Beginner’s Guide to Off-RoadingLast Updated August 8, 2023 | C.J. Tragakis
The idea of off-roading seems simple enough. But take a few minutes to learn what goes into it, and it can easily become intimidating. Most newcomers to off-roading struggle with how to get started.
Fortunately, the off-road community is a very welcoming one. Nobody was an expert the first time they left the pavement. Plus, the mistakes other off-roaders have made over the decades means there’s a good foundation of knowledge to learn from.
This guide is designed to go over the fundamentals of off-roading so you can get started. Once you’ve learned the basics, you’ll be on your way to becoming a more seasoned off-roader.
Figure Out What Types of Off-Roading You Want to Do
Before you start preparing your rig for the trail, it’s important to know what type of off-roading you want to do. Your location can have a major impact on what’s readily available.
Those in the Eastern U.S. should be able to find light trails and good mudding locations. If you’re west of the Rockies, desert terrain and rocks might be plentiful. Even though you can always take trips to other off-roading destinations, knowing what’s close by can affect the choices you make for your vehicle.
Light trails will generally include any unpaved or rough road. Fire roads are a great example. Most places that are off the pavement but not at an actual off-road park will fall under this category.
This is the best place to start for newbies, and it’s the most accessible type of off-roading in general. You’ve probably already done some light trail off-roading if you’ve been to a remote hike or campsite. Unmaintained gravel surfaces, moderate puddles, and ditches are common. Most vehicles with AWD will have no issues here.
Overlanding and Camping
Overlanding involves driving through isolated areas over extended periods of time. This type of off-roading seems to be getting more and more popular every year, and for good reason. There’s a close-knit community that’s easy to get involved with. The driving itself isn’t much more technical or difficult than hitting a light trail. It can be made as easy or as tough as you want, depending on where you go and how long you stay.
On the most extreme scale, you can take your vehicle on a cross-country or even cross-continent overlanding trip. This requires lots of preparation. You’ll be relying on your own vehicle and supplies for the most part, meaning that off-roading and mechanical know-how are a must. It will also be much more expensive than your typical day trip to an off-road park.
Mudding involves taking your rig through large amounts of mud. At off-road parks, trails are usually rated as green, blue, or black, in order of ascending difficulty. You might be ok with AWD on a green trail, but blue or black will definitely require 4WD. No matter which mud trails you choose, good off-road tires are required.
Most trails will have some amount of mud, unless they’re in a dry desert location. The terrain can also feature large amounts of standing water. Moreover, the deep areas of mud require finesse. Enough speed is needed to avoid getting stuck, but not so much that control is lost. Too much throttle will cause a vehicle to spin the wheels, deepening itself in mud. Hidden obstacles can pose a danger as well.
One of the toughest types of mudding, mud bogging, involves races where you try to get your vehicle through the mud as quickly as possible. You’ll see all sorts of massive trucks with huge tires at these events.
Rock crawling is a more specialized form of off-roading. It involves getting up and over very uneven rocks. Because there are such large gaps and differences in height, drivers will go at a slower pace than if they were mudding.
Without a rig that can articulate (tilt left and right), you may struggle to get over obstacles. It’s important to take it slow and steady. The trails will get a bit more dangerous here, so start with lower level trails before progressing to more advanced ones.
Rock crawling also requires some specialized gear you might not need for other types of off-roading. These include skid plates, lockers, a lift kit, high clearance bumpers, beadlock wheels, and a winch.
On the coasts, beaches offer easy-going sand driving. However, you still need to be careful not to get stuck in dry, uneven sand. In the Western U.S., many light trails can involve sand. Soft sand can be even tougher to get out of than mud if you get stuck.
Desert racing is its own phenomenon. It’s the highest speed type of off-roading and involves zooming across desert terrain. This will include climbing and descending hills and dunes, and even jumps. For those that get seriously into desert racing, there are events that will push their vehicles to the limit. The pinnacle of which is the Baja 1,000, a race that goes for hundreds of miles and is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Sand and desert trails pose specific problems for off-road vehicles. Therefore, it’s crucial to have shocks and a suspension that are up to the task. Off-road lighting is important to allow you to see much farther ahead in lowlight conditions. An air filter cover will also help prevent sand and dust from entering your intake.
