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Wheeling 101: Beginner’s Guide to Driving Off-Road

Wheeling 101: Beginner’s Guide to Driving Off-Road

Off-road driving requires a different set of skills and more preparation than cruising down a busy highway. Since it is the road less taken, it’s always best to go with at least one other driver, especially if you’re a novice, as off-road trails can leave you stranded. That extra vehicle means you’ll have a dependable hand if you get stuck and won’t have to walk ten miles out if you have a break-down. Here are some essential rules to follow when you are new to wheeling your Jeep Wrangler.

Table of Contents
  1. Know Your Vehicle
  2. Scout the Terrain
  3. Keep Up the Momentum
  4. Weather Report
  5. Pack All Essentials

Off-road driving is nothing short of awesome, provided speed is not your main adrenaline rush. Even gravel roads require you slow down as speeding will throw a lot of rocks, many of which will hit your windshield and your Wrangler’s body and can cause expensive repairs. Gravel roads also have the tendency to create “washboard”, giving your vehicle the shakes so badly you may think your arms and legs are working loose at the joints. Dirt roads are a virtual obstacle course with ruts, submerged boulders, uneven surfaces, and potholes deep enough to sink a tire. Slowing down not only shields you from unpleasant surprises, you’ll get more enjoyment from that unspoiled scenery you were so anxious to see.

Know Your Vehicle

Before beginning your off-road experience, take time to appraise your Wrangler. Become familiar with its width and length so you know just how tight a spot it can squeeze through. Take a look at the undercarriage so you know how much clearance it has. Invest in skid plates to protect your differential and steering box. Damaging important components by scraping the bottom of your Wrangler on a high-rise can turn your mean machine into a gutless wonder. Know the minimum ground clearance at the lowest point of your axle. If you are planning on rock climbing, invest in a lift kit. Keep a mechanic’s tool kit and repair manual on hand for simple patch-up jobs. Sometimes, all you need is a turn of the wrench to get your stalled-out Jeep running again.

Scout the Terrain

When in question, get out and examine the terrain you’ll be driving. A water-filled pothole won’t tell you how deep it is and soft mud can be deeper than it looks. Deflate your tires a little before driving in mud. Before cresting a rugged hill, check to see what’s at the bottom. On snow-covered roads, it’s not the snow that’s dangerous, it’s the ice underneath. A good foreknowledge of the road will relieve you of some unexpected surprises.

When water crossing, learn to be a good judge of depth and what lies on the bottom. Smooth water usually means a mud or sand bottom. If the water is choppy and rough, there are rocks underneath. Don’t drive against the current. Take it at right angles, letting the current float you, if necessary, to the opposite bank. Create a “bow wake” by keeping a steady speed. When you have finished crossing, make sure your brakes are dry and your air filter undamaged before continuing on your way.

Keep Up the Momentum

Although you need to slow down for unpaved roads, the best rule of thumb is to drive at an even pace. Your momentum can usually guide you through difficult obstacles, such as mud, sand and climbing steep hills. If you get stuck in the mud, soft sand, or snow, don’t spin your wheels trying to get out. You’ll only dig yourself in deeper. Try gently backing up, then moving forward a few times. If that doesn’t work, it’s time for a push or a tow.

Use first gear for driving up those tall hills and a higher gear for driving down. Keep both hands on the wheel for those difficult roads, and avoid placing your thumbs within the center area of your steering wheel. Kick back from driving over rocky terrain can break a thumb!

When crossing obstacles, such as ditches, logs, boulders, etc., approach from a 45-degree angle. This way, you should always be able to keep at least three wheels on the ground.

Weather Report

Invaluable for long-distance driving, but important even for short off-road trips is a good foreknowledge of the weather conditions. When rain season hits desert areas, flash flooding is common. Hard rains in mountain areas can cause avalanches and washed-out roads. The first snow of the year is usually the most treacherous, with dangerous ice lurking just under the thin snow area. In areas that receive heavy snows, blizzards can cause white-out, making it impossible to see more than a few yards at a time in front of your Jeep.

Pack All Essentials

Driving off-road means preparation for anything that might happen. A GPS system is good, but not always dependable on off-road trails. Take along your maps and a compass and carry drinking water and food. If you’re going into an area where your Jeep might over-heat, like hot, dry desert terrain or steep mountain climbing, bring along enough water for your Jeep, as well.

If you don’t have a winch, at least have a come-along or strap. A hi-lift jack is very effective and can help get you out of most difficult situations. Let someone know where you are going and your expected time for returning. Equip your Jeep with a two-way or CB radio. Cell phones won’t always work in remote areas. Especially for those rocky hills, take along not only a good spare tire and invest in a good tire repair kit.

Other important items include a flashlight, a blanket, an emergency medical supply kit, a hatchet, and a fold-up shovel. Sometimes, hacking down a little brush to make matting for your wheels when you’re stuck will do the trick, and sometimes you just have to shovel your way out. The handiest flashlight is one you can mount, or that has a headpiece to leave your hands free if you have to work on your vehicle after dark.

Be courteous to other off-road drivers and give the right-away to vehicles on the left when on a narrow road. Stay on the road when driving through delicate terrain so as not to cause environmental damage. Also, mind the rules concerning estuaries and spawning beds. If you are a friendly off-road driver, there will be greater support for off-road trails and the locals will enjoy having you come back.

REMINDER: Always be courteous to those around you and respect where you wheel! Always clean up after yourself and stay within designated areas.