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How to Avoid Disaster When Driving Off-Road in Winter

Vehicle tips for getting out there (and back) this winter.

How to Avoid Disaster When Driving Off-Road in Winter

Effective wintertime off-road driving starts with proper tires, ideally a set rated for snow and mud. (Shutterstock image)

Isn't that why you have four-wheel drive?” my friend Dave taunted. We were looking at the foreboding, snow-covered hump between us and the canyon rumored to harbor the mother of all chukar coveys. He was right. Going deep means adventure, the stuff of campfire stories and social-media posts. Four-wheel drive will get you even deeper, especially in winter, but it's the getting back out that matters most.

Along with death and taxes, there's one more absolute certainty in life: Unless your favorite seat is in front of the TV, someday you'll get in an off-road pickle. I've watched trucks drift downstream, winched cars from ditches and hauled shivering tourists to town. And, yes, I've even been stuck a time or two myself.

Oscar Wilde said, "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." With that in mind, here are some mistakes I've committed that should help you avoid most unpleasant off-road situations ... and get you back from the others.

GET READY

Four-wheel drive is not pixie dust you sprinkle on your rig to magically transport it to a dry, level, paved Starbucks drive-through. There's a reason serious off-roaders travel in pairs: They can roll each other right-side up. Don't rely on four-wheel drive. End of lecture.

Close to home, practice driving in mud and snow. Understand how your rig behaves, and learn out how to chain up and how to operate a come-along and a high-lift jack before you need them.

Pack stuff you'll probably never use. Should you need it, you'll be glad you did (and, hopefully, so will the beneficiary on your life insurance policy).

Get your vehicle inspected. Back when I was wrenching on horseless carriages, we twisted belts, tested the battery, squeezed hoses, topped off fluids, looked for leaks and turned everything on and off.

Tires are always a compromise between highway noise, life of the tread and traction. I've found the sweet spot is a serious mud-and-snow designation (I run Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2). Put your spare where you can reach it—you may be axle-deep when the flat happens.

TAKE IT WITH YOU

A sleeping bag, water, several ways to communicate, signaling devices and some food should be close at hand, not in the trunk or pickup bed. Take a spare serpentine belt and know how to install it. Bring a charged-up battery jumper box, spare fuel, fuses and tools.




Have a long-handled shovel (doubles as a lever), winch or come-along, traction sand (doubles as weight over the drive wheels), high-lift jack, bottle jack and some foot-long, 2-by-6-inch boards to keep the truck from sinking into the mud quite as far. Keep a bottle of diesel anti-gelling fluid for low temperatures and pour it in long before you think you'll need it. Bring a serious ice scraper for your windshield. A headlamp keeps your hands free to search for that lug nut you dropped. A “snatch strap” may be useful for getting someone else out of a jam—or to help someone get you out.

TIPS AND TACTICS

One range I hunt is part volcanic lava and part moon dust (aka very fine soil) that turns to grease when wet. With rain pattering on the windshield during one hunt, we decided to call it a day and head down the hill. We stopped to glass a muley buck, but the truck began to move of its own accord. The lesson: when in doubt, get the heck out.

If it looks dicey ahead, park and observe. When going through puddled ruts, stay in them—the soil underneath that water has been packed down, offering the best traction, such as it is. Use your tire's shoulders for traction by wiggling your steering wheel a tiny bit as you negotiate ruts.

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If your tires spin, more and faster spinning just digs deeper holes. Instead, lay small rocks, brush, limbs, carpet samples, floor mats, sand or store-bought recovery boards under your tires to give you enough traction to get out. Have friends sit on your rig over the traction tires, or rock back and forth between drive and reverse gear. If worse comes to worst, ask your buddies to get back there and push you out of the mud puddle. Just be sure to have your camera ready.

You know you're about to get stuck when you're applying an even amount of throttle and still slowing down. Press a little harder on the gas pedal, but if that doesn't do it, stop the vehicle—don't wait for it to get stuck.

Don't over-steer when traversing slopes. Sure, it feels natural to counteract the weight shift by steering toward the incline, but you booger up the geometry of the rig and slope and are messing with that pesky gravity thing again. In fact, you increase your risk of tipping over.

Once stuck, try to recover your rig by backing in the direction you came from. Don't buck snowdrifts going uphill; they get worse as you ascend.

THE WISDOM OF EXPERIENCE

There's no prize for burying your rig axle-deep in sludge, nor for surviving hypothermia. Plan ahead, have the skills, bring the things that will get you out and make sure someone knows where you're going and when you're supposed to be back. Finally, try not to do anything stupid. If you do, name it after me.

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