What You’ll Need to Go Off-Roading
Whether your vehicle is old or new four-wheel drive, here are some essentials to equip yourself with before you hit the trails:
Just like some people believe all-wheel drive will magically cure wheel slip in the sand, others imagine a transfer case or locking differential will overcome any tire inefficiencies off-road. Unfortunately, if you attempt to drive across mud, rocks, or sand in summer tires (or worse, balding or cracked ones), you’re asking for trouble. Different tires are specifically developed to handle different environments.
A mud-terrain (M/T) tire will make some noise on the road, but it will also eject mud, snow, or sand quickly to help you coast through the mucky, loose stuff.
An all-terrain (not to be confused with all-season) tire is a good choice for those who expect to encounter a wide variety of surfaces, but likely aren’t planning to do anything too hardcore. Size your tire according to what fits and turns easily in your vehicle’s wheel wells. Larger tires provide more ground clearance and a bigger contact patch, but if you go too big, you’ll need to re-gear your axles or transmission to avoid power loss and poor fuel economy.
A good set of tires will help keep you out of trouble, but if you get stuck, you’ll be thankful for recovery gear. Among the must-haves are MaxTrax traction pads to help you extract and plough through loose terrain, snatch straps to attach to another vehicle’s recovery points and pull you from a snag, a high-lift jack and base to elevate your rig and change a tire on any terrain, a patch kit to cover a tear in your tire temporarily, a shovel too, uh, dig yourself out of trouble, work gloves to save your fingers and palms, a headlamp or other light source to illuminate the issue (which often happens during the inconvenience of the night), and a jump starter to overcome a dead or faulty battery. You can get fancy with equipment like winches, but keep in mind that these carry a hefty weight penalty (not to mention expense) and aren’t necessary for the average off-roader.
halogen, and HID lights pointing in all directions. That doesn’t need to be you (and unless you have a very specific use-case, it shouldn’t be you). Really, all you need is a good set of driving lights that cast a wide enough beam far enough into the night. If your stock headlights aren’t cutting it, an easy solution is to attach a set of auxiliary driving lights to your front bumper with a switch wired somewhere on your dashboard. If you want to go the extra mile, consider a set of spot/searchlights that can be mounted near your door mirrors to illuminate the left and right side of a path ahead. Yes, LED light bars look cool and can be useful, but they can also create problems if incorrectly mounted (think intense glare off your hood), so be sure that’s what you want.
The tires didn’t keep you out of trouble and the recovery gear couldn’t free you from it – now what? Plan and prepare for these emergency situations before the fact. If you’re Overlanding or headed to a campsite, chances are that you packed sufficient food and water for a couple of days, but if not, you’ll always want some rations and water stashed onboard. Bundled with these essentials should also be a set of warm, waterproof clothes (yes, even if the weather report is favorable). In the event of a rollover or similarly dangerous predicament, you’ll want a seatbelt cutter or glass breaker somewhere on your person or easily accessible. Of course, a first-aid kit is a must. And if you’d rather not wait until you’re found, it’s a good idea to buy a long-distance radio with a spare battery to alert anyone nearby.
4WD High vs. 4WD Low
If you do have a 4WD vehicle with a two-speed transfer case (4WD Hi and 4WD Lo), you’ll need to know how and when to move between these settings. For most vehicles, the transition happens via an additional lever somewhere in the center console area, but for some, it’s a knob mounted on the dash. If your vehicle has permanent 4WD (and therefore doesn’t have a 2WD setting), you’ll want to keep it in 4WD Hi to drive on the highway or tackle terrain where you’ll need to maintain momentum (i.e. mud, sand, or snow). 4WD Lo, meanwhile is used when you’ll need as much torque as possible at low speeds (i.e. rock crawling). Once you’re in the 4 Lo setting, you’ll also want to use the right gear; the lower the gear, the more torque available.
After airing down for improved traction off-road, this tool restores your tires to standard psi (a number you’ll find in your manual or on the tires themselves). It can also be used after a puncture to inflate a tire before applying a patch. These systems come in all shapes, sizes, and price segments. More expensive compressors will have higher CFM (cubic feet per minute) ratings, meaning they funnel more air into each tire in a given minute. Lower CFM compressors will take some time to refill air but are often lighter and cheaper. Even if you don’t personally own an air compressor, if you’re planning to tackle off-road terrain that will require an air down, make sure you travel with someone who has one.
If your stock vehicle is set up to go off-road, or if you’ve invested in a good set of AT or MT tires, you’ll likely notice that there’s tread not only where you’d expect it, but also on the sidewalls of each tire (called biting edges). It isn’t there for the show. Before you get into the thick of off-roading, you can optimize traction by airing down each of your tires to between 20-25 psi. This will put more of your tread (including the biting edges) in contact with the ground. More tread means more grip, and without as much air in the tire, its shape can change based on the surface. This allows the tire to dig into rocks or mud, pulling the vehicle forward. Used a different way, airing down on deep mud or snow improves your “float,” letting your vehicle cruise over the top of the ground rather than sinking into it. And when the off-roading fun is over, don’t forget to air your tires back up with a compressor so you don’t kill your fuel economy on the highway or worse – unseat the tire from its rim.