Basic Off-Road Driving Techniques

Learning basic off-road driving skills is an important step for anyone getting into off-roading and overlanding. 

With terrain and conditions infinitely variable, from driving in ice and snow to rock crawling in the desert, mastering every off-road driving technique is life-long pursuit. Here, we’ll outline a few basic driving tips for off-road travel to get you started.

General Tips on Off-Road Driving

How you drive off-road will depend on the conditions, but there are few general guidelines that are worth keeping in mind.

Safety first
Traveling off-road presents risks that are distinct from on-pavement travel, and understanding and mitigating those risks is job one. Take it easy, double-check your route and assess what could go wrong, how to avoid it, and what to do in case you can’t. Drive only on trails within your skill zone, and if you don’t know if you should try a trail, seek guidance from someone with more experience.

Go as slow as you can and as fast as necessary
Going slow is generally safer for both you and your vehicle, as you have more time to see and feel what’s happening and react. You are less likely to damage your vehicle going slowly. In some situations, such as driving in snow or sand or trying to climb a hill, you may need a certain amount of momentum to keep your vehicle moving forward.

Avoid sudden stops and starts
Generally speaking, start and stop moving smoothly to avoid losing traction. On soft or loose surfaces, the torque created by sudden acceleration or deceleration will cause the tire to break away from the surface, whether it’s dirt, snow, sand, or slick rock.

Maintain momentum in snow, mud, and sand
Once you are moving in snow, mud or sand, it’s generally a good idea to keep moving until you find firmer footing. This doesn’t mean go as fast as you can, but rather maintaining the momentum that keeps you floating on the surface as much as possible.

As soon as you stop, the weight of your vehicle will cause you to sink into soft ground. It can be hard to get moving again, as your chassis could be resting on the ground preventing your tires from getting purchase.

Choose your line carefully and use a spotter when necessary
The old carpenter’s saying, ‘measure twice, cut once,’ also applies to off-road travel. If you have any questions about how to navigate an obstacle in your path, stop your vehicle and get out to inspect. Use an experienced spotter to help guide you if the path is complicated and requires an extra set of eyes. Learn how to communicate with your spotter.

Air down your tires
This isn’t a driving tip, per se, but reducing the air pressure in your tires will provide better traction, handling, and comfort while traveling off-road. A lot of off-roaders will reduce their air to the 10 – 15 psi level.

Driver using an air-compressor to inflate tires after off-roading. Reducing air pressure in tires improves traction and comfort while driving off-road.

Below that, you risk having your tire pop off your wheel (a.k.a., “popping a bead”) unless you are using specialized bead-lock wheels. For more info on equipment for airing tires down and back up, check out our guides to tire deflators and air compressors.

Learn your vehicle
This one is really mostly about trial and error (hopefully not too much error), but you should read up on your vehicle so you understand its capabilities. If you have a 4-wheel drive, figure out when a 4-wheel low is needed and when a 4-wheel high would be appropriate.

Do you have a sway bar disconnect? Learn how uneven the ground needs to be before you should disconnect it. Same with differential lockers that prevent your wheels from spinning separately.

Many modern vehicles also have various forms of traction control that rely on anti-lock braking systems to prevent wheel slippage. Are there situations where you should turn this off? Read the manual.

Another important thing to understand, if you’ll be tackling technical terrain, is your vehicle’s approach, breakover, and departure angles.

Beware roll-overs
One of the most dangerous situations when off-road is a roll-over, typically resulting from the vehicle tipping too far to one side. One common scenario is when someone turns sideways, for whatever reason, while on a steep hill and comes tumbling down.

Not to scare you, but this video captures a particularly bad rollover resulting from a Jeep tipping sideways on a steep hill (a lot appears to have gone wrong in this situation, including poor spotter communication and guidance and a terrible choice of line):

A few tips to avoid tip-overs:

If you are traveling down a steep hill, choose a line that will allow you to travel straight down the hill as much as possible and avoid lines that will make your vehicle lean steeply downhill.

If you are driving up a hill but can’t make it, back down, don’t try to turn around. Also, while you may need some momentum to make it up a hill, gunning is almost never a good idea. Here’s another video to demonstrate the hazards involved:

If you have to travel across a hill (referred to a “sidehills” in this situation), assess the angle at which your vehicle will tilt carefully. You’ll generally be safe up to about 30 degrees of tilt. Beyond that, you’re getting into dicey territory best maneuvered by seasoned off-road hands who know their vehicles extremely well. Avoid steep sidehills, and event moderate sidehills if they are slippery or uneven.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in learning how to drive off-road. We recommend getting guidance from a reputable source, such as off-road training schools and your local off-road clubs. Books on off-road training are also helpful. We recommend starting with the Four-Wheeler’s Bible.