Most hikes, certainly the ones that are named and documented, start at a trailhead. Usually there is a sign or other indicator that a trail starts there. Getting to trailhead can require driving on dirt roads, rocky tracks, uphills and downhills, and across water features. This is another reason why researching a hike beforehand is important. Assess the approach to trailhead and whether it is within your driving skills and the ability of your vehicle. If they say to “have a 4WD vehicle with high clearance” take them at their word!
I have done a ton of off-roading in a Toyota 4Runner and more recently in a 4runner TRD-PRO which has proven capable in all but one nightmare road in Colorado called the Blanca Peak Road (used to be called the Lake Como Road). I have heard it called the worst “road” in Colorado. It even has names for some of its challenges. I got about 4 miles up the 7-miles and then chickened out, pulled over and backpacked the rest of the way to camp at Lake Como for access to three fantastic 14ers.
So, while I do speak from experience, I do not claim to be an off-road expert. There are some brave or crazy people out there with specially-configured trucks that can do amazing things—and can get into amazing predicaments as well.
Here is a bit of what I have learned.
- Concentrate – this is no time to change the radio station or get engrossed in a conversation about politics, sports or whatever with your mates. You will be making continuous micro-decisions about steering, ruts, rocks, water, logs, tight turns, narrow passages, unexpected tugs on the wheel and facing oncoming vehicles, especially on a single track where there is only room for one car.
- Right-of-way – When two vehicles meet on a grade with not enough room to pass each other, the car travelling uphill has the right of way. If you are descending on a single-track road, engage all your buddies in the car to look for and remember where the last pull-off was, because you are the one that will have to back uphill to that place to let the other car drive past. That can be gripping on a steep and rocky road.
- Do Not Over Steer – In ruts or when one side of your vehicle is up on an incline but the other is on lower ground, it feels natural to counteract the lean by steering up toward the incline. Keeping the wheel straight is usually safest. Often ruts are cut in odd ways that will cause your wheels to pull to the right or the left. It is best not to let the steering wheel wander. You might not even know that your steering is turned in full lock even if the car is going straight in the rut. But as soon as you leave the rut and regain traction, the car might lurch in the direction of the steering, leading you into an obstacle or worse if the side of the road falls off.
- Traction Control – Most modern 4WD vehicles will have some kind of traction control. Traction control uses the brakes and/or the 4×4 mechanicals to limit wheel slip and ensure that torque is maintaining traction. Since there are so many kinds of traction-control systems, make sure you know yours and all its settings. 4WD High is what you drive around in at normal speeds. It allows for better top-end speed but lower torque to the wheels when stopped. When you go to 4WD Low, you have more torque at lower speeds, but your top speed is maxed out quickly. When you need a lot of low-end power at low speeds on the trail, go to 4WD Low and drive slowly.
- Positioning – Keep the driver’s side of the vehicle closer to obstacles so you can judge distances more accurately. Also, when riding through deep ruts or rocky areas, pay total attention to the track. Usually it is best to drive with one wheel in the rut and the other wheel on the middle hump, or one wheel on a higher rock and the other could be lower but the whole undercarriage is lifted to avoid getting hung up. Plan as you go: look ahead to see how to navigate from the current difficulties to the next one coming up.
- Rock – When you get into rocks, it’s more than likely you are in a low-speed mode which gives you more time to plan your route and keep your car high off the worst protrusions. Managing the car’s power with a delicate foot is the key to success in rock. In fact, it is good to get used to using both feet, with the left on the brake and the right foot on the accelerator. This gives you instant control over moving forward yet controlling your speed when the road conditions try to control your car. You do not want to stay in that mode too long because you can heat up your brakes, but it is a very effective way to get through tough spots.
- Mud, Sand, and Snow – From a traction perspective, mud, sand and snow are handled pretty much the same way, although mud can be the trickiest. How deep is the mud and how far you do you have to travel through it? If it is deep and far, I wouldn’t want to do it at all. But if it is a go, this is where you might want to “air down” by reducing tire pressures to around 20 pounds. Then drive in 4WD high (to give you a bit more speed) so that your tires can toss more mud away and allow your treads a chance to self-clean. Not only does airing down increase the amount of tire that touches surfaces, it also allows the rubber to mold to the shape of any rocks below, giving you more bite into whatever surface you’re dealing with.
- Water Fording: Water fording can be dangerous. If you cannot see bottom, get out of the car and use your hiking poles to test the water depth. You do not want to submerge too far and get stuck; that can be life threatening. In rushing water, even a depth of two feet can sweep a car away. When you are ready to go, aim slightly upstream. When you enter, you will create a bow wake. You will then want to keep enough speed to maintain the wake, as it effectively lowers the level of water around the sides of your vehicle. Also, as you drive across the water, it will push you downstream a little bit, so plan the drift to where you want to get out. If the water is deeper than your grill, forget it. Park and get out and hike.