Born of a need to reach the north 40 or remote regions not served by paved arteries, the humble four-wheel-drive pickup workhorse has evolved to include civilized, luxury-appointed SUVs, making off-roaders one of the fastest-growing vehicle markets. These dirt devils are based on trucks, cars, or even minivans, with myriad drive systems to entertain, liberate, and confuse buyers. In this lesson, we'll give a segment overview, then engage 4Lo to explore the equipment and driving strategies needed for off-road adventure.
What to drive
While each vehicle class has certain defining characteristics, distinctions applicable to off-road travel cross over classes. You may find that although you wanted an SUV when you started your new-vehicle research, a crew-cab pickup better suits your intended uses. As you hone your shopping list, don't forget to check how each of the vehicles you're considering might affect your insurance and registration costs.
Big pickups are among the best vehicles for power, basic strength, modifying, and by virtue of their long wheelbases, hill-climbing stability. Downsides include heavy weight, often on a narrower tire (read: they sink faster); bulky size; difficult maneuvering in close quarters; and less-than-stellar fuel economy for gasoline models. Breakover angle (the relative height of an obstacle between front and rear wheels) and departure angle (that between the rear tire contact patch and the rear bumper, hitch, or fuel tank) are lower on pickups. As a rule, bigger is better regarding "angle" specifications. In the full-size pickup arena, the new Dodge Power Wagon is the most purpose-built off-road package, though there are compelling packages available on each major model, such as the Chevrolet Silverado Z71 and Ford F-150 FX4.
Although they don't have the big-block muscle, cargo capacity, plowing ability, or towing grunt of full-sizers, compact pickups offer improved maneuverability, ride comfort, ground clearance, and fuel economy. GM's Z71 option, along with the Nissan Nismo and Toyota TRD Off-Road packages, add adventure-ready mechanical components to the smaller-scale trucks.
Large SUVs are similar to full-size pickups in most respects, but in some cases, they offer larger tires and slightly better breakover and departure angles. Only the Ford Excursion offers a diesel option and a solid front-axle design, but the Lexus GX 470, Toyota Land Cruiser, and Land Rover LR3 are good seven-seat options with outstanding trail abilities.
Midsize SUVs have a trail-friendly size advantage while maintaining room for five people and cargo. The most capable in this class are also among the most expensive-Land Rover Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The Hummer H2, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota 4Runner, however, can all go much further than most of their owners will ever attempt. Likewise, at the luxury end of the spectrum, the Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, and Volvo XC90 are as at home in Death Valley as Palm Springs.
On tight trails, compact utes are desirable for their maneuverability, though they are largely car-based, light-duty designs with modest power. While the CR-V, Santa Fe, RAV4, et al can manage more than you might expect, the Jeep Wrangler is the standout trail machine of this size. The Rubicon version is perhaps the best factory off-road vehicle offered, and starting at $28,000, the most expensive compact, as well.
What to add
Prior to selecting any new vehicle, you need to assess how you'll be driving it. "Off-road" is often more "off-highway" driving, on fire roads, trails, and sand dunes, or areas restricted by mandate, common sense, or the Tread Lightly! guidelines. Many people buy a 4WD and go on one trail ride to say they've done it, only to spend the next 35 months with higher payments, insurance premiums, and fuel costs.
Most front-wheel-drive cars and minivans can make it through snow or along a graded dirt or gravel road, and four-wheel drive does not repeal the laws of physics. Only the tires connect your vehicle to the ground, and if none have traction, it doesn't matter what kind of drive system you have. That said, a proper off-road setup can open a world of exploration and recreation, enabling the driver to escape civilization and venture into the wilderness. When selecting and setting up your vehicle, it is important to honestly assess your needs and get the right equipment for the job. If trail riding, camping, and boat launching top your recreation list, then you will likely be pleasantly surprised with the capability and performance offered by the latest 4x4s.
