*Basic off-the-road driving*
By Schtoo

Firstly, some rules.

I know that chances being what they are, if you are reading this, you have a vehicle that is capable of being driven off sealed roads. But do you actually drive it ‘off road’?

If not, why? Not enough time? Don’t know how to? Believe that you will just flick the magic lever/button and all will be well? I have a newsflash for you if this is the case. If you do not learn how to handle your vehicle off the beaten track, chances are you will get into trouble that you A: will not get out of easily or B: should not have gotten into in the first place. Essentially, learn the tricks now while you can and you will have a far better chance of staying out of situations you need not be in. I guess you have heard all that before, but it is true.

Before we start there are 3 golden rules of driving off the road.

They are:

Do I need to get there? Is there a better way?

Am I capable of taking this path?

Is my vehicle capable of taking this path?

If you cannot answer yes, or possibly a maybe to all of these questions, then find another way. It is as simple as that. There is little point trying a set path, striking trouble, then spending more time getting out of it that it would take to find another way round. Set these rules in stone, they are THAT important. If you follow them, then you will avoid most kinds of difficulty inexperienced drivers face when they venture offroad. Of course some kinds of trouble can’t be avoided, and sometimes the answers to the questions are out of your control. As you gain experience, you will find that your vehicle is very capable, you have more skill than you thought and there is less need to find another way.

Know your vehicle.

Before you set foot off a sealed road, you should know your vehicle, what it weak points are and where to attach recovery devices to it. You should also know how to correctly pack items in your vehicle to avoid upsetting it balance and reducing it abilities. So go have a look at it!

Identify where the low points are like differential centres, engine crankcase, gearboxes and fuel tanks. See what has a guard on it, and if that guard is likely to strike an object in the road. Will you need to put some kind of protection on those easily damaged components? Even if that guard is well made and quite strong, it is protecting something that is fragile. No guard will stop all potential damage, so be aware of these ‘soft’ points.

Where do you attach a recovery device? Are there proper ‘rated’ hooks under there, or only flimsy transport attachment points? Are there set out jacking points? Are these recovery points well defined, and easy to find if needed? Do not forget that in the case of needing them, they may be under water, in the mud, buried in the sand or otherwise obscured. Know where they all are, and what they will do for you. Also know that if you choose the wrong point, that it can do something to you. Know where these ‘hard’ points are, draw a sketch if it will help.

Take a look under the skin of your vehicle. Do you know where the engine oil goes? Where do you put the coolant/water in? What parts can affected by water ingress? What about those sets of gears? Where does their oil go? All these hard working parts need to breathe, all of them! How high does the water need be before they drown? What about the brakes? Dust, dirt sand, stones and water will affect their performance. Even driving into water when they are hot might damage them. Some electronic parts will drown, where are they? Will they be kept high and dry, or will they be swimming even in a puddle? Don’t just look in the engine bay and under the car. Inside the car is also vulnerable. If you get stuck in a water hole, will that radio gurgle and die? Is that computer tucked up and out of the way? Will the electrics that run the engine get wet and leave you stuck after just a small splash? All of these things are important, especially if you need to keep on moving. Even just a small hiccup can cease your forward motion, and leave you very stuck.

Now, take a look at the car from the outside. Never mind the view, be it good or bad, but how big is your vehicle? Ever thought about it? Does it get scratches and dents by magic? Do you know how big it is while you are inside it? While having a large vehicle can be a little problem on the road, it can be very difficult off the road. Knowing if you can fit between trees, under that branch, drive around that rock. Having a good idea of the outer dimensions of your car is very important. But knowing how to negotiate those tight spots, without having to leave your seat is even more important. Leaving this dimensional problem down to "I just don’t have it" is not good enough. It is easily learnt, and easy to apply. I can accept that some folks can just put a car in a tight spot, leaving just ‘negative’ hair widths to either side ( I know, I am one of them :), while some just can’t bring themself to try and fit in a spot that appears to be too small.

The only way to gain ‘dimensional awareness’ is to go out and put the car in tight spots. If you have little confidence, have someone outside the car guide you. While you negotiate the obstacles, notice where all visible points are in relation to the road, and to other objects. Use those mirrors, that’s what they are there for! Recall what you are driving over, even when you can no longer see it. You should have already memorized the road just ahead, and made adjustment so that anything that might catch will be avoided. But do not just concentrate on what you drive over, but also what you drive around, and what you just drove past. This is being aware of your surroundings, and while driving off the road, being very aware can keep you on the track, rather than being part of the scenery.

So now you have identified all the weak points in your car, or at least most of them. You know where all the parts that make the vehicle go, go. You have good vehicle dimensional awareness, as well as what’s around you.

In short, "You knoweth thine chariot!"

Throw it in the back...

But what about when the vehicle has some weight in it? Where should you put it? Is it safe to keep it there? Are you overloading the vehicle? Can you really tow all that weight? For that matter, do you know how much your vehicle weighs all by itself? Do you know how much extra weight it will carry with safety? If the answer is no, then go find out!

