By Jim Travers
Off-roading is a lot of fun, but there are things to know before you go. Let's assume you've already addressed the basics, starting with a vehicle that's equipped for at least some light off-roading. You've done your homework by spending time in online forums and perhaps joining a local club of like-minded folks who can guide you to places that are safe and legal. You've assembled the basic gear, including a radio, a decent jack, a tow strap and a full-size spare tire. Most importantly, you've found people to go with, because the first rule is to never go it alone. Off-roading is safer and more enjoyable in the company of others, especially if they're experienced and can teach you a thing or two. And it's always good to have a spotter and navigator along.
If you've done all that, then you're ready to hit the road to go off-road. The following tips should make the journey enjoyable and safe.
1. Go Easy
Regardless of what you've seen in the movies, slow and steady is the way to go in the woods and on the trail. Successfully navigating any obstacle is all about being smooth with the throttle, brakes and steering to avoid getting stuck. But don't be afraid to use the throttle when you need to, such as when approaching a steeper climb.
2. Don't Fight It
Hold the steering wheel firmly but not in a death grip. Let it move in your hands as the front wheels react to rocks and bumps, and steer smoothly back on course as you clear them. The same goes for your body: Move with the motion of the vehicle rather than fight it to avoid fatigue.
3. Leave Room
Tailgating is never a good idea and it's an especially bad one off-road. A sure way to get into trouble is to follow the vehicle ahead of you into it; that will only make it tougher to get both of you out if you get stuck. Watch the tires of the vehicle in front of you to decide if that is the best line for you as well.
Plan your turns to swing as wide as you need without leaving the trail. Avoid backing up if you can, both to reduce the likelihood of getting stuck or forcing others to stop in a bad spot. Try not to stop moving while crawling through mud, over logs, through streams or in other dicey situations that increase the likelihood of getting stuck. Wait for firmer ground.
5. Use the Side Windows
Steep climbs, descents and sharp angles can make it harder to see ahead and keep your bearings using only the front windshield. By also looking out the side windows, you can broaden your view of what's around you, and keep an eye on the horizon and other cues to stay keep on course. Of course, if you're not sure what's next to your tires, get out and check.
Invest in a two-way radio and get comfortable using it. Everyone in the group should have one and they should use it to advise others when they're clear of obstacles or tricky spots. That way the next vehicle can proceed safely. Keep in mind that abrupt rises or large rocks may prevent you from seeing the vehicle ahead or behind.
7. Stow Your Stuff
That old driver's education warning about how an umbrella can become a deadly projectile in a crash is true, and it's especially true when off-roading. But let's not forget all that other stuff. A forgotten water bottle under the seat won't do you any favors if it gets stuck under the brake pedal as you begin a sharp decline. Clean out your rig before you go, bring only what you need, and keep everything secure inside and out.
Cars.com photos by Jim Travers