10 More Tips Your 4WD Instructor Didn’t Tell you!

Happy Holidays!

With the holiday season upon us, I am reminded of all that we are grateful for throughout the year: family, friends, good health, and the nearly unlimited opportunities available to us in this great country, including off-road driving.

Whether cruising sandy dunes, tackling the rocky trails in the mountains, or surviving the blistering heat of the desert, four-wheeling offers us thrills and adventures not found anywhere else.

Trails are as varied as the landscape, and offer novice and experienced drivers alike the chance to pit skills and wit against Mother Nature herself. We enjoy the camaraderie and friendship of our fellow off-road enthusiasts as we admire the wonderful scenery around us.

This has been a great year for my family and I; I hope the same is true for you. We value the relationship we have developed with you, and look forward to seeing you next year.

May the spirit of the season be with you and your family. And may the new year bring continued happiness and success.

All the best. Enjoy the article!

End of a good day!
Photo by Chris Laskowski

Regular visitors to my blog know I sometimes present material in list format. Lists offer an easy way to read and digest information.

Well, I’ve come up with some additional tips to keep your four wheeling fun. These suggestions cover a wide variety of issues, but mostly center around safety. That’s a common theme of mine, for good reason: If you’re not safe out there, bad things can happen.

In no particular order, here are 10 additional tips to help you enjoy your day of four wheeling.

  1. Don’t move a vehicle with the hatch open. After pulling into a campsite you realize that you’d like to reposition your vehicle. So you hop in and throw it in reverse. Next thing you know, you’ve just smashed the tailgate (or hatchback) into a tree. Make sure all doors are closed before you move the vehicle.
  2. Close car doors when you stop to take pictures. This is more of an aesthetic issue. Vehicles photograph better with all the doors closed. For one thing, you’re not showing the world just how messy it is inside. Close the doors, get the sun behind you, and snap those images.
  3. Check your lug nuts if you get help with a wheel. Don’t be surprised if others jump in when you have a tire problem. Just remember that it’s your responsibility to ensure your wheels are on tight before you resume. If the guy who helped you seems offended, shrug your shoulders and say, “Sorry, Mac. It’s just a habit of mine.”
  4. Stow your gear at night. Bad weather can bury your gear in snow, mud or debris. If you’re in one of those old ghost towns, a grizzled and gap-toothed gold miner may take a fancy to a piece of your gear. Pack up properly at night, and you’ll be able to find everything the next morning.
  5. Stay out of mines. Now I’m getting serious. Avoid old mines, period. They weren’t safe 100 years ago, and they aren’t safe today. Take a peek inside, take a picture outside, then split.
  6. Mount a fire extinguisher where it’s visible and accessible. This is as much for your guests as it is for you. An emergency causes everyone to panic a bit. You shouldn’t have to think about where the fire extinguisher (or first aid kit, for that matter) is. Mount it prominently.
  7. When in doubt, don’t commit until you spot the trail. This is especially true when you’re climbing a hill. As you near the top, your view is obstructed by the hood. Don’t assume you know what’s coming next. Get out and verify.
  8. Be careful when driving into the sun. If you can’t see the trail well, don’t assume all is well. Either you or your spotter must get out for a look. Repeat that step as often as necessary. Be patient, especially at the end of the day. (Though you can encounter a bright sun early in the morning, too.) You’re eager to get back to camp, which is when mistakes occur. If necessary wait until the sun sets. Remember this axiom: Don’t try if you can’t see.
  9. Always face the danger when turning around. Another important safety tip. Let’s say you need to turn around on a narrow shelf road. As you perform your 3 point turn, back up toward the canyon wall. This keeps the danger—the drop off—in view. Never turn the other way, or you’re likely to go sailing right down the side of the mountain.
  10. Tie your boot laces in the shape of a square knot with a bow. You’ll be more stylish, and your laces are less likely to come untied. (I hate that when it happens!)

Tuck these suggestions into the back of your mind. And make then a habit whenever you backup, turn around, get out of the vehicle, have a flat tire, camp out, drive into the sun, or tie your boot laces.

Top 10 Fears of New 4WD Owners

Results of Stuck forever.

Driving off road presents a host of challenges for any driver. Four wheeling can be especially intimidating for new drivers. Those initial concerns are understandable. It takes off-road experience to build skill set and confidence.

