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Off-road driving and safety tips

Going off roading? Here are your choices: Carry your stuff on your back, walk beside a mule with your stuff on its back or ride in comfort with your stuff in the back of a four-wheel drive.

The speed will be about the same. If you drive much faster than a walking pace, there’s a chance you’ll be forced into the first option. 

As a teenager, I wanted to cross a muddy section of field in a two-wheel-drive pickup on near-bald tires. I assessed that my only hope was speed. (If you ever say, “My only hope is...” know that the rest of the sentence is ”a miracle.”) When the old Ford hit the swampy strip, it sunk floorboard-deep into the mud and came to a near-instant stop. The rear tires must have come off the ground, because I feared it was about to flip forward.

Off-road driving tips
Here are the eight lessons I should have learned but didn’t because I was a teenager:

1. Speed is not your friend.
The off-road driver’s mantra is “As Slow As Possible, As Fast As Necessary.” (The original author of this quote is uncertain, but I first heard it at a Land Rover driving school.) Sometimes a little speed may be required to climb a hill or conquer a hazard. However, if you think the obstacle requires even 10 mph, you’re probably not going to make it. And you’re going to damage something or get stuck.

2. Sometimes you can’t get there from here.
This is true even with a well-equipped vehicle and a skilled driver – and was certainly true of an unskilled teenager in a poorly equipped vehicle. It’s far easier to discover an alternate route than to find someone willing and able to come to your rescue. Walking the rest of the way is better than walking home.

3. Stay on the trail.
Trying to blaze my own trail not only got me stuck, but it also left ruts that remained for years. Drive on previously used paths – you’ll know it’s possible to make it through there, and you’ll do less damage to the environment. A warning: just because somebody else made it doesn’t guarantee you will. Maybe they had a better vehicle, were a more skilled driver or went through before it rained.

4. Walk it first.
If you can’t negotiate mud, sand or other obstacles on foot, it’s highly unlikely your vehicle can make it. It’s critical to check out a water-covered route: Unless you’ve seen another vehicle go through it, you can’t be certain it doesn’t hide a huge hole.

5. Be willing to walk back.
Never tackle a questionable obstacle unless you’re able to walk back to where help awaits. If you’re going off road, your cell phone will be useless. Even if there is coverage, there’s nobody to call unless you’ve made a prior arrangement. The road-service tow-truck driver won’t leave the pavement, the farmer with the tractor might not be home and the guy in the SUV you wave down on the highway may not be able or willing to help. Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive and a tow strap.

6. Re-tire to succeed.
Even the most technologically advanced four-wheel-drive system can’t make up for tires that are not meant for the job or lack adequate tread depth. Some original equipment tires on SUVs and pickups can’t conquer anything more rigorous than wet grass. Also, even the best mud tires become useless off road well before they run out of tread.

7. Help yourself.
If you’re planning to regularly travel the road less paved, bring along some things that’ll help you out of small jams: a hand winch (aka “come-along”), tow strap, high-lift jack, shovel, some wood blocks and a first aid kit. If you’re going farther than you can walk out, bring enough stuff (extra clothes, water, sleeping bag) to survive until somebody finds you.

8. Tell somebody.
Tell somebody where you’re going and when you expect to be back. At least they’ll know when and where to start searching.

I got out of that ancient incident unscathed, largely because within a short hike there was a tractor with the keys in it and a long chain. Bringing along some luck never hurts.