An Introduction to Off-Roading - ITS Tactical

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An Introduction to Off-Roading

By ITS Guest Contributor

Land Cruiser Water Crossing

Off road driving can take several forms. From the weekend trail rider to the die hard rock crawler, off roaders the world over know that there are few better ways to get your jollies than taking total control of your vehicle as you take it places most people never knew they could go.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the places you might find yourself when you decide to leave the pavement behind, keeping in mind that this is just an introduction and is by no means all you need to know when hitting the trail. Remember, the most important elements of a successful off road adventure are safety and preparation.

Land Cruiser in snow

A Brief Lesson in Off Road Vocabulary

4X4 High: All-purpose four wheel drive mode used in most cases. As opposed to 2 wheel drive, all four wheels are engaged and powered by the powertrain. “High” refers to the gear ratio, meaning that the gear ratio is unchanged from the ratio used in 2 wheel drive.

4X4 Low: Four wheel drive mode where a lower gear ratio is engaged, thus delivering higher torque to the wheels and lowering maximum speed. Useful in slower off road situations, rock crawling, and for getting unstuck when things go south.

Locking Differential: Also known as “diff lock,” this refers to the speed at which the wheels turn. In most standard 4×4 modes, the wheels spin at different speeds to compensate for loose or uneven terrain. When the differential is locked, wheels all move at the same speed. A tool used in advanced off-roading and for getting unstuck.

Approach Angle: The maximum incline angle that a vehicle can climb or descend without any part of the body or suspension making contact with the driving surface.

Wheelbase: Distance from the center of a truck’s front wheel to the center of the rear wheel on the same side of the vehicle.

Wheel Travel: The maximum distance a wheel can move up and down. The greater the travel, the more capable the suspension system and the better on and off road traction.

Rock Massage: What you get when you attempt rock crawling without taking the necessary precautions and being properly qualified.

Essentials for Any Off Road Adventure

  • Full gas tank
  • Tow rope (be sure it is rated heavy enough for your vehicle)
  • Spare tire and everything needed to make a change in the field
  • Portable air compressor
  • Navigational aids
  • First aid kit
  • Mobile phone

Recommended Extras

  • High lift jack
  • Vehicle mounted winch
  • Shovel
  • Spare tanks of water (for radiator) and fuel
  • Two way radios for communication between you and your off road buddies
  • Fire extinguishers

Tips and Tricks

On the Trail

Terrain Type: Gravel, Dry Dirt, Grasslands

Equipment Needed: 4 Wheel Drive vehicle

Difficulty Level: Beginner

Trail driving is the simplest and safest of your off-roading options and is a good choice for the beginner just looking to get their bearings in the off-roading world. Many state and federal parks have off road trails available specifically for vehicle travel, so do your research and see what is available in your area. If you are new to off-roading, make sure you are comfortable with the level of difficulty. Don’t attempt any steep climbs or descents or water crossings of any type, particularly if your off road machine also serves as your daily driver.

Offroad Toyota

On The Dunes

Terrain Type: Sand

Equipment Needed: 4 Wheel Drive vehicle, Air compressor and tire gauge

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

Before you set out on the dunes, make sure what you are about to do is legal. Most beaches will be clearly marked designating whether the area is 4×4 accessible or not. Since traction is not easily acquired on sand, most drivers will need to deflate the air pressure in their tires down to between 15 and 20psi, allowing the tire tread to spread more and grip more surface (remember to immediately air back up to recommended levels before driving on pavement). Momentum is key when traveling on loose terrain such as sand, so be sure that if you are driving through soft sand you do not slow down unless absolutely necessary. If you feel the vehicle digging in or getting stuck while moving, turn the wheel left and right repetitively to allow the tires to grip fresh terrain and gain better traction.