Beyond these modifications, emergency supplies become even more critical due to the harsh terrain and distance from potential help.
Make Sure You Have a Capable Off-Road Vehicle
Off-road vehicles can be expensive, but they certainly don’t have to be. You can buy an affordable used 4x4, or you can spend lots of money perfecting a brand-new, fully-loaded off-roader.
There are many components that make a good off-road vehicle. Lots of cars and trucks are ready to go off-roading right from the factory. While mods and upgrades will help, it’s good to have the basics already included.
Decide ahead of time if you want to buy and enjoy a vehicle as-is or if you want to do lots of your own mods. Even if you don’t buy a fully-loaded vehicle at the outset, you can always mod it as you gain more experience.
Here are some of the things you should look for in a vehicle that will be doing moderate or advanced off-roading.
A locking differential, also called a locker, distributes torque equally to the left and right wheels of an axle. You need to have traction when driving over rough terrain, even if one wheel is in the air. The wheel that’s still on the ground will still receive power if the axle is locked. That’s why a rear locking diff is included on most off-road vehicles.
4WD vehicles will also have a transfer case that locks the front and rear axles together, meaning that both axles receive the same amount of power. Combined with front and rear axle differentials, this gives all four wheels the same distribution of torque.
Most 4WD vehicles come equipped with a transfer case that can be shifted into 4-high and 4-low. It will also have 2-high for on-road driving. 4WD vehicles usually include a rear locking differential as well. Some, like the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, will also include a front locking differential.
4WD or AWD
The difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive can be confusing. The two systems are very similar. Essentially, a 4WD system has a manually-selectable way to lock all four wheels together so they get the same amount of power. It does this by using the transfer case.
An AWD system uses the vehicle’s computer to decide how to distribute power to each of the four driven wheels. However, they typically can’t offer a locked 50/50 power split to the front and rear axles or the left and right wheels of an axle.
If you only take away one thing, remember that 4WD is regarded as the better option for off-roading. While you don’t need 4WD to go off-roading on light trails, it’s necessary for rock crawling and most types of mudding.
Still, with enough ground clearance and good off-road tires, a competent off-road vehicle can easily clear moderate terrain while in 2WD mode. It’s all about knowing how and when you need to use your 4WD system.
Good Off-Road Angles
Approach, departure, and breakover angles describe how the front, back, and middle of your vehicle are able to clear obstacles. The higher the angle, the better your rig can traverse bumpy, rocky trails.
In general, a longer vehicle will have worse breakover angles, and can suffer in terms of approach and departure angles as well. Check out our Jeep off-road angles guide for some comparisons of different body styles. The wheelbase will have a large effect, as will the suspension, bumpers, and tires. A shorter wheelbase is better for off-roaders that will be taking on uneven terrain.
Some newer off-road vehicles feature technology that isn’t necessary for off-roading but can be a big help. A front-facing trail camera will help you see what you’re about to drive over. This can be useful for spotting tough-to-see obstacles. Some off-road vehicles have trail camera options, but you can also add an aftermarket trail camera if yours doesn’t have one.
Some off-road tech is specific to certain makes and models. For example, Ford’s Trail Control is like cruise control for the trail. It keeps your vehicle at a low, constant speed, allowing you to monitor and steer over obstacles.
A rare feature that the Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator offer is an electronically disconnecting sway bar. Disconnecting the sway bar lets the front tires move more independently. This means that, at low speeds, you can give your rig greater articulation without leaving the cabin to manually disconnect the bar.
Consider Modding Your Off-Road Vehicle
Most off-roaders add their own upgrades to their factory setups. Aftermarket parts can turn a decent off-roader into a great one. Some types of off-roading will require certain mods for protection or capability.
