December 05, 2023
Allow me a confession, first rattle out of the box. Growing up in northeast Ohio, my formative years were not spent off-roading with family. Oh, we had four-wheel-drive pickups. We had snow and mud. My father and I hunted in both, but we just didn't off-road. Didn't need to, which, looking back now, was a good thing.
When I moved to rural southwest Washington, I soon learned off-roading would become a way of life, so to speak, if I wanted to access the very best places to hunt, fish, camp, gather mushrooms.
To put it mildly, it was a learning curve for me. The majority of my off-road "instruction," came via the School of Hard Knocks. Get stuck ... get unstuck. Get stuck worse ... call someone, or in some cases, start walking and hoping for the best. Break something ... you know where I'm going with this.
Eventually, I learned a thing or two about what to do—and more importantly, what not to do—when driving off-road and using what a friend of mine called the Happy Lever, the four-wheel-drive selector. I could have, though, cut my education time short and gained an ocean of knowledge simply by seeking out an instructor skilled in the art of off-road and spending time with that professional.
An individual such as Tom Severin. A former deputy wildlife conservation officer for the state of Pennsylvania, Severin’s off-roading resume is impressive. Currently owner and operator of the southern California-based Badlands Off-Road Adventures (4x4training.com), Severin’s list of credentials includes professional certification with the International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers Association, United Four Wheel Drive Associations and the California Association of 4WD Clubs. He’s also a trained and certified Wilderness First Responder. His company has trained and instructed hundreds of drivers, including members of the U.S. Marine Corps, Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department and the National Park Service.
"As far as [off-road] instruction goes, our goal is to give people the three basic skills they need to pick a good line," he says. "The essence of four-wheeling is you’re trying to get somewhere, and there’s an obstacle in the way. To get through that obstacle, it’s imperative to pick a good line, which means how you are going to get all four tires through there on the ground without getting hung up."
The major skills, Severin explains, to accomplish this seemingly elemental challenge are: understanding one’s vehicle, its characteristics and behaviors; understanding the techniques used to negotiate various types of terrain; and the acquisition of experience as it applies to formulating judgments and decisions. Truthfully, picking a good line is often very involved, and success comes with time, experience and what Severin refers to as “the encouragement of non-lethal mistakes under the watchful eye of the instructor” as a method of education.
“One of the other things a four-wheel-drive instructor does is to provide confidence, and show [new drivers] their vehicle can do a lot of things they’d never have realized,” Severin notes. “Many of them come away saying ‘I never would have done that if you hadn’t shown me.’”
Severin condenses the proper use of four-wheel drive—whether it be in the mountains or desert, or on-road under weather conditions such as snow, ice and even heavy rain—into four steps: identify, predict, decide and execute. Together they form IPDE, an acronym meant to help a driver before, during and after navigating an obstacle.
- Identify the obstacle.
- Predict the alternatives—the lines or routes to get around, over or through the obstacle—and chose the safest one. “[Ask yourself] how do I get through there without losing traction, without getting stuck, while staying reasonably level,” Severin explains. “How do I position myself to accomplish this?”
- Decide if you want to take the line and navigate the obstacle.
- Execute your decision correctly. “This means tire placement and throttle control,” says Severin. “I believe in precise tire placement, finesse and, if need be, a spotter. If the situation is dangerous, a little tricky, or you’re just not comfortable, get a spotter out there to help you.”
Understandably, there’s a lot involved with off-roading and using four-wheel drive. As Severin explains, though, the first two safety rules are the same as they are with any outdoor sport.
“Let someone know where you’re going and don’t go alone,” he says. “We don’t mean somebody in the vehicle with you. We mean two or more vehicles. That’s a golden rule. And if you’re going to break that rule, have plenty of mitigation capabilities, e.g., long-range communication, winches, tools, supplies and parts. But it’s just better to go with a buddy, two or more vehicles.”
Back to those “non-lethal mistakes” Severin speaks of as a learning tool. What are the most common mistakes he sees when watching a group of novice off-roaders navigate a course, whether it be in Utah or Missouri?
“There’s a number of them,” he says, “but the first one is not doing enough recon. There’s big blind spot in front of you when you’re sitting behind the wheel. The last time you’re going to see an obstacle is when that blind spot covers it up, so you need to get out and look sometimes. You can’t tell from behind the wheel whether there’s a drop-off or something else hidden from view.”
Tire placement is another. Severin notes that most people don’t know where their tires are before attempting an obstacle, but it’s vital to know their exact position. Traction, too, is often misunderstood.
“People lose traction, and their first reaction is, ‘Hey! I must not be using enough power!’” Severin explains. “They just get on the accelerator and spin their wheels.”
That leads to one of Severin’s top rules for off-road driving. “Your instincts,” he says, “are wrong off-road, and you have to learn new behaviors.”