DRIVING YOUR 4x4 OFF ROAD
When riding off-road, you should be familiar with how to maneuver your vehicle on all types of terrain, and under a variety of conditions. Here are a few tips to get you out of some tough predicaments.
Off-road driving is a game of finesse. Your goal should be to have minimal impact on the terrain, while managing to get through it.
Choosing Your Line
A common term used in off-road driving is "line". The "line" is the approach and path that you take through an area in over and around obstacles. This path should take into consideration several factors. You are considering your best path to avoid damage and maintain traction to get over, around or through whatever you are negotiating. You are taking into consideration your undercarriage which includes your differentials, axle tubes, suspension, lower shock towers, your oil pan, transmission pan, exhaust, drive shafts, lower fenders, spare tire, anything that hangs down and can hang you up or suffer damage. The idea is to think ahead and imagine the vehicle driving through the path you intend to take BEFORE you try it. This approach helps you to plan your way through obstacles while minimizing damage and keeping your momentum.
Sometimes it is difficult to navigate your line of choice yourself because it can be hard to see everything around your vehicle from the driver seat. This is where the help of a "spotter" can be quite valuable. A spotter would be someone standing outside of your vehicle watching your path and providing direct to you, both verbally and through use of hand signals. A spotter’s job can be what makes or breaks a run through an obstacle course. Describing what makes a good spotter can be difficult but you know when you have a good spotter. It's also good to note that you are better served by one good spotter carefully guiding your vehicle through a line rather than a whole group of "wanna be" spotters shouting out directions.
Riding through tight spots
Keep the driver's side of the vehicle close to obstacles so you can judge distances more accurately. (Just don't forget about the rest of the vehicle!)
Riding through deep ruts
Heavily used tracks often become deeply rutted, to the point where it is impossible to drive without getting the undercarriage hung up. To prevent this, drive with one wheel in the rut and the other wheel on the middle hump. If there is enough room on the side, drive with one wheel on the hump, and one on the far side of one of the ruts.
Riding through mud, sand, or snow
When you're riding through deep sand or snow you should deflate your tires to increase the tire's footprint, giving more area to spread the weight of the vehicle around and get better traction. You'll want to watch your ground clearance, it will be reduced.
If you get stuck in deep sand you can deflate your tires to as low as around 8 to 12 lbs, it will help you get unstuck. Make sure you re-inflate your tires immediately when you air them down that far or you may risk damaging your rims.
Keep your speed steady
Drive at a steady pace without spinning your tires. Keep the pace somewhat faster so you don't bog down in deep areas. If the tires start to spin try turning slightly and/or slowing down slightly to allow the tires to regain traction.
Dealing with muddy ruts
Often times you are forced to drive in ruts. In these cases you need to keep your tires pointed into the ruts or you could damage your vehicle. Be careful that you don't allow them to lead you somewhere where you don't want to go.
Hard and soft snow
There are two basic states of snow; soft and hard. The hard snow keeps you from sinking, but can be more slippery, almost like ice. If the snow melts somewhat and becomes slushy it can become more difficult to drive in. Avoid steep inclines.
Driving over ditches, logs, rocks and other obstacles
When approaching obstacles, such as a ditch, it's best to be at an angle, so that only one tire enters the ditch at a time when crossing. This leaves the other three tires on solid ground to provide traction to get you across. If you enter squarely, then an entire axle could become useless, plus add to the difficulty of getting out.
1. Before you drive over large rocks, consider whether you need to build a ramp in front of and behind any rock that has a steep approach and/or departure that could ground your vehicle.
2. Since the underside of your truck has many fragile and vital components (differentials, drive shafts, transmission, transfer case, oil pan, exhaust, gas tank), it's best to drive over an obstacle by placing one tire on it, then gently driving over it, rather than trying to take it down the center.
As you approach a hill, don't just rush into it blindly -- look it over, and realize the road might make a sharp turn just when you can't see anything but your hood. Remember that any hill you go down you may also have to come back up. If you don't think you can come back up it, don't go down unless there’s another clear and obvious trail out.