Tires are perhaps the most crucial vehicle component when it comes to off-roading. Many SUVs will come with off-road tires, but some are just all-terrain. Even worse are all-season tires, which offer very little help off-road.
Off-road tires differ from run-of-the-mill all-season tires due to their aggressive sidewalls and deeper treads. This allows them to handle contact with the ground even when deflated to lower pressures. You’ll want to air down your tires to about 15-20 PSI for off-road terrain. Whether mudding or driving through sand, this will help you get better traction.
Check out our guide to off-road tires to see which work best for the type of off-roading you want to do.
Lift kits will give your rig more ground clearance. A body lift kit will just lift the body higher, making room for larger tires. A suspension lift is more expensive but will raise everything from the frame upwards, allowing for bigger tires and increasing ground clearance.
Suspension lift kits are more popular as they allow for better articulation to get over uneven obstacles. You’ll also see better approach and departure angles.
Both body and suspension lift kits will allow you to fit larger tires, which can help you achieve a higher breakover angle.
A winch allows you to self-recover or save a buddy who’s stuck. Once you get to moderate or advanced trails, having a winch on your vehicle is an absolute must. Use tree-saver straps to safely self-recover with the aid of a large, healthy tree.
Although they aren’t mandatory, snorkels allow you to ford deeper water in your vehicle. It’s still critical to know the depth of any water you drive into. Plus, snorkels aren’t a silver bullet. You can still flood your engine if the water level is too high.
Lighting accessories, like light bars and cube lights, will let you see much more easily at night. This is great for those times you’re getting to your campsite after the sun sets. Be sure to check your state’s light bar laws to make sure you’re in compliance when driving.
Body Armor and Skid Plates
Armor is a necessity for rock-crawlers, but certain types can be beneficial for any off-roader. Underbody skid plates will protect components like your transmission or differential from damage you might encounter on the trail. From the factory, many off-road-focused vehicles will come with skid plates for their front area, fuel tank, and muffler.
Body armor will protect vulnerable body components like your vehicle’s fenders and corners. It’s more about guarding against cosmetic damage than mechanical.
Check out our Wrangler armor guide for an overview of the different kinds.
Find an Off-Roading Community
It can be nerve-wracking trying to get involved in a new community. The good news is that off-road enthusiasts are very welcoming as a whole. There are a lot of different ways to find people to meet up with in real life.
Online Off-Road Groups
Searching on Google can be a good way to find clubs. However, your best bet is usually Facebook. This is where a lot of off-road communities form. If you live in a smaller area without a local club, check your nearest large town or city. People will travel from all over to meet up for off-roading.
Meetup.com is another group-minded website that will help you find an off-road organization in your area. You might find a general group or one specific to mudding, rock crawling, or overlanding.
If you’re not quite ready for an in-person community, check out some off-road forums. These online chat boards are a great place to get started, ask questions, and talk with other off-roaders. Here are a few places to start.
Meeting People in Real Life
For a more organic method, you can simply head out to your local off-road park or trail with the plan to meet new people. The off-roading community is a friendly one that loves helping newcomers.
You can also ask friends and family if they’re interested in coming with you or if they know someone who is. It seems like almost everyone knows a person who enjoys off-roading or at least owns a 4x4.
Find Where to Go Off-Roading
Even if you’ve done your research, it can be tough to know where to go off-roading. There are tons of locations across the country that offer great options. But you can also find areas close to where you live. Wherever you go, don’t forget to tread lightly and show respect for nature. Take everything you bring with you when you leave.
Search Online Maps for Off-Road Trails and Parks
It seems simple, but head to Google Maps (or your favorite alternative) and search “off-roading.” You can find trails, off-road parks, and other places off the beaten path. Plus, you can read reviews to see what other people think of them. You’ll often find a link to an off-road park’s website, where you can find more information and even view trail maps.