In the Mud

Terrain Type: Mud, Shallow Water (6 inches or less)

Equipment Needed: 4 Wheel Drive vehicle, All Terrain or Mud Terrain tires

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

The tendency with driving in the mud is to floor it, spin the tires, maybe slide the vehicle around a bit. While this is certainly fun, it is also risky business. Once your vehicle starts sliding, it won’t stop until it wants to, and you have forfeited all control. Sure, it will impress your buddies to see you pull off that 360 degree spin you’ve been dreaming about, but they’ll forget how impressed they are when your finishing move involves the oak tree on the edge of the mud hole. It is much better to be the guy who maintains control of his vehicle, maybe even the guy who is towing all the showboats out of the mud, than to be the showboat yourself.

Many of the same principles apply to mud driving as sand driving. Maintain momentum if possible. If you feel you are getting stuck, quickly and repetitively turn the wheel left and right. Most importantly, if you do get stuck, the last thing you want to do is dig yourself in deeper, so avoid the tendency to floor it and spin the tires. First, get out and look at what you have gotten yourself into. Depending on how bad it is, you may be able to drive it out, you may not. Try rocking the vehicle back and forth by shifting from reverse to drive, at very low RPMs if you think it is escapable. If not, you may be hitting your buddies up for a tow.

More advanced off road environments, such as river runs and rock crawling, are best left to those with a great deal of experience, and no written how-to will ever be as valuable as the knowledge acquired through hands on experience.

Important All Purpose Tips

land-cruiser-ad1-mainIn off road driving as well as life in general, nothing beats knowledge. Prepare for every circumstance, and know what you are getting yourself into. Familiarize yourself not only with the environment you are entering, but with the vehicle itself. Sure, you know how to switch on the air conditioning, but do you know the location of your air intake or on board computer in case you get into some deeper water and risk submerging them? Familiarize yourself with your vehicle’s manual and you will be best equipped for the unexpected. Most importantly, never, ever go alone. Have another driver in another vehicle with a tow rope and be sure you have cell phone reception in case of an emergency.

Got any off-roading tips? Share them in the comments!

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: This post was written by Chris Hutcheson and originally ran on The Art of Manliness. The Art of Manliness is a fantastic website dedicated to uncovering the lost art of being a man. It features articles on helping men be better husbands, better fathers, and better men. Check them out and be sure to subscribe!

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  • One day I will drive a truck through a creek/stream/river like this. I feel that when you reach the other side, they hand you your Level 2 Man Card. I’ve only heard rumors though…

    • Chris


      I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a requirement in the fine print that says you have to do it with a stock 4×4, have a minimum number of bikini-clad women watching, or some other silly thing like that.

    • Joe

      Number 1 rule for any off-roading NEVER WHEEL ALONE. always have an additional vehicle to either recover your vehicle or can give you a ride back to civilization

  • Bergman

    The best advice on off-roading my father ever gave me was this:

    Four wheel drive won’t get you out of being stuck, it just ensures you do get stuck in worse places.

    Words to live by. And occasionally to walk home from your off-roading by, heh.

  • CM

    It is no coincidence that you have pictures of Toyota and Land Rover 4×4 vehicles in your article. I have owned everything from a Series II to various Range Rovers, and eventually moved on to Toyota hilux style pickups and finally to the best suited 4×4 out there in my opinion, the Toyota Land Cruisers; both a FJ40 (project toy) and a FJ80 (daily driver). A stock Land Cruiser is more capable than most highly modified rigs out there. The gas milage is not good but you are in a safe, reliable, do it all and go anywhere family/manly vehicle. Take that to your wife and sell it! Tires are also a huge consideration depending on your preferred terrain, do some research and don’t go too wide for the “looks”, you’ll end up looking foolish when you get stuck and a skinny tire toyota comes and pulls your big rig out of a jam! Thanks for the article!
    i wish i could share pics here!

  • Daniel Fenti

    I’ve been an avid off-raod enthusiast for about 25 years now. I’ve wheeled in everything from a stock S-10 Blazer to my current lightly modified Jeep Grand Cherokee. I can assure you, there is no handing out of man-cards, there are very few – if any – bikini clad women watching, and the Toyota’s I have pulled out have always been stuck in ways I didn’t think they belonged.