Unfortunately all vehicles have different weights, and how much they can carry around. They can all tow around different amounts, and few have the same carrying capacity for gear on the roof. You need to find out what the maximum payload capacities are for all parts of your vehicle. Failure to do this may result in an unbalanced vehicle that will easily roll over, it may be difficult to drive, it might just be plain dangerous. When you do discover these capacities, obey them. They are not there as a guide, they are there to keep you and fellow road users safe. Exceeding these limits is a recipe for disaster. And if you do add weight to your vehicle, make allowance for it. You will need longer to stop, longer to accelerate, you will use more fuel and you will make the engine work alot harder. So keep it safe, and pay attention. There is little point to having a reliable vehicle, if it’s rolled over or just can’t make it any further because of poor planning.

While on the subject of vehicle loading, what about things you place inside the passenger area? Is it all tied down, or just sitting there? Is there some kind of solid barrier between you and your luggage? Even small lightweight objects can be become lethal missiles when you come to a sudden halt. Yes, even that Bic pen might do some serious bodily injury if it takes to the air in a crash. They have been used for emergency tracheotomies. I have seen where stuff goes first hand in a crash, the answer is: everywhere! So tie it all down, have some kind of barrier between you and your gear. If a pen will hurt you, imagine what a tin can will do? Never mind that ‘safe’ unloaded rifle!!! Does ‘high tech club’ ring a bell?

What else do I need?

Well, you now have a vehicle you should know well in all areas. But there are some things you should have with you if you venture offroad. In fact, many of them should be in the vehicle at all times. Things like a jack, wheel brace, first aid kit, fire extinguisher and a basic tool kit should be present in any vehicle you drive at all times. If not, do this as soon as possible, and learn how to use all of them. Changing a tyre in the dark while it’s raining, is not my idea of fun, but sitting waiting for help is something I would like even less.

You have decided to get off the road, what else do you need to take with you? Some basic recovery gear for a start of course. Essentially, the extras are items that will get you going again in case of getting stuck, or mechanical failure. So some basic recovery items, in order would be a shovel, an axe, high lift jack, recovery straps and winches, both hand and powered-mechanical. The shovel will get you out of anything, with enough time, the items along the list just allow you to get going in less time. With that in mind, get a good quality shovel first, and acquire the rest as you think you need them.

Add to the recovery gear a more extensive tool kit. If you already carry a comprehensive set of tools and spares in the vehicle, then that is fine. If not, have the means to re-attach anything that might fall off. Also carry some basics like spare hoses, some engine oil and some water. Various other items like fuses, lamps, clips, ties, nuts and bolts are also very handy to carry along. I will not elaborate on some improvised repairs, short of saying "if it will work, do it!". The repair does not have to be pretty, it just has to do the job.

How does the vehicle operate?

You now know the vehicle over, under, inside and out. You have some basic tools, safety gear and recovery items packed away safely and securely. You have left the sealed road and are now off a made road. What do you do now?

Well, depending on what kind of vehicle you are driving and what’s attached to it should depicts what you do now.

If you are driving a standard car/truck with only 2 wheel drive and road oriented tyres, then the first thing you should do is SLOW DOWN!!! Understand that your car will not handle as well in these conditions as it will on a sealed road. Also realise that the tyres losing grip with the road surface is very likely to happen, even with your now reduced speed. At first this can be unnerving, but as with everything practise makes perfect. In time, you will be comfortable with driving your vehicle off sealed roads, but above all keep it safe. Yes slithering down a dirt road can be fun, but not if 40 tons of logging truck is coming the other way!

If however you are driving a vehicle equipped with 4 wheel drive and tyres oriented for dirt or mud then the prevailing conditions should depict what you do next. If conditions are good and the road offers pleasant driving, continue on with caution. If however the road is slippery or wet and muddy, you may choose to engage what I call the ‘magic lever’, that being the 4 wheel drive select lever. This may also be a button you simply depress. You might also engage 4WD in icy conditions, or even sealed roads that have become slippery due to localized conditions.

But there may be one thing you must check before engaging that lever/button. That is engaging the front axles to drive. On most 4WD vehicles these are only needed when 4WD is selected, otherwise they ‘freewheel’ to reduce wear and improve fuel economy. On some vehicles these are engaged automatically when 4WD is selected, on some they are always ‘on’ and on others still this may be a ‘lock’ situated on the front hubs.

So, you are ‘off’ the road, with hubs engaged and 4WD selected. Doing this alone offers you more grip than you had previously. Not a great deal, but enough to be noticeable so go ahead, notice the difference! But do not forget the vehicle can still lose grip. You may also notice that the steering effect has changed and the brakes may behave differently.

At this point you should know what lurks underneath, inside, outside and all around your vehicle of choice. You should also know what goes where, whether it be parts and pieces to keep it running or additional items you plan to carry along. You should also have a basic set of items that will aid you in keeping forward motion, whatever problem may arise. And you should have noted how it all goes together, unloaded, loaded on and off the road.


All materials at this site not otherwise credited are Copyright (c) 1996-2001 Trip Williams. All rights reserved. May be reproduced for personal use only. Use of any material contained herein is subject to stated terms or written permission.