1. When climbing a hill, use as high a gear as the vehicle will "pull" comfortably. If the gear selected is too low, you will spin the tires. If it is too high, you will not have enough power to climb the hill. (The general rule of thumb is 3rd gear up and 1st gear down with an automatic, 2nd gear up and 1st gear down with a manual, all in Low Range. If this doesn’t work, try High Range.) Lock front hubs, and lock differentials (if fitted).
2. Line up your vehicle so it has a straight approach at the hill. If at all possible, try to keep the vehicle parallel with the slope of the hill, so the vehicle’s weight is equally distributed, providing equal traction to all four wheels. Apply power at the bottom of the hill, and ease off the throttle when you go over the top to keep the vehicle under control.
3. Always prepare for a failed climb. Work out an escape route and know where all of the obstacles are.
4. If you must park on a hill, turn off the engine, leave it in gear with a manual transmission (or in park with an automatic and apply the hand brake). Place chocks, rocks or logs under the wheels to provide additional braking assistance
Descending Hills On Failed Climbs:
If the vehicle stalls going uphill, then apply the brakes, put it in reverse, remove your feet from the clutch and brake pedal simultaneously, and turn the key to restart the engine. Then allow the vehicle to descend back down the hill using only the engine to keep the descent slow. Remember that visibility is limited when braking downhill, steering is much quicker, and steering kickback is more violent. Do not attempt to turn around on a steep hill, as the vehicle may roll.
Descending Hills on Successful climbs:
It isn’t over, yet, so stay alert. Keep in control by staying in a low gear, letting the engine, rather than the brakes, slow the vehicle. If you must use the brakes, use them sparingly and just enough to control the vehicle. This is especially critical for winter off roading where ice or snow may make the trail very slippery. Too low a gear with promote a slide just as easily as applying too much brake.
Driving Through Water:
Most 4x4s can be driven in water that is axle-deep without taking special precautions. (Max. wading depth is about 20 inches.) When the water is deeper, you need to know where your engine’s air intake and engine computer are located and don’t allow water to enter. Switch off headlights and allow them to cool, as sudden contact with cold water will cause the glass to crack.
If you place a tarp across the front of your vehicle prior to entering very deep water, you will minimize the water entering the engine bay by creating a bow wave, so long as you maintain a brisk forward momentum. The result: less water will be sprayed over the ignition system by the radiator fan and less chance of water entering the air intake.
When crossing shallow streams, drive slow and steady to create a small bow wave in front of your bumper that will reduce the height of the water behind the bumper and keep the water away from the air intake and electronics. Select low range and first gear, and keep steering straight.
When crossing fast-flowing shallow streams, cross at an angle and drive slightly upstream. This presents a smaller surface area and lessens the force of the stream on the vehicle. (Never cross fast-flowing deep streams, as your vehicle can be swept away.)
Apply your brakes several times after crossing water or deep mud to dry them out.
With manual transmission vehicles, there are times when you are descending down a hill and attempting to control your rate of speed by applying the brakes. Another method for controlling speed is to put the vehicle in a low gear such as 1st gear in low range and let the clutch out. Stay off the gas and brake and let the engine do the braking. This works by putting vehicle in a gear that will spin the tires slower at an engine idle than you want to go. The effect is the engine slows the tires down. The benefit of engine braking is you are controlling the wheel spin at a fixed rate of speed. This fixed rate of speed increases traction on a hill descent or during cornering allowing you to maintain control of the vehicle. Brakes can still be applied if necessary to slow the vehicle further. The opposing method of 100% braking (rather engine braking) means that you are applying stopping force which may lock up a wheel causing a loss of traction and consequently a loss of control. Engine braking is an advantage that manual transmission have over automatic transmissions.
Another tip that deals with braking applies to slowing a vehicle suddenly during trail riding. If you are slowing suddenly, let’s say to avoid slamming into a rock or a pothole, here is a method for preserving your suspension components. When applying a vehicle’s brakes hard, your vehicle’s weight is shifted forward onto the front suspension. This causes the front suspension to compress. When your suspension is compressed, it has used up most of the suspensions travel leaving very little for absorbing the impact you are about to encounter. In these situations if you cannot stop in time, try releasing the brakes just before impacting the obstacle (pothole, rut, rock, etc). This will allow the front suspension to return to its normal height and give more suspension travel to absorb the impact when you actually hit the obstacle.
