Spring is in the air, and everyone’s anxious to get out. (Though we in the West have been out for a while.) But four-wheelers everywhere are eager to get the 2022 season underway.
Besides making sure your vehicle is ready for off-road use, it’s important to review some of the environmental and safety issues present at this time of year.
Beware of sudden weather changes
April is sort of a transition month as far as weather is concerned. Rain is common, of course, with violent storms and tornadoes also possible. It’s also possible to encounter snow or a combination of rain and snow.
Some of those storms can be heavy – and strike in a hurry.
Check the latest forecast for the area you’ll be visiting. Monitor NOAA weather channel(s) for important alerts. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) broadcasts weather information continuously over seven VHF frequencies. Which frequency to monitor depends on where you’ll be. Search for the appropriate frequency(ies) on the NOAA website at: https://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/coverage/station_listing.html
Watch for high water and flash floods
Flash flooding can occur nearly anywhere, including the desert. The dry terrain, baked hard over months of punishing sunshine, can’t absorb water well. Even a light rain can cause problems. A heavy rain can cause a torrent of water to rush through a previously dry stream bed.
Four-wheelers, accustomed to driving in tough conditions, figure they can just plow through high water. Don’t even think about it. Water only two feet deep can float your vehicle. Your wheels may still be touching, but you won’t have good traction. Remember these powerful words when you encounter rushing water: Turn Around. Don’t Drown.
Simply put, avoid all fast-moving water. Even if the water isn’t deep, your vehicle could get stuck in the muddy stream bed.
You may also encounter snow runoff. This is caused by snow melting on a patch of otherwise dry trail; the result is a mud puddle. Simply drive through. Your vehicle may get muddy but should be OK.
Driving off trail tears up the terrain
When encountering mud puddles and muddy sections, some people drive along the edge to keep their vehicles from getting dirty. Avoid that temptation. Driving off the trail – anywhere – destroys nearby vegetation. The ground is really soft and chews up easily.
Other drivers acting the same way cause the patch to get wider and wider, sometimes causing permanent damage. Stay on the trail and drive through the water. You can clean your vehicle later.
Prevent the spread of invasive species
Four-wheelers who travel great distances potentially can introduce plants in areas where they are not native. Assume that the dirt and mud collecting in tire treads and elsewhere contain seeds. Driving to a new location without proper cleaning could spread those seeds. They may not have been invasive where you were, but they might be where you end up.
This is another reason to always stay on established trails. Those trails are so firmly packed down, any seed dropping off is likely to die. But driving on soft, damp soil will allow those seeds to take root.
Once home, clean the vehicle as best you can, but consider taking it to a car wash for a thorough cleaning.
Watercraft can spread invasive species, too
Kayaking and canoeing are exciting ways to augment a four-wheeling expedition. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, those pastimes can spread aquatic invasives.
Once the invasive species becomes established, it’s practically impossible to eradicate. The best course of action is prevention.
Remember this boating mantra: Clean, drain and dry. Even small craft like canoes and kayaks can spread invasives if not cleaned properly after every use.
Clean up spilled fluids thoroughly
Engine oil, transmission oil, gear oil, brake fluid and radiator fluid have a devastating effect on the environment and wildlife. Radiator fluid is particularly hazardous, as its sweet taste makes it attractive to mammals.
I highly recommend you switch to a propylene-based radiator fluid like Sierra brand. If by chance you spill some and don’t clean it up thoroughly, there’s less of a risk to native animals.
Planning and preparation are key. Essential cleanup items include a plastic container with a tight lid (Tupperware products work nicely), kitty litter, paper towels or rags, and a shovel. You probably already have paper or plastic cups in your vehicle. If not, grab some.
High-tech absorbents and wipes are available for large oil spill situations and to wipe down hard surfaces. You may want to pick up some to help with those problems.
A well-maintained vehicle is less likely to leak. But if a spill occurs, clean it up thoroughly.
Watch for animals and insects
Animals and insects become quite active in springtime. Some mammals give birth at this time; stay clear of any young ones you come across. Birds tend to breed and lay eggs in spring, so watch for nests. Turkeys nest on the ground, which makes them vulnerable.
We shouldn’t be harassing animals in the first place. But springtime is a particularly bad time.
Rattlesnakes are rather common in the West and Southwest. Four-wheelers should be particularly alert for the Mojave Green rattlesnake. For the most part it won’t be an issue while you’re in the vehicle. Most snakes will retreat. Mojave Green will not, but they will make noise.
If you’re walking, make some noise so snakes and other critters know you’re there. Wear good boots and gloves while hiking.
Insects are more of an issue as we get into summer. Watch for ticks as they can spread Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and other diseases. Wear proper clothing and inspect yourself after walking in grassy or bushy areas.
Though ticks are most common in wooded areas and fields, they can be found in the desert. I got some on me while walking on day through a bushy section near Rock Springs on the Old Mojave Road.
With the woods and fields coming alive, springtime is a great time to be outdoors. Four-wheeling allows you to experience Mother Nature’s awaking phase up close and personal.
Get out there and enjoy some quality time on the trails. But do so responsibly. Stay on the trails and respect the plants and animals that surround you.