National Parks & Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land
BLM areas offer millions of acres of explorable land. With a focus on conservation and recreation, these areas offer a way to really get away from civilization. They’re almost all in the western parts of the U.S. but are home to some of the best off-roading trails in the country. Be sure to follow the guidelines, stay on authorized trails, and respect the natural environment.
Many national parks also offer some off-roading trails. The website for each park will give you information on trails, hours, and safety.
Whether you have a Jeep or not, Jeep’s Badge of Honor program features a variety of trails across the U.S. that are worth checking out. From beginner to advanced level, these are some of the top off-roading areas in the country. The app is also a great social place to engage with other enthusiasts. It’s a digital community where you can learn about different locations and show off your accomplishments.
Learn Basic Off-Road Safety
While learning how to competently drive off-road can take months to master, it’s important to know the basics before you set off. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but these fundamentals should get you started.
Never Go Off-Roading Alone
If there’s one thing we want to emphasize in terms of off-road safety, it’s that you shouldn't go alone. Have a group and a spotter if you’ll be going over technical terrain. A spotter will assist you by providing guidance as to how you should steer and modulate your speed. Otherwise, you might get tripped up by unseen obstacles.
Heading out alone increases your risk of getting stuck and puts you in greater danger if you do. Like any outdoor activity, there’s safety in numbers. At the very least, if you choose to head out alone on a light trail, tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
Know How to Use a Winch
Even with proper preparation and careful driving, you still might get your rig stuck. Therefore, you need to make sure you have the equipment you need to self-recover. Check out our winching guide to learn how to get yourself out of a tight spot.
Bring Safety Gear and Personal Items
Just as important as knowing how to drive off-road is knowing what to bring. While there are certain items that make a good emergency kit for an everyday vehicle, you’ll need even more for off-roading. If you’re going to be camping with your 4x4, check out our guide to off-road camping.
Here are some examples of the basic items you’ll need. Most of these are good to have for any type of off-roading, while spare parts like an extra axle shaft are mostly needed for rock-crawling or desert racing.
|Category||Example Items and Gear|
|Personal Items||Food, water, water purification tablets, sunscreen, GPS, extra clothes, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rain jacket, cell phone, spare batteries, prescription medications, trash bags, maps, spare keys, bug repellant, freezer bags|
|Safety Items||Fire extinguisher, first aid kit, flashlights, safety glasses, gloves, flares, tarp, matches/lighter|
|Recovery Items||Front and rear recovery points (either tow hooks or D-ring shackles), tow strap, jack, recovery boards, tire iron, hi-lift jack, treesaver, come-along, shovel, winch kit, pull pal, bone saw, snow tire chains|
|Tools||Socket set, hammer, utility knife, duck tape, crescent wrench, allen wrenches, torx sockets, standard and phillips screwdrivers, pliers, vice grips, pipe wrenches, big pry bar, magnet, air pressure gauge, portable air pump, jumper cables, zip ties, ratchet straps, tire deflator|
|Spare Parts||Full-size spare tire, spare axle shaft, nuts and bolts, hoses, fuel line, coolant hoses, tire repair kit, cotter pins and keys, valve stems, valve stem remover, extra lug nuts, RTV or Hylomar HPF, radiator stop leak, spare hub, electric fuel pump, coil/electronic ignition, spare universal joints, extra spark plug wire, spare driveshaft, spare points, spare fuses|
Remember These Basic Off-Road Safety Tips
While there are many driving techniques and tips that will keep you safe on the trail, there are some basic things to keep in mind. This list provides some guidance on what not to do while operating your vehicle off-road.
- Don’t wrap your thumbs around the steering wheel (a sudden change can snap the wheel to one side)
- Don’t drive through water without knowing the depth
- Don’t drive too fast for the terrain and conditions
- Don’t use 4-Low at speeds over 25 mph
- Don’t drive beyond your vehicle or skill limits
- Don’t stick arms and legs outside the vehicle
- Don’t drive without wearing a seatbelt
- Don’t drive alone
- Don’t drive without a spotter for anything that might be even moderately tough
Now Get Out There on The Trail!
