While traveling, whether doing a road trip in your background or an overland exploration of another country, the ability to go off road can help you see beautiful secluded sights and reach isolated areas you wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience. However, there are some basics to keep in mind before, during, and after your off road adventures. Driving off the beaten path can be an amazing experience, but it can also wreck your car, leave you stuck in the wilderness, or put you in serious danger. The best way to decrease your chances of anything bad happening is to know the best off road cars, know as much as possible about your vehicle, know how to drive on rough terrain, and pack all the necessary equipment in your car. Read this ultimate guide to off road driving, be prepared, and you’re almost guaranteed a great experience.
Off Road Cars & Trips: Before You Go
1) Pick a Vehicle: If you already have a 4WD vehicle, you can skip to the next bullet point. But if you are going to be renting off road cars on-site, or you are considering purchasing a new vehicle and are an off-road aficionado, these are the cars consistently rated the best by experts and publications for off-road driving:
Best Off Road Cars:
- Jeep Wrangler Unlimited – Base Price: ~$30,000 (nope, no bias for me here)
- Toyota FJ Cruiser – Base Price: ~$27,000
- Land Rover LR4 – Base Price: ~$49,000
- Ford F-150 Raptor – Base Price: ~$43,500
- Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited – Base Price: ~$27,500
- Toyota Tacoma TRD – Base Price: ~$16,900
- Nissan Frontier PRO 4X – Base Price: ~$28,500
Best Off Road Luxury Options:
- Lexus GX – Base Price: ~$54,000
- Toyota Land Cruiser – Base Price: ~$69,000
- Mercedes-Benz G-Class – Base Price: ~$107,000
2) Prep Your Vehicle: Off road cars take maintenance; make sure your vehicle is equipped to handle the difficulties of off road driving.
- Top off all fluids & check tire pressure (for both on-car tires & spare)
- Make sure filters, hoses, and belts are maintained
- Check condition of steering & brakes
- Know location of spare tire & jack, make sure you know how to replace the tire
- Adjust suspension to lift vehicle 1-4 inches, thus increasing your clearance (don’t overdo it and make the car too top heavy)
- Skid plates prevent damage to the vehicle’s underside, ‘nerf’ bars prevent damage to your vehicle’s frame, and roll cages reduce the chance of injury in case of a roll over
- Get larger tires, around 29-35 inches tall, to provide extra ground clearance and a smoother ride; tires run best at low pressure (5-15 psi)
3) Right Before Departure:
- Do not load too much weight behind the rear axle or on a roof rack, as it will make the vehicle more unstable, something off road cars are already prone to.
- Check the weather! This is so simple, but people easily forget to check driving conditions, and end up unprepared for severe snow or rain.
- Travel with a buddy! NEVER go it alone. Either have a passenger in your car, or another driver close by you can communicate with.
- An extra precaution: If you’re going it alone for an extended period of time, it’s optional but recommended to get a satellite phone. Areas with off-road trails are usually areas with weak or no signal. If you end up stuck in the middle of nowhere in a little-trafficked area, you could be in trouble if you can’t get in touch with anybody.
4) Supply Checklist
- Mobile phone (or satellite phone for remote areas)
- Tow rope
- Snow chains (for snow and mud)
- On-board or handheld GPS (also recommend having physical maps of the terrain – electronic navigation can fail)
- First aid kit
- Portable air compressor
- Small shovel (helps if you get stuck)
- Spare tanks of water and fuel
- Emergency supplies for long-term offroading (food, water, blanket)
- Hydraulic jack
- Vehicle manuals
- Duct tape
5) Finally, Pick Your Trail: Use the following resources to pick a trail near you that suits your off-road experience and skills.
Beginner: gravel, dirt, grass
Intermediate: sand, shallow water, mud
Advanced: river runs, rocks
On the Road
1) Be patient and not stupid. More specifically, don’t EVER speed and don’t try to do tricks. Off-road driving was not meant for speeding; you have to constantly check the environment around you and feel the terrain under your vehicle.
2) Accelerate and decelerate VERY gradually.
3) Try to constantly maintain some kind of momentum. Slow but steady is preferable. If you feel your car slowing down due to the terrain, turn your wheel left and right continuously to keep the vehicle going. Otherwise getting stuck is a very real possibility.
4) For SAND or MUD terrain: Don’t spin your tires too much, or you could easily dig your car into tire-shaped holes. Back up or rock the vehicle out.
5) For WATER terrain: Know the location of the car’s computer and the engine’s air intake, so you know what depth is OK to cross with your car.
6) For ROCK terrain: Always have your passenger or buddy driver outside the car helping you with wheel placement. As the driver, you will not have full visibility for the terrain underneath you, so a ‘spotter’ is necessary.
7) If you get stuck, either call your driver friend and use a tow rope, or use a winch (which can be used with stationary objects like trees and boulders), and if both fail, call for assistance on your phone.
8) Stick to designated paths and 4×4 areas. Going off these paths will not only irreparably damage the environment, but will also put you in danger of not being found should anything happen.
After Off Road Driving
1) Clear mud from the vehicle’s wheels (to remove imbalances). Then check for any minor damage to the vehicle, like cuts and scrapes, especially on the tires.
2) Service the vehicle. Mud, water, and snow can seep into your vehicle’s parts, thereby damaging them. Also, fluids need to be changed more frequently than recommended if your vehicle has undergone an extended off-road experience.
Above all, take it slow and have fun!
Do you drive off-road? Would you? What have your experiences been like and what precautions do you take?