If you’ve considered going off road but are reluctant to do so, relax. The following information should convince you take up the hobby. While you are reading this remember: in town, you can be in a pile-up as the result of other driver’s errors and actions. Off-road in almost every instance the driver made the decision and judgment that lead to his predicament.

After years of talking with new 4-wheel drive owners, here is my perception of the Top 10 Fears of newer drivers, and what to do about them.

1. Damage to a new vehicle: This is mostly cosmetic damage, and includes minor pin-striping and scrapes to bumpers. On occasion an air dam gets torn off or a license plate is bent out of shape. The skid plate will protect the undercarriage if you bottom out. I recommend you add rock sliders on the sides of the vehicle as one of your first upgrades in armor even if you only plan to do forest service roads. The first little dents “hurt” you more than the vehicle. On the bright side, you can now justify an aftermarket bumper.

It is a toss as to which of these next two is the bigger concern. I picked rolling over as the number 2 concern.

2. Rolling over: Normally another rare issue. What makes good YouTube fodder is the extreme stuff with above average risk. When it does occur, the driver is often in an extreme situation or driving recklessly. Take your time going through rough terrain and around obstacles. And avoid high risk situations. Perhaps not a comfort to you, if you do make a mistake and “roll over” – most times, the vehicle will only tip over onto a side (what we call a flop). These tend to occur while driving slowly, so damage to the vehicle is limited.

3. Stuck forever: Rarely happens. Sure you are going to get stuck sometimes. Your buddies will help you out of a jam. Most stuck situations are what we call shallowly stuck – lightly hung up on a rock or mud just up to the side walls. A quick pull a few feet by another vehicle and you are out. If you go by yourself, a winch will get you out of most situations. Of course you will avoid situations that are right on the edge of being doable. But remember to always go out with at least one other vehicle.

4. Breakdowns: They occur, but the more common issues are resolved with proper training and tools. Remember, too, that you’re likely to be with other drivers. Read some of our other articles to prepare for and deal with breakdowns. Tires are the number one problem in my opinion. Focus on learning the skills to fix tires (they are not hard) and acquire the necessary tools. Bottom line: a breakdown need not end your four wheeling trip.

5. Not knowing where to go and not knowing other drivers: The Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) produces maps that show open trails in western states. Since 2011, they provide “Off-Highway Vehicle Route Supplement” maps by Field Office sub regions. All open trails (with trail numbers) are identified. These maps do not have contour lines or other details and should be used with other maps like the BLM Surface Management Status maps.

All national forests are required to publish a “Motor Vehicle Use Map” (MVUM). The maps are little more than line drawings of the trails with trail numbers. They show the major paved road to help orient you. In California, the California Trail Users Coalition publishes maps with the MVUM over laid on more fully featured maps for $3.00. Obtain several maps so you know where to find legal trails.

Another good resource are trail guides. You can find a list of publishers on my web site www.4x4training.com/w/trails.html

Look for events that are open to the public. Stop by and introduce yourself. In the process, you’re likely to meet other drivers willing to hit the trails with you.

Lost a bead

6. Breaking a bead: Also called losing a bead, this is common. This concern is warranted but easily mitigated. Four wheelers air down nearly every time they go off road. If you turn too sharp, too fast in soft stuff or against a rock, the deflated tire is likely to lose its bead. The issue sounds worse than it is, though. As you’ll learn in this article, Tire Problems Shouldn’t Deflate Your Day, the problem is easily corrected with an air compressor and jack.

7. Embarrassing yourself in front of others: Understand that everyone has to start sometime. Heck, I can recall some of my boneheaded newbie mistakes. The hope is that your fellow drivers are patient and understanding.

To build your confidence, take some introductory classes. Everyone in the class is in the same position as you, and you’ll learn together. (I offer a number of beginners’ classes.) Bear in mind that making mistakes is a part of your training. Don’t get worked up if, for example, you pick the wrong line. You’ll quickly recover, and you’ll be a smarter four wheeler as a result.

8. Lack of skill & knowledge: with all the YouTube videos available of extreme situations there is a sense that they’d be in over their heads. There is no need to jump into high risk and difficult trails. One trail book I have for Southern California list over 150 trails (representing about 1500 miles). Only 19 of them are rate above a difficulty Level of 4 (out of 10). Most of the trails take you to scenic overlooks, old ghost towns, old mines, and great camp sites. However, you need good clearance and 4-wheel drive to get there. An off-road training clinic will quickly eliminate much of the concern. There are so many trails, and such a wide variety of terrain, that you’ll easily find a path that is enjoyable and surmountable.