    “4 Wheel Drive” is different from All Wheel Drive, and in turn, a 4 Wheel drive with selectable locking differentials is even more different. My first off-road vehicle was the S-10, it had a selectable 4Wd transfer case and a 4Lo feature, the 2 speed differential makes ALL the difference when using your vehicle off the beaten path. My current off-road vehicle is the Grand Cherokee and has a hydro-pneumatic locking differential feature which GREATLY improves the ability to get out of whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into.

    With regards to the forum this is posted in, as a life skill or a survival tool, it is EXTREMELY important to know the capabilities and defficincies of your tool, in this case your vehicle. I know EXACTLY what my vehicle can and can’t do. I know where I need to unspool winch line for safety’s sake and I know when to “hammer and pray”.

    Can you fix your vehicle with items you carry in it? Can you get you and your family to a safer area with what you carry? ITS does a GREAT job in teaching you life skills and helps you to be prepared on your person, but what if you have to take to the streets (or the trails, or the dirt, or the grass, streams whatever) in order to save you and your family from IMMINENT THREAT?

    I carry a supply of basic repair items for my (aging) Grand Cherokee. In my wife’s Grand she also has a complement of minor repair items and tools. My son has been with me off-roading since he was a toddler, so he’s at least been exposed to the environment and the nature of the potential.

    All that being said, without a doubt my most enjoyable times are being outside in the woods. With a gun, with a vehicle, with my son, with all three, whatever…

  • Dave

    Not bad for an introductory article on off-roading in a 4×4. There are a couple definitions though that can get a new driver in trouble.

    4Hi – This is used to engage the front drive shaft on a 4×4, supposedly causing the front wheels to be under power as well as the rear. There is a bit of a fallacy here depending on how your vehicle is equipped. On many 4×4 vehicles only one wheel on each axle is actually under power from the factory, that is unless you happen to have locking differentials or limited slip. Limited slip is available from the factory on some models, and Locking diffs are an add-on. There are many circumstances where you can see this problem in action, especially in sand or mud. One way to find out if you have this is to try turning your tire while the vehicle is in the air. If you have limited or locked diffs both tires will turn together (or you will not be able to turn it if only one tire is up), if not you’ll be able to turn one tire separately from the other.

    Locking Diffs – These are an advanced add-on that requires good knowledge before installation. If you are primarily driving on pavement, you want limited slip differentials or locking differentials that are either part time or work like limited slip. If you have full time locked differentials your vehicle will have problems turning on pavement because the tire on the outside of your turn can’t turn at a faster speed in order to complete the turn. This is not as much of a problem off road due to the limited traction, but on pavement it will ruin tires and is hard on other components such as steering. Due to the steering problems created by permanently locked diffs. it is very common to only put them in the rear. For the front you want a selectable locking diff, such as ARB which is air activated, or limited slip.

    Limited Slip – Limited Slip is a feature available in many 4x4s that helps to lock up the two tires on the axle when under power without the problems caused by locking differentials. As the name implies, it allows the two tires to turn at separate speeds as needed in turning but locks them together if there is too much difference in the spin rate. Limited slip is good for any beginner or intermediate level off-roading, but Locking Diffs are considered to be stronger.

    Tow Rope – For safety purposes, you should use a tow strap instead of a tow rope. The difference is the metal hook found on the end of tow ropes. You can use a tow rope but if you happen to experience a failure, that metal hook can become a dangerous missile. In addition to a tow strap, it helps to have a properly rated shackle for attaching the strap to places where you may not have an attachment point.

    One additional item to add – When going off-road in remote or extreme locations, you should always travel in a group of at least two vehicles. This gives you someone to help you out of a situation or someone to go for help in an emergency.

    Have fun, be safe, and responsible. Like our gun rights, some states have politicians that think you don’t belong out in the remote areas and try to close them down using any and all tactics. Off-roading (4×4) allows you to get away from the normal routes and camping areas that everyone else crowds into.

  • CP

    When you find yourself in a tricky situation, drive as slow as possible and as fast as necessary.

  • A word on locking differentials, usually referred to as “lockers” and limited slips.

    Locking differentials come in a handful of varieties. Automatic, air actuated, electrically actuated, and cable actuated. Actuated lockers are sometimes referred to as selectable lockers. Most function as open differentials when disengaged though some behave as limited slip differentials.

