Off-roading can be a dangerous activity and you should never go it alone. Driving Line is providing this Off-Road Basics series to help provide information to those starting out – but we highly encourage getting first-hand experience by joining an off-road club or other experienced drivers (and check out Off-Roading for Dummies: 10 Things You Need to Know). Always be aware of your capabilities and never put yourself or others at risk!

 With the proper vehicle, anyone can drive off-road after learning a few basics. When you’re ready to try some more challenging trails here are some of the tips I’ve picked up over the years about navigating terrain:



1. Know your vehicle.

Know the height and width, understand your 4WD system, know your center of gravity and know your vehicle’s clearance (Approach Angle, Departure Angle and Break-Over). Know your vehicle’s limitations; not every 4WD or SUV is suitable for off-roading.


2. Load your vehicle as evenly as possible.

Too much weight on one side or on a roof rack will affect your vehicle’s center of gravity and make it more prone to rolling over. Too much weight in the rear of the vehicle can affect your clearance.


3. Find out about the local terrain in which you’ll be traveling and understand what type of obstacles you might encounter.

Will you be in deep sand? Will there be big boulders, water crossings, tight passages, mud or snow?


4. Make sure to check the weather forecast before you head out.

You do not want to be caught in a desert wash during a rain storm. Flash floods are common and the raging waters can be deadly. If it starts to rain in the desert you should immediately seek higher ground.


1. Make sure you know what is at the crest of a steep hill before climbing it.

If necessary, get out and walk up to check first. Very steep hills can be challenging for many off-roaders.


2. Carefully ascend the hill, keeping the following tips in mind:

   You should always drive straight up a steep incline whenever possible to prevent rolling over. Driving on side slopes at an angle is  very risky with a high rollover potential.

   Speed is not the right way to climb a hill. Apply enough power to keep your vehicle moving and try to keep all four wheels on the ground as much as possible.

   If you stall, you should put your vehicle in reverse and back straight down the hill before deciding if you should make another attempt.

   Be especially careful when loose, wet or slippery terrain conditions may cause you to spin out. If your rear end starts sliding to the side you could lose control.

   As you approach the top of the hill let up on the throttle.


3. When descending a steep hill you again want to keep your vehicle heading straight down and avoid allowing the vehicle to turn as much as possible to prevent rolling over.

Let engine compression slow your rate of travel. Avoid riding the clutch or brakes. With an automatic you may need to lightly feather the brakes, but don’t trigger the ABS or allow your brakes to lock up.


1. Cross streams only at designated crossing areas.

Don't risk the unknown. Keep your vehicle and its precious cargo – as safe as possible.


2. Make sure you know how deep the water is before attempting a water crossing, and consider these important tips:

   Do not attempt to cross deep fast moving water a vehicle can float.

   If the water is above your axles, make sure to know the location of your air intake.

   Never enter water that is above your air intake.

   If you frequently cross deep water, you might want to consider adding a snorkel to your vehicle. A snorkel extends the air intake to above the hood of the vehicle or higher to prevent water from entering the engine.


3. Maintain a slow steady speed, and avoid creating waves.

Moving just fast enough to create a slight bow wave in front of your vehicle helps lower the water in the front where the engine and sensitive electronics are located. You must avoid allowing water to reach your distributor, spark plugs and electronics.


If you stall out in deep water do NOT attempt to restart the engine. You could cause serious damage to your engine. Ease off on the throttle as you exit the water. It’s good practice to dry out your brakes by applying light pressure and driving a short distance. When you get home you should check your differentials and transfer case for water or mud after driving through deep water.

To be continue...