Off-Roading 101 - How to wheel in Rocks, Mud, Snow, and Sand
The Four Basic Food Groups: Rocks, Sand, Mud, And Snow
Let's start off by saying who this story is not for. If you've worn out three sets of mud-terrains. If you have ever built a lower control arm from scrap iron on the trail. If you not only know how to change a front axleshaft assembly, but can do it in 30 minutes or less. If more than half of your truck's body parts have trail damage on them, then this article is not for you.
Okay - are they all gone? The guys who are already "in the club?" This article is for the rest of you - for guys just starting to explore and enjoy the off-road pastime. And it can be a bit intimidating. First, there's a whole new language to learn - like all of the tech and components, for example. Secondly, it seems like there's some unofficial club that you're only part of if you have a mullet, a tank top, and a truck that loses parts on the freeway. Don't be scared - we've all sported mullets at one time or another, and the tank top is optional. And after you've beaten your truck for a while, parts will just fall off naturally. Like being the stranger at the local bar - it takes a little bit of time before you are one of the boys.
We were reminded of this when we went to the Mounds Off-Road Vehicle Area in Mt. Morris, Michigan, to take some photographs for this article. Not being a regular, and showing up in a nearly new Wrangler with 35s on it, we looked completely like someone we would have nicknamed "Visa" or "Mastercard" a few years ago - someone new to the sport with a few fresh parts bolted onto their new 4x4. We had no idea where we were going, and we had no intention of getting stuck, which made us look even more awkward. So let us guide you, and help you into the unofficial 4x4 club of knowing the basics of off-road driving.
We're going to give you the basics of driving off-road on these four main types of terrain: rocks, sand, mud, and snow. We'll toss out our first disclaimer right now: there are countless variations of each of these terrains. Are we talking Big Bear, California, mud, or are we talking Montgomery, Alabama, mud? While these are totally different, there are some basic driving techniques that will at least get you into off-roading. You'll develop a sense for what works best with your own home grown-flavor of wheeling as you gain experience.
So let's lock the hubs (more of a figure of speech these days) and hit the dirt!
One size does not fit all, and generally what works well on rocks doesn't work well on sand. In fact, you'll find by the end of this article, that many of the techniques for sand, mud and snow are very similar. Use these same driving styles on rocks, though, and you'll end up with a whole lot of broken parts. But, there are some things that are universal, or nearly universal. This includes tire choices, running lower air pressure in your tires and basic trail rules. This also includes never going alone. If you're in the middle of nowhere, you can end up stranded and become a statistic in the most extreme situations.
Before you go off road anywhere, there are a few things that you need to make sure you have with you. It's common trail etiquette that you bring your own - even if everyone else has one too.
The first group of must-haves is all about changing a flat tire on the trail, staringwith a full-size spare. Laughing? You'd be surprised how many people lift their truck and cheap-out on buying a full size spare. If you needed four 35s to get into whatever mess killed a tire, you'll need four 35s to get out of it too! Here's another favorite thing to overlook if you've changed wheels and lugnuts - make sure you have the correct lugwrench to actually change a tire. And, the final tire-related tool is a jack. If you have put bigger tires on your truck, the stock jack probably won't lift the vehicle high enough to change a tire. This, and the uneven terrain on which you're usually trying to use a jack off road, is why the Hi-Lift jack is so popular.
In every type of four wheeling, lowering the air pressure in your tires will improve traction. You'll need a few tools to help you do this: namely a gauge that shows lower pressures accurately and a device to release air from the tires more quickly than pushing the ignition key against the Schrader valve. There are quite a few versions of both, including very trick, very expensive tools, and very simple, not-so-expensive ones. How much air you let out depends on what type of terrain you're on, what type of vehicle you're in, and a bit of personal experience. We'll give you some guidelines in each section on specific terrain. If you're new the sport, it's also likely that you don't have an air-compressor on board (and forget about those little electric ones at Wal-Mart - you'll be there for days trying to air back up with these). How much you air down also depends on how far you'll need to drive before you can air back up. If there's a gas station with a working air compressor a block or two away from your off-road spot, you can air down quite a bit more than if your drive includes any highway speeds.
