Off-Road Driving Techniques for Beginners

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When you bought that Jeep or Land Cruiser you had two thoughts in mind. First, it would get you around town. Second, it could be your moveable man cave.

You had every intention of being one of the 44 million people who take their 4x4’s off-roading. Then gas prices went through the roof, and the idea of paying nearly $3.50 per gallon for the pleasure of driving up and down sand dunes, through mud, and over rocks became less appealing.

Things have changed. Gas prices have hit a seven-year low, and this makes off-roading much more enticing. Now might be the time to leave the home man cave, and cover the 4x4 with dirt.

Getting Started

It would be foolish to think that you could just find the nearest off road area and start driving. The best way to get started (safely) is to join a local group so you can find people to hit the road with.

You might be a solitary person. Maybe you think of yourself as a solo act. That’s probably ok if you’re going on a hike, but taking your car through terrain you don’t know, and down paths with no signs means that going alone isn’t such a hot idea.

Meeting people, who have experience driving trails in the local area, can help you find some paths that suit your driving experience (or inexperience). They can serve as companions the first few times you head out.

You can find groups in your state online or you can hook up with people from a local Meetup group.

Hitting the road

Often, the first thing new off-roaders think they need are big tires. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, you don’t know how your 4x4 is going to perform. The tires that came with the truck might be fine.

Second, if new tires are needed, most off-roaders won’t need anything more than all terrain tires. Spend some time off-roading before you invest in big tires.

Third, buying big tires is going to set off a chain reaction of retrofits to accommodate the extra height. That can get really expensive. Hold off on the big tires until you’re sure you like off-roading.

Beginner trails

The National Parks Service website provides information on where you can off-road. Depending on where you live, the NPS may offer introductory classes for those who are new. There are also guidebooks that can give you an overview of the areas where you can drive.

If you’re a novice you should start out driving trails. Many state and federal parks have areas where you can off-road so you may live closer than you think to an approved off-roading area.

For beginners the upside of driving a trail is that you’re not likely to encounter anything out-of-the-ordinary. Unless you go off the trail, you’re not going to encounter deep water, rocks or sand.

The downside of driving a trail is that it’s not terribly different than driving on an unpaved road. The scenery is better, but you’re not going to run into the big sand dunes or rocks that you imagined.

Be patient. Learn how your car performs off-road, and the sand dunes will come.

The Boy Scout’s motto

Even the most experienced off-roader does his homework before heading out on a run. If they’re smart, they prepare for as many circumstances as they can imagine. They familiarize themselves with the area, and triple check their 4x4. They’re prepared.

Does a newbie have to be as vigilant? Probably not, but building good habits from the start might save your life one day.

Even though you might drive your 4x4 every day, it’s a good idea to make sure you know where everything is should something happen, and you have no time to think.

Here’s a test: do you know where your recovery points are? If you don’t, maybe a quick glance through your owner’s manual or some time under the 4x4 is in order.

Don’t go alone

It’s understandable that sometimes you just want to get away, and be alone. Off-roading alone is not a good idea. You should always drive with someone who is in another car.

Make sure you both have a tow strap (ordinary ropes aren’t going to work so leave them at home) in case you get into trouble. Arguably a tow strap will be the most important piece of equipment you’ll carry so buy a good one.

If you decide to take a detour and head into the woods, there’s a chance that you’ll get lost where no one will be able to find you (assuming your cellphone doesn’t have coverage).

Taking a detour might seem like a fun thing to do at the time, but a park ranger is going to find you and when he does, expect a fine.

The environment

Driving on trails through state or national forests is going to disturb the environment. As an off-roader, it’s your responsibility to be aware of the damage that your vehicle can cause if you go off course.

If you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you decide to spin your tires and tear up the soil, keep in mind that it breaks the surface layer, and water drainage will be affected.

A 4x4 can alter water drainage, damage plants, and animal life. And, to be frank, you could also seriously mess up your truck if you’re driving is too erratic.


A lot of activities have formal and unspoken rules that people expect you to obey. Off-roading is no exception. Here are some basic rules:

  • At some point, everyone thinks they’re more capable than they really are. When you’re off-roading you can get yourself into some real jams, and even if you’re with experienced drivers, you can get into a mess that wasn’t expected. If you’re not sure about trying something, don’t. Not only are you endangering your own life, but you’re also putting those who are trying to help you in danger too.

  • There aren’t any speed limit signs on the trails, but that’s not permission to drive fast. Remember, there may be people and animals roaming around so always watch your speed.

  • You might find yourself in a situation where the road is too narrow for two cars. In this instance the vehicle traveling uphill has the right of way.

  • Don't litter - forests are not your personal trash can.

  • Don’t spin - you can wreck the ecosystem of the area if you tear up the ground

  • If you need to use some rocks to get you out of a jam, put them back where you found them.

What to bring

The stuff that a new off-roader needs to bring is a bit different from that of an experienced driver. As the new off-roader gets more experience and traverses more difficult terrain the list will expand. In the beginning, a new driver should carry:

  • Full tank of gas
  • Water for yourself and the radiator
  • Food
  • First aid kit - get a good first aid kit, not one that you’d have around the house
  • Medicines
  • Shovel
  • Tow strap
  • Spare tire that is fully inflated, and everything needed to make a change
  • Cellphone charger
  • Floor mats (these can be used for traction if you get stuck)
  • Fire extinguishers

Off-roading is a different kind of experience. It can be an adrenaline rush, it will test your driving skills, and it can scare the daylights out of you if you get into a jam.

But if you take the right precautions, drive with a friend, have the right equipment to get you out of a jam, and have the good sense to know what you (and your 4x4) can and can’t do, you’ll have a good time.

If you push past your skill level, however, things could get a bit hairy.

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