How to drive when the road ends: Off-roading tips for beginners
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.
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:.
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:
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.
Before we even get down to the specific kinds of off-roaders and examples, let's look at what makes an off-roader special.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.