Off-Road Driving is essentially driving across terrain that is not a paved or tarmac road, using 4x4 vehicles. You do not have to be highly trained, particularly skilled or be qualified to have fun at this sport, but you do need to have at least a short course in Off-Road Driving to understand the basics about your vehicle, the terrain and aspects of the sport before you start.
The definition for Off-Road Driving is driving a 4x4 vehicle on unpaved roads and natural terrain, i.e. sand, gravel, mud, rocks, etc.
There are two types of off-roading which are very different from each other. Firstly, there is Off-Road Driving which is slower and covers challenging terrain. It can be carried out more or less anywhere and is much more accessible as many people have a 4x4 that is capable of at least the basic Off-Road Driving principles. Secondly, there is Off-Road Racing which is much faster and uses specialised vehicles. It is much more skilled, due to the speed over the rocky terrain, but an amazing thrill.
History of Off-Road Driving
Way before roads were built, people were effectively ‘off-roading’ when driving a horse and cart - only one, two, four or six horsepower though – because they travelled across rocky, sand, snow and difficult terrains. As the first motor vehicles were being invented and built, the building of roads caught up, and later these were the tracks that were travelled in order to reach your destination – they didn’t need to travel across difficult terrain anymore as roads provided a much smoother passage.
However, as new areas of the globe were colonised, motor vehicles that could cope with difficult terrains were needed to traverse great areas of uneven and rocky ground before they could build the roads. So vehicles specifically designed to travel off-road were invented and manufactured.
Technical Requirements for Off-Road Driving
To take up Off-Road Driving, you don’t need to be technically minded, or have a degree in mechanics or engineering. It can be as simple as having a designated 4x4 vehicle or SUV and going along to a club or organisation that participates in off-roading, enrolling on a course and receiving basic training. Within a short space of time, you could be enjoying the delights and challenges of difficult and rocky terrains, as well as getting to know your vehicle better.
Make sure you know your vehicle’s ground clearance and where the lowest points of the chassis are when you are faced with deep ruts and ditches. Avoid over-steering, allowing the vehicle’s wheels to take their own route, and cross ditches at an angle. If you are going to be driving through deep water, check for submerged objects or underwater potholes, if at all possible, and whether the bottom is solid or soft mud. Beware of currents as it can affect steering, and turn off air conditioning.
For going up or down a steep hill, look at it carefully first and, if you can, walk up and down the hill. Choose the route with the least number of rocks, bumps and holes, and also look at the approach and exit. A steady pace is required for a hill using as little accelerator as possible without running the risk of stalling the engine.
For muddy or sand terrains, a steady pace is best, avoid braking or accelerating, and choose the right tread for your tires. For snow, use a low gear to maintain the engine revs and thereby movement, and avoid changing gear where possible.
Large rocks should, mainly, be driven over squarely so that you can avoid scratching the sidewall of the tire. Keep a slow but consistent momentum, in a low gear and your foot off the clutch. Make sure you know where your wheels are at any given moment, and avoid the vehicle becoming high-centred.
Types of Off-Road Driving
Recreational off-roading is principally the most popular and the most accessible, should you wish to take up the sport, or just have a day out and enjoy a bit of an adventure. There are many types of recreational off-roading, from dune bashing and greenlaning, to rock crawling and mudding.
Dune bashing involves driving over sand dunes, frequently associated with tourism in the Middle-East. There are also many state parks in the United States that allow ORVs to drive on them, including the Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan and the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.
Another way of having tremendous fun over sand dunes is with Dune Buggies, some of which are road legal, some are specifically for dirt driving, steep tracks and mud, while others are designed for crossing sand dunes.
The design is usually a modified vehicle with a modified engine mounted on an open chassis. The modifications usually attempt to increase the power to weight ratio by either lightening the vehicle or increasing engine power or both. Those with an open frame chassis are called sandrails. Sandrails are close to dune buggies.
Initially dune buggies were designed for navigating desert or beaches (hence the word "dune"). However, dune buggies have become more diversified in terms of the terrain they can handle and are being built for more generic off road tasks, such as CORR / SCORE indoor track racing. Some are even built for and used as on-road vehicles. Typically the function is determined before the buggy is created in order to maximize the comfort or abilities of the vehicle.
