A Guide to Off-Road Driving
Here at "ORE" we are here for you. Our Off-Road Driver Training classes are designed to instill confidence in your driving abilities, let you experience your vehicle in varied conditions, learn its abilities and disabilities. Family fun and adventure is more than possible with your 4wd. Scratches? Body Damage? I don’t think so! We are well aquatinted with today’s 4wd suv’s and their purchase price, hence the whole reason behind the class. We are here to teach you how to do it correctly and with confidence. There’s no reason to damage your vehicle. As with anything you do, practice makes perfect. To begin, one must always start at the beginning... "ORE" policy is; all participants must complete the Beginners course, "a guide to off-road driving". This policy has proved itself many times over, from the novice first-timer, to those who call themselves "veteran off-roaders". Any number of times per season we are asked to make acceptation to this policy, we’ve yet to budge, and for good reason. Making the Beginner class mandatory we are able to meet all participants under the same sort of conditions, thus enabling our instructors to get to know you, what you want from the class, your abilities and those of your vehicle (like people, most 4wd’s aren’t alike). Some tell us they are not beginners... by days end (beginners class) these same people are singing a different tune, the "veterans" telling us they learned things they didn’t know, whether about their vehicle, its abilities, or their abilities. Did they enjoy their day? You bet! Since we began operation, we are pleased to say that we have had not one complaint, all responses have been positive. Ranger, Forest Service, Fire Fighter & Search-Rescue classes available (with certificate).
Above: "ORE" instructor Bret Morshead discusses the finer points of approach and departure angles, as well as break-over (shown here).
Off-Road Driving Tips
During every "ORE" Beginner class we have a short period set aside for what we call "classroom time", it is during this period that we discuss, among others things, the off-road driving tips listed here. These "tips" are proven material, and used by a number of companies throughout the world, including numerous 4WD manufacturers. Since you’ve read our web pages thus far, you must be ready to sign up for one of our classes, right? Hey, we even teach Camel Trophy participants and hopeful’s alike! How about you? Maybe you’ve read about "ORE" in one of a number of publications or saw us on KCRA-TV3. Yes?
1) Read your owners manual thoroughly before going off-road, or on road for that matter. Learn your vehicle.
2) Never go out alone as a short trip could be costly. Venturing off the highway alone is never suggested. One can’t foresee everything that could go wrong. Being prepared yourself, having your vehicle prepared and maintained to a reasonable degree will help counter some problems, but not all. A thought: You're ten miles off the main paved road, your 4WD quits, you have an accident, or someone is injured; Now what?
Taking along another car is a smart thing to do, chances are both cars won’t quit while out. The second car could surely tow out the first, or go for help if necessary.
Remember the western bound pioneers? Do you have any idea as to how long it took them to cover ten miles on foot? How about the hardships involved? Lack of water? Lack of shelter? Poor clothing? Have you thought of these things? NO? Just think, what if... Your cell-phone doesn’t work, no one in sight, do you sit tight? Walk out? Something to consider, isn’t it? Okay, so you walk, do you have the right shoes? Clothing for when it gets cold at night? Water? Well? Lots of questions, but few answers. Bottom line is: Are you prepared to walk out? Read "Travel Kit".
3) Always make sure your vehicle is prepared before departing. Read "Preparing & Maintaining".
4) Adopt a relaxed and upright driving position with a loose grip on the steering wheel, taking note to keep your thumbs out of the center section of the wheel, thus avoiding broken thumbs from steering wheel kick-back. This is a common problem on vehicles not equipped with power assisted steering.
5) Contact between your right foot and the gearbox tunnel will help increase throttle control. The use of a "dead-pedal" on the left is also helpful. DO NOT use the clutch pedal as a "dead -pedal". Once the clutch is engaged (out), keep your foot clear.
6) Know your minimum ground clearance.
On vehicles equipped with "live" axles (fixed), the minimum ground clearance is the lowest point of the axle housing, normally the differential. This minimum clearance always remains the same as the axle goes up/down with the wheels. To obtain your minimum clearance, measure from the differential housing (its lowest point) to the ground, there it is, your minimum ground clearance. The minimum won’t change, though maximum can when a wheel climbs up.
6A) On vehicles fitted with independent suspension however, the front wheels are attached to the A-arms which go up/down independently from each other, at the same time the center portion of the chassis/suspension goes up/down as well, though the exact opposite of the wheels. Type of terrain, as well as braking can effect your ground clearance dramatically; when the front wheels are bottomed on their suspension points (up in the fenders as far as they can go), your chassis and front suspension pivot points are now very vulnerable to damage as they come closer to the obstacle. It is a proven fact, that for heavy duty off-road work vehicles fitted with "live" axles are preferred.