The contents of manufacturer off-road packages vary widely and often provide good street performance too. More compliant ride, better shock damping, wider tires, and improved balance are all potential benefits. Components may include skid plates, upgraded shock absorbers, tow hooks, different springs, limited-slip and locking differentials, electronic traction assists, auxiliary lights, rock rails, larger or more aggressive tires and wheels, and styling cues like upholstery changes and the obligatory decals. Another plus of factory options is they're included in financing, covered under warranty, and matched to the vehicle by the suspension engineers who developed it. Modifying a vehicle yourself, or preferably by having work performed by a local specialty shop, enables a more custom-tailored buildup. This is particularly appealing to those drivers looking to enhance a current vehicle or build up a pre-owned model. But when shopping new, most consumers would be best served by purchasing the right configuration from the get go.
Here's a detailed look at off-road components:
• Skid plates: These metal plates attach to the chassis to protect running gear (oil and transmission pans, aluminum differentials, fuel tanks, etc.) from flying debris and damage from being dragged over rocks, tree stumps, and other trail obstacles. The weight penalty of skid plates is minimal, as is their cost as a stand-alone option, making them cheap insurance for any genuine off-highway travel.
• Shock absorbers: A premium shock is one of the simplest ways to improve the driving dynamics of any vehicle, regardless of the road surface, and a set of off-road-tuned Bilstein, Sachs, de Carbon, Tokico, or Rancho shocks fitted as a factory option may be cheaper than adding them yourself later.
• Springs: Firmer, taller, or both, good off-road springs can retain the ride characteristics and load-carrying ability of the standard units. Soft springs and those with lots of travel make off-highway travel easier and less taxing on the vehicle. Heavy-duty springs, designed to carry more weight, and added anti-sway bars are relatively useless unless you plan on using a snow plow or camper with your truck.
• Tow hooks: Large tow hooks are positioned front and/or rear to allow simple tow-strap connection for rescuing a stuck truck, be it yours or someone else's. Consider them more cheap off-roading insurance. As a factory option, tow hooks are mounted at a strong point on the frame and are airbag compatible. (Tow hooks and winches can change front crush dynamics and trigger an airbag deployment early or late.) Rear tow hooks are less common, but a tow hitch can substitute with the proper recovery accessories.
• Traction assists: These come in both electronic and mechanical forms. Mechanical traction assists include limited-slip differentials and locking differentials. The former provides a minor increase in rear-axle traction, but may require more maintenance, as they are always "on" and operate automatically. A true locking differential connects both tires on an axle together so that even if one tire is off the ground the other one can provide motive force. Most operate only in low-range and only when activated by the driver. Some vehicles, such as a few Toyota trucks, offer a lock for the rear axle only, others like the new Dodge Power Wagon, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and Mercedes G-Class offer one for both front and rear. Electronic traction assists use throttle intervention and the ABS system to keep a wheel from spinning and, like a limited-slip, they provide increased traction and can be used on any road surface including dry pavement. Some systems work only on the rear wheels, others on all wheels, but all work automatically. If you're stuck or sliding in the snow and hear a buzzing, vibration, or clicking noise, the system is actively working. Although sufficient for most drivers, electronic traction assists cannot equal a locking differential when it comes to back-country traction. In fact, several good on-road systems, such as those on the Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, are easily overwhelmed off road.
• Hill-descent systems: These use the ABS controls to automatically apply brakes and limit downhill speed as long as the tires have traction, typically less than 4 to 5 mph in low range and less than 10 to 15 mph in high range. These systems, such as those found on the BMW X5, Land Rover LR3 and soon the Jeep Grand Cherokee, can make descending large, loose-dirt hills much easier and safer. Hill-descent control typically can be turned on/off like a conventional traction-control system. When activated, and the vehicle is in an appropriate low-speed descent, the systems work with brakes, engine management, and transmission (if auto) to effectively creep down the hill. With only conventional engine braking, speeds can climb and anti-lock brakes can be overwhelmed as they fight for stability, leading to sliding.
