A Beginner's Guide To Off-Roading: Advice On Getting Started


How to drive when the road ends: Off-roading tips for beginners

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The most basic definition of 'off-roading' may offend some people who believe that going off-road is only valid if you're driving a trail-rated off-roader with both front and rear axles that are locked and at least one wheel up in the air. But what is off-roading really? It's a blanket term given to the various activities that take place in rougher terrain. And, while some folks believe it's only off-roading when the driver is on the verge of screwing up badly - with video evidence that will most likely end up in a YouTube off-road fails compilation - the truth is much simpler.

It also includes technical off-road driving techniques that allow you to take on a closed trail, cross-country driving, dune driving, mudding, rock crawling, or simply driving down an unpaved road, otherwise known as green-laning in the UK. Casual off-roading can also include such activities as taking on nature trails or harsher terrain that includes rocks and water, such as riverbeds, or even snow. We include this in the definition because this is a form of off-road driving that has increased its following substantially. Thanks to the increase in popularity of the crossover and SUV segment in the USA, more people are buying vehicles that are capable of off-roading, and thus they are exploring what their cars can do.

Although this is an activity that can be pursued in a professional capacity - and has given rise to different types of off-road racing, even - wanting some mild adventure doesn't require a specially modified off-road vehicle, experienced drivers wearing helmets, or even having taken special classes (although this is highly recommended and loads of fun), but it does mean you should at least do some homework before attempting it. You can't simply watch a YouTube clip and then go off-roading. You do need to have some idea of what your car can do, how you can prevent getting stuck, and how to tackle adventure responsibly. Our off-roading tips for beginners will help you find the balance between confident and cocky.

The Basic Rules Of Off-Roading: Tips For Beginners

When we were learning about the best approach to off-roading, we were taught the golden rule was, "As slow as possible, as fast as necessary." We'd like to amend that as our first tip for beginners to go off-road:.

  • The Golden Question: Whenever you face an obstacle, ask yourself one simple question. If I attempt to do this, is there the possibility of hurting myself, my car, or the environment? This question has become necessary in the age of social media, where showing off has become more important than basic safety. This question will keep you from starring in a fail video compilation because if the answer to the question is 'yes', abort the mission if you aren't knowledgeable enough to mitigate the risks.

Once you've ascertained whether you can safely continue, there are a few basic rules to adhere to when it comes to off-road environments. The following help you to answer the Golden Question above:

  • Know your vehicle: To answer whether or not you can hurt yourself, the car, or the environment, you need to know what your car is capable of. A crossover like the Ford Explorer is perfectly happy and competent on a badly corrugated gravel road, but it's nowhere near as capable as its bigger brother, the Bronco. To understand your car, you need to know about basic features and figures. We'll dive into this a bit deeper later on, but the basic premise is that you should only ever attempt what your car is capable of dealing with.
  • Walk the course/obstacle/tracks and use a spotter: On a freeway, you can see a few miles ahead, so you don't need anyone else in the car to help you drive. On an off-road track, you often don't know what will happen over the next 50 yards. Say you come across a steep incline and don't walk it beforehand. How do you know what's on the other side? It could be a sheer drop or a gradient your car can't handle. Next thing you know, you're upside down and on YouTube. Walk a tricky obstacle or area first and decide on the easiest, less dangerous line to take. After that, rely on the spotter. You can't see what the tires are doing, so you need someone on the outside that can guide you through. Don't look at what's going on in front of you. Look directly at the spotter and do exactly as they say.
  • As slow as possible, as fast as necessary: This is still crucial. Many people are under the mistaken impression that speed is the remedy to everything. More often than not, the key is momentum. In other words, it is keeping the car moving forward without spinning the tires. As long as the vehicle is moving forward and it's the right side up, you're doing just fine.
  • Pick the right line: When we talk about the line, it means the path you're using through or over an obstacle. If you're an amateur, you want to choose the way that will give you maximum contact with terra firma. More wheels on the ground mean more grip. Once you know what you're doing, you can start playing around with various lines, but always remember to stick to the golden rule.
  • Know when to give up: If we had a dollar for every second a stuck off-roader kept flinging mud in the air, we'd be rich. Getting stuck is an inevitable part of off-roading, so we dedicated an entire article to safe off-road recovery methods. There's no point pinning the throttle to the carpet once the car is stuck. This mostly happens when mudding or driving on soft sand. Spinning the tires only digs the vehicle in deeper, making it even harder to recover.
  • Never go alone: Certain places outright ban you from going alone. The Namib Desert is one of them. We know the allure of being out in nature alone all too well, but in severe conditions, if you get stuck without help, you die. Self-recovery is technically possible but not something you can count on unless you have loads of experience and equipment. This is especially true if you go to highly remote locations, which, let's be honest, are the most attractive places. Plus, it's always fun to have someone riding shotgun.
Off Road Driving unsplash.com

