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Four-Wheeling Requires Commitment and Sound Judgement Decision Making Four-Wheeling Requires Commitment and Sound Judgement Decision Making
Four-wheeling entails constant alertness and decision-making. Even easier courses require the driver to be focused at all times. Any sort of obstacle increases the... Four-Wheeling Requires Commitment and Sound Judgement Decision Making

Four-wheeling entails constant alertness and decision-making. Even easier courses require the driver to be focused at all times. Any sort of obstacle increases the decision-making process exponentially.

Certain situations require knowing when to throttle up and when to back off to try again. Every instance is unique and requires sound judgment and strategy. Not only do you determine the best route, but also for possible effects on tires, drive train, and other parts.


Several years ago, I was with a group driving at 10,000 feet in Coyote flats. At one point we struggled to get through a snow drift. One driver turned on his lockers in an attempt to claw through the snow. He was mostly just spinning his tires when at one point he hit a dry spot. One wheel stopped suddenly, and an axle snapped. Normally, a dry surface would be welcome. In this case, it spelled disaster for an axle.

A similar issue can occur on a rocky course such as Cougar Buttes in Johnson Valley. While climbing over an obstacle, one wheel may come off the ground. Because the engine is under power, that wheel is spinning. As the front-end drops, the wheel suddenly grabs on rock. That 70–80-pound object throws a tremendous amount of torque into the drive train. All that energy gets transferred inward, and something has to break.

Know what to do before encountering that situation, then act decisively.

Commit, then follow through.

There are times when you need to keep going; get through the challenge.

But don’t just jump on the accelerator. Instead, take a slow, methodical approach. And once committed to a strategy, stay with it.

Negotiating rocks and boulders, in particular, requires a good strategy. Approach carefully, pick your line, and commit to the attack. You may need to rethink the situation partway through, but once started, stay the course.

Hesitating can cause the vehicle to lose traction and get stuck. (Hesitating to me is letting off the throttle, then trying some power to see what happens.) It’s better to maintain steady power.

If you’re tentative and don’t have enough throttle to begin with, adding throttle at the wrong time can put the vehicle in a perilous situation. One or more wheels could be spinning.

Easing off the power may necessitate a lot more power to get going. You might end up just sitting there spinning your tires. Be aggressive, and commit to the strategy. Apply some throttle, and stay on it until they get on top.

What causes this hesitation? Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of big boulders and the trail ahead when it can’t be seen. A good spotter will help you through, however.

What to do if stuck

Being stuck – or nearly stuck – isn’t pleasant. A natural inclination is to hit the gas. Just kick the accelerator, the thinking goes, and the vehicle will zip out.

If only it were that simple.

Throttling up in a situation like that often merely results in spinning tires. And if those tires suddenly bite on dry land or come down on a hard surface, something is likely to break.

True, sometimes punching the accelerator does work. And that just adds to a driver’s confidence, as misplaced as it is. It’s not a great strategy, though. More often than not, bad things happen.

Patience is a virtue, as the old saying goes, and it’s invaluable off-road.

When stuck, try backing out to a previous portion of the trail, get out and look. Change the angle of approach, either left or right. Gently move forward to overcome the issue.

If the vehicle is still stuck, engage the lockers and repeat the above steps. Gently!

If that doesn’t work, get a strap, and have someone pull you out. There is no shame. It is a sign of maturity.

No need to strut your stuff

Four-wheeling – at least the kind I promote – isn’t a contest. We’re not out to see who’s the “baddest dude” out there. When encountering a difficult section, think it through. That usually entails picking an easier line or strategy. Drivers don’t get extra points for choosing the most challenging route or trying to power out on their own. There’s no shame in picking a better line or asking for help. The trail is hard enough. Don’t add unnecessary burden.

Always use a seat belt

Safety is paramount throughout a four-wheeling expedition. Most people understand that. Yet something as basic as using seat belts can be ignored. Certain drivers feel seat belts aren’t as relevant considering the speeds used on most trails. Seat belts save lives – on the trails, too. Buckle up before you move!

After driving the Rubicon one day, a vehicle pulled into a campsite. Not fully satisfied with their location, the occupants decided to reposition their vehicle. While backing up in the dark, the driver misjudged the distance to the  edge, and went rolling down the cliff. One occupant was belted in. He survived. The other was not, and died at the scene.

Bottom line: Make sure your seat belt is fastened when the vehicle is in motion.

It’s all about strategy and commitment

Successful four-wheeling entails a host of skills. Those can be learned over time. One of the more important skills is a sense of judgment: Knowing what to do in a particular situation. But once a decision is made, it’s crucial to commit and follow through. Holding back or being tentative can cause a vehicle to get stuck (or worse) when it might not otherwise have done so.

Go four-wheeling as often as you can, and take on challenging courses. Those are great training and proving grounds.


Tom Severin

Tom Severin is an International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers Association© certified professional 4WD Trainer and a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), and President, Badlands Off Road Adventures.

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