9. Going off camber: Official term for driving when tipped at an angle. As a newbie, being tilted over can be an unnerving experience. Even veteran drivers are uncomfortable driving off camber. Off camber isn’t a real issue until you get up around a 30-degree pitch. You’re not likely to tip over, though, unless you’re traveling fast. Go slow and control the bounce.

In my Getting Started Off-Road Driving & Safety Clinic I put students through a 30-degree pitch. They learn what it feels like and how to respond. They are less likely to freeze up while off road.

A couple tools can help you determine your angle. One is an angle finder carpenter’s use, available in any hardware store. Another one, you can find at 4WD stores can be glued to the dash, it shows pitch and yaw.

10. Lack of immediate emergency services: Some 4WD areas as so remote, you’re outside the 2-hour window that normally defines urgent care response. Worse, you may be outside of cell range, as well. Some steps include:

  1. Get basic first aid training. Learn how to stabilize an injured person. Take a basic survival course, too. You may need to camp out one or more nights while waiting for help.
  2. Pack alternate forms of communication. These can include ham radio (requires a license), a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon or SPOT device.
  3. Always ride with at least one other vehicle. I can’t stress that enough. Especially while still inexperienced, don’t consider going alone to anything but the easiest trails.

I hope you have a better understanding of how to address four wheeling issues. The trails await you. Get the training you need, pack your vehicle, and then get out and enjoy the ride.

Avoid “Trail Prices” – Take Spare Parts

Need to figure out what is wrong!

In last month’s article, Proper Storage Maximizes Space, Minimizes Down Time, we reviewed various storage methods and explained why it’s important to be neat and compact. This article goes into more detail about what you should carry.

Normally we think of in terms of basic supplies. Here we’re focusing on spare parts. Bear in mind that the farther you are from civilization, the more troublesome a breakdown can be.

Remember this important axiom of four wheeling from last month’s article:

The more difficult and more remote the trip, the more stuff you need to take.

For a day trip to the local mountains, you may only need to throw in a cooler and a warm jacket. Your buddy can run into town and bring back tools and parts. For a longer camping trip or a difficult trip like the Rubicon, you need a lot of gear and in particular spare parts.

You may wonder, what are “trail prices”? The term refers to the extra price you pay to compensate for a critical part you didn’t bring along. One example is the part you had to buy from a buddy. You might pay 3 times what it cost at the auto parts store. Another example is the time needed to acquire or fabricate a part.In essence, any cost that allows you to drive off the trail under your own power.

Stuck 3 day on Rubicon. Had to go to town for parts.

Here are the top three areas to focus on :

  • Tires
  • Drive train
  • Electronics

Tires top the list because of all the abuse and stress they take. Of course, your vehicle comes with a spare tire. Is it in good shape and inflated to proper level? Do you have a tire repair kit? Many tire problems experienced off road can be repaired on the spot, so it’s good to review tire repair procedures. See: Tire problems shouldn’t deflate your day
Stuck 3 day on Rubicon. Had to go to town for parts.
(Click picture for a larger image.)

The drive train also takes a lot of abuse. Tie rods and drag links are particularly susceptible. They hang down in front of the vehicle and are susceptible to being hit and bent, even broken. Consider buying heavy duty replacement parts. They are pricey and available only from a dealer, but you’re stuck without functioning parts. Axles, u-joints and drive shafts are at risk as well. A set of U-joints are small, easy to pack and good insurance. See Expedient Field Repair – U Joints
A complete set of front axles (inner & outer for both left and right) is a good investment if you are doing extreme and remote trails like the Rubicon.

The electronic system in today’s vehicle has components and sensors for which there is no work around. The worry here is that a critical part will go out leaving you stranded. Without a spare sensor the vehicle’s brain will not function. On the list of critical parts with no work around are your coil/ coil pack, fuel pump, MAP sensor, crank sensor and the starter (on automatic transmissions). Spark plugs and spark plug wires (on older vehicles) bear watching, too. Replace the set of wires if any are cracked. When you replace the wires, save the longer ones and pack them with your spare gear. If you ever need a spark plug wire while off road, you’ll have a spare.