Etiquette For Off-Roading

Now that we have the main things out of the way, here are a few guidelines you should follow with regards to how to drive off-road. These aren't firm rules but rather a set of general standards that most decent off-roaders stick to. Like standard etiquette, it's mostly just about not being an asshat.

  • The vehicle going up an obstacle has the right of way. Going up is much more complicated than going down in 99% of off-road scenarios. And off-road trails often aren't wide enough to accommodate two vehicles side-by-side.
  • Just like you should keep extra space between yourself and the car ahead of you on the freeway for improved visibility and safety, while off-roading, the vehicle in front of you will chuck up some sticks and stones; they might not break your bones, but a new windscreen is expensive.
  • Keep an eye out for other adventurers on the trail. More often than not, they're open to cyclists, hikers, and even wildlife. While you're behind the wheel of a 4x4 designed for off-road adventures like this, it's on you to stick within the trails marked for off-road vehicles and keep an eye out for other users. Also, keep in mind that your big, loud off-roader might scare animals and cause them to bolt.
  • Leave nothing behind. This goes back to the Golden Question. When off-roading, you appreciate Mother Nature, and you want to minimize any possible environmental impact. If you are camping, the same rules apply. Stick to the fire guidelines, and you take everything out that you bring in. Nothing ruins a beautiful off-road trip quite like an empty Pepsi bottle chucked out the window by a selfish human.
  • Be extra careful in the dark. Your gut instinct is to camp as close to, if not on the path. This is a terrible idea. Keep off the track, as another vehicle equipped with the right lighting gear might decide to drive for a little longer. In the dark you also can't see all the hazards that you may see in the daylight, so play it safe.
  • Stick to convoy rules. As mentioned earlier, you need to keep ample space between vehicles. This often leads to separated cars, but you should be fine if you stick to the basic convoy rules. If the pack turns, you wait until the vehicle behind you can see which way the group is turning. Each car is responsible for the car behind them.
Off Road Vehicles unsplash.com

Understanding The Car

Before we even get down to the specific kinds of off-roaders and examples, let's look at what makes an off-roader special.