• Fog, driving, and off-road lights: Common to off-road packages, factory-fitted lights come with two caveats: Lamp height and brightness rules vary by state (for example, use of roof-mounted operating lights may be illegal on the highway). And factory lights rarely have the optical performance of those offered by specialists like Hella and PIAA. However, before you invest in aftermarket lights, verify that your existing units are properly aimed, as factory headlamps and auxiliary lights are notoriously out of alignment, and a simple adjustment may give you the additional illumination you need.
• Rock rails: Body reinforcements or protective steel tubes that run at the lower edge of the body between the tires, rock rails are standard only on the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but may be added to other vehicles. Before you invest in rails, ask yourself a few questions: Will the terrain you'll be driving be rocky enough to justify the extra weight? Are the units really rock rails or merely side steps in disguise? Can they carry at least half the weight of the truck? Do they reduce ground clearance below the doors? Do they carry a guarantee for performance?
• Wheels and tires: Despite street trends, wider wheels and lower-profile tires are not beneficial off the road. The largest factory tire offered on an off-road vehicle normally works best. A more aggressive tread and a tall, flexible sidewall will generally get you further into the wilderness than pavement-biased rubber and provide the most comfortable ride at the expense of ultimate street handling. Avoid a wheel that has the metal tire valve stem sticking out, as it could get caught on mud, ice, rocks, or buried tree branches. Note also that tires rated for both mud and snow rarely excel at both, and the rating doesn't apply if there's no pavement below the mud or snow.
Other equipment that will have a bearing on off-highway ability may be factory options or available through the dealer from manufacturer special-parts divisions (Chrysler's Mopar, GM Performance Parts, and Land Rover Kit, for example). A common addition to many modern 4WDs is running boards or side steps, so you can get your trousers dirty more easily. If you opt for them, make sure they can be removed quickly and easily, such as the Hummer H2's. Although steps are helpful for ease of ingress and egress, they're far more hindrance than help on the trail. Powered units found on some lux SUVs are even less desirable on the trail due to their length and ground clearance.
Some companies offer an optional winch (standard on the Dodge Power Wagon). If it's highly probable that you'll be stuck alone somewhere off road at some point, a winch may be helpful. If not, it's just more weight and complexity. Factory winches have been tested to assure airbag compliance and may be warrantied with the vehicle. Winches are rated in single-line pulling power, usually with one wrap of cable on their drum, and are most effective if rated for approximately twice the weight of the truck (a 6,000-pound truck should have a 12,000-pound winch). Be sure to ask about installation costs, accessory kits, and instructions on proper use, so you don't injure yourself or someone else when you use it.
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.
Obviously speed plays a role in off-roading and adages vary, but a good rule of thumb is to go as slow as possible and only as fast as necessary. In rough stuff, maintaining momentum is far preferable to reaching a high speed. Keeping the power reasonable and steady also means the vehicle is less likely to break something than if tackling challenges at great velocity. Novice drivers frequently inch the front of their vehicle over an obstacle and forget about the back wheel placement, landing with a resounding thud and irritating rear-seat riders. Having a "spotter" outside the vehicle can provide welcome guidance, especially on treacherous, rocky terrain, as the driver can't see directly under the vehicle for clearance and proper tire placement.
On surfaces like sand and mud, some wheel speed is beneficial. With mud particularly, be sure to find out how deep the mud is and what's hiding beneath it, such as sharp rocks, before committing. Sand presents its own challenges, with a very soft surface that often requires dropping tire pressure, and it rewards smooth pedal and steering-wheel application-an analogy is operating the controls in slow-motion. On sand, you should rarely need the brakes, as most vehicles will quickly slow to a stop without building a braking ridge in front of the tires that you'd later have to overcome. On some sand descents, the vehicle may want to slip sideways. The best way to get the back end in line is to step on the gas so the front wheels pull it straight again. This takes some getting used to-except perhaps for those accustomed to driving older Porsche 911s.
