Beginning 4-Wheel Drive Mistakes

We were cruising the dunes in Ocotillo Wells, California. It was a nice sunny day with great visibility. Though the area is mostly dunes, it is possible to encounter long stretches of level sand. From a distance such an area appears featureless. But looks can be deceiving.

The lead driver stopped on a level area. The second driver, probably 200 yards back, raced to meet him. Traveling about 6 or 8 feet to the right of the lead vehicle’s track, the second driver assumed the terrain remained the same.

Suddenly he arrived at a small cliff. Unable to stop, he launched off about a 4-foot cliff. The flat terrain merged with the visual horizon, and he never saw the cliff until it was too late.

That driver, who had several years of four-wheeling experience, made a rookie mistake. Two rookie mistakes, actually.

He was driving too fast and he didn’t recon the area.  He just took for granted that the terrain was level and featureless the entire way. He hadn’t counted on a drop off just a short distance to the right of the path the lead vehicle took.

This driver suffered only a bruised ego. But it could’ve been worse. As a four-wheeler, you must be on constant alert. And recon, recon, recon.

4WD mistakes to avoid

I have listed a few of the issues 4-wheelers have as they start to learn to drive off-road.

Throttle control:  One of the first issues for new drivers is to train your right leg to maintain a nice, steady throttle. When in 4 Low the engine delivers a lot of power. Pushing hard on the accelerator just like you do on the street causes the vehicle to jump. Realizing it was too much you ease up, and the vehicle settles down quickly, creating a hopping motion. If questioned about it, blame it on the rough terrain causing your foot to bounce on the accelerator.

Tire placement: The next thing new drivers need to master is placing your front tires exactly where you planned when you no longer can see the obstacle. Remember that there is a significant blind spot “ anywhere from 15 to 20 feet “ in front of your vehicle. Approaching an obstacle, you line up your front tires. Eventually that obstacle is in your blind spot. Are your tires still lined up? (The right tire can be particularly difficult to judge.) Practice this maneuver by picking out a small rock. Did you drive over the rock?

A student of mine took this idea to heart. One late night on a long drive on a lonely highway in Kanas he thought the lane markers Bott’s dots would be good practice and would stave off boredom. After explaining the concept to the cop he was spared a lecture and ticket.

More power when stuck: It is easy when first starting to drive off-road, to assume if you are not moving forward, you must not have enough power and you push down hard on the accelerator.

  • If you’re going uphill and not moving forward, there are a couple things that could happen by adding power:
    1. The wheels are spinning and the vehicle drifts off the trail. Where you end up is uncertain. You could drift right off the side of the hill. And you are digging holes that make it more difficult going up next time.
    2. If you’re using heavy throttle but not drifting, the vehicle front end might start jumping up and down in place. Every time those big wheels come down and hit the dirt, they send a shock wave through the drive train. So much torque is delivered when those wheels touch the ground, you could break an axle or tear a drive shaft off the pinion.
  • If you’re stuck in rocks, it could be that a wheel is trapped. Continuing to use throttle will break axles. You can try backing out, but use a light throttle and finesse. Turn on your lockers for more traction. If that doesn’t do it, use a strap or winch to get unstuck. Protect your vehicle and its drive train.

Insufficient reconnoitering: Four-wheelers tend not to do enough reconnoitering, in my opinion. By examining the terrain, you can avoid mistakes like hitting an obstacle, getting in a jam, or driving over an edge.

Get out of your vehicle and survey the area. You may have to walk up the hill to see if there’s something on the other side. When traveling downhill, stop and walk down the trail. Look back at the slope you want to come down. There might be a drop off on one side that you can’t see from the top.

Many times, just standing up by the driver’s door is sufficient.

Following too closely: If you follow too closely, the terrain immediately behind the vehicle in front of you is in your blind spot. You won’t see the obstacle yourself. You will not be able to formulate a plan, pick the best line, and visualize the obstacle as it moves under your vehicle.

Stay back far enough to see well but close enough to observe the other driver’s actions. Watching another vehicle may give you clues of what to do or not to do.

Fatigue and overconfidence: Do you know when most of the accidents occur off road? It’s late afternoon. The cause is fatigue. Drivers just aren’t as sharp as they were in the morning.

Another possibility is overconfidence. When a trip is going well, drivers tend to push on. They’re looking ahead to camp. At some point their concentration falters and mistakes occur. If your route is a particularly stressful one, arrange for a break in the early afternoon. Give your mind and body a rest before embarking on the final leg.

Sticking a hand out the window: The obvious reason is so you don’t break a wrist or arm on a nearby branch.

Another reason is not so obvious. Picture this: A vehicle is driving through a narrow canyon. It starts to climb a small ledge, causing the vehicle to tilt slightly to the left. The driver puts her hand out the window, thinking she’d keep the vehicle upright. It was purely an instinctive move, much like throwing your hands out when you’re about to fall. One little bounce, though, and her hand would’ve hit the canyon wall.

Hands and arms should always be inside the vehicle. That goes for drivers and passengers.

