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9 Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Before you turn down that bushy trail entrance there are a few basic rules you should consider to prevent your fun from becoming a nightmare.
Gary Grant
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Spring is very nearly here and as the snow begins to melt along the country back roads, you are itching to get your shiny new Off Road edition truck dirty for the first time.

It has all the tough looking stickers, backed up by some hard core mechanicals designed to perform off the beaten path and withstand a pounding. Depending on the manufacturer, it might have high performance shocks, locking differentials, and maybe even push buttons to access drive modes tailored to different driving conditions. It might even have gnarly looking all-terrain tires that look as if they will pull you through the deepest mud that Spring can throw at you. It almost certainly sports a bright colour that screams “look at me”.

Finding a place to get your truck dirty in Canada is a pretty easy thing, as all across the country there are trails which criss-cross rural areas. Here in Southern Ontario, there are hundreds of kilometers of trails within a couple of hours of downtown Toronto. Many are concession roads or fire access roads which have been forgotten over the years, as the vegetation slowly reclaims them. The opportunities to explore and get dirty are endless.

Before you turn down that bushy trail entrance however, there are a few basic rules you should consider to prevent your fun from becoming a nightmare.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been driving off road for 35 years, from muddy farm fields (with permission of course) to rural Ontario mud bogs and even rock climbing in Moab, Utah, a mecca for off roading. I have even tackled giant sand dunes in the desert of Morocco. During this time, I have broken almost all of the rules laid out below and I have never damaged a vehicle. Nor have I ever gotten one stuck. All that very nearly changed last Fall while I was testing the new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, on a trail that I am familiar with, which is very close to home.

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Rule #1 – Never venture down a trail alone.

There are so many reasons for this, the most obvious one is to have help at the ready should you become stuck. If tugging you out is not successful for whatever reason, or your truck should break somehow, your trail buddy can serve as your ride out of the forest, should you have to abandon your truck in search of more advanced help.

Another reason to have a trail buddy, perhaps not so nice to think about, is having assistance should you have some sort of medical issue. I’m not just talking about a heart attack here either. Imagine you get out of your truck on a slippery trail to pee in the woods and you slip, destroying an ankle and can’t get up. If you are alone on the trail, you could be lying in pain on the ground for a long time before help finds you.

Don’t have any buddies who share your interest in getting dirty? Not to worry, there are clubs all across the country, with members who are more than happy to bring newcomers into the hobby. A quick google or even Facebook search will turn up clubs in your region.

Rule #2 – Always stay in contact.

This one has become easier in our era of excellent smartphone coverage, but if you don’t have a method of contacting the outside world in an emergency or when stuck/broken, you could be screwed for a long time. Don’t forget that many parts of cottage country are out of cell range, so an alternate form of communication, such as a CB radio might be a solution for you.

Rule #3 – Make sure someone knows where you are going.

For all the same reasons as rules 1 & 2, make sure somebody knows where you are going wheeling, just in case you don’t make it back in time.

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Rule #4 – Research your intended route ahead of time.

Sure, this may sound like a bit of a buzzkill, but a quick search online will turn up discussion threads about any given trail. Read them, ask questions and heed the advice of those who have gone before.

A few years ago, during testing for the Canadian Car of the Year awards, one of the event helpers mentioned that he wanted to check out a trail just up the road from the test site at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. I, along with two others who knew the trail in question, told him not to attempt it, as his Jeep was not equipped to traverse the mud he would find on the trail. He ignored us and ended up leaving his truck in the woods overnight, to be recovered the next morning.

Rule #5 – Know your vehicle.

Read your owner’s manual, making sure you know how to properly operate any off road specific features that your vehicle has. Read reviews online of your truck to see what its strengths and weaknesses are off road. Ditto for the tires, as most original equipment tires, even on off road equipped vehicles, are not designed for heavy mud! Learn how your vehicle handles at low speed, in tight quarters. If you can’t park the damn thing at the shopping mall without making a 20 point turn, then there is no way you are going to navigate around a tree stump on a forest trail.

Rule #6 – Engage!

This one is a bit of a challenge to describe simply. Most 4×4 vehicles drive with the power being directed only to the rear wheels during normal driving. That means that in limited traction situations, all of the available torque will go to the rear wheel which has the least traction, essentially making the vehicle one wheel drive. Unless the vehicle has an old school limited slip rear differential that is, and then the power will go to both rear wheels. The same thing happens at the front end when 4wd is fully engaged, which means that in seriously slippery conditions, your vehicle may be two wheel drive, with power going to one front wheel and one rear wheel.

In the old days, as recent as the late Eighties, to even engage 4wd, a driver would have to exit the vehicle and physically turn a cam on both front wheel hubs. Today’s vehicles, thanks to some very sophisticated systems, are much more simple to operate. Depending on the vehicle these days, all it takes is the press of a button or the turn of a knob on the dashboard. Many can be fully engaged even while the vehicle is in motion.

Most modern vehicles with off-road capability offer some sort of locking mechanisms for either the front and/or rear axles, which will essentially ensure that all four wheels provide power to the road at the same rate.

All of these systems only work when they are engaged however, so the best plan is to turn them on before you think you need to.

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

Rule #7 – Slow and steady wins the day.