  • Angles: All cars come with an approach, breakover, and departure angles. Essentially, it tells you what kind of obstacles you can and can't approach - the bigger the number, the more leeway you have. For example, thanks to long overhangs, the most off-road focused Ford Explorer has approach/ramp-over/departure angles of 23.5/18.9/23.7 degrees. The Ford Bronco, even in base guise, has approach/ramp-over/departure angles of 35.5/21/1/29.8 degrees in two-door form and 35.5/20/29.7 degrees in four-door format. The rest is simple math and obviously taking a close look at said boulder to see if you can make it over. If you're in an Explorer, the answer is most likely no - the Bronco is much more capable.
  • Tires: There are different kinds of tires for the various types of off-roading. If you're going to keep it light, your truck, crossover, or SUVs all-terrain tires should do just fine. More specialized off-roading requires a specific kind of tire. For rock crawling and mudding, you'll need a more aggressive tread pattern made from a sturdier, harder rubber. These kinds of tires usually have a kevlar reinforced sidewall to stop punctures. If your car is dual-purpose, it's worth investing in a set of steelies equipped with the best off-road tires for daily driving. That way, you aren't scared of scratching your expensive alloys, and you don't have to deal with the downsides of running specialized tires daily. Anyone who has ever driven a car with mud terrain tires on wet tar will know what we're talking about. It's like trying to drive on Jiffy Lube. While off-roading, you'll likely be running a lower tire pressure to maximize the contact patch. Keeping a pressure gauge and compressor in the car is a must.
  • Wading depth: In general, it's a good idea to avoid water if you can. Smart off-roaders will do anything they can to prevent a water crossing, as it's one of the trickiest things you'll ever face. Every off-roader has a maximum wading depth that comes straight from the manufacturer. You never want to go in water deeper than that figure, typically given in millimeters. Unfortunately, it's mostly impossible to tell how deep water is from the edge. Some off-roaders try and get around this by fitting a snorkel, but remember one important thing: while a snorkel improves the wading depth, it does not make the engine waterproof.
  • Four-wheel drive system: What your car can do off-road depends most on what kind of 4WD system it has. We've covered the differences between all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive before, but here's a summary. An AWD system depends on one driven axle 99% of the time. These cars are default front-wheel-drive in most cases, but you do get the odd performance SUV with a rear-wheel-drive setup. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio is a prime example. In most cases, the power split between the two axles is controlled by a computer that detects slip, but some AWD cars allow you to lock the power distribution in a 50/50 split between the front and rear wheels - the Nissan's Rogue, for example. A 4WD system is essentially permanent. All four wheels are always powered, but even here, we have two kinds of systems; part-time and full-time. A part-time system sends the power to the rear wheels, but the driver can manually engage 4WD with high or low gearing. The latter is known as low range and is a reduction gear that makes it much easier to off-road. A full-time system is precisely what it says. The car is always in 4WD, and the driver simply has to select high or low range.
  • Differentials: One of the important off-roading terms, there are three kinds of differentials: open, limited-slip, and locked. Your car has a differential because it allows the wheels to rotate at different speeds. Just think about something as simple as turning left. The left wheel has a shorter distance to travel, while the right wheel has to go along a wider arch. Therefore, they need to be able to rotate at different speeds. It's necessary on tarmac, but it can be a pain off-road. Power always follows the path of least resistance, so if you get a wheel up in the air, the power will naturally go directly to that wheel and not where you need it. That's why serious off-roaders usually come standard with a rear differential lock that either engages electronically or manually. Hardcore off-roaders like the Jeep Wrangler also have a lock on the front differential. We discuss the types of car differential here.
  • Suspension: New cars are designed to work across various situations, which means compromises have to be made. Few off-roaders are still built with only a solitary task in mind, and the only one we can think of is the Jeep Wrangler. Ford's Bronco makes some compromises, making it a much better daily car. Because of this, a large number of off-roaders modify their suspension setup. You can either do an entire suspension overhaul or fit a lift kit for additional ground clearance. This will also improve the angles we talked about earlier.

Understanding The Terrain

In order to understand the concept of selecting the right line, you also need to understand the terrain. Gravel is easy enough to drive on - just remember that it's not as grippy as tarmac, especially after rain. You also want as little steering input as possible, so choose straight lines as far as possible.

Mud and water are best avoided, but some people actively seek it out when going off road as mudding can be a thrill. When mudding, there is a good chance of getting stuck. Recovering a car is an art, but you must know how to do it safely. Mudding is also best attempted with an absolute beater of a car that you feel nothing for, and the same is true when it comes to rock crawling. It's not a case of if you're going to dent the car, but rather when.

For overlanding trips, you need all of the right equipment, depending on whether you're going to drive through loose sand, as is the case with going off-road in the desert. It's worth making a list of all the things you absolutely need daily and starting from there. The best way to learn, apart from first attending a few off-roading classes, is going out there with experienced off-roaders.

Off Roading unsplash.com
Off Road Wheels unsplash.com

Kinds Of Off-Road Vehicles

When choosing a vehicle, you need to be honest about what kind of off-roading you will be doing. Nothing looks more ridiculous than a custom-painted lifted Wrangler with a roof rack equipped with jerry cans, spare tires, and an ax, sitting in the parking lot of Target. You just know that car will never see anything gnarlier than a Cars and Coffee event, which means the owner is driving around with nearly 2,000 lbs of pointless weight. Let's have a look at some of the best vehicles for off-roading.

