Sitting in the driver seat of a two-door Jeep, I hear Scott Trager’s voice crackle over a GMRS radio, “Drivers, put your vehicles in 4-low. They will remain in 4-low for the duration of your stay at NORA.” Behind me, there is a line of four-wheel-drive SUVs, each spaced two car lengths apart. The order goes Toyota, Jeep, Toyota, Jeep, Jeep. We’re about to go down a hill following an instructor who is on foot and will guide us through our first off-road trail ride of the course on a network of switchbacks and off-camber turns.
I’m at Northeast Off-Road Adventures (NORA) in New York’s Catskill Mountains. This 75-acre property is home to one of the best off-road driving schools on the East Coast. Along with a staff of experienced guides, Trager has taught thousands of people the art of off-road driving—from professionals who use the skill every day to weekend warriors going to Jeep jamborees. Most of Trager’s clients want to learn what their new SUV or pick-up is capable of, and NORA is the best place to do it.
What you learn first is that these light trucks can do way more than you think. After a classroom session, we take turns behind the wheel of a yellow jeep and navigate a small field of boulders. Looking at the boulder field from outside of the rig, it looks like no big deal. But once I’m behind the wheel, everything in my head tells me not to drive over it.
Working in pairs, with one person driving and one outside the vehicle acting as a spotter and using hand signals, we quickly learned to navigate that boulder field—and that you can drive through just about anything with the right technique. By the end of the two-day course, with a few trail rides under our belts, we were all driving our vehicles over big rocks and logs, and through some serious obstacles.
We covered a lot in two days at NORA, and to get a feel for what’s possible in a 4×4, it really helps to go there. Still, there are some tips I learned that are valuable to anybody going off road. Here are a seven you should take with you on your next off-road adventure.
1. Remember the Three Pillars of NORA Training
Before setting out into the wilderness with a vehicle, it’s important to think about safety. Your priorities should follow this order:
This one’s easy. Put yourself and the people in your party first to avoid injury at all cost. Ideally you’ll take your rig to far-away places, which means you’ll also be a long way from help. Stay safe and make smart decisions for yourself and those around you. There are simple ways to do this, like: Keep your body parts inside the vehicle while it’s moving. Try not to walk backwards while guiding someone as a spotter. Take your time and use a little common sense. It will go a long way.
Your rig is your only ride home and probably your daily driver, so try not to put it in risky situations either. We’ll get into more specifics on this, but in general, if you think you’re pushing your truck too hard, take it easy and assess the situation. Before you hit the trail, read up on how your vehicle works and try to learn some basic maintenance in case something breaks.
In the eyes of folks who don’t do any off-road driving, everyone who does is measured by the last person who ripped up the trail or made their own trail by driving through the woods. Don’t be that guy. Try not to spin your tires, dig ruts, wrap winch cables around trees, or leave a bunch of trash on public land. Things like that lead to trail closures.
2. Use the Simplest Option First When Faced with Off-Road Obstacles
Never rely on one thing to get you through rough terrain or get you free from being stuck. You need to have options. That said, the way you deploy your skills and tools matters. Keep it simple and escalate in order of complexity as the problem persists.
For example, let’s say you come up against a ledge that your vehicle can’t get over. The first thing you can do is adjust your driving technique. There might be a section of the ledge that offers better traction, so back up and take a different approach. If that doesn’t work, you could use rocks or logs to create a step that gradually lets your rig climb the obstacle. If that fails, you could lay down traction boards to build a ramp. And if that doesn’t work, it might be time to break out the winch.
3. When Off-Roading, Drive as Fast as Necessary and as Slow as Possible
When you go fast off road, you run a higher risk of breaking stuff. While that’s not a big issue when you’re mud-bogging through your back 40, it can be catastrophic when traveling off grid. If you break something like a pitman arm or run a differential into a rock, you might have to spend the night on the trail before having to figure out how to get your rig back home.
Moving slow when the trail gets rough allows you to do what’s called “picking a line”—the most effective route through or over obstacles. By traveling slowly over obstacles, you can get through them in one piece. I probably spent more time on the brakes than I did on the gas at NORA because the speed at which 4-wheel-low was taking me was just fine. If I had an obstacle to get over like a rock or log, then I’d give it a little gas.
4. When in Doubt, Stop and Get Out
If you’re coming over a blind hill, are faced with a big obstacle, or come across something that just looks strange in the trail, you should stop and get out of your rig safely to take a look. This is especially true when you’re driving alone and you don’t have a spotter. What you don’t want to do is keep driving and see what happens. That’s a good way to wreck your truck, damage the environment, or get hurt.
5. Coming Down Off of Obstacles is Just as Important as Going Up
When you drive off of a tall obstacle like a log or a ledge, your vehicle’s suspension (i.e. springs and shocks) will compress as your tires hit the ground. Springs and shocks were designed to compress, but if they compress too quickly, the frame of your truck will drop down farther than it should, which reduces ground clearance. The less ground clearance your rig has, the more likely you are to bottom out on the same obstacle you were trying to get over.
Trager suggests crawling slowly up and down obstacles instead. When you do need to drop a tire off of something like a big boulder, he says to pulse your brakes and imagine that tire turning like the second hand on a clock. This will help you slowly lower your vehicle and maximize ground clearance when your front tires reach the ground.
6. Your Tires Can Do A Lot More Than You Think
Tires are one of the most important things on your vehicle for getting over obstacles. A more aggressive tread, like that of a mud- or all-terrain tire, will provide better off-road traction than a street tire. Also, you can increase the traction of your tires for different kinds of terrain by reducing tire pressure when you’re on the trail.
Airing down a tire will allow your truck to “float” over loose ground like sand because it spreads the weight of your vehicle over a broader surface. However, this can get complicated because the specifics of your vehicle’s tires will differ from someone else’s. It pays to talk to someone like Trager before messing around with your tires on the trail. Depending on what kind of wheel and tire you’re running, you could break a bead and run the tire off the rim if you air down too low.
If you do air down your tires, remember to always air them back up to OEM pressure before returning to the highway or any kind of public road. To do so, you’ll need to buy a portable compressor and keep a tire gauge on hand. Also, bring a full-sized spare tire and a plug kit any time you go off-roading.
7. Put Your Money In Recovery Gear Before Buying That Roof-Top Tent
Overlanding accessories add up fast, but there are a few things that you can’t hit the trail without. Winches, tow straps, soft shackles, tree straps, traction boards, and a shovel are all considered recovery gear. They’re all things that will get you unstuck. Fake beadlock wheels, heavy bumpers, and truck nuts, will not get you unstuck. When you’re in a mud hole far away from home, you’re going to be happiest with some recovery gear, and the training on how to use it.
The truth is, you can get by with a stock vehicle and some decent tires before needing to get crazy with flashy upgrades. Upgrades will make life more comfortable, but they won’t always get you out of trouble. Put your money in quality recovery gear, good tires, and a decent suspension before going to things like roof-top tents and light bars. Another good way to spend your money is on education. Even if you don’t have a jeep or pickup, check out a school like NORA. After a weekend of hands-on training, you’ll have a much better idea of what kind of truck or SUV to buy or you’ll know what your own rig can handle.