Many first time off roaders have visions of trophy trucks flying at the Baja 1000, but the truth of most off-roading is the exact opposite. All that speed does is break things. That said, off-road success comes with steady, consistent throttle application and a sensible pace. Got some mud to tackle, keep the pace and throttle steady throttle. Got a hill to climb? Maybe a bit more throttle than you think you need and don’t you dare lift.

Old Land Rover guys use the term Low range, high gear. To expand on that, put your transfer case in 4 Lo and put your transmission in the highest gear that will not cause the engine to feel/sound like it is bogging down. That way, you have the most available torque at the wheels, without the risk of spinning the tires and digging yourself a hole.

Rule #8 – When in doubt, get out and look.

This is a bit of a tough one for a newbie, as you may not actually know what you are looking for. If you see a large puddle across the trail, get out and poke it with a stick. See how deep it is. Is the bottom hard, like bedrock or is it mushy? Thinking of driving over a boulder or tree? Does your vehicle actually have the clearance you will need to make it over the vehicle.

If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions and have ignored Rule #1, then your best bet is to turn back.

Rule #9 – Recover safely.

Making a stuck vehicle an un-stuck vehicle is a very dangerous activity, as in life threatening. I am not being overly dramatic here, as every year off road enthusiasts are killed while trying to extract a vehicle. Usually, the culprit is the use of an improper strap or a frayed winch cable. Because you are a newbie, I am going to leave the winch topic alone for this story.

The challenge with straps is that there are two kinds on the market. Tow straps are the most readily available version and typically have steel hooks on the end. These straps are designed to be used with a static load, not the tugging action that happens when pulling out a vehicle. When that happens, they often break, snapping back in the air and hitting whatever is in their path with extreme force. Do not carry a tow strap with you.

Recovery straps have a looped end and are designed to stretch a bit, allowing a bit of spring action which can be key to freeing up a stuck truck. Most importantly, they don’t break. Of course all of this assumes that you didn’t ignore Rule 1. You can learn more about recovery straps here.

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

What happened when I broke rules 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8?

As I mentioned above, I have 35 years of experience driving off road and have never been stuck. A pretty good record if I do say so myself. So how is it that I very nearly had to call in the cavalry to rescue myself and the Rubicon, which many consider the most capable off road vehicle available on the market today in stock form? Well, I broke a few rules.

I break #1 pretty regularly, as I am confident in my ability to make good decisions, which prevents me from putting a vehicle into a situation it is not able to navigate. On this day, I made a series of decisions which very nearly brought an end to my streak.

While travelling along a fairly simple fire access road that I occasionally take as an off road short cut, I came to a long puddle. This particular obstacle has been around for years and there is a well worn detour around it. Being confident in the Rubicon’s ability and the BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tires, I pushed straight on in, ignoring Rule #8. It was all good fun until the ruts beneath the surface became deeper than the available ground clearance and the truck came to a stop. Careful not to spin the tires too much, I put the shifter into reverse to back out. The red truck moved about a meter and then stopped. I was stuck.

I decided to get out and survey the situation. The first thing I saw was a shoe which had been left behind by some other victim of the bog.

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

The Jeep was up to its gunwales in deep, muddy water. I tried wedging a couple of branches beneath the rear wheels to help build traction, but the water was so deep they just bobbed right back to the surface. I got back in the truck and reached out to some friends in the off road community on Facebook to see if there was anybody close by with a winch. I attempted to find traction by turning the front wheels to no avail.

I got back out to survey the situation at the front of the truck and realized that  while one front tire was clearly digging in, the other had been spinning freely in the mud. I had a revelatory moment as I realised that while the transfer case was in 4 Lo, I had not locked the front and rear differentials. The Jeep was up to its nether regions in mud and was only powering one wheel at each end.

Rules #5 and #6 had been broken and they might have sunk my battleship. Fortunately, the diff locks are operated electronically from inside the truck. I pressed both buttons and a notice on the instrument cluster popped up, saying differential lock engaging, please wait. A moment passed and it switched to differential locked. Alright, game on!

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

I put the transmission in reverse and was now able to move about two and a half meters. Into drive and I put my foot in it. The Jeep surged ahead as the front tires grappled for traction over the hidden hump which had caused me to get stuck in the first place. My forward progress seemed to slow for an agonizing moment before suddenly the front end popped free and the truck lurched forward. I was out!

I spend a lot of time exploring trails near Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, in preparation for a variety of driving events. I know most of the trails fairly well, so it is pretty rare that I actually tell anyone where I am going. Rule #3 was broken here, but I consider that a safe decision. Unless of course I had somehow been injured getting in and out of the very stuck Jeep.

What began as a simple run intended to get the Jeep dirty for photos very nearly became a big problem, simply because I had become a bit too comfortable and ignored some of the most basic rules of off-roading. Fortunately, I had enough experience to keep level headed, which allowed me to evaluate the situation and figure out what to do to fix my own blunder. Through all of it, the Jeep performed beautifully, once I used the features it offers.

This list is far from the exhaustive list of things one needs to know to safely and successfully venture off road, but if you follow these rules, you can have a good time getting a taste of what off-roading can offer. Then you will want to learn and experience more!

Basic Rules for Off-Road Newbies

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