As we were testing the Toyota Trail Teams Special Edition of the FJ Cruiser, we began thinking out loud about various techniques for off-road driving. Seems that many rugged SUVs are more often used for driving on, rather than off pavement. And when they do venture into the dirt, it’s usually for crossing a highway median strip or trundling across a muddy pasture for a picnic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what if you want to push your 4x4 to the limit?
We could write a book on the subject, and many have already, but how about just a few friendly reminders on the basics? Regular ‘wheelers probably know them by heart, but if you been driving a desk too much lately, then read on.
Solo? No Go!: Despite doing your best to handle with care, even the most seasoned off-roader gets stuck. If you’re several miles from civilization, and your cell phone has no bars, you’re looking at a long, lonely hike. And also some hassles to retrieve your rig. So bring along some companions or join an off-road club, and enjoy the camaraderie.
Be Prepared: Okay, you’re no boy scout, but that doesn’t mean the motto isn’t any good. And we’re not talking about a class on tying knots or poison ivy. Besides the obvious need to bring along plenty of water, food and clothing, make sure your rig is well equipped (tools, maps, flashlight, first-aid kit, etc.). Also be sure to properly maintain your vehicle. Realizing that you forgot to top off the radiator on a high-desert trail is more than just bad timing.
Just Relax: Whether on the track or trail, keeping a tight grip on the wheel is the opposite of what you should be doing. A relatively loose grip and upright, comfortable seating position make for less fatigue and enjoyment. And don’t wrap your thumbs inside the rim or on a spoke, as the kick-back from tackling an obstacle can be painful if not injurious.
Rubicon or Bust?: Trails come in all sorts of flavors, so don’t feel you have to climb to the top of the big rock-candy mountain the first time out. Trail ratings, indicated by either numbers (1 to 5, or 1 to 10) or by description (Easy, Moderate, Difficult and Extreme) indicate the level of difficulty, so you can pick one that suits your experience and skill level.
Slow and Steady: Compared with those dramatic clips of Baja racing, most off-road excursions appear to be in slow motion. Pushing hard and fast is a quick way to get stuck. And if you do get caught in a jam, don’t over-throttle. Feathering the gas pedal works better than spinning your wheels. In low gears, just idling the engine will generally get you over obstacles. With a manual transmission, let out the clutch slowly and let your rig just slowly crawl over them. (On the famed Rubicon trail, average speeds rarely exceed five mph.) On the other hand, don’t shift lower than necessary to avoid over-revving.
Tow, Tow, Tow Your Truck: If you still can’t get out, it might be time to hook up a strap, preferably as down low as possible and on a frame member (not the suspension). When you winch around a tree, protect it with a strap. And hang a cloth on the tow line to keep it from whipping should it come loose.
Terrain Techniques: Not all off-roading is created equal. Trail riding, dune bashing, mudding and rock crawling each require different equipment and techniques. For instance, driving on sand requires reducing tire pressure and/or special sand tires. Motoring through muck requires mud-terrain tires and steady momentum to avoid getting bogged down. Crawling over rocks is the most technical of all, requiring special modifications and often a spotter to help negotiate over unseen obstacles.
Handling Hills: Don’t attack them at an angle or get sideways. Always hit them head-on, straight up or down. Before doing so, though, know what’s on the other side. Also, use more power at the base, and less before cresting the top. If you stall when ascending, just back down in reverse, keeping your wheels straight. When descending on a steep slope with a manual transmission, keep the clutch engaged in the lowest gear possible, and allow the gearing and engine compression to control your speed. For automatics, shift to the lowest gear.
Treading Lightly: Enjoy the great outdoors, but show it some respect. Stay in approved recreation areas, and leave them in better condition than you found them. All of which makes for happy trails!