Joining the off-road scene is a thrill for all ages. From young to old, there really is something for everyone to enjoy. An exciting field filled with fun, adventure, and some seriously sick rigs, we recommend everyone go off road at least once in their lives. It’s an easy community to join, and there’s a surprising amount of reward in getting outside and playing in the dirt. However, there are some off-roading tips that every beginner should know before hitting that landscape of choice. To help us break them down, we called our friends Dennis Wood of Teraflex and Ryan Osborne of TrailFX.
The first hurdle to jump is knowing where to start. Decide how off road you’re willing to go, explore some local clubs and shops, and find out what your vehicle is capable of in stock form. From there you’ll have a pretty good jumping off point to determine what kinds of modifications or accessories might be right for you. “It really depends on the budget,” adds Osborne. “If you’re not in need of a lift, tires, or wheels out of the gate, I would start with recovery products.” These can include items like winches, straps, tow ropes, and utility jacks.
If you’re in the market for greater upgrades like a lift, Wood shares that “the number one thing you need to have is a plan.” Reflecting on a customer experience at Teraflex, he adds “We’d get a guy in, and he’d put a puck lift on [his ride] and 33″ tires. Then he’d take the puck lift out and put a spring lift and some arms on it. By the time we were done, we’d built his truck four times. So, if [someone] can just bite the bullet, enjoy the pain of the initial purchase, and work through it—they’re so far ahead in the game.”
Even gentler off-roading can cause damage to your vehicle, which is one reason why having proper ground clearance is so important. If you’re choosing the road less traveled, you want to make sure you have plenty of space between the underside of your vehicle and that rough terrain. But despite what logic wants to tell us, an off-road lift kit’s design doesn’t magically add clearance. When selecting a kit, it needs to be balanced against the tire size. Wood explains that “when push comes to shove, you can put a giant lift on your rig,” but if you don’t match the tires properly then they “aren’t giving you any clearance between the diff and the ground,” which defeats the purpose of the upgrade.
So, how much clearance do you really need? It all depends on the intended use of the vehicle. For an all-out, dedicated, off-road machine—have at it. With a daily driver that will only see trails on the weekend, it’s best to dial things back. “You have to make that decision as to how you’re going to use it. It’s kind of funny, because we’re all that guy. ‘I want it big, I want it bad,’—we’re all there ya know? Then reality sets in,” shares Wood.
Giant lifts and tire combos are capable and stylish, but they can make daily use a pain. And remember that modifications often require further modifications. Adding in a big lift may necessitate new suspension components, and selecting bigger tires means more weight, which could put strain on your axle. Furthermore, those mods will effect your fuel economy, another factor to keep in mind if you plan to still use the vehicle for everyday driving.
Selecting the Right Equipment
As far as off-roading tips go, this one can be the difference between a dream and a nightmare. Having the proper gear on board is essential to safe off-roading. “The last thing you need to do is get stranded or stuck without tools,” says Osborne. As we stated before, this is why purchasing recovery products is often a good place for beginners to start. “Most standard recovery kits would include a tow strap, a tree saver strap, gloves, D-rings, tow chains, and a snatch block … nonetheless, have a tow strap or rope handy. If you are inexperienced and not with the right group, you will get stuck. [And] if you don’t have adequate suspension travel or ground clearance, [this gear] is a must on the more difficult trails you take.”
Often, organized trail runs through a club or community event will post a list of mandatory equipment that you must have to participate. These lists can be a good place to look when first building a cache of supplies.
Your Best Friends Are Your Best Friends
Going alone is never wise. In addition to the joy of having company, off-roading with a buddy ensures you have a scout. Even better, traveling with a friend who has a secondary vehicle guarantees that if anyone gets stuck or injured, there’s back-up transportation. In fact, this is one of Wood’s top off-roading tips for newcomers. “Don’t go alone. There are so many avenues out there with Facebook and forums to find a couple of guys to jump on the trail with you. There’s always someone wanting to go.”
Understanding the importance of the buddy system gives us a good segue into basic off-road safety, and one of the most important off-roading tips. “Keep arms, legs, and head inside the rig at all times. Wear your seat belt or harness through the duration of the ride, and a helmet is not a bad choice either,” urges Osborne.
“Just remember you may be crawling on a trail at 5-10 MPH, but one bad turn or movement and you could be falling off a ledge of 100 feet, or rolling over onto rocks. Also, always make sure your fluids are not leaking—especially fuel—and that your rig is mechanically stable,” he adds.
Mind the Wheelbase
“Wheelbase gives you a lot more stability and helps keep you from flipping over,” shares Wood. Some terrain and obstacles—like sharp ridges—favor a shorter wheelbase with good clearance. But too short of a wheelbase can make it difficult to gain traction when traveling uphill. Regardless of what side of the camp you fall on, when lifting a vehicle it’s always important to keep suspension components in mind. “As your vehicle goes up, your control arms are pointed almost at the ground, which brings your wheelbase in,” says Wood. With smaller lifts this rarely comes into play, but with a substantial lift kit be sure to look for one with longer suspension kits to accommodate the angles.
Don’t Forget the Gears
“You throw a big set of tires on some 3.21:1 gears in your axles, and you’re going to experience life in the slow lane,” says Wood. When setting up a truck or Jeep® for four wheeling you don’t want to forget about lower differential gears. Bigger tires and lift kits can make it difficult for the vehicle to get up to speed.
Additionally, lower gears are super helpful to have when tackling certain obstacles on the trail. So, in the battle plan, be mindful of the gearing. If you intend on doing some hardcore adventuring, you may even want to consider swapping the entire unit for something more durable.
The Greatest of Off-Roading Tips is to Have Fun!
Going off road is all about enjoying the ride. It offers many challenges and many beautiful environments. And what’s more, you get the chance to meet some really great people and see some gorgeous sights that blacktop simply can’t offer. Wood sums it up best: “You just got into a hobby that you’re going to get to do for the rest of your life and it’s fun. Welcome.”
How’s that for constructive off-roading tips? Include any other key points that you want us to unpack further in a future article. And remember, like and share!