Getting caught up in the moment ( testosterone poisoning): There’s a challenging spot in the trail up ahead. Drivers have attempted to negotiate it and failed. You’re determined to make it through the mud pit or up the hill. You’re caught up in the moment. You hit the throttle, hoping momentum will carry you through. Maybe it does. But sometimes it won’t.

Going fast you don’t have much time to react. And you don’t have the control over the vehicle you should. Next time you might hit those rocks or go sailing over the edge you couldn’t see. Check the ego, and drive smart.

Hanging on the vehicle while attempting an extraction: Dangerous. It’s too easy for someone to fall off or get stuck underneath if the vehicle is bouncing or moving. Some people think that added weight helps the situation. It doesn’t. Worse, it puts those lives at risk.

There are methods to safely free up a vehicle. Whatever is employed “ winch, recovery strap or jacks “ make sure bystanders stay clear of the vehicles and equipment involved.

Standing too close to vehicle when spotting: The obvious concern is getting hit by the vehicle. Also be mindful of boulders, trees or canyon walls nearby. Position yourself so you can provide valuable hand signals, but don’t get pinned between the vehicle and an obstacle.

A manual transmission adds another challenge. Moving slowly is difficult as the driver has to maintain a minimum speed to avoid stalling. If you as the spotter are too close, or in the wrong spot, you won’t have time to get out of the way. Give yourself extra room whenever spotting for another driver.

All four-wheelers make mistakes on occasion. Handled properly, they can be learning experiences. Even so, being aware of basic errors “ what I call rookie mistakes “ should help you avoid these issues when your off road.

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Did you miss the previous articles?


Some Upcoming Events (click on the link for details)

It is time to sign up for the Rubicon Trail Adventure. You have just over 2 months to prepare. And we recommend you take one of the Starting Rock Crawling clinics as part of the preparation.

All dates are posted to our web site.

June 2021
June 05, 2021 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
June 06, 2021 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
June 05-06, 2021 Two Day Package Getting Started Off-Road “ LA Area
June 12, 2021 Tire Repair & Hi-Lift Mini Clinic
June 19, 2021 Starting Rock Crawling
June 25, 2021 Field Day

July 2021
July 03, 2021 Independence Day Club Run
July 10-11, 2021 Two Day Package Getting Started Off-Road “ LA Area
July 10, 2021 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
July 11, 2021 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
July 24, 2021 Starting Rock Crawling
July 24, 2021 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
July 25, 2021 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road “ LA area
July 24-25, 2021 Two Day Package Getting Started Off-Road “ LA Area

August 2021
August 16, 2021 Rubicon Adventure
August 28, 2021 Sand Dune Off-Road Driving “ Oceano Dunes

San Rafael Swell Off Road Guide Book & Companion Map $38.50

We  just received more books.

If you want to order one:

At almost 300 pages, San Rafael Swell Off Road: A Trail Guide to 42 Destinations for Automobiles, 4WD Trucks & ATVs is a guide to the in the San Rafael Swell area of Emery County. The desert area is ringed by small towns like Price, Green River and Castle Dale.

Every chapter includes helpful advice for novice or experienced explorers of the area, such as, Easy dirt road for high clearance automobile, although four-wheel drive is recommended to several sandy sections along the road. according to Ed Helmick the author.

The San Rafael Swell area of south-central Utah. This is an area that provides approximately 2,000 square miles of fantastic scenery, fascinating history, and fun off-road adventures. The only paved roads in the San Rafael Swell are Interstate 70, which bisects the Swell in an east-west direction for 67 miles, and a spur of I-70 called the Moore Cutoff. The major difference between off-roading in the Moab area and the Swell area is fewer people, and the area is more remote in regard to the distances to small towns with services. Utah towns that ring the Swell are: Price, Green River, Hanksville, Cainsville, Emery, Castle Dale, Huntington, and Cleveland.
The companion map, the National Geographic San Rafael Swell (#712) comes as a package deal with your book order.


DirtRoll Combo Pack “ Woodland Camo


The DirtRoll Combo Pack is your tool storage solution. Each pack comes with the essential rolls you need to keep your tools clean and organized. Then order the Dirt Roll Bag to put them in.


Qty (1) Wrench DirtRoll
Qty (1) Utility DirtRoll
Qty (1) Universal DirtRoll
Qty (1) DirtRoll Wrap
Product Features

-Made with heavy duty Woodland Camo Denier fabric
-Quality buckles and webbing sewn in for easy closure “ no worries of Velcro losing the grip
-Elastic band secures the webbing after passing through the buckle
-Webbing handle provides durable grip for transport
-Designed, cut and sewn right here in the United States of America

**Tools Not Included**


Dirt Roll Bag “ Medium “ Black


The medium Dirt Roll Bag is designed to secure all of your Dirt Rolls together and provide enough room for extra items.

Product Features

-Made with heavy duty Black Denier fabric
-Quality webbing handle provides durable grip for transport
-Plastic sheet sewn into bottom to provide superior strength and structure
-16-inches long, 5-inches wide and 6-inches tall
Quality Dunlap metal coil zipper with 550 Paracord pull and webbing pull tabs
-Designed, cut and sewn right here in the United States of America

I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.

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Copyright 2021, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.

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