Regular inspection, while important, won’t catch all the parts that are ready to go. Sensors are perfect examples. There’s no way to tell in advance when a sensor will fail. If your vehicle has a lot of miles on it, I encourage you to replace the sensors mentioned above, and keep the old one to bring as a spare.

Upgrade vs. Stock

One big decision 4WD owners need to make after buying a vehicle is whether (and to what extent) to upgrade their vehicle. Should they swap in a heavy duty tie rod with beefier tie rod ends, for example, or leave the vehicle in stock condition? Understand that upgrading adds cost and, in the case of heavy duty tie rods, new tie rod ends might be available for purchase only from the manufacturer. Damage one on the Rubicon and you will be waiting on the Greyhound bus to deliver a part (and that is just into the closest town, not out on the trail).

There are good reasons to go either way. My suggestion is that if you decide to upgrade, keep the stock parts in your vehicle. You may discover while on the trail it is easier to convert back to stock parts than to repair.

Broken track bar

Final route: fabricate, fix

Even with a comprehensive set of spare parts, you may find that you need to fabricate or fix a certain part. Consequently, I suggest you buy and pack some additional general purpose gear. Useful spares include fuses, hoses, sealants, hose clamps, baling wire, electric wire, chain, duct tape, zip ties, ratchet straps, and the ability to weld. Install a Premier Welder under the hood. Now you’ve got a welder at your disposal, but it doesn’t take up valuable space inside your vehicle.
Broken track bar
Many four wheelers have fixed a bent tie rod using the handle from a Hi-lift to reinforce the tie rod. A few track bars were fixed (just to get home) by welding two big wrenches across the broken section. A cracked axle tube was held together with chain wrapped around the lower control arms and then using the winch to take the slack out of the chain. A broken rear control arm bracket was held together with a number of ratchet straps until pavement was reached.

A mechanic’s tool set is always valuable. You don’t need a full, 200-piece set, however. Select the top tools, and store in soft-sided containers (pouches or military packs). Those will tuck nicely into nearly any spare space or crevice.

Final thoughts

Taking a friend on the trail with a similar vehicle doubles your spare parts. While it will not help get you off the trail, AAA’s 200-mile tow plan will get your vehicle home where it is easier to work on it. And in the worst case turn the hubs to free-wheeling and drop the rear drive shaft. Yep, turn your vehicle into a trailer.

Packing spare parts may seem like a daunting task. There’s no way to know in advance which, if any parts, will crap out on you. And, you have a limited amount of space to work with.

Driving off road for decades has given me some invaluable insight; following the suggestions above will help ensure any breakdown you experience has a minimal effect on your trip.

Proper Storage Maximizes Space, Minimizes Down Time

Outstanding campsite!

Got a new vehicle – or new to you? After you put the lift on, bigger tires and rock sliders, you still have a major task ahead of you. How do you get all that stuff you want to take in the vehicle? Sure you can just make a big pile. The trick is how to organize it so it can be retrieved quickly (read that – move as little other stuff out of the way to put your hands on the item you want). And how can you store it safely and securely. Hit a big rock or flop your vehicle on the side, you want most (actually all!) of you gear to stay put.

We have a RULE: The more difficult and more remote the trip the more stuff you need to take. For a day trip to the local mountains, you may only need to throw in a cooler and a warm jacket. Your buddy can run into town and bring back tools and parts. For a longer camping trip or a difficult trip like the Rubicon, you need a lot of gear.


Speaking of gear, we can have an impressive array of items to fit in if we plan to be self-sufficient, prepared for the abuse and risk to our vehicle; and be comfortable doing it. I suspect this is not even close to a complete list:

  1. Mechanic tools
  2. Winch kit
  3. Other Recovery items
  4. Spare parts and fluids,
  5. Camping gear
  6. Food and food preparation
  7. Cooler or refrigerator
  8. First Aid kit
  9. Fire Extinguisher
  10. Fire wood
  11. Comfort Camping stuff – shower, tent heater, and table
  12. Clothes
  13. Extra fuel & Water
  14. Radios, GPS, maps
  15. Sports equipment

Despite the fact that we are at the top of the food chain on available space (vs: motorcycles, mountain bikes, quads, backpackers), we can fill up the interior space very quickly. The problem quickly multiplies if you plan to bring someone else along. Seems they want to bring their own bag or two of stuff.