Off-roading is an inherently dangerous activity and it can be tough to know where to get started. But with proper preparation and care, you can have a great time while staying safe and keeping your vehicle in one piece.
Start by taking things easy on some basic gravel roads or light off-road trails. After gaining some experience, you’ll be well on your way to exploring more advanced trails and epic off-road locations.
Glossary of Off-Road Terms
This glossary of terms will give you a quick reference point for words and phrases you might see mentioned in the off-road community.
- 4WD - Four-wheel drive (4WD or 4x4) is rarer and more robust than AWD. It allows all four wheels to be locked together and receive the same amount of power at all times.
- All-Wheel Drive (AWD) - A drive system that automatically distributes different amounts of power to all four wheels. While the computer will allocate torque as needed, the axles generally cannot lock as a 4WD vehicle can.
- Approach Angle - The angle between the ground and the lowest point on the front of a vehicle. It determines how steep of an obstacle the vehicle can ascend.
- Articulation - The upwards or downwards movement of one side of a solid axle. By tilting to the left or right, a vehicle is able to better drive over uneven terrain and obstacles.
- Bead-Lock Wheels - Special off-road wheels that use inner and outer rings to clamp the tire bead in place. They keep the tire from sliding off the wheel even at very low air pressure.
- Breakover Angle - The angle between the ground and the lowest point on the middle of a vehicle. It determines how steep of an obstacle the vehicle can travel over.
- D-Ring Shackle - The most popular type of attaching point for a winch hook, allowing recovery of a stuck vehicle. They’re typically located on at least the front bumper.
- Departure Angle - The angle between the ground and the lowest point on the rear of a vehicle. It determines how steep of an obstacle the vehicle can descend.
- Fairlead - The part of a winch that guides the cable as it is reeled in or out.
- Lift Kit - There are two primary types of lift kits. A suspension lift is used to increase ground clearance and make room for larger tires. A body lift kit is less expensive and will allow for larger tires, but won’t increase clearance. Note that a lift kit will not raise the lowest points on a vehicle, the differentials. However, larger tires will raise all of the underbody.
- Limited Slip Differential (LSD) - A mechanical device that prevents uneven wheel slip. It can transfer some, but not 100%, of torque to a wheel that needs extra traction.
- Locking Differential - Also called a locker, this device locks the left and right wheel of an axle together at the same speed. Used only at low speeds, this ensures that each is getting the same amount of torque. A center locking differential is similar, but distributes even torque to the front and rear axles.
- Mudding - Off-roading through deep mud with various amounts of dirt and water.
- Rock Crawling - Low-speed off-roading over rocky, uneven terrain. Typically requires lots of articulation and technical ability.
- Self-Recovery - Using a winch attached to an anchor, such as a tree, to pull one’s own vehicle out of a stuck position.
- Skid Plate - A protective plate under the vehicle that guards components, such as the transmission, from being damaged by terrain and debris.
- Snatch Block - A pulley that effectively doubles the pulling capacity of a winch, and allows you to safely double back a winch during self-recovery.
- Snorkel - A tube that connects the engine intake to the outside air, well above the hood. This allows a vehicle to ford deeper water than a stock vehicle (though the risk of flooding the engine is still an important consideration).
- Tire Deflator - Used to reduce tire air pressure when airing down your tires to go off-road.
- Traction Control - A computer-controlled system that mitigates wheel slip to prevent skidding. In some off-road situations, you’ll want to turn it off.
- Vehicle Recovery - The act of safely getting a stuck vehicle back onto terrain where it is able to drive under its own power. This can include self-recovery using an anchor, or attaching a stuck vehicle to another vehicle’s winch.
- Wheelbase - The distance between the front and rear wheels of a vehicle. A shorter wheelbase makes it easier to crawl over uneven obstacles due to a higher breakover angle.
- Winch - A powered cable that can be hooked to an object or another vehicle for the purpose of getting unstuck.