The Do's and Don'ts of Off-roading
JOSEPH A. ZUMWALT
Defense Contract Management Agency
I was a young buck sergeant at Fort Irwin, California, when I purchased my first four-wheel-drive vehicle, a 1986 Chevy Blazer. The Blazer had a 10-inch lift kit and I was running 39-inch mud tires. I thought it was the greatest truck in the world. I felt invincible behind the wheel. After all, I now owned a monster truck and could go anywhere.
Three weeks after I bought the Blazer I decided to take it rock crawling in the hills just outside the installation. I didn’t do any planning or coordination — I just hopped into my truck and headed out. I turned onto the first dirt road I found because it looked like a good place to start. At first, it was easy; just small rocks and flat terrain. As I got farther down the road, the rocks got bigger and I encountered some challenging hills.
I was having a great time when I came upon a washed-out creek bed full of large boulders and loose rocks. While the climb was steep and scary, I decided nothing was going to stop me. I hit the gas and made it about two-thirds of the way up before I had to slow down for a big rock. My experience was limited to what I had seen on TV. That told me I’d need to give the engine plenty of gas to get over the rock, so I floored the pedal and hit the rock with a bit of speed.
Upon contact, my truck’s front end jumped up and cleared the rock. Unfortunately, when it came down, my truck’s driveline slammed down hard onto the rock and, in a split second, my transmission and transfer case exploded into pieces! I shut down the truck immediately as a thousand “what-do-I-do-now?” thoughts went through my head. I was alone in the mountains, unsure how I was going to get out of the mess I was in, but, ultimately, I did.
It’s now 14 years later and I often think of my accident when I see young Soldiers driving lifted jeeps and trucks. I wonder if anybody has taught them the do’s and don’ts of off-roading. I wonder if their trucks are up to the challenge and pray they won’t get stuck like I did. I did many things wrong that day and had to learn the hard way. So you can save yourself the grief I went through, here’s a list of things to consider before you go off-roading.Don’t
- Go off-roading alone. Always go with a group, preferably accompanied by as many trucks as possible. If you get stuck, you’ll have someone to help you.
- Assume your truck is indestructible. What you don’t see on TV are the pit crews standing by in case anything breaks.
- Head into the hills without a map or planning where you are going. Exploring is fun, but doing it blindly is stupid.
- Make vehicle modifications unless you are qualified and know you can do them safely.
- As a minimum, carry water, food and a first aid kit along with a sleeping bag and emergency flares.
- Carry tools and spare parts for things that commonly break.
- Carry a GPS navigation aid along with maps and a reliable way to communicate. In the hills, cellphones often don’t work, so a CB radio can be a great backup.
- Join a local off-roading club and learn from their experiences. Chances are they have done everything you want to do and can help you learn safely.
- Tell somebody where you are going. Show them on a map and let them know when you expect to be back.
- Ensure you have safety equipment such as a fire extinguisher, roll cage and functional seat belts.
- Assume something could go wrong and have a plan in place to work through it.
In my case, everything worked out well in the end. I was lucky and made it out with a bruised ego and an expensive repair bill. However, it could have been much worse. I could have rolled down that hill, gotten lost in the backcountry or succumbed to a heat-related injury or other hazard I hadn’t considered. Worst of all, I went out alone without letting anyone know where I was going. Had something bad happened, it would have been days — if ever — before anybody found me.
Off-roading should be fun, not fatal. If you apply the do’s and don’ts I listed, you’ll be laying a good foundation for safely enjoying your sport.