and you'll begin searching for more difficult terrain. At that point, you're referred to as an off-road enthusiast. Welcome to the club.

As you can imagine, a Most Difficult trail or a trip into a remote area requires even more preparation and additional vehicle upgrades. A rear locking differential isn't just recommended, it is now required. In fact, most four-wheelers who run the toughest trails have also installed a locker or limited-slip in the front differential. The tire size moves up to at least a 33-inch or a 35-inch tire. Even 38-inch and 42-inch tires are becoming more popular on the Most Difficult trails. If you haven't already installed some type of rocker panel protection, you'll need it now. A winch becomes useful to pull your 4x4 or another vehicle from a precarious position. Having a winch means carrying leather gloves, D-shackles, a tree-saver strap, and a snatch block.

On tough trails, four-wheelers lower the tire pressure for added traction. They also enhance the stock rollbar or build a full rollcage for more protection. Trail repairs now become a common occurrence. As a result, at least one vehicle in the group should have an underhood welder. This welder can also power a grinder or a drill. At this level of difficulty, a buddy vehicle becomes extremely important. But most of all, if you're planning to run the Most Difficult trails, you can never whimper over body damage. If you do, you're on the wrong trail.

When the difficulty of the trail increases, so does the preparation and the number of items you carry. Don't forget you'll need room for the wife, kids, camping gear, food, and soda. By now, you're probably wondering how to carry all the stuff. There isn't an easy answer. But four-wheelers seem to find a place in under-seat boxes, center consoles, gloveboxes, speaker cabinets, overhead consoles, roof racks, rear racks, trailers, or to the outside of the vehicle.Good luck!

Trail Preparation GuideEasy
Vehicle upgrades for Easy trails: None. Any stock 4x4 can run trails rated Easy.

Vehicle Checks: Fan belt(s) and hoses are in good condition; engine oil level; transmission fluid; radiator coolant; seatbelts secure and working; tire air pressure (also check spare); tire wear: worn no more than 60 percent

Basic Items To Carry:
Water
Snacks
Jacket And A Hat
Basic Toolbox (See Itemized List Below)
First Aid Kit
Air Pressure Gauge
Fire Extinguisher
DC air pump
Spare Tire
Tire Jack For Your Vehicle
Duct Tape
Tow Strap
Shovel (At Least A Fold-Up Type)
Rags
Flashlight And Extra Batteries
40-Channel CB (Sideband CB Work The Best)
Cell Phone Is Always A Good Idea When Traveling
Trash Bags

Basic Toolbox Includes:
3/8-Inch Drive Socket Set With 3/8-Inch To 3/4-Inch Sockets
Crescent Wrench (Small & Medium Size)
Electrical Tape
Allen Wrenches
Pliers
Standard & Phillips Screwdrivers
Open-End Box Wrenches (3/8-Inch To 3/4-Inch)
Note: If Your 4x4 Is Assembled With Metric Nuts And Bolts, Buy Metric Tools.

More Difficult
Vehicle Upgrades For More Difficult Trails
Tires: Upgrade To At Least 31-Inch Tires
Adjust Air Pressure: Check Manufacturer's Suggestion (We Use: Sand/Dirt: 8-12 Lb; Rocks/Dirt: 15-18 Lb; Snow/Mud: Depends On Tire Tread And Strength Of Sidewall, But Lower Usually Equates To Better Traction.)
Rocker Panel Protection
Lift Kit Probably Required For Taller Tires
Front Tow Hook
Rear Hitch Or Tow Hooks
Skidplates Under Transmission/Transfer Case
Rear Posi Or Locker Highly Recommended
Extended Maintenance Checklist
U-Joints
Brakes
Loose Nuts Or Bolts
Shocks
Grease: Steering/U-Joints
Check Gear Oils: Transfer Case/Differentials

Additional Items: A 40-channel walkie-talkie (as a spare CB); a hydraulic jack and/or a Hi-Lift Jack; off-highway lights: non-street-legal type are brighter; specialty tools (for example, large nut wrench to remove front hub); an extra flashlight; a water purification system; a fire starter (a lighter, matches, a striker, and so on); grease; gloves and hand cleaner; jumper cables; a tire star wrench; a fullsize shovel; WD-40 spray; brake fluid; power steering fluid; motor oil; transmission fluid; bungee cords; extra gas and a funnel; a short cable or a chain with hooks on both ends: use to attach to vehicles without hooks or a hitch.