They have a high power to weight ratio, are lightweight with high flotation, large tread tires so that they can skim the surface of the sand. A variation of this is the sandrail, which is specifically for sand driving, and they have a lower centre of gravity to avoid rolling when going up or down slopes. The frame is usually made from tubular steel with a built-in roll cage, but no bodywork. The engine is rear mounted – VW Beetle and Subaru engines are popular – and are either air or water cooled.
A street legal dune buggy will be built differently to the sand dune buggy, which will also be different to the dune buggy for dirt driving. A street legal buggy doesn’t need to have 4-wheel drive. They are usually based on a VW frame, and the body is usually built of fibreglass. A sand buggy needs to be very light with a good power to weight ratio, big tires on the rear, smooth tires on the front and good rear brakes, although it doesn’t have to have front brakes. Then there’s the dirt buggy for hills and mud trails. These need a much stronger frame and roll cage, its important to have front brakes, the right tires fitted and also a good suspension!
If you want to save a bit of money and are good with your hands or mechanically minded, then you can build your own buggy. There are some very good ‘kits’ available, which is recommended if this will be the first time you are going to build your own buggy, but you will have to source an engine. There are also some good quality dune buggy plans that you can purchase and work from. However, if this is your first venture in to dune buggy driving, it is probably better that you buy a second hand buggy so that you can learn all about dune buggies.
Greenlaning or two-tracking is one of the least extreme categories. It is generally suitable for any four wheel drive vehicle, even with factory tires and equipment. The term greenlane refers to the fact that the routes are predominantly along unpaved tracks, forest tracks, or older roadways that may have fallen into disuse. For a lot of greenlaners, the main emphasis is on enjoying the countryside, and accessing areas that may be seldom traveled by motor vehicles, rather than exploring the performance envelope of their vehicle.
Mudding (or mud bogging)
Mudding involves finding a large area of wet mud or clay and attempting to drive as far through it as possible without becoming stuck. Usually, the stock tires supplied with four by four vehicles are completely inadequate for this type of off-roading, and Mud-terrain tires are required.
Rock crawling is a highly technical category of off-roading. Vehicles are typically modified with larger than stock tires, suspension components that allow greater axle articulation, and changes in the differential (mechanics) gear ratio in order to provide the ideal high torque/low speed operation for rock crawling to traverse obstacles. It is quite common for a rock crawler to have a spotter - an assistant who will go on foot alongside or in front of the vehicle to provide information to the driver on obstacles or areas of terrain that the driver may be unable to see.
Rock Racing is very similar to rock crawling in the fact that the vehicles are driven over rocks, the difference is that there are no penalties for hitting cones, backing up or winching as is done in rock crawling. Rock racing also involves a degree of high-speed racing not seen in typical rock crawling.
Formula off-road is a high powered version of off-road competition. Vehicles are highly modified or specially built using sand drag tires and long travel suspension components that allow jumps and rough handling and long axle articulation, and a secure roll cage for the driver.Many people compete at trials and competitions in Off-Road Driving, many of which are considered to be the safest of all motorsports because the emphasis is on skill and not speed. It is highly competitive and if you want to go down this route, it could become expensive. Competitors will spend hours and money on modifications, equipment, vehicles, upgrades, etc, and that’s before they’ve paid membership to a club, entry fees and travelling costs. There are three main forms of off-road trialing: RTV trialing, CCV trialing and the Punch & Winch challenge.
Training and Where to Learn
There are many centres where you can learn off-roading and most have their own land on which they’ve developed different levels of trails for you to use. You can be a beginner or a more experienced driver, and receive instruction on either a one-to-one basis or as a group. Most centres or companies running courses have a supply of suitable 4x4 vehicles for you to use, if you don’t have one to use. Ensure they are an accredited centre or company, and that their instructors are qualified and experienced in off-roading. For example, in the UK B.O.R.D.A. (British Off-Roading Driving Association) is the professional Associated dedicated to off-roading and most centres or companies in the UK are registered with them.