7) Suspension & Wheel Travel.
Since the time man first developed wheeled vehicles his thought must have been on smoothing the ride. Leaf springs have been around since what must be the beginning of time. Horse drawn wagons, buggies and the famed stage coaches had leaf springs. The leaf spring has two advantages over any other form of suspension, in that a) it’s cheap to produce, and b) they will carry heavy loads. A number of today’s 4wds are still built with leaf springs (on a HD pickup its understandable), while others have gone the Coil spring route. Coil springs do allow heavy carrying capacities to an extent while offering a smoother ride and better wheel travel/articulation (movement up/down & angle of axle). Other manufactures have sought to create car like rides on their 4WD vehicles by fitting independent front suspension, either torsion bar or coil sprung, though neither of which is in its element when off-road. The best set up? Coil sprung/Live axles; this set up offers smooth ride with extreme rates of wheel travel (wheel movement up/down) and is still cost effective to build. Independent front suspension, as described in #6A, is expensive, car like, and offers little to the off-roader, as it can be damaged easier than a live axle, has more pieces to maintain/damage, and can not offer the wheel travel and stability when off-road.
8) Know your "Approach angle", "Break-over" and "Departure angle" (Below). Knowing these figures (i.e.: Clearance), you’ll be able to negotiate obstacles much easier without damage to your vehicle. Interested in learning what these figures are on your vehicle? Try a long broom stick. Placing it under the edge of the tire, then lifting up until it makes contact with the body, you now have some idea of your angles. When off-road, drive up to your obstacle slowly, then stop get out and look to check clearances upon approach. When clearing the obstacle, be careful to "walk" the rear wheels off, remembering always that most 4WD vehicles have some sort of overhang beyond the rear axle (when "walking" your 4x4, the use of brakes, a spotter and your own sight will enable you to creep the rear wheels off the obstacle). Damage will result if care is not taken. As far as break-over is concerned, also know as "high-centered", this too will take a keen eye, the assistance of a spotter, and practice.
9) Know your vehicles height and width. Think about parking garages and parking spaces, will your 4WD clear the obstructions within the structure? Now apply the same to overhanging trees, narrow washes and rocks. Easy really.
10) Check the area(s) in which you plan to travel off-road. Ask locals about conditions. Purchase and review local maps. And... When in doubt, get out and take a brief walk to review the terrain ahead. This walk could save hours of digging and/or winching, or the anguish of having your new 4WD damaged.
11) Be aware of changing weather conditions, the last thing you want is to get caught on the desert floor. When in doubt head for high ground (when heavy rains come in), and get out of the washes or off the desert floors. Beware of fast running water... if you can’t swim it, don’t drive into it. Many vehicles have been lost in rough weather and water. Beware!
12) Know your Four-wheel-drive system. Unlike days gone by, the systems of today vary in their modes of operations and capabilities. Review your owners manual or talk with an expert concerning your vehicle make. Don’t assume anything.
13) Engage Low-Range before you need it. Choose the correct gear for the situation, see #12. Note: On vehicles fitted with a manual center "Diff-Lock", this should be disengaged once traction has been regained. However, Low-Range should be kept engaged until clear of the hazardous area(s). FYI: This center differential-lock is just that, a lock, locking the front & rear drive outputs of the transfercase together. When unlocked (disengaged) it will prevent "axle windup" with in the drivetrain. Vehicles fitted with a standard High-Low/2wd-4wd system have no center-differential, and when engaged in 4WD for long periods they will induce axle windup. You may notice that in tight turns while in 4WD that the front wheels will seem to hop and buck, this is the windup trying to escape from the system. Don’t be alarmed.
14) Before entering a difficult section, make your choice of gear selection. Remember that you should ALWAYS use lst gear (First, Low-Range) on down-hills for maximum engine braking effect, and keep the use of brakes to an absolute minimum, the use of which could cause sliding and loss of control. To correct a sliding vehicle, turn into the slide and apply some throttle, you will now have to straighten the steering wheel and let off the throttle. Gear selection for up-hill use depends on the make of vehicle, though 2nd or 3rd would be a good place to start. Choosing too high a gear can lug or stall an engine, keep you eye on the tach. Using steady rev’s of 1800-2200 rpm is a good starting point.
15) If conditions are soft (marshy ground, sand, etc.) it may be advisable to lower tire pressures. This helps improve traction, and will reduce sinking. Tires will have to be re-inflated for road use.
