Taking Your 4×4 to New Heights: Off-Roading in the Mountains

If you’ve ever seen an experienced mountain driver such as a tour guide deftly maneuver a 4×4 through thin ribbons of icy mountain road no wider than the vehicle itself, and then even somehow squeeze past cars coming in the other direction, you must marvel at the skill involved. It’s this kind of expert hand that you will need to develop if you hope to take a 4 x 4 over dangerous mountainous terrain, yourself. If you keep at it, you can be sure that it’ll come to you eventually. It can help to get started armed with a few tips.

Passing another car on a road that’s too narrow

Getting back to the situation described above, if you can find a spot on the narrow, icy mountain road that’s wide enough to accommodate two cars comfortably, you should certainly move there to let the other driver pass. If it’s a spot that allows no wiggle room, though, you’ll need to get creative. When you’re still learning, it isn’t obligatory to keep to the correct side of the road when you’re in such a situation. The less experienced driver does get to squeeze in through on the wrong side of the road. If the person in the other car is even just a little experienced, he should understand what you trying to do, and allow you to pass whichever way you are comfortable.

You need both power and technique

Driving through a heavy drift of snow can be hard enough on level ground. If you are on hilly terrain, it can take special skills. To power your way through, you will need a powerful vehicle — something like a Jeep Cherokee outfitted with special off-road snow-and-ice tires. You’ll need more than equipment, though — you’ll need skill.

One of the most basic skills involved in driving in drift snow involves knowing what to do when the snow becomes heavy enough to hold the car in place. The trick is to go in with a small amount of momentum, but to be ever ready to ease off the gas the moment the wheels begin to spin. You need to back out, and go in with momentum again. It a back-and-forth, in-and-out motion that gets you through. It’s never a good idea to simply step on the gas.

Deciding between manual and automatic

Without a doubt, manual transmission on a 4 x 4 gives you precise control for the kind of challenging situations that you might face up in the mountains. Nevertheless, modern automatics are an excellent idea for someone starting out off-roading. On the kind of inclines and slopes that mountain driving comes with, an automatic can be much, much easier to handle than a manual. You won’t ever need to work all three pedals with two feet, which can be tricky. It could be an idea to start with an automatic, but eventually work your way to a manual once you gain enough experience.

Learn to use the differential lock

Modern transmissions have something called a differential system — it allows each wheel to derive power from the transmission independently of one another. This is a good idea in all regular road conditions involving turns. A fixed system would have both the inner wheel and the outer wheel during a turn spin at the same speed, which could be a problem during a turn. The inner wheel is supposed to travel a shorter distance than the outer wheel, after all.

The differential can make things complicated, though, in off-roading situations involving slippery surfaces. When you have one wheel that’s caught in slippery mud or ice, the differential transmission will end up putting all its power into it, causing it to spin wildly, while the wheel that has traction gets no power at all.

The differential lock helps take care of the situation by locking both wheels in synchrony. It can take some practice to handle a locked differential during turns, though. It’s important to go in having done a few practice runs.

Wanda Haines is a thrill-seeking world traveller. During long plane and train rides she likes jotting down some ideas for future articles. Her pieces appear on numerous travel blogs.

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