Like many people today, you may drive a truck or SUV. You didn’t buy it for adventure, but you are wondering whether it can handle a little time off the pavement. Here’s an off-roading checklist to help you decide just how far you can take your ride before it becomes dangerous to you or to your vehicle.
Heights, Overhangs and Angles
What is your vehicle’s ground clearance? A minimum of 8 inches is the safest choice for doing minor off-roading. A Jeep Wrangler has almost 10 inches of ground clearance, and the bumpers are elevated. The new Ford Bronco is the same way. The reason is that those overhangs can get caught on brush or limbs. Worse than getting stuck, getting caught could mean damage to your vehicle.
Ground clearance is just one part of the equation. Wheel travel and axle articulation are the others. Normally your wheels are not able to pivot widely. This would work against you on the road. However, for off-roading, this is a must-have capability. Approach, departure, and breakover angles must provide significant flexibility. To improve this, you may need an off-road suspension that allows greater wheel travel. It should also raise the vehicle’s ground clearance.
Most tires are designed to provide grip on the pavement. They aren’t ready for surfaces like wet grass or mud. That means most of us have tires that will slip and slide on the trail or in the field. To be sure your vehicle will be safe, you may need to upgrade your tires. This should get you the appropriate grip and help prevent punctures. It may help you get more ground clearance as well.
Your SUV has traction controls that can actually get in your way. Can you turn them off? If so, then you can handle the trail better. Likewise, if you have crash avoidance features, you need to be able to turn them off. All of these terrific devices become a burden on the trail.
A modern SUV rarely has skid plates unless it was designed specifically for off-roading. This armor is an important defense against the brush and flying debris on fields and trails. Assuming your vehicle doesn’t have it, you should limit your trail riding. You don’t want an hour or two of fun to destroy your SUV.
If you are serious about hitting the trail, you may be able to buy skid plates from your dealer. Be careful to get ones that will protect your car’s vital organs such as the fuel tank. Also, if possible, get the ones approved by your manufacturer. You don’t want to ruin your SUV at the same time you are trying to protect it.
Many SUVs and trucks do not have four-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive vehicles are especially vulnerable if taken off-road. Rear-wheel trucks may be fine. All-wheel drive may have a special setting for off-road, but usually that is not sufficient for real trail challenges. True four-wheel drive can lock the wheels to allow them to spin in tandem. A low-range transfer case allows the vehicle to harness torque at very slow speeds.
A Few Warnings
Even if your vehicle meets all of these criteria, it could still lack the necessary capability to crawl or to ford water. You should use extreme caution when faced with tough terrain or a creek. Furthermore, you should have backup plans to get yourself out of a jam.
Before you take your SUV or truck off road, make sure you know exactly what it can handle. You don’t want to find out the hard way that you should have stayed on pavement.