16) When ground conditions appear difficult, such as rocks, ruts, etc., it is advisable to select a path by foot prior to driving through, thus reducing the chance of getting stuck or damaging your vehicle. The use of a spotter is also recommended.
17) Exercise care when applying the throttle. Excess throttle will cause wheel spin (digging) and could stop forward movement. Don’t dig with your wheels, otherwise you’ll be digging with a shovel!
18) Momentum of a fast moving vehicle will always overcome the drag and reduce the traction needed from the wheels. When it is clear that NO obstacle is in the way to cause damage, a fast approach to a steep hill, soft sand, mud, etc., can very often be effective.
19) When crossing ditches, ruts, logs, etc., always try to keep as many wheels as possible on the same type of surface. Avoid getting the wheels airborne. Also ditch & log crossing should be done at 45-degree angles, not head on, thus keeping traction loss to one wheel only.
20) Always be aware of obstacles under your vehicle, keeping in mind you only have so much ground clearance. Avoid existing deep ruts, sudden changes in slopes, plus remember your approach and departure angles.
21) Maximum advisable wading depth is approx 20-inches. If equipped, fit the bellhousing wading plug prior to setting out. Make sure your engine air intake does not suck water, otherwise great engine damage will occur. Though some vehicles are known for driving through deep water, we don’t suggest it (you need specialized vehicles & equipment). If you have to cross that stream, survey it first. If the water is glass smooth and you can’t see the bottom, a muddy bottom is usually the norm. If choppy and rough, rocks are then the cause. When surveying you’ll have to check depth, current speed, condition of the stream bottom (does it offer traction or not?). Don’t try driving against the current, and if you have to cross, take it a right angles, or angle your way down stream to the opposite bank, letting the current help you along. You are in... don’t splash, this will normally cause an engine to be soaked (causing it to quit, or suck water down the air cleaner). Begin slowly and create a "bow-wake", taking care to keep a steady speed.
22) After driving through deep water (or mud), make sure your brakes are dried out immediately, thus being fully operational when needed. This can be done by driving a short distance with the brake pedal applied lightly. You should also check your air filter for water.
23) When dealing with mud, refer to #10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 & 18 for starters. Now think about what gear you’ll use, we normally try second gear low-range (possibly 3rd with a V8 & automatic), keep a steady speed, not too fast, and try not to spin the wheels, as if they are, you are not going forward. If you loose forward movement, lift off the throttle slightly, enough to stop the spinning and see if you regain traction, normally you well. Throttle control and traction is the key to driving in the mud.
24) Should you get stuck, careful thought and experience will usually provide a solution. However, the trick is not to get stuck in the first place. The idea of having a winch is great, but just in case you don’t have one, look at your situation, then clear any/all obstacles from in front of all four tires. Adjust air pressure as necessary, then begin a rocking motion (forward-reverse, etc.). In most cases it will do the trick. If not, it may be necessary to jack up the car and place rocks, matting, etc., under the tires for added traction. It may also be necessary to remove all payload from the load space area.
25) Driving in the snow can be a daily chore for some, or fun for others. The problem isn’t the snow, but the ice under it. Let’s talk freeway snow driving: You’re headed east for Reno over Donner Pass, the summit is some 7300 feet above sea level, the snow line begins a 3000 feet, the CHP has a chain requirement up and is advising all to stay away. So what do you do? Head for the mountains no doubt. Whether you are going skiing for the weekend, or on business, if the CHP has warnings and requirements up, stay home! That cures that, right? No? Like most you’ll go anyway, clogging the roads for all those that have to get across. Don’t, stay home... please.
