Beginners Guide to Off-roading and Camping

You want to take your new 4×4 off-roading for the first time, but have no idea of how, what you will need, what your truck is capable of, or even how to work some features of the vehicle.

What tires are best for the terrain? What vocabulary do you need to know? What’s the difference between 4×4 high and low? What’s a diff lock? Should you cut your teeth on general off-roading or go straight to the mud? What do I do with my thumbs to prevent breaking them? Can I get competitive with off-roading when I get better? Strap in and get ready to dig yourself out with answers to these questions and more.

The lingo
Some of the basics come down to knowing the vocabulary of off-roading, mostly tied to parts of your vehicle.

4×4 High vs. Low

Also referred to as 4WD High and Low, this refers to the gear ratio of your 4 wheel drive. High is day-to-day driving, and allows for a higher top speed. This is great for keeping momentum on trails. But when you need torque, go into 4×4 Low. While this gives a lower top speed, it’s better for rock crawling or when you get stuck.

Locking Differential

A “diff lock” governs wheel turn speed. Normally, the wheels turn at different speeds to compensate for terrain. The car’s computer will automatically make adjustments. While older cars have to be manually locked, modern cars simply need the push of a button to activate the lockers. And with that, the wheels will turn at the same speed. This is important when you are stuck, as the computer will give more power to the wheel encountering the least resistance – making the problem worse.

Traction control

Your car will likely have traction control – either an on/off setting, or more complex settings for different terrains. This helps limit wheel slip. Be sure to check your vehicle’s manual for more information.

There’s certain off-roading equipment you will want to take with you on the average off-road adventure.

A full gas tank. If possible, have a Jerry can with extra fuel, just in case.
Spare water for the radiator
Fire extinguishers
A high-lift jack
A shovel
A portable air compressor.
A spare tire, and tools to change tires.
Tow rope, rated for your vehicles weight.
First aid kit.
Phone and two-way radio for your companions
There’s also equipment for your car itself.

There are specific tires for specific terrain. For example, these Cooper tires are designed for traction while wet, while still being able to take on rocks. Perfect, in other words, for off-roading in the mud.
A winch. Combine with a tow rope, and watch a vehicle get itself out of the muck. Go for quality over a cheap winch, lest it break when you need it.
Much like the winch, a cheap body lift kit is a disservice to your vehicle. Shock absorbers are needed for traversing rocks, while suspension helps fight against the weight of any supplies you may have – especially if you are camping.
An aftermarket bumper will protect your car from rocks, trees, and other off-road obstacles.
If you are near water – deep enough to get water in the air intake – you need a snorkel. Just a couple pumps of water into the engine can ruin it. The snorkel moves the air intake to the top of the car.
Beginner terrain tips
Dry ground

For dry ground, you need only good tires and knowledge of the route. Pre-planning and research is essential – know what you are getting yourself into. You can often find trails meant for off-roading in state and national parks.


It’s best to take on mud with tires meant to tackle slick situations. Your inclination might be to gun the throttle in mud, but this will only make your situation worse. Here’s how to get unstuck: Reduce tire pressure to 20 psi – this allows for more traction. Turn traction control off, and put the car in 4×4 High. If possible, choose a higher gear.


Sand dunes means shifting to 4×4 low. However, if you get stuck, change into 4×4 high, just like in the mud. Maximizing horsepower is the name of the game. Otherwise, keep your momentum going as much as possible.

A few more general considerations: Keep your thumbs on the outside of the steering wheel. Newer cars have damper boxes to prevent “whip,” but older cars might find the wheel suddenly spinning from the terrain.

Use your left foot to break. This can save you seconds – very valuable in getting timing right to get out of a rut – and allows you to apply power more evenly.

Stay comfortable and relaxed. Don’t panic, or you could make the situation worse.

Moving to intermediate
Ready to take off-roading to the next level? Join an event, like the Jeepers Jamboree on the Rubicon Trail (open to all 4x4s, not just Jeeps). Or, if you are comfortable in mud, try your hand at mudding, which makes off-roading a competition. Just be sure to do your research, be safe, and have fun!

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