Winter Driving Tips:
When driving off-highway in the snow and ice, use common sense. Deep powder can and does hide stumps, rocks, logs and icy patches. Early season snow usually is easier to push through than
late season stuff. That is because the late season snow has built from additional snowstorms. It has a hard layer in between the soft snow and presents problems due to this hard layer.
Sometimes it's easier to drive across the deep snow with high flotation tires. I've seen very low geared rigs with big fat tires float across 20 foot drifts only to have a less experienced driver chew the drift up with chains. That makes it hard to come back over for the others. Sometimes it is best to do the snow trips past midnight when the snow has a chance to freeze or "set up." You can drive over the snow more easily. Just remember how deep it really is when you're in the middle of a 15 foot drift that spans across a 200 meter ridge. Believe me, it's no fun digging a rig out of 15 feet of snow for 200 meters when you're in jeans and sneakers! Try to stay on top if that's where you started. Chains are great for the snow that is usually up to 3 feet deep. Of course, it depends on if it's fresh powder and how hard the bottom is.
Be aware of snow packing under the rig. It can literally freeze your engine solid, even if it is running. Snow bashing is hard on the rig. Slow speeds, snow clogged radiator and packed snow around the engine will ruin a tough truck in a minute. Make sure the engine area is cleared out often and pay attention to the transmission/transfer case oil temperatures as well as the diff oil temp. Watch for chunks of ice and hard snow getting caught under the rig and severing brake lines. In creek crossings, watch for ice flow and frozen brakes. Keep the engine running as much as possible when snow 4-wheeling. I have seen a distributor crack due to moisture build-up and freezing when the engine was turned off. Wet fan belts and wet brakes can freeze and will cause damage.
The lead vehicle should swap off often with others in the convoy as breaking trail is hard on the rig and driver. Plus the others behind get bored watching the leader smash forward then back up, etc. Let them have some fun also.
I sometimes drive forward slowly and set a path, then back up. Drive forward some more, then back. Kind of like two steps forward one back type of thing. If you have chains, you may just want to let them churn slowly with slow, steady progress forward.
If you're going to run chains, keep the tires inflated to normal highway pressure. DO NOT air down with chains.
When running chains and you encounter rocks, ledges, etc., BE CAREFUL, the chains will slip easily on the rocks, especially on downhill descents. You will have very little control on solid rock faces with chains. Anticipate this! With chains on, you'll also up the damage potential if not paying attention for roots, stumps, etc. The chains can catch if they are loose and cause a broken hub or axle.
On off-camber trails, I will keep the lockers off, drive very slowly and let the tires get traction.
You may slip off to the side and the hard snow will prevent you from getting back in alignment. I will usually back up and then get out and stomp a channel so my tires can stay on the trail and not follow the ruts I dug previously with the tires in the deep snow.
Be extra aware of the center of steering. The wheels can get full turn easily and they will fight you for control. Keep slow and steady, with the wheels getting traction aimed straight ahead.
For both on - and off-highway winter driving, having your rig properly
tuned and winterized is important:
• Check the antifreeze - flush and refill to manufacturer’s specs.
• Inspect the hoses - replace if squishy.
• Look at the belts - replace if they are cracked or glazed over.
• Tune the engine - check the wires, distributor cap, coil output.
• Change to winter weight oil according to manufacturer’s specs.
• Check or change gear oils and other drive train reservoirs.
The moisture built up over the past summer from the mudbugs
and water crossings can freeze in the differentials.
• Check the tire pressures - is the spare tire up to snuff?
• How about the wheel bearings, brakes, power steering, air filter,
fuel filter, heater controls, door hinges and locks, wiper blades
and washer fluid.
• Inspect the exhaust system for holes and leaks - remember that cold weather means closed windows and a leaky exhaust system can put
you into a deep sleep!
• Put together an emergency kit in a duffle bag or small container that consists of: road flares, wool blanket or two, jumper cables, energy snacks, small cook stove and some soup packets (if you don’t have water, you can melt snow), small cook pot, thick socks, hat, mittens, medications, tire chains, snow shovel, candle, lighter and matches, flashlight and radio with good batteries, a good book and whatever other personal items you deem necessary.
Bill Burke's 4-Wheeling America LLC