A Beginner’s Guide to Off-Roading

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Man driving an off-road vehicle/Image Credit: Kenny Eliason

Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald

Whether you call it “off-roading”, “overlanding”, or “four-wheeling,” getting out and enjoying the lesser-traveled trails is a thrilling adventure. Despite what you might be thinking, it’s not blasting through the woods at full rip, shooting rooster tails of mud and rock from your all-terrain tires. Off-roading is about finding a slow, methodical, calculated path over, around, and sometimes underneath obstacles, all while conserving as much effort as possible. It’s challenging and fun, and if you do it with people who really know what they’re doing, you’ll be proud of what you can accomplish.

Most importantly, you want to do it safely. Not just for the sake of your vehicle, but for you and the occupants of your vehicle as well. We’ve assembled a number of tips on taking your first steps off-road, whether you’re driving a full-blown off-road machine like a Jeep Wrangler or a Ford Bronco, or you’re venturing into the wilderness in a crossover SUV like a Subaru Forester or Toyota RAV-4.

You’ll find that a lot of these articles online are mostly just a list of gear that you need to go out and purchase to make yourself look like an off-roader. We’re more interested in education, and how to safely enjoy the outdoors without damaging your vehicle, your environment, or yourself.

Take an Off-Roading Class

Jeep Jamboree 2022/Image Credit: Jeep Jamboree USA

If you’re learning to weld, paint, build furniture, or play the guitar, there are plenty of ways to learn on your own, but you’ll gain knowledge and have a lot more fun if you take a class. It’s the same with off-roading. You can watch all the YouTube videos you like, but nothing is going to provide you with more information than getting out into the wilderness with a group of people who get it, and who can help you avoid the literal pitfalls of driving off-road.

Jeep has really mastered the art of education. Every year, its Jeep Jamboree series runs more than 35 events around the country, all of which fill up quickly the minute registration opens at the beginning of the year. While some of these events are geared toward the experienced, many welcome first-timers so that they can experience the trails with seasoned guides, spotters, and participants. There are events that first-timers probably don’t want to tackle, like the Rubicon Trail event that occurred in late May for the 25th consecutive year. That event is a 10 Trail Rating, the most difficult of any of the Jeep Jamborees.

An event like Uwharrie in Troy, North Carolina ranges from a 3 to a 9, making it accessible for people on their first time out. But that’s a Jeep-only event. What do you do if you’re not a Jeep owner? Start with a Google search for “off-road training class” and you’ll come up with a number of training events, some of which may be in your region. Overland Experts runs training sessions in North Carolina and Connecticut, teaching off-road first-timers the ropes and providing them with the education to travel the trails safely. On the west coast, Badlands Off-Road Adventures does similar training a quick drive from LAX.

Join a Club

Off-Road Clubs and Organizations/Image Credit: BDS Suspension

There are broad expanses of wilderness in this country, from coast to coast, but the truth is that 60.2 percent of the entire United States is privately owned. Public property – in the form of city, state, and national parks – may have a bewildering array of restrictions regarding when and where off-road vehicles are permitted.

Our best suggestion is to find your local off-road club. Most of these organizations have a solid presence on Facebook, and many will offer either training sessions or events geared to first-timers. You’ll find that the more you participate with these clubs, the more you get out of the experience. Most of these groups have no trouble finding people who want to go off-roading, but a lot of trouble in rounding up folks to do trail maintenance or fundraising. The more you can bring to the table, the more likely you are to have a good experience when it comes time to hit the trails.

Start Out Easy

Matt’s Off-Road Recovery/Image Credit: Matt’s Off-Road Recovery

If you haven’t spent any time watching Matt’s Off-Road Recovery on YouTube, do it now. You’ll find a nearly limitless supply of videos showing people who got a little too far off the beaten path in their pickup, or often, their rental car.

The key piece of understanding here is that things can go bad very quickly. It’s one thing on a pleasant summer day. It’s another thing entirely when fall is turning to winter, it starts getting dark at 4:00 in the afternoon and the rain is quickly changing to snow.

Even as we increasingly populate the countryside, dirt trails are still everywhere. Within an hour of the city of Boston, you can find yourself on beautiful dirt roads in the central part of Massachusetts, where you can learn a bit about how your vehicle works, and understand a little about pushing the limits of what your vehicle is capable of.

From there, trail maps for more challenging dirt roads can get you further into the puckerbrush. Your first stop should be your state park service, which offers trail maps showing dirt roads accessible by vehicle.

Tread Lightly!

Tread Lightly Logo/Image Credit: Tread Lightly!

Tread Lightly! is an organization founded in 1985 that addresses the impact on public lands by off-road vehicles. The intent of the organization is to maintain access while promoting stewardship of the environment.

The organization’s T.R.E.A.D. principles are focused on responsible recreation:

T-Travel Responsibly

R-Respect the Rights of Others

E-Educate Yourself

A-Avoid Sensitive Areas

D-Do Your Part

The organization is supported by just about every company building products to be enjoyed outdoors, from the U.S. Forest Service and Ford Motor Company all the way to companies like KC that make off-road lighting.

The bottom line is that enjoying your vehicle off the beaten track isn’t about six-inch lift kits, winches, and 44-inch mud tires. It’s about learning what your vehicle is capable of and doing it in a way that doesn’t damage you, the environment, or the vehicle you need to drive to work on Monday. Get out there and enjoy it, and learn something along the way.

Still looking for the perfect vehicle to start those off-roading adventures? We can help with that, too. The search tools we provide make it simple for you to find your ideal ride, no matter your location or budget. Start your search today with BestRide.com.

Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.