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Safety Off-Road Is No Accident! Safety Off-Road Is No Accident!
Editor’s Note: Special segment provided by our good friend, Tom Severin. After nearly three months of living in near seclusion, many four-wheelers are anxious... Safety Off-Road Is No Accident!

Editor’s Note: Special segment provided by our good friend, Tom Severin.

After nearly three months of living in near seclusion, many four-wheelers are anxious to get back on the trails. But this gap in 4WD activity may have caused more than just automobile parts to go rusty. It’s possible that various safety skills need to be jump started to bring the brain up to full voltage.

No standing on or hanging on the vehicle while it is moving.


This is a good time to tune up our off-road safety measures. A lapse in safety while four-wheeling can put you on a collision course with dire consequences.

The following list will help you turbo charge your memory. But you must put these concepts in gear. Study this list, and consider any other suggestions that might help you. In-depth instructions and guidance are available through my website and classes, among other resources.

Important safety tips for 4WD activities

Safety is involved in every aspect of four-wheeling. Review these instructions carefully or end up as road kill.

Driving fundamentals: Keep arms and legs inside. Wear seat belts whenever the vehicle is in motion. No standing on or hanging on the vehicle while it is moving. “Watch, Mom, no hands” is inappropriate.  And never drink alcohol before and during drive times. “Fill ‘er up” doesn’t apply to you.

How could this happen on a hill with a well graded road? Poor driving skills!


Driving skills: Don’t attempt terrain beyond your skill set. Understand your vehicle’s limitations, and quit if you become fatigued. Your judgments, decisions and execution have greater impact off-road than you can imagine. If you are lucky the only skid marks will be on your seat. Drive slowly enough to keep all four wheels on the ground.

Jacking: Never crawl underneath a raised vehicle supported only by a jack. Always use a safety jack or other sturdy object – even a wheel with a tire on it will do. Before jacking, make sure that the vehicle can’t move. Use the jack properly, and keep your hands and fingers (and even body) out of harm’s way. Be extra careful when jacking on sand.

If using a Hi-Lift jack: Lift as closely as possible to the tire you want to get off the ground. If you lift in the middle of either bumper, the vehicle is likely to tip to one side. Vehicles today don’t have notches in the frame for a jack. So latch onto the bumper as close as possible to the affected wheel.

The base on a Hi-Lift jack is pretty small. That makes it challenging to lift on uneven surfaces. You may want to purchase a safety kit that includes an extra-wide base. A wide piece of wood will work.

If using an X jack: Watch for sharp edges of the body or frame, and keep the bag away from the exhaust pipe. The hotter exhaust caused by running at a higher RPM can easily melt the hose. If you have a compressor, use that instead.

Winching: Inspect all parts and lines while the system is under light tension. Make sure lines aren’t binding or twisted. Put a parachute on the line. Check all connections and adjust as needed. If everything looks good, you can power up and proceed with the recovery.

Lots of issues – strap is frayed and ball hitch is high risk of breaking and sending a cannon ball at you.


Position spotters to watch the lines and pulley. (They should stand off to the sides of the vehicle.) Winch slowly, and pay attention to portions of cables nearest the vehicles. Watch for any binding, rubbing or twisting. Make sure that the vehicle being recovered is behaving properly. You may need to stop the winching and adjust the whole arrangement.

Wash hands before preparing or eating dinner. The pandemic has driven the stock on the wishy washer to zero.


Food prep, refrigeration, cooking: The same principles apply off-road as at home. Keep all perishables chilled or frozen until ready to prepare. Cook food thoroughly, and properly chill all leftovers.

Store food securely at night and while away. You don’t need any bears, raccoons or other wildlife causing mayhem in your campsite. And potentially harming you or your guests.

Campfires and smoking: Build campfires away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, logs, dry grass, and leaves. Pile any extra wood away from the fires. Clear an area at least 10 feet in diameter of the fire pit.

Have plenty of water on hand and a shovel for throwing dirt on the fire if it gets out of control.

Keep the campfire small. A good bed of coals or a small fire surrounded by rocks gives plenty of heat. Never leave a campfire unattended.  Even a small breeze could quickly cause the fire to spread.

Drown the fire with water, making sure all embers, coals and sticks are wet. If you do not have water, use dirt. Add dirt or sand and stir until all material is cool to the touch.

Smoking: When smoking is permitted outdoors, safe practices require at least a three-foot clearing around the smoker. Extinguish your cigarette, cigar, or pipe tobacco in the dirt. Never grind it on a stump or log. Use your ashtray while in your car.

Environmental issues:
Floods and swollen creeks: Resist the temptation to plow through. That water can be deceptively strong. Water only two feet deep can float your vehicle. Your wheels may still be touching, but you won’t have good traction.

Be careful while hiking, too. Six inches of fast-moving water can knock you off your feet. If you can’t wade through, don’t try driving through. Remember this maxim: Turn Around. Don’t Drown.

Chollas are to be avoided at all cost.


Plants: Needless to say, you should avoid cacti everywhere. (And in the spirit of Tread Lightly, don’t disturb any plants or wildlife.) Chollas are particularly nasty. The needles can easily poke through clothing and skin. Jumping Chollas are to be avoided at all cost. The bottom line: When in the desert, take in the beauty and serenity of your surroundings, but keep the plants at a safe social distance.

Know what kinds of animals and other wildlife inhabit the area. Watch for dangerous ones, like snakes, spiders and scorpions. But because any wild animal can carry rabies, stay clear of all.

  1. Extreme heat and cold. Before departing, make sure you know the area well and its weather forecast. Reconsider your plans and consider a different location. Never head for an area without first checking the conditions and forecast.

Heat: Know how to read symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and what to do. Have plenty of water on hand.

Cold: The most important factor is to stay warm and dry. Frostbite and hypothermia aren’t just annoyances. They can be killers.

Needless to say, you’ll need warm clothing and lots of it. Select clothing that wicks out sweat yet keeps you warm. Damp clothing can chill you quickly and bring on hypothermia.

Layer your clothing during the day. Make sure there’s some give, though. If you feel constricted, the fabric will be packed so tightly that it’ll lose some insulating ability.

Having extra clothing also ensures that you can change into dry stuff at the end of the day.

  1. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Mild AMS occurs when the body experiences thinner air without the chance to acclimate. The brief time spent at elevation doesn’t give your blood time to build up a sufficient supply of extra red blood cells to offset the reduction in oxygen. Symptoms tend to mimic a hangover: headache, fatigue, sluggishness, insomnia, lack of appetite and nausea.

Consider moving to a lower elevation if the symptoms don’t dissipate within an hour or two.

Whew. There was a lot of material to sift through. Four-wheeling, like many hobbies, has its inherent risks. But knowing how to respond allows you to more fully enjoy those valuable times off road. Don’t be a dipstick! Brush up these safety measures, and get ready to hit the trails.

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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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