So you run into driving snow at 3000 feet, by 4000 Cal-Trans has the road blocked checking for chains or 4wds with snow tires (see #26). From this point on the road is white, your vehicle type will have a lot to do with whether or not you’ll have an easy time of it. Lets take a Range Rover first, post-’88 with a viscous coupler transfer (these vehicles are full-time 4WD). Really you don’t have to do a thing, just drive it. For example, if you’re in a Land Rover Discovery or Defender, or a pre-’89 Range Rover, these are fitted with a manual center-diff-lock (still full-time 4WD), and when encountering slick areas such as snow covered roads (or mud), the center-diff must be locked to obtain maximum traction. Leave it locked until blacktop appears from under the snow and traction has be regained (center-diff-lock may be operated at any speed). Now you’re driving a ‘96 Trooper with a V6, or a Honda Passport, now what? It’s in 2WD most of the time, and engaging 4WD on a snow covered road requires slowing and/or stopping in order to engage high-range 4WD (read your manual). Now, some of these vehicles limit the speed in which you can travel in 4WD high-range (meaning highway speed ratio), thus you’ll again have to research such things with your dealer. Anyway, 4WD must be engaged otherwise you’ll have no traction, thus no control, and possibly no forward movement. In fact, the CHP could require you to fit chains, or worse yet, turn back. The Bravada, and vehicles like it, the owner should be concerned when in snow conditions, as though they are built as a street type 4-wheeler, and are not an off-road vehicle, and can do quite well in snow conditions (plowed) with the right tires fitted, they still have no low-range capabilities, thus in extreme conditions can be no better than the average car fitted with chains. As said earlier, the snow isn’t so much the problem, except visibility (keep your lights on low-beam, no driving lamps, but fog lamps okay -yellow even better), its the ice under it. ABS braking is the current fad, and though "ORE" doesn’t endorse ABS as a whole, this is one of the few times they show their worth. Driving in the snow is like racing motorcycles in the rain... you have to be smooth. Don’t use abrupt throttle openings, heavy braking, or quirky steering movements. Apply the throttle smooth and steady. Do all your braking in a straight line (release the pedal prior to making your turn). If in a bad situation, do not lock the wheels up with the brakes! Down shift as necessary, engine braking will slow the vehicle straight and smooth in most cases. Make your turns in a nice smooth arch, don’t jerk the wheel. Think egg shells. Remember that braking distances have increased ten fold, thus you’ll have to adjust your driving habits... don’t follow so close (as you might do in commute traffic), stay off the brakes if at all possible - down shifting instead of constantly dragging on the brakes; stay in one lane - changing lanes can be deadly due to berms of built up snow between the lanes. If you’re spooked about driving in adverse conditions you have two choices; a) stay home, or b) take one of our classes that deal with such.
Here’s a little story.... A gentleman calls about our classes, says he’s just bought a new Jeep, replacing the one he totaled out on Donner during the winter. "What happen?" I asked, "I was coming down the mountains, it was snowing hard, then all of a sudden it spun and I went down an embankment!" he replied. I asked one question of him... "Did you have the brakes on?" "Why yes, and it still wouldn’t stop!". WRONG! No brakes! Lightly if you have to.
Here’s another one... The "ORE" crew is heading home on I-80, while Blain passes the Nevada City exit he finds a Toyota 4WD pickup sideways in the road stopped (very dangerous!). Blain stops, gets out and talks with the driver and his wife, both of whom are freezing cold inside, and Blain asks if they need help. They say they can’t get up the grade, "the truck keeps going sideways". Blain asks if the driver has 4WD engaged, the driver replies "yes!". Blain proceeds to ask if the driver has any chains, which are quickly produced, then goes about fitting them (though the tires were marked "M&S", they were not the type that should be in such conditions). Blain completes fitting the chains and instructs the driver to proceed, that he would follow him up the grade, or tow him if needed. With that, the couple crank up their truck, but it won’t move, the rear wheels (one of them) was spinning, but no action up front. Blain has them hold up, then checks the locking hubs up front. Guess what? They weren’t locked! When in doubt, stay home, or... take our class regarding winter time driving.
Here’s another one for those with children out and about. During the same driving blizzard that Blain came across the Toyota, John and Michael would come across someone in need as well. Descending down the mountain a set of lights were spotted coming up, it is difficult to tell who’s doing what with all that snow falling. As they approached said lights, they noticed the lights were stationary and off to the right. Moments later they’d find an S10 Blazer backed down into a snow drift, three young college girls inside wondering what to do next. After checking on their health, the age old question of... "do you have it in 4-wheel-drive?" was asked, "I think so" was the reply from with in. "Okay then, put it in second gear and lightly touch the throttle and we’ll see what happens", the rears spun. After engaging 4WD low-range and again applying throttle, the Blazer refused to move, its chassis hung up on the drift. With that now known, the only alternative was to winch them out. With the winching in progress John informed the young ladies of the "ORE" classes and handed them some information, to this day we’ve never heard from them. Normal. Just think about what could have happened had circumstances been only slightly different. Let’s not.
Off-roading in the snow can be a blast, though caution is the word of the day. Since your off-road, you can be sure no one has plowed the road or trail ahead. Snow packs quickly when in front, or under your vehicle, a drift of only minor depths can strand you, leaving you with digging and/or winching your way out. When in doubt, survey it. Walk through it, find out how deep the snow is before you drive 5000-pounds of 4WD into it. Though while driving in it, depending on depth and pack, again use smooth throttle, braking and steering methods. Remember that when on a dirt trail/road that the snow will freeze the puddles under it, and every now and again sheets of flying ice may appear as you tear across the surface.