Expanded Toolbox Might Include
Spare Parts For Trail Repairs
Bring Anything That Has Broken Twice
Electrical Wire No. 16 Or No. 10
Extra Lug Nuts
Assorted Nuts & Bolts
Valve Stem
Fuel Line Hose
Radiator Hose
Front Hub Or Flange
Spark Plugs
Coil/Electronic Ignition
Tire Repair Kit
Fan Belt(S)
Tie-Wraps
Electric Fuel Pump
Fuses
U-Joints (Driveshaft & Axles)
Radiator Stop Leak, Silver Flakes In Tube
Larger, Special-Application Nuts Or Bolts (I.E., Back Of Transfer Case On Jeeps)
Extra Spark Plug Wire, Two Of The Longest Ones

Most Difficult
Additional Vehicle Upgrades For Most Difficult Trails
Tires: Upgrade To 33-Inch Or 35-InchBuy Additional Sets Of Tires/Wheels: Sand: Paddle Tires On Wide Rims Mud/Snow/Rock: 8-Inch Rim With Radical Tread
Dirt/Light Sand: 10-Inch Rim With Milder Tread
Lift Kit: Required For Taller Tires
Rocker Panel Protection (If You Haven't Already Installed Them)
Cb Radio (With Sideband For Maximum Reception)
Skidplates Under Spring Pads
Rear Locker Required
Front Locker Or Limited-Slip Recommended8,000-Lb Winch Or Stronger (Install On/Off Switch)

Additional Items
Spark Plug
Wrench
Magnet
Cotter Keys, Various Sizes
Files: Flat & Round
Large Channel Locks
Silicone, RTV
Two Sizes Of Pipe Wrenches
C-Clamps
Cotter Keys, Various Sizes
Valve Stem Remover
Voltage Meter Or Test Light
Larger Sockets
Battery Terminal Cleaner (Wire Type)Electrical Connectors, Crimp Type1/4-Inch Drive Set With Smaller Socket Sizes
Metric Sockets: 10mm, 12mm (3/8-Inch Drive)
1/2-Inch Drive Ratchet With Larger Socket Sizes
Tube Wrenches: 3/4-Inch, 1/2-Inch, 9/16-Inch, 5/8-Inch, 11/16-Inch
Welding Rod & Hood
Goggles
Winch Kit: Tree Strap, Hi-Lift Jack, Snatch Block, Pickle Fork, Shackle, And Gloves

Optional Hard Parts You May Consider Carrying:
Axles
Alternator
Transfer Case
Spindle Bearings
Driveshaft
Spider Gears
Ring-And-Pinion
Starter & Solenoid
Tie Rods & Ends
Expanded Toolbox
Deep Sockets: 3/8-Inch To 3/4-InchLoctite
Large Crescent Wrench
Breaker Bar

Additional Items To Consider Carrying On An Every Four-Wheeling Trip:
Binoculars
Tire Sealer Inflater
Bottle Opener
Cooler Cup
Pocket Knife
Extra Keys
Compass Or GPS
Sunglasses And/Or Goggles
Ice And Ice Chest Or DC-Powered CoolerCamera, Case, Film, And Batteries
Maps: State, County, Forest, BLM, And So On (Must Carry)
Snow Tire Chains (Winter)
Tune-Up Items (I.E., Distributor Cap, Sensor, And So Forth)
R&M Hot Water Shower
Under Hood Welder
Pull-Pal (A Land Anchor)

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