In open country, speed can actually be helpful. Some dry wash rutting can be minimized at 40-plus mph, because the tires don't hit every bump and vibrate through the truck. If you're driving quickly on dirt, beware of upcoming changes in terrain, which often can be identified by a change in surface color or increased vegetation, which indicates a low point where water is more plentiful.
Because of their gearing and traction, 4WDs are capable of much steeper ascents and descents than cars, so much so that you may not be able to see what's over the over the hood of the vehicle at times and therefore should adjust speed and deploy spotters as necessary. Unlike your mountain bike, vehicles are most stable when going directly up or downhill (if it's really steep, keep an eye on oil pressure) and not sideways along it. Should you miscalculate and roll your vehicle onto its side, don't panic. Low-speed flops usually do little mechanical damage, and injuries are typically related to unsecured cargo bonking you on the head; the passenger now above you releasing his or her seatbelt before you're out of the drop zone; or a hand grabbing a roll bar getting crushed. If in a Jeep Wrangler or other open vehicle, make a habit of never holding on to the roll bar when things get hairy.
Finally, be prepared to experiment with tire pressure, if you have a way to reinflate before hitting the pavement at speed. Lower pressure softens a tire, making it easier to "wrap" over obstacles for added traction, and enables a bigger "footprint" for flotation on sand. It also slightly decreases ground clearance, however, and makes it easier for the tire to pop off the bead. If your truck calls for 35 psi on the highway, consider going down to 25 psi for soft dirt trails and sand at slower speeds. Be wary of going lower unless experienced, and always pump pressure back up before driving on pavement to prevent blow-outs once back at highway speeds.
If you take all the necessary precautions and are careful about how you drive and preserving the surrounding environment, four-wheel-drive sport/utes and trucks provide a great way to experience America's back country.
More essential trail gear
When you take to the trails, you'd be wise to bring along some items not found on a vehicle options form. Perhaps the most useful of these are a friend and another vehicle. While escaping civilization is a major motivation for off-roading, surely there's at least one person whose company you'd enjoy. And an extra vehicle can help pull you out of a sticky situation that might otherwise leave you stranded. In general, pack items that address common off-roading issues, such as flat tires, getting stuck, and minor injuries. But also be prepared to survive the night in case your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck.
Other essential trail gear includes:
• Extra water, food, and clothing: Be prepared to survive the night in case of mechanical failure.
• Two-way communications: Unless your mobile phone uses a satellite, it likely won't work everywhere. CB radios are cheap, portable, and often monitored for emergencies. A CB will also help you keep track of your buddies. Do not count on roadside assistance if you're nowhere near a paved road.
• Tow strap: Another inexpensive item that could save much digging is a tow strap. Make sure it has an appropriate clevis or hook to attach to both vehicles. If you don't bring one, consider a Hi-Lift jack and a folding shovel.
• Fan belt: Having a right-size replacement will speed repair if the original one snaps or flies off.
• Fire extinguisher: There's a greater chance you'll use it on somebody else's rig, but it's cheap insurance. Mount it securely and within the driver's reach, perhaps on the floor ahead of the seat.
• Road flares: In addition to their intended use, they can often help start camp fires or be used as signaling devices for aircraft. Use intelligently in dry conditions.
• Fix-A-Flat: A 4WD vehicle should carry a matching-size spare (properly inflated). As a backup, however, a can of sealant takes up little space. And a small air tank or compressor comes in handy if you anticipate long pavement drives without services after off-roading.
• First-aid kit: One bandage could spare you cleaning all that nice leather or provide meaningful help to fellow trail riders until assistance arrives. Don't forget the bug repellent and sunscreen, as climate dictates.
• Tools: A basic selection, including a fuse puller with spare fuses, flashlight, the right wrench or driver for the fan belt, and gloves for hot parts.
• Water: Mostly for you; a drop for your washer tanks.
While this may seem like a lot of gear for an afternoon adventure or day trip, there's an unofficial rule about off-roading that says those who carry the most equipment suffer the fewest problems-and the ones they do suffer are rectified faster.