What You Should Know Before Going Off-Road The First Time

The world of off-roading is a vast one. Depending on where you live, you may have a very different vision of what off-roading is compared to someone who lives in a different climate than you. Whether you live in the desert or rainforest, the essentials that you should know before leaving the pavement are the same.

There are a few basics that are important to know before going off-road your first time. Do you know what the terrain will be like where you are heading? Do you know how to put your vehicle in four-wheel drive? Do you know how to self-recover or change a flat tire?

The knowledge you have about off-roading can have an effect on how comfortable you are getting out exploring. Fortunately, even though there is endless amounts of info you can learn about the subject, what you need to know before hitting the trails is fairly straightforward.

Know Before You Go

“Know before you go,” is a saying that relates to all things adventure. Whether it be a trip around the world, heading out on a mountain bike ride, or heading off-road; knowing what you may potentially be getting yourself into is an extremely important part of having fun. While it is a simple concept, knowing what sort of terrain you will be encountering, and what the weather will be like, are often overlooked.

Knowing the terrain that you will be exploring insures safe passage and proper preparation. Mud, rock, sand, and snow, are all very different driving conditions and experiences. If a storm arrives, the terrain that you are driving could rapidly change. Being prepared for the change in weather means you’ll still be able to enjoy your adventure.

If you are heading out as a solo vehicle, not only should you know before you go, you should also let someone in on the “Knowing Where You Are Going,” side of things. That way if you end up getting into a situation, there is someone who knows what your plans were.


Depending on where you are in the world, the mud-driving experience can vary quite a bit. Here in British Columbia, our mud is typically very soil-based. In Moab however, their mud is clay based. While mud in BC will clog up your tire tread, it is nothing like the Moab mud. It is a completely different driving condition, and I would even say a different type of driving skill set.

A general rule of thumb when driving in muddy conditions is to keep your vehicle in 4 high. Airing down is also advisable. I recommend between 15-20psi.

If you end up getting stuck, do not mash the skinny pedal to the floor. Place your vehicle in 4 low, and if you can, choose a higher gear. My go-to is typically third. This allows you to have lots of torque, without too much tire spin right off the bat. This gives the vehicle a chance to try and crawl out, rather than potentially digging itself a deeper hole. If you have locking differentials, they can also be of great assistance.


Rock driving is very much about throttle control, choosing the right line, and often a slow and steady wins the race type of scenario. 4 low is recommended. If you are driving up a dried-up river bed, the main thing to look out for is any rock that is sizable enough to hit the underside of your vehicle. If you are facing a steeper climb, you want to look for the best line that will insure your vehicle has maximum grip. Sometimes having a wheel come off the ground is inevitable, but limiting this is the key to making it up a rocky climb. Throttle control is extremely important in these scenarios. Momentum is not always your friend. In fact, too much momentum could mean damaging your vehicle.

Aim to tackle rock obstacles slowly at first. Only give the vehicle extra gas if it needs a little more encouragement or a bump up and over.

I recommend airing down to between 10-15psi when driving in rocky conditions. This will give your tires maximum grip, and soften your ride substantially.


For the most part, sand is a momentum-friendly driving condition. This means keeping your vehicle in 4 high, or even 2-wheel drive. Depending on your region, you will encounter different types of sand. Some finer, some more coarse. Finer sand means the grains are smaller and lighter, meaning you will sink more easily into it. Whether it be fine or coarse sand, when it is possible you want to keep your momentum up. This keeps you afloat on the sand and prevents you from getting bogged down.

If you happen to find yourself stuck, much like mud, you want to switch into 4 low and a higher gear. Remember, before you end up getting super stuck, it is okay to ask for a hand from others around you!

Regarding air pressure for sand, the lower the better! If you have standard wheels on your vehicle, stick with around 10-15 psi, but if you happen to have bead locks you can go even lower. Unlike mud driving, lowering your tire pressure for sand isn’t about grip or smoothing out your ride, it is all about widening your tire’s footprint and keeping yourself afloat.


In my opinion, driving in snowy conditions is an interesting combination of mud and sand driving. It can be easy to lose traction like mud, and you can sink easily without momentum like sand. Also, much like sand and mud, depending on where you live in the world you may have different snow than someone else. Wet climates tend to have heavy snow that is easier to stay on top of, but is harder to plow through. Drier climates will be lighter, powdery snow that is easier to sink into, but much easier to push your vehicle through.

Much like the other 3 driving conditions, airing down your tires is a must. Like sand driving, the lower the better. As you are wanting to stay afloat on top of the snow, but also increase your tire’s footprint for traction. Aim for 10-15psi, or lower if your wheels will allow.

