When it comes to off road sports or adventure, it's important to size up what you want to do. There's mudding, rock-crawling, wheeling, trails riding, off-road expeditions, there's overland travel, and all sorts of in-between. All require something just a little different of the driver, as well, but there are some universal principles.
Ages ago when I got my first 4x4 vehicle, a 1994 Nissan pickup, my dad told me the following:
"4-wheel drive is to get you out of trouble, not into it."
While I didn't listen, I made enough mistakes to now recognize the wisdom in that advice. So the ISG approach to 4x4 and off-road travel is loosely based around it. We want to be able to get far enough out, but we want to be able to get back again as necessary.
Not only is this helpful for getting out of the rat race and enjoying some remote camping, but it's a viable skill for dodging emergencies and setting up a decent 'bug out vehicle', which we believe actually makes good sense for emergency planning.
And like bugging out during an emergency, such as a flood, fire, or hurricane, we'll need to plan for food, fuel, sanitation, weather, and of course, terrain. That means that off-road expeditions are not only a really enjoyable way to spend a weekend away, but it's also a solid way to train for the unexpected.
Once you've got an idea where you're heading, it's time to get to planning. This doesn't have to be complicated;
Start with a roster of who's going, who's with them, and any relevant licensing or responisibilities. After that, start looking at the environmental conditions. Most of the time you can get weather data from the National Weather Service, and water data from the US Geological Survey. This can help you plan around water hazards and weather, in case you end up in an area where water crossings might be necessary. Get an idea of what's going on in the area environmentally.
Once you've sorted out how long you'll be gone and what you can expect weather wise, the next step is planning meals and budgeting space. Don't forget the other end of meals - sanitation. Don't trash the trail by leaving garbage or waste.
Finally, get the trail gear you'll need assembled. If you're going out in a group, you probably don't all need a snatch block, winches or chainsaws, but communicate with your crew to establish who's carrying what and where it'll be when you set your trail order. You definitely don't wanna have to jog 6 cars back to get the saw for a downed tree. Winch and recovery is outside the scope of this article, but a winch, hi-lift jack, spare tires, spare fuel, some basic tools, and fix-a-flat all make good additions.
Once you've got the necessary goods together, start playing Tetris and making it all fit.
This might seem like a stretch, but really, any time you go somewhere with friends in multiple cars, you're in a convoy. Most people just get in and go, but with a little planning, you can move effectively as a group.
Lane/space domination: A big thing when traveling in a group is staying together. Good use of signals is a good start, and so is predicting movement. As a driver, you're going to need to watch ahead and see who's likely to do what. Once the lead vehicle signals it's intention, do the same, but get over as quickly as possible. You want to dominate the land you intend to change in to, so no one has a chance to interrupt your convoy. If the rearmost vehicle does his job, you can generally have him block the lane while the vehicles ahead of him switch lanes to pass or avoid obstacles.
Interval: Generally, this isn't something you'll need to worry about much if you're outside of a war zone. If counter vehicle measures, such as mines or vBEIDs are a problem, a larger interval can be used to decrease the likelihood that greater damage can occur. Same with danger/ambush areas along your route. More room to maneuver means more chances to make it out, and more spread out targets. How does that relate to the regular world?
More time to react. Giving yourself a little distance typically means you have more time to act or react in traffic. You can control this as a method of forcing cars to slow down (and therefore want to get out of your convoy), or speed up (to block a lane so the convoy ahead of you can move over to get around a slow moving vehicle or the like).
In the civilian or overland capacity, a shorter interval when moving over flat, even ground is good, but when you hit tough terrain or water crossings, opening up a bit gives a chance to learn from the prior vehicle's path and minimize risk to the group. Interval can also dramatically affect your ability to change directions in response to accidents or road closures. You want to give yourself some space, but not enough that someone else can steal it.
Composure: As a driver, you need to be able to roll with the punches. Stuff goes wrong. Things don't go according to plan. Accidents happen. Just get used to the fact that even when you're serious about doing things quickly and correctly, problems will come up, and you're a part of a team that has to solve them together. We'll discuss this in much greater detail in Part 3, but for now, just remember that your chances of being an asset to your group is greater if you're not the guy who complains all the time, or gets pissed when things don't go as planned.
Being able to stay calm and work with your team while getting out for fun is important, but when you add the pressure of an emergency, it's crucial. Practice maintaining your chill.
Technique - Trail
With most things, the technique you'll need when off road is largely build on experience driving. Being able to read the terrain and place your wheels where they're least likely to slip or list your vehicle is part art and part science. While this goes beyond the scope of the article (and there are classes for developing these techniques) here are some things to be aware of:
Break and Gas: If you're like me, your dad told you never use the gas and brake at the same time, but off-road on tough terrain, it's a mandatory skill, especially with older vehicles. Newer vehicles have some traction control which takes most of the work out of it, but it's still good to be aware of the technique. When working against gravity and RPMs, you'll need to get used to using the foot brake while goosing the accelerator enough to keep you from rolling back or stalling. It's a bit counterintuitive at first, but it's a simple practice.
"Picking a Line": One of the most experiential skills in off-road driving is knowing where your tires are without seeing them, and relating them to the undercarriage of your vehicle. This is a skill that simply requires experience, and usually that means having a good spotter (just one! you don't need the whole crew out yelling out commands), and knowing where your low points are. Once you can understand their relative position to the trail, managing ruts and irregular terrain, you'll be less likely to to damage your vehicle.
Takeoff, Departure, Breakover angles: These angles could be a study and article in themselves, but let's paraphrase them like this: When you're coming up to, or down from terrain, the degree of the grade (steepness) can cause your to scrap your front or rear end on the ground. It's even worse if it's isn't a cut and dry 'hill', and you've got rapid changes in terrain... at that point, the "breakover" comes into play. The Breakover angle is how far your vehicle can drop when the front and rear and unequal without damaging your running gear.