The instructors will not only teach you the skills needed for off-roading, they will also teach you about your 4x4 and it’s capabilities, how to drive safely in difficult conditions and develop your confidence.
Many centres and companies run family days as well as corporate days, great for team building and getting to know one another!
According to Trails Online Website in the US, the top 10 best trails are:
1. Breakneck Ridge Trail in the Hudson Highlands State Park, New York.
2. Glacier Gorge in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
3. Appalachian Trail: The Pinnacle in Pennsylvania.
4. Mount Whitney in California.
5. Conundrum Hot Springs in Colorado.
6. Bear Mountain Loop, topping Bear and West Mountains, in New York.
7. Furnace Mountain / Trayfoot Mountain Overnight Loop in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
8. Deep Creek, Hot Springs in California.
9. Appalachian Trail: Sunfish Pond & Mount Mohican in New Jersey.
10. Appalachian Trail: Springer Mountain to Hightower Gap in Georgia.
Safety Precautions and Tips
Before you go off-roading, use this checklist to make sure you are safe:
1. Know your vehicle and it’s 4x4 capabilities, understand it’s controls, know where to locate the spare tire and jack, and how to use them. Check your clearance height and know where the lowest point is located. Practice driving in the low gear ratio and how to use your manual locking hubs (if the vehicle has them).
2. Make sure you have emergency supplies should you get stuck or break down, including clothes for any changing weather conditions. Don’t forget a full first aid kit, a shovel or spade, spare parts, a compass and blankets.
3. If possible, make sure you have at least one passenger with you.
4. Tell somebody where you are going, roughly how long you will be and leave them with a contact number (if possible).
5. Make sure you vehicle is in good condition, including all the tires (and the spare), all fluids are topped up, all lights are working and that your steering and brakes work properly.
6. If you are carrying any loads, make sure they are evenly spread.
7. Know your route and how long it will take you to get there.
8. Wear your seatbelt (or harness, if you have one) at all times.
9. Make sure you tie down any items that are loose (avoid using bungee cords).
10. Remember to take your driver’s licence, insurance documents and money with you.
11. Remember the environment! Your 4x4 and off-roading activities can damage the environment around you. Make sure you stay on the designated trail at all times and avoid spinning the tires as this tears up the soil.
12. Make every effort not to disturb the natural wildlife – plants and animals.
13. Don’t speed. Most off-roading activities, with the exception of Off-Road Racing, should be done at a slow, steady speed. Enjoy the scenery around you and have fun.
14. Pass any oncoming traffic in the same way you would on the highway. If there is only room for one vehicle, the smaller vehicle or more experienced driver should give way.
15. If you are going through a particularly tight spot, make sure you keep obstacles to the driver’s side. This makes the judging of distances easier.
16. If you are going to drive down a rut and it will be impossible not to catch the undercarriage underneath, drive with one wheel in the rut and the other on the middle hump, unless there is room to straddle the rut, i.e. one wheel on the middle hump and one wheel to the outside of the rut.
As with driving on the road, there are certain ‘rules’ or guidelines to off-roading, mainly to protect you and others from unnecessary danger or possible injury. If you follow these etiquette ‘rules’, you will have immense fun.
1. Stay on the right hand side of oncoming traffic.
2. If you meet another vehicle on a gradient and there’s no room to get out of the way, the uphill vehicle has right-of-way.
3. Make sure you know how to move your vehicle around under difficult conditions, i.e. extracting yourself from an awkward position.
4. Aim to have as minimal impact on the terrain as possible, off-roading is a skill and if we don’t make the effort to reduce the effects on the landscape, it will work against you.
5. If you loose traction, turn the steering wheel from side-to-side so that you can try to regain traction and grip.
6. If you are about to stall the vehicle on a steep hill, don’t depress the clutch or you could loose control of the vehicle by ‘free wheeling’. Just turn off the ignition, apply the brake completely (as well as the parking brake). Choose your route down, put the vehicle into reverse, slowly release the clutch and brakes, then start the engine and allow the vehicle to do the rest. If you are driving an automatic, do not put the lever into Park or you may lock the transmission.
Above all, enjoy the experience and have fun.