The last items you must have before you go off road are your own tow trap and suitable attachment points front and rear on your truck. While it seems a bit crazy to have so many tow straps on the trail, there are some good reasons for this. First, no one wants to wait while a tow strap is tracked down. Second, you don't want to trust someone else's cut and tattered strap to pull your truck out. Next, things move around on the trail, and you might not come home with your strap if it's the only one on a trail with ten other rigs. Finally, straps get beat up and dirty when used, and it's up to you take care of your own equipment rather than trashing someone else's and letting them clean it up when they get home. For attachment points, a factory tow hook on the front and rear are fine, although tow hooks on the rear aren't that common from the factory. If you truck has a receiver hitch, you can purchase a receiver clevis from an off-road supply company or some hardware and tractor stores. These slide into the receiver and accept a clevis to attach a tow strap. If you don't have a tow hook on the front, do some research and find out how to safely and securely mount one on your truck.
Finally, you don't have to have off-road tires to go off road. But, when you're ready to change tires, here are some things to consider. First, it's true that bigger is better. Taller tires give you more ground clearance. And you'll soon realize that more ground clearance is good. A wider tire helps glide over sand and snow, while a narrow tire will tend to dig down more quickly. Tires designed for off-road use generally have much stronger sidewall construction compared to run-of-the-mill street tires. It was amazing to us when we started off-roading to see just how easy tires get cut on tree roots and rocks. Finally, the lug pattern makes a huge difference in off-road performance. A mud terrain tire is a great all-purpose off road tire, giving a stock vehicle a very noticeable improvement in capability in all types of terrain.
We used to think that rocks were native only to the Southwest, but the reality is that rocks are everywhere. And rockcrawling is popular coast-to-coast. So here's the short list of driving techniques that will maximize your fun and minimize the damage to your 4x4.
A rocky section is the one type of terrain where speed is not your friend. That's why it's called rockcrawling. It's all about finesse - choosing the right line and getting your tires to go exactly where you think they ought to. If you attack rocks with speed and/or wheel-speed, you can't control where your vehicle will end up, and it's nearly always a loud and painful breaking experience.
We'll oversimplify rocks for now. The driving technique for rocks is picking a line - where your tires will go - that will get you through. This is why it's called technical. You have to estimate exactly where all four of your tires will go as you drive over an obstacle. You also have to figure out if your back tires will have the same line, or if they will veer off to one side or another as your front tires steer.
Remember geometry from middle school or high school? Use it to quickly imagine triangles under your truck. Do this in the front and rear (approach and departure angles) to see if you have enough clearance to get the metal parts of your rig over the rock so your tires can meet them. You'll also need to become aware of what point in between the front and rear tires will contact, or clear, the rocks that you drive over. This is called the break-over angle. This will likely be a trail-and-error deal. You don't have to actually measure any of these angles, but you do have to get a feeling for how much space and what angles your truck has so you can estimate from the driver's seat whether you'll be able to clear trail obstacles.
And then there's a bit of physics. Will certain rocks you drive over teeter totter as you traverse them? If you use the sidewall of the tire, will it push your 4x4 to the side, or climb the rock?
Finally, there's the back up plan. If you your tires slip, which way will the truck slide? And how far? Will you be able to drive out of it? There's a lot to think about, but that's why it's so challenging. And the less likely you are to make it through something, the more rewarding it is when you do.
If off-roading on rocks is about technique and equipment, then sand is about momentum and reading the dune. This is also a terrain that you can have a lot of fun on with a stock vehicle, especially if it's an SUV with a V-8.
But sand can also be evil. Dunes change every time the wind blows. If you're having a blast on one specific dune on Saturday, it may be a completely different dune the next day. Don't trust sand.