    – The Eaton E-locker is an electrically/electronically actuated locker. When not engaged, it operates as a standard open differential (what most road going vehicles have). Some well known axle builders refuse to warranty this product. I mention it only as an illustration.

    – ARB is the top end of the air actuated locking differentials. It utilizes an on board air compressor and when the switch is flipped, compressed air locks up the otherwise open differential. When disengaged, there are no adverse handling effects on the street. The downside is the initial expense, plus the added complexity of the air compressor and line/s. 2002-2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicons had an air actuated rear locking differential that behaved as a torsen-style limited slip. Pretty cool but doomed to failure if running tires exceeding about 33″ in diameter unless the Jeep was for street use only.

    -Automatic lockers- The top end of the automatic lockers is the Detroit Locker which is the strongest of the automatic lockers as it replaces the carrier of the differential (it holds the ring gear) in all units except the GM 14 Bolt axle application. There are also what are referred to as “lunchbox” lockers. These retain your factory carrier assembly but replace the spider gears. Same as the Detroit, they operator on a spring loaded ratcheting function. In most cases, installation does not require a carrier to be removed to install the lunchbox locker whereas a unit like a Detroit should be installed by a professional or a very experienced and knowledgeable hobbyist. Automatic lockers have some adverse handling characteristics on the street that tend to be most noticeable with a manual transmission.

    Cable Actuated- The best known is the Ox locker. Known to be quite reliable, they tend to be a bit tedious to dial in.

    Ok, and now limited slips. They come in 2 varieties, torsen style (gear style) and clutch style.
    Clutch style are widely used in OEM automotive applications and in some cases are referred to as “Pozi” or “Positraction” (a term, that if I remember correctly, came from some of the GM 70’s era muscle cars”). The major downfall to the clutch style limited slip is that the clutch pack wears out.
    The Torsen stye utilizes a spring loaded gearset. The tend to be more durable and much longer lasting than the clutch style. The best known currently would be the Detroit Truetrac. If someone doesn’t offroad a lot but wants the added traction, this is an EXCELLENT option but will typically require professional installation.

    Some additional thoughts. While full lockers tend to be the most aggressive approach for off road use, and may be a necessity if you want to off road in areas where you’re likely to have one tire in the air, full lockers tend to be harder on tires and axle shafts. In some cases, factory drivetrain parts may not hold up to the additional stress. In contrast, a limited slip like the Detroit Truetrac is nearly invisible on the street, and does an excellent job off the pavement without the side effects of lockers, but not maybe not quite as much traction.

    All that said, I’ve wheeled some of the tougher trails in the western US, using just limited slips. Factory clutch based in the rear, and a Detroit Truetrac in the front.

  • Lime

    The Jeep community still uses CB radios in many parts of the country. Even if you don’t run a Jeep, having a CB to be able to communicate is a pretty nice thing to have. A PA speaker hooked to the CB can be useful too, though not necessary.

    Lightning can strike twice. If both vehicles in you 2 vehicle convoy are immobilized for whatever reason, be prepared to make a fire, build shelter, and signal for help. A cold night in the woods with two deadlined Jeeps is not as fun as it sounds. If you are putting a hi-lift in your rig, might as well throw in a poncho, woobie, Ka-Bar, matches, gallon water jug and a few MRE’s.

    I also pack two VS17 panels. One for marking a stuck/broken Jeep, one can be cut into strips to leave a breadcrumb trail if you need to go scouting.

  • A 4×4 wheel is awesome when it comes to off road trip. But keep that in mind if you are riding this kind of truck you must be prepared and have a safety precautions. This truck is very useful in all kinds of off road adventure!

  • Joey

    Two things I would like to add. First is have a realistically sized Fire extinguisher mounted with in reach of the strapped in driver. If a fire starts you want to be working from the inside while your buddy is working the outside. Second, secure every item in the vehicle down. I had the pleasure of becoming a target for every piece of spare change, tools, and other misc junk in my truck when I took a bad line and put her on her side. With the help of trail buddies I drove it out of there.

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