Tactics for the Trail

Smart maneuvers for tough terrain.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Consider the still-hunter. He takes a step or two, then pauses to look for sign. Only after thoroughly inspecting the cover around him does he take another step. Put that same guy behind the wheel of a 4x4, though, and chances are he simply charges up the trail, not knowing or caring what's ahead. His truck can take anything! Then, of course, a buried stump rips out his exhaust system and his wallet just got $500 lighter. That's not bad luck. It's bad driving.

Obstacles Always let the vehicle's suspension and tires do the work when you encounter obstacles. Gunning through a rough section won't help and can actually create problems. If you're going too fast and hit a deep hole or a rock, the resulting loss of control can send the vehicle bouncing off the trail. Small rocks and low tree stumps can be straddled. Generally, it's best to position the vehicle so the rock or stump passes under the driver's side. That's because the front differential-usually the lowest hanging component-is often (but not always) located to the right; check the position of the differentials in your 4x4 before you go offroad. Larger rocks and higher stumps can be driven over slowly.

Small downed trees can also be driven over, as long as you approach at an angle so that one tire at a time goes over. Three tires on the ground allows for maximum traction and less chance of hanging up on the trunk.

It's best to feather the brake and the accelerator when driving over an obstacle. Feathering requires the simultaneous use of both feet-the left on the brake and the right on the accelerator. The idea is to apply light pressure to the accelerator (to move the vehicle slowly) as well as light pressure to the brake pedal (to keep from locking the brakes).

Hills The customary advice on picking the proper gear for climbing a hill is to always shift into the lowest gear available to get the best traction. A better approach is to pick the highest gear you can use while maintaining uphill progress. On some hills, first gear provides too much power, and the result is dirt-throwing wheel spin and loss of traction.

When descending a hill, shift into low-range four-wheel-drive instead of braking. This helps avoid locking your brakes, which can lead to a loss of steering.

Remember that trails aren't static. Even if it's a trail you drive every year, weather conditions may have changed the surface since your last trip. The stream may be running higher. The ruts may be deeper. A rock slide may block the way. The only way to know for sure is to get out of the vehicle and scout rough sections of the trail.

Next month: Driving in mud.