Also, pay careful attention to the other side of a dune. There are two things to be watchful of. One is to make sure there aren't vehicles or people on the other side. Some areas require vehicles to have tall orange flag whips which make it easier to see them on the other side of dunes. The other thing to watch is if the dune falls away on the other side. Regardless of how many safety items you have, caution is still smart. Typically, dunes have a gradual side with a sharp drop off on the other side (razorback). We've seen drops of more than 50 feet, which will mess you up badly if you crest the top with speed. And just because you see people going over the dune in one spot, does not mean it's safe twenty feet to the left or to the right. There are two ways to check this out. One is to drive around to the other side of the dune. That's not always possible, so the other method is to drive to the top and look before you launch your vehicle over. Get out and walk to the top and take a look.
So the key to driving on dunes is momentum. You'll need enough to mount the dune, but not so much that you go bouncing over variations in the surface. With most vehicles, you'll need to gradually let off the throttle as you climb to keep from digging in. Once your tires start spinning without moving the truck forward, it's time to abort that run. Unless you're driving a buggy with paddle tires, digging in sand will only get you stuck, or stuck worse. You also dig big holes in the dune which everyone has to drive around, which won't win you any new friends.
Leave cresting the top of dunes at 50 mph to the trophy trucks. Get to the top with just enough speed for your momentum to carry you over the dune and down the other side. Too much momentum, and you'll launch off the top; too little momentum and you'll get stuck on the way up and have to back down. Backing down a dune can be very tricky-more so than you'd think. Be very careful to back your vehicle down the dune, keeping it as straight as you can.
Sand can be a blast to drive on. The only time you'll damage sheetmetal is if you run into another 4x4 or you roll - and both are pretty easy to avoid with some common sense and good judgement.
For more than half the country, mud is the type of terrain that you'll find at your local off-road venue. And to drive on it, er...in it, successfully, you'll need a combination of techniques from rock crawling and sand. You'll also need a boat-load of quarters for the coin-op car wash.
First, you need to understand that there are hundreds of different types of mud. Each requires a little different approach. And your mud hole can change as more vehicles drive through it and as it dries up. So think of it as constantly changing terrain that you can't really accurately read. And things hide in mud. Enjoy gambling in Vegas? Good, then you'll love 'wheeling in mud!
Before getting into the mud hole, you'll need to pick your line. Watch someone else go through first to see how deep it is and what lies on the bottom. If they bounce around a lot, there are probably rocks or logs, or at least huge ruts in the bottom that you'll need to drive around or over. Something very important to watch is how high the water comes on the vehicle. If you have an electric fan on your 4x4, you can break fan blades, or if the air-intake is low, you can suck water into your engine, which leads to bent engine parts, leading to a very bad time off road.
Next, figure out how much speed you'll need coming into the mud hole in order to power through it and drive out. One thought is that you can drive through any mud hole if you hit it going fast enough. That may be true, but it's not necessarily the best approach. For one thing, a lot of speed means a lot of bouncing over bumpy terrain. And your tires don't do much to keep you moving forward if they are in the air.
If mudding is your sport, plan on changing every lubricant in your 4x4 a few times a year. Hot metal parts hitting cool water sucks that water and mud past the seals and mixes it with truck fluids.
Okay, technically, snow is weather, not terrain. But it can be a blast to drive on. Especially if you have a good heater and a Thermos of hot coffee. It can also turn what would be a scenic drive in the summer time into one of the most challenging trails you've ever been on.
So, what do you need to know? First, the Eskimos supposedly have over 1,000 different names for snow, each depicting a slightly different type. We can't vouch for the validity of that statement, but the important thing is that not all snow is the same. Powder snow is more like sand to drive on, and wet snow has some characteristics of mud. You'll need to take a few tips from each of the other sections in this article, and apply them to the type of snow you find yourself in.
Moderation in speed is the key to driving in snow. You'll need a bit of momentum to keep moving, especially if you're climbing a hill. But snow is slippery, making turning and stopping extra challenging. Too much momentum and you'll end up somewhere you didn't expect and certainly don't want to be.