Airing down: As most off-roaders know, airing down increases the footprint of the vehicle and disperses the traction surface of the tire over a wider and longer area. This helps grip and traction in slick, loose, or muddy terrain. Typical tire pressures when airing down are usually around 16-20 PSI, compared to normal road pressures of 35-40 PSI. These are just rough figures, and your vehicle and tire combination may be a little different. It's important to note that once you return to pavement, you'll want to air your tires back up! Failing to do so can cause damage to the sidewall and irregular, premature wear.
Technique - Cabin
When you're driving, there are a few small techniques that can help while you're tackling tough terrain. Here are a few a few things you can do to increase your safety and awareness while driving.
Adjust your mirrors downward - doing this can give you a view of your tires on uncertain terrain or narrow trails.
Adjust your posture - You may want to sit slightly forward compared to normal when driving off-road. This allows your arms and legs to rest, and makes it so you won't have to fully extend and support them when driving gets tense. It'll also mean less travel to get responses from your acceleration and brake, which over the course of days, means less fatigue. Position yourself where the distance between your body and steering wheel is just slightly longer than your forearm, and your seat where your legs rest on the pedals. It might seem silly at first, but off-road driving in tense conditions can be extremely exhausting, and when you're on the trail for 8 hours and still have to set up and break down camps, cool, manage sanitation and power production, every little bit will help.
Keep your thumbs out of the Steering Wheel - often times, when dealing with obstacles on the trail, the steering wheel will 'kick', and if your thumbs are hooked around it, you can end up with a sprain. Lay your thumb along the outer surface of the wheel. You'll still be able to hold on plenty tight, and you won't risk your thumb if your wheels suddenly change directions.
Setting up Camp
Among the most important aspects of traveling off road is a decent kitchen. Whether you pool resources and share or have everyone do their own, there's a few required items:
- -A stable platform for preparation and cook
- -A method of keeping food cold (fridge or cooler)
- -A set of utinsels to prepare food, as well as serve and eat
- -A way of collecting and cleaning the utensils
- -A way of transporting water
While there are plenty of options when it comes to this and you can do it with a pretty trim budget (+/- $100) or you can go all out and drop $1500 on a fridge alone. The best bet is start small with stuff that you can use camping first, and upgrade as you find deficiencies.
The benefits of having something you can keep in the vehicle can't be understated - if you've ever camped before, critters are going to be on your garbage by the time you finish zipping the tent. If they can, they'll make off with your potatoes.
With the prevalence of those absurd Charmin commercials, no one probably wants to hear about going to the bathroom, but if you've ever lived in a field environment, you know it can get rank in a hurry. Portable toilet setups can go a long ways and the waste can be transported in thick bags that can be placed inside ammo cans (thanks to Chad from Oklahoma Overland for this idea), and simple pop-up tents can add some privacy, don't take up much space, and set up easily.
Another aspect of sanitation is trash management. If you don't have a sealable container, something like the Trasharoo can help compartmentalize waste outside of the cabin, where you're driving and possibly sleeping.
If you're doing more than a day trip, you'll need someplace to sleep. There are all the usual suspects; tents, hammocks, bivy bags, etc. Increasingly common is the Rooftop tent.
When it comes to take down and setup, the rooftop tent is hands down the fastest way to go. They're comfortable, keep you up off the ground, and with an anti-condensation mat, can be both warm and reasonably dry. Since they mount to the roof, they're out of the way, and don't take up extra ground space when hunting for a camp sight.
However, what you save on trip convenience you pay for when it comes to putting it on and taking it off. Even a reasonably light tent is about 120 pounds, and unless you want to risk paint or windows, it's a two person job. Once it's set up, it's a cinch (takes about 5 minutes to set up or tear down, depending on if you need the rainfly), so it's a convenient way to go if you're going to be on a longer trip.
That said, they're expensive and you can certainly camp in a regular tent just fine.
On the Trail
Perhaps the most important thing you can have on the trail is a good trail lead who can act as scout and spotter. Not only will you learn a ton from them, but they'll help you work through obstacles without destroying your ride, getting swamped, or permanently stuck.
One good ground guide can really make the difference in terms of helping the driver overcome the angles of rough terrain. The spotter's job is to give the driver simple directions (audio visual, like we talked about in Road Tactics... again, that good 'ole consistency) so that the driver can both hear and see when he gives directions.
If you watch any YouTube videos of people working off-road, you'll notice there's probably 3 spotters for every driver. That's because they aren't doing it right.
When relaying directions, the spotter does so relative to "drivers side" or "passenger side" to eliminate confusion about who's left and right. This mitigates risk of damaging either the vehicle itself, or the vulnerable sidewall of the tires while moving through difficult terrain.
Obstacles are another concern; often you'll encounter either water problems that cause you to re-route, or fixable situations like downed trees. As part of your planning make sure that the people with the tools for obstacles are towards the front of the column. Things like medical kits should be (ideally in every car) spaced so that you're never more than a single vehicle from a decent one.
If you need to, cross train each other on the skills to stop bleeding, predict and understand the environment, and deal with problems like winching and recovery. That can go a long way in building both your resiliency for the trip as well as your friends' skill base for hard times.
This is a very 'down and dirty' version that gives some ideas for what to expect when preparing for a trip. In future articles, we'll discuss more of the technique involved as well more specific information about things like setting up kitchens, roof-top tents, and camp sanitation.
We hope you've found this to be useful, and thank you for being a part of the ISG community.
Special thanks to Brad A., Conor B., Jeremy B., and JT B.