  1. The Crossover: Most enthusiasts don't get these cars, but we do - the combination of sedan comfort and utility vehicle practicality makes for a good starting point. We think every person out there covets adventure as part of the basic human condition. The levels of experience vary, however. While one human being might need to jump a Bronco Raptor over a dune to feel alive, a less adventurous person might be fine just exploring some local dirt roads looking for curiosities. We have a soft spot for the BMW X5, which is particularly good at this sort of thing. It's an absolute blast to drive on-road, and it's extremely good at driving rural gravel roads. On the more affordable side, you can't go wrong with a Mazda CX-5 or CX-50. Also, don't forget about the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride. Both offer X5 dimensions and quality, and Mazda prices.
  2. Semi-serious off-roaders: This segment includes 4x4 trucks and off-road SUVs - basically anything with a part-time or full-time four-wheel-drive system, decent ground clearance and approach/departure angles, and a least a differential lock. There are various SUVs and trucks that fit the description, but some of the best SUVs for off-road adventures include the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, Subaru Forester, Ford Bronco Sport, and Chevrolet Colorado at the lower end of the market. A little higher up, you have the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover Discovery, and Evoque, and evergreen options like the Nissan Armada and the previous-generation Sequoia.
  3. Hardcore off-roaders: These vehicles include 4-wheel drive trucks, and used to be so compromised that they were difficult to live with daily, but things have changed dramatically and you could easily daily any of the cars we mention here, apart from the Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler is, in our opinion, still the best factory off-roader you can buy, but it is a pain to drive daily. Newer hardcore off-roaders like the Ford Bronco, Land Rover Defender, and Rivian R1T are epic off-road, but much easier to live with. The Ford and Land Rover prove that you no longer need a ladder frame chassis to produce something with a dual purpose. In this particular segment, owners love to customize their vehicles with lift kits, specialized tires and wheels or off-roading, and all sorts of adventure-related gadgets.
Driving Off Road unsplash.com

Common Off-Roading Mistakes

The most common mistake is hubris, pure and simple. There is a select group of off-roaders who go out with the sole objective of destroying their cars, and those are the kind of groups you want to avoid. Also, avoid any activity where you hear the words, "hold my beer." Another common mistake is attempting something that you're not sure about. Never do something unless you know the outcome will be positive. And if you have to use the side road to avoid obstacles you don't feel comfortable with, so be it. Real off-roaders know that the main aim is to enjoy the car and nature.

Finally, do a basic engine check before you set off. Off-roading puts immense pressure on various components, and you don't want the oil pressure warning light to come on when you're a hundred miles from the nearest Walmart. Oh, and before we forget, don't cling to the steering wheel as a child clings to a fluffy toy. Off-road surfaces are not smooth, and if one of the front tires suddenly grips unexpectedly or smashes into something, it will break your thumb. We know.


Should I go for off-road training?

It's always a good idea to learn from someone smarter, or more experienced, than you. Training is primarily safety-focused, showing you the correct way to use your car without damaging it or yourself. The theoretical knowledge is also worth it. An instructor will explain the various 4WD systems (AWD, part-time 4WD, full-time 4WD) and when to use each. In addition to all of this, a proper training course will also focus on recovery and basic maintenance techniques.

What are the best off-roaders?

There is no correct answer. In our humble opinion, the Jeep Wrangler is the best off-roader you can buy straight from the factory floor, but the Ford Bronco is not far behind. Land Rover's Defender is also epic but pricey. The same goes for the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The best car is the one that does what you want it to do. In other words, decide which kind of off-roading you wish to pursue, and if the car can handle it, it's all good.

What are the best off-road SUVs to buy?

The best answer to this question depends on your precise needs: a standard 4x4 drivetrain, high-reliability score, a potent powertrain, and the correct off-road settings and drive modes are some of the must-haves in the segment. That being said, the Ford Expedition, Land Rover Range Rover, and GMC Yukon all score highly on our list of top off-roaders.

Does modern technology beat old-school mechanical components?

Yes and no. It depends on how traditional you are when it comes to off-roading. Many folks believe that an off-roader should have a manual gearbox, solid axles front and rear, and manually locking hubs and differentials. They see a brake-based traction control system as the devil's work. Systems like Land Rover's Terrain Response makes it as easy as pie. You simply look out the window and select the terrain type on a rotary dial. We favor any system that makes off-roading as safe as possible.

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