There’s nothing quite like taking on the wilderness behind the wheel of your favorite truck, Jeep or other off-road vehicle but if you haven’t taken that plunge yet, it can be difficult to know where to start.
If you want to try your hand at off-roading but are worried about having the right equipment, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide with four tips to help you get started.
1. Pick the Right Car
You don’t want to go off-road in a Toyota Corolla. It doesn’t matter how much you trick it out, you’re going to end up stuck and probably sunk in a mudhole. Make sure you pick the right vehicle to take off the road.
A few things to consider include:
- Ground Clearance: Low ground clearance is going to result in you tearing up your undercarriage and ripping parts off your car. You want something that can go up and over obstacles, not get stuck on them.
- 4×4 or All Wheel Drive: Don’t take a front-wheel drive car off the road if you can help it — those cars are designed for road use only. Pick a car with all-wheel or 4-wheel drive.
- Traction Control: A vehicle with traction control will help keep you moving forward regardless of the ground conditions. It works by monitoring wheel spin and adding additional torque to one or more tires to keep them moving.
- Locking Differential: Normally, your wheels don’t spin at the same time, especially during a turn. A locking differential keeps both your wheels spinning at the same rate to keep you moving in case one wheel loses traction.
- Body on Frame Construction: This can be tricky to find, especially if you buy a new vehicle. Many manufacturers have moved away from this type of construction because it’s heavier and reduces fuel efficiency, but it also makes it easier for a rough trail to break something important on the frame or body.
Now, you can find all these things in any number of trucks and SUVs. You just have to know where to look and what questions to ask.
2. Trick Out Your Ride
There are plenty of accessories you can add to make your trail-driving experience more enjoyable, but there are some items you should absolutely invest in before you head out onto the trail for the first time. These include:
- Tires: Road tires are not going to cut it out on the trail, and trail tires aren’t going to cut it in the mud. Figure out what type of off-roading you want to do, then head down to your local tire shop to talk to the experts and figure out the best kind of tire for your vehicle and intentions.
- Bumpers: If you buy a stock truck or SUV, it’s not going to be outfitted for off-roading, which means you’ll probably rip off your stock fiberglass bumpers the first time out. Prevent potential vehicle damage by upgrading your bumpers.
- Suspension: Suspension designed for road driving is going to leave you bouncing out of your seat every time you take your vehicle off the road. Upgrade your suspension to something intended for off-roading — you want a set up that can take the punishment and then some to make your trail riding comfortable while protecting your car.
- Winch: Don’t take your vehicle off-roading without a winch, period. That goes double if you’re out by yourself — if you get stuck in a hole or a mud puddle by yourself, a winch can be a lifesaver. Without it, you’re stuck until you can call a tow, or until someone else happens down the trail who does have a winch.
- Snorkel: These are only necessary if you’re going mudding or off-roading in or around water. If that is the case, a snorkel can save you from a water-locked engine by keeping your air intake above the water line.
- Lights: Just because you’re only planning on going off-road during the day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in some good lights. Sometimes, the day gets away from you, and your standard headlights just won’t cut it if you’re trying to get out of the woods in the dark.
Don’t go out on the trail unprepared. If you do, you’re setting yourself up for failure, and probably an expensive repair and/or tow bill.
3. Know Your Trail
Before you take your new off-road vehicle out for the first time, take some time to scout your trail. It will be different to experience it once you’re behind the wheel, but it can be helpful to know some of the obstacles you’ll be facing to make sure your vehicle is equipped to handle them.
Make sure you pick a trail that works for the tires and other equipment you’ve chosen. Also, be aware of the weather forecasts for your planned trips, and make sure you know of any flash floods, avalanches or washed-out roads.
4. Pack Smart
When you’re heading out on the trail, you’re going to be miles away from the nearest gas station or convenience store — make sure you’re prepared for anything and everything. This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but a few things you should always pack:
- Food and Water: Bring snacks, drinks and food for any meals you might be taking out on the trail. Just like when you’re hiking or on foot, it’s important to stay hydrated and fed.
- First Aid Kit: Just in case. You should always have a stocked first aid kit in your car anyway, even if you’re just driving to and from work.
- Map and Compass: If you get lost, it’s always helpful to be able to find your way home. Of course, you’ll take your phone or GPS with you, but a good old-fashioned map and compass can point you back toward the nearest highway if you can’t get a signal.
- Hatchet, Saw and Folding Shovel: Whether you’ve got a tree jammed in your wheel well or need to dig out one of your tires, having these tools with you can be a lifesaver.
- Spare Tire and Tire Repair Kit: Flat tires are just part of off-roading. Keep at least one spare tire with you at all time, as well as the tools you need to replace it — including a lug wrench and jack. A tire repair kit can be useful, too, but make sure you have an air compressor handy to refill your flat tire.
- Emergency Supplies: If you’re stuck on the trail waiting for help or a tow, you might be there for a while. Keep things like a flashlight, CB radio and food supplies in your car to keep you alive while you wait for help to arrive.
This list might seem like a lot to bring, but it can mean the difference between a fun day on the trail and being stuck while you wait for someone to rescue you.
Other than these four tips, the only rules are to be courteous to other drivers and have fun on the trail. Off-roading is a fantastic way to really make your truck or SUV sing. As long as you’re careful, it’s a great way to spend the weekend.