How to Off-Road
One of the best learning methods for the novice off-road driver is to thoroughly read the owner's manual for an understanding of both 4WD basics and the specifics applicable to your vehicle. Then, when you start out, take along experienced friends to help show you the ropes, and another vehicle to help get you out of a jam should you find yourself in one.

Dedicated 4WD manufacturers Hummer, Jeep, and Land Rover offer instruction in various forms, including the Hummer Driving Academy, Camp Jeep, and Land Rover's Equinox, as well as dealer-sponsored schools and trail rides. In some cases, these programs are also open to non-owners. Other schools offer more specialized programs like Bridgestone's winter driving school, Rod Hall's desert performance school, and various rally schools.

Many government-owned off-highway vehicle parks have areas where you can practice techniques under more controlled circumstances than the wilderness. And 4WD clubs frequently host off-road driving schools and welcome novice members on easier trail rides. The best way to find an event near you is to check the calendar section of your local newspaper, or contact the United Four Wheel Drive Association at 800-44-UFWDA or ufwda.org.

Regardless of your vehicle type, a few general hints will improve your driving sans pavement. Throttle and steering smoothness counts. Instead of gripping the steering wheel with your thumbs inside the spokes where kickback could break them, keep your thumbs on the rim. Lead foots would do well to imagine a grapefruit under the pedals that you can squeeze without breaking it-keep acceleration actuation smooth and easy. It's not unusual for a 4WD vehicle to follow ruts in the trail or slide around a little bit at speed, so focusing on where you want to go instead of where the truck is headed at any given moment will make it much easier to stay on track.

You'll need to experiment with gearing and controls at your first opportunity off the pavement. Many experienced four-wheelers prefer to use 2WD until traction becomes tenuous and then shift into 4WD; others prefer the security of being in 4WD from the outset. In high-range 4WD, the gear ratios are the same as those on the road and are good for desert byways, graded dirt roads, light mud or snow, and sand, if it's relatively flat. Most vehicles will need the extra power afforded by low-range for hilly sand, deep mud, or steep inclines; low-range should also be used on any slow-speed terrain, such as a challenging loose-gravel hill because of the extra control it offers.