5 Off-Roading Tips to Help a Beginner Drive Like a Pro

There are those who appreciate nature and then there are those who grab it by the horns. Case in point: Plenty of people enjoy a peaceful stroll in the woods, while others prefer to get dirty. Likewise, while newbies to the outdoors may want to remain safe and vigilant by staying on the beaten path, thrillseekers definitely want to get their adrenaline going via off-roading.

If you have always wanted to get up close and personal with the rugged outdoors by off-roading, here are five tips for achieving the maximum level of safety, fun and adventure while taking the road less traveled.

1. Gear Up

Of course, you can’t off-road in just any old vehicle. These days, many adventure seekers rely on either four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles to get their off-roading fix. But, as an off-roading newbie, you should know the second your tires touch unpaved land, it’s time to shift into four-wheel drive. Conversely, the center differential must be locked in all-wheel drive vehicles.

The main reason for shifting so suddenly is because it’s not uncommon for off-roaders to get caught up in the thrill of the moment and completely space gearing up. Plus, once you’re literally off the road, those rear tires could spin out at any time, and after that happens, there’s no guarantee shifting into four-wheel drive will free you up.

The additional control offered through low range, four-wheel drive can also be helpful on rough trails. This gear set allows you to drive slowly but increases torque at the wheels, so that you have more control when easing up and navigating over obstacles. Don’t forget about those other gears when driving a manual transmission, though. First gear works well for crawling over large debris or rocks, while higher gears can help you maneuver through loose or soft terrain.

2. Choose the Right Tires and Tire Pressure

It’s imperative you find optimal terrain tires for your off-roading adventure. Of course, not all tires are created equal, and the best tire for your vehicle largely depends on the landscape you plan to conquer.

Reinforced sidewalls and tread are found in all-terrain tires, allowing your ride to maneuver through gravel or mud. However, these tires tend to be rather loud for day-to-day use. Meanwhile, full mud terrain tires tend to be of larger diameter, but if you up the size, you’ll need upgraded brakes and suspension to compensate.

Before you take your vehicle out to tackle the terrain, make sure to decrease the tire pressure. When you do this, the tread can better conform to the shape of the terrain as well as any obstacles, meaning you’ll have better grip and control. You should also decrease the tire pressure when driving on softer surfaces, like snow or sand dunes, in order to avoid sinking.

An exception to this practice occurs when you’re off-roading on jagged terrain. In these cases, increased tire pressure causes the tire to stiffen, making them less likely to puncture or be damaged.

3. Show Respect

It’s an inaccurate assumption that off-roaders don’t respect the environments through which they trek. In fact, most four-wheel-drive enthusiasts have adopted the U.S. Forest Service’s Tread Lightly guidelines, which are more commonly known as the behaviors and practices that limit the footprint left by off-road adventurers.

Most off-roaders, particularly in backcountry areas, understand they should stick to open areas and locales that display signs indicating that off-roading is permitted. Respectful offroaders shouldn’t cross waterways in any area other than where the road crosses the water. This will help to not disrupt the natural environment surrounding them. Drivers are also encouraged to keep a safe distance between themselves and other four-wheel-drive vehicles.

4. Scout Ahead

Obviously, drivers go off-roading because they love to drive. But jumping out of a truck and checking out unseen territory ahead on foot could save you some major hassle down the road. If you’re fighting through a difficult stretch, don’t assume it will even out eventually. Instead, pop out and take a gander on foot.

In particular, keep an eye out for spots where the trail juts off to one side or where it disappears altogether. A sudden and steep drop could be just out of sight. If you plan to tackle challenging terrain, consider the best path through it and make a mental note of which rocks you should avoid and which ones look most promising for off-roading.

5. Practice Your Geometry

In order to successfully scale any four-wheel-drive obstacle, you need to be able to clear it. As you attempt such a stunt, you’ll gain clearance by maneuvering the front bumper skyward and over an obstacle, and then by making sure the rear bumper doesn’t drag. It may sound simple, but clearance depends on your ability to eyeball the angles that appear between the surface at the edge of the tire and the lowest part of your vehicle as you ascend an obstacle.

Angles can also tell you when you shouldn’t attempt a scale. The worst-case scenario is to misjudge the “break-over angle,” or the maximum height of an obstacle that your vehicle can clear without becoming “high-centered.” High-centered is a position the truck gets stuck in when it doesn’t make it over and is unable to gain clearance.

The center of the truck rests on the high point of the obstacle. Essentially, your truck is acting as a teeter-totter, and the only way out is with a tow, if you’re lucky. Being able to judge these angles on sight comes with experience and familiarity with your vehicle and the terrain. Ultimately, if the angle looks impossible, it usually is.

Are You Ready to Off-Road?

Off-roading may look like spontaneous chaos with four-wheel-drive vehicles tearing through the terrain with no regard for what’s in their way. But the reality is that you need certain skills to do it successfully. If you shift the gears correctly, install quality tires and adjust the pressure accordingly, and demonstrate respect for the land, you’ll feel like an off-roading pro as you trek on the road less traveled.