Every four-wheeling excursion involves some preparation. Even individual components of the trip can require careful planning to ensure a smooth drive.
This is especially true when negotiating hills. Whether climbing or descending, knowing how to handle certain situations can mean the difference between continuing on and getting stuck.
Before tackling a hill – or any obstacle, for that matter – know what your contingency plan is if you’re unable to accomplish the goal.
Many times, the initial reaction to a challenge – the instinctive behavior – is wrong. Four-wheelers need to be taught new skills that help them overcome difficulties off-road. Techniques used on city streets aren’t always effective on the trails.
Your first instinct or reaction can be very wrong. You need to learn new behaviors and responses. Much like habits, a correct quick initial response is hard to accomplish. To overcome a lifetime of behavior, plan your contingency driving skill in advance of tackling an obstacle. The reaction skill will be fresh in your mind and allow you to quickly and correctly react to the problem.
In extreme situations, I have been known to talk to myself all the way through the difficulty: “Tom don’t hit the brakes. Tom don’t hit the brakes.” Or, “Power up, power up, power up …”
If sliding while climbing a hill, “walk the front end”
Picture this: You get part way up a hill and hit a soft spot. The vehicle starts to slide; the wheels are just spinning. What would you do? Many drivers simply pour on the power, hoping they’ll eventually pull out.
The contingency is to “walk the front end.”
Walking the front end involves turning the wheels quickly from left to right with power on. Turning the steering wheel ¼ turn (90 degrees) produces the desired angle in the wheels.
With your hands at the 9:00/3:00 positions, turn sharply one direction ¼ turn (one fist over the other), then come back around to the same degree in the other direction. Do this repeatedly, and the vehicle will start to crawl forward.
Don’t make more than a ¼ turn on the steering wheel, or you risk going off the edge of the trail. Turn as fast as you can do it when you have big wheels under power.
This change in direction results in a different attack angle for the tires. The tires have a chance to bite into firmer soil, providing more traction.
Repeat the back-and-forth motion as needed to climb the hill.
Here’s what’s important: You have to start this technique while you’re still moving – just as the slide occurs. And to ensure you’ll react quickly, tell yourself in advance (while still at the bottom of the hill) that you will use this technique once you realize you’re losing traction.
Let’s say there’s a soft spot about ¾ of the way up a hill. Figuring you’ll probably lose traction there, tell yourself, “If that happens, I’m going to start walking the front end.” Ingrain it in your brain. Then the action becomes nearly automatic. When you hit that spot and start sliding, you’ll instinctively start walking the front end.
This contingency action has to be automatic. If you wait too long to use it, you’ll lose all forward momentum.
Incidentally, this technique works while driving through mud and snow.
How to handle a slide while backing down hill.
Backing down a hill is never easy, even on a straight trail. Add in curves, boulders, and soft spots, and the task is really challenging. But sometimes it’s necessary.
The first step is to get out and recon. Gain a good understanding of as much of the trail as possible. Consider using a spotter, but make sure that person is never in a dangerous position.
Let’s review one scenario and how to safely correct for it.
A vehicle hit a soft spot and slid to the right. Its right rear wheel is off the trail but the front wheels are still on the trail. To correct, turn left (“turn driver”), and continue backing slowly. The clockwise motion of the vehicle will eventually bring the rear wheel back onto the trail.
But don’t overdo this step. Go too far, and you could drive the right front wheel off the trail as well. It’s a balancing act. A spotter could help you inch your way through this process.
Even with this action, the vehicle may not move properly. The trail edge may be too soft to do much. The solution is to pull forward one or two vehicle lengths. Get straightened out, and start back down the hill again.
Failing that, consider leaving the trail and backing down the fall line of the hill as a last resort. This is only an option if there are no cliffs, trees, or big rocks on the fall line path.
How to handle a slide while going downhill.
Safety is a top priority here. Whenever approaching a downhill section of trail, don’t commit to a route without thorough reconning. Take in as much of the trail as possible, and plan as far in advance as possible. Look for any portions of the trail that could cause problems.
Know that the vehicle could slide if it hits a soft spot. When that happens, the contingency is to power up a little at the beginning of the slide. Let your foot off the brake and add power. Because the vehicle is in 4WD, the front wheels should pull the vehicle out of a slide. This skill is particularly important on sand dunes.
Once you straighten out, you can resume controlling. Apply some brake to slow down as you near the bottom. Feed the brakes in slowly. Just don’t jam on the brakes. Remember that your brakes are biased to the front and if you stop the front wheels you lose steering.
How to prevent a rollover when on a side hill
Most people are very uncomfortable when the vehicle needs to traverse a side hill. However, if you have good traction and go slowly, most vehicles will handle up to a 30-degree side hill safely. A wider vehicle like the Hummer H1 can handle even more.
If you misjudge the angle of the slope, start sliding down, or encounter a sudden change in the angle (a hole on the downside or a rock on the high side), your immediate reaction is to turn downhill and give the accelerator a quick jab to help straighten out on the fall line. Then start applying steady braking to slow the vehicle and regain control, hopefully before you hit the bottom.
Try to hit the bottom with your wheels straight, if you still have too much momentum. Just know, you (or someone) can repair a broken axle. But if you roll the vehicle, that someone may not be able to fix the vehicle or fix you.
Driving off-road requires learning new skills and developing contingency plans for various scenarios. All this can be learned. That’s why it’s important to get out and challenge yourself.
Study the trail ahead, looking for soft spots. Based upon your trajectory – up, down, or going straight – formulate a contingency plan. Commit that plan to memory so when the vehicle starts to slide, you respond quickly and expertly.