Why You Should Air Down Your Tires

As a general rule of thumb, whenever you go off-road you should air down your tires. Doing so widens your tire’s footprint, and softens your ride. Widening your tire’s footprint means you are increasing the area of contact where the rubber meets the ground. This in turn increases the amount of grip your tire has. To air down, you use a tire deflator, which can be found at your local department store, or on Amazon. I recommend the ARB rapid tire deflator. It’s extremely quick, which means you’ll get out on the trail sooner!

When you air down your tires in sand, mud, and snow, you are helping your vehicle stay afloat by distributing its weight out more. Think of snowshoes – if you don’t wear snowshoes and then go to stand on soft packed snow, you will likely sink right in. If you wear snowshoes, however, you are increasing the area that your weight is distributed over, and this allows you to stay on top of the snow.

Airing down for driving in rocky conditions has a slightly different purpose behind it. Similarly to the other 3 conditions, it is to increase your tire’s footprint which means more of your tread is actually making contact with the rock. It also allows your tire to form to the rocks under it. If you were to have 45psi in your tires and drive over a rock, the tire would keep its shape meaning very little of the tire would actually be in contact with the rock. If you were to air down to 15psi or even 25psi, and then drive over the same rock, you would see your tire substantially change as it rolled over. The lower the tire pressure, the more your tire will mold around the obstacle, which means you will have more grip than a fully aired-up tire. You are also less likely to puncture your tire if it is aired down.

What is the Difference Between 4 High and 4 Low?

The main difference between 4 high and 4 low, is that 4 high is meant for higher speed scenarios, and 4 low is meant for low speed. When you put your vehicle into 4 low, it is similar to putting your vehicle back about 3 gears in your gearbox. If you are in 3rd gear in 4 low, that is about the same as 1st gear in 4 high. Engaging 4 low also increases your torque, which means you can more easily pull yourself up obstacles and out of hairy situations.

Driving too quickly in 4 low can put unwanted strain on your gearbox. My general rule of thumb when I am in 4 low is – when I feel that I need to shift into 4th gear, it is time to stop and put my truck back into 4 high.

What Does Locking The Differential Do?

To answer what locking the differential does, I will first mention what an open differential is. Majority of vehicles that roll off a carlot come stock with an open diff. An open diff splits the torque produced by the engine evenly between the wheels. This allows for the wheels to spin at different speeds when taking corners. A major drawback to an open differential is the fact that the wheel that loses traction, is the wheel that will receive the power from the engine. That means if you lift a tire while going through an obstacle, if you don’t have the momentum to make it through and stop, the engine will give the wheel in the air the power. Thus causing you to go nowhere.

If you are fortunate enough to have a vehicle that has lockers in it, you are able to lock the differential when you come up to an obstacle. When you lock your diffs, you are forcing both of your wheels to spin at the same rate. This means, that when you lift a wheel or go through a slippery section and lose grip with one wheel, the other will keep its power. Making it much easier to keep yourself moving forward.

Using a locker is a fantastic way to get through a tough obstacle, but should only be used for that. Locking your diffs for long periods of time, or going around lots of corners, is extremely hard on the components of your diff.

Traction Control – Should You Use It?

When it comes to traction control, having it on while you are cruising down an FSR or Public Land Access road, is totally fine. However, when it comes to actually off-roading, driving obstacles, and playing in the snow or mud, it is advised to turn it off. Traction control is designed to slow the wheel that is losing traction, and this can be quite a hindrance when off-road. As an example, my friend and I were out in the snow with our vehicles. I was in my Tacoma which does not have traction control, and he was in his FJ which does have it and you can’t easily turn it off. Even though my tires were spinning more than his, I was able to launch much faster than he was. In fact, unless you lightly touched the gas pedal, his vehicle would barely move. If you are off-road and in a situation where you need momentum, having traction control turned on can greatly affect you.

Self Recovery

Depending on where you live and how far you plan on heading off-road, you may see very few people. So knowing how to get yourself unstuck and change your tire is an absolute must. You cannot prepare yourself for every situation you may end up getting yourself into, however, having the correct gear with you is a smart move. A short list of a few recovery items is as follows:

  • gloves
  • shovel
  • recovery rope aka snatch strap
  • 2 shackles (soft is recommended)
  • saw and/or axe
  • jack
  • spare tire
  • tire patch kit

These are the most basic items you should have with you. Having a recovery rope and shackles with you won’t help you much if you don’t see anybody else, but in the event that you do, you are set to be recovered.

A winch is also a fantastic addition to have on your vehicle, but for the most part, with smart choices, you can avoid getting yourself in a situation where you need to winch yourself. When it comes to off-roading as a solo vehicle, I recommend erroring on the side of caution to limit the need to self-recover.

Knowing how to repair a puncture or change a tire is also a must. Be sure to reference your owner’s manual to learn how to access your spare tire.


Isaac Wray is a professional photographer and outdoors enthusiasts based out of Vancouver, Canada.

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