You can start with a concept well known to backpackers: Pack tools and gear that are small and compact. Understand, also, that you may have to give up some comfort. For example, can you get by without a mattress? Do you really need an onboard fridge or freezer? Actually yes! Do we really want to give up anything? Well not yet. Not until, we have blown through several iterations of “storage solutions” and proven we can’t have it all.

Outside Storage

Another RULE: Anything that you can conveniently bolt on the outside of the vehicle, under the hood, or on the bumper is worth considering, because it saves space inside.

Under the hood, you ask? Sure! That’s a nice spot for an air compressor. This will not only save space inside your vehicle, it will also save setup time when you need the compressor. Certain tools, parts and fluids can be stored under the hood, as well. Be mindful of the warm temperature in there. Tape, hoses, and some fluids break down in extreme heat.

Just like lifts, tires, wheels, and armor there are a staggering number of options on the market from simple boxes to fully customized build in drawer systems.

If you have the money, now the time is ripe to finally decide on your rear bumper system. The right one can carry many items you want to get out of the interior space.

If you are not sure what you want, start with two simple items – a roof rack and a shelf.

A roof rack is a pleasure to have

Roof Rack

A roof rack can get bulky, odd shaped, dirty items out of your interior space. Fire grate, BBQ, spare tire, pull pal, hi-lift, gas cans, and water cans all come to mind.

One drawback is that it can be difficult to lift and retrieve heavy objects. Bring a ladder. Get help if needed. I prefer to NOT put my Hi-lift jack on the roof rack. I will try anything to get my buddy to use his Hi-lift before attempting to bring mine off the roof rack.

This shelf is on 2×10’s. Notice the orange tie downs.


Next build a shelf to divide the usable space in half. Want a simple, quick and temporary solution? Place two 2×10 (or 2×8, 2×12) boards the full length of the space (tail gate to the back of the seats) and cover it with a sheet of plywood. Find a way to attach the 2×10 to the floor and glue carpet on the plywood.

Be sure and tell yourself that this is only a temporary solution. RULE: Temporary solutions tend to stick around for 5 years or more.

An unbelievable number of small bags containing heavy items can be stored under the height provided by a 2×10. This is the ideal place for tools, recovery gear, winch kit, spare parts, spare fluids, and 16 oz. propane bottles. Organize so you can retrieve your stuff easily and quickly. For example, pack the most commonly used items within reach. Lesser used items can be buried. This arrangement helps you to set up and break camp quickly and efficiently – see our article Break Camp Quickly and Efficiently .

Tie down your camping gear and other boxes on top of the shelf and you are good to go.

With a bit of thought, your shelf might even work to sleep inside the truck. Provided you don’t mind leaving a pile of gear outside at night for the bears.

Longer term, there are many manufacturers that offer products for purchase that are an improvement over this basic concept. The shelf will fit better, be lighter, and have trap doors or other unique ways to make use of space. They might even have built in drawers and sections that fold up and out of the way.

Mandatory Quick Access

Make it a RULE to always have very and I mean very quick access to these five items.

  • Shovel & Toilet paper
  • First aid Kit
  • Recovery Strap & D ring
  • Go Bag
  • Hammer (to setup your tent in the rain)

These bags store well underneath the shelf. They are small enough to dedicate each to a specific task.


The older design of military tool bags are a convenient and inexpensive way to store small heavy items – tools, D rings, chain, etc. If you can find one made out of nylon, grab several. Most I see today are cotton and only last a few years. They can be purchased in black, olive, brown, sand, and camo so you can use bag color to identify the one containing the gear you want. But use a sharpie to label them.

You can buy Velcro name tapes from Adventure Tool Company in Colorado. They have 20 plus labels available for about $4.00 each. I like the one labeled “MISC CRAP”.

For a bit more investment you can buy almost any size and style of bag with the “MOLLIE” attachment system. Again these come mostly in Military colors.

Pelican Boxes come in all sizes. These are being used to store the camp kitchen.


Boxes are a mainstay for packing. Use cardboard ones for a temporary solution. I favor cardboard, if the contents are only going to make the outbound trip with me. Once the contents are used up or distributed; I break the box down and gain space.

Buy Pelican boxes if you need moisture and dust protection. They can be placed on the roof or inside your vehicle. Or get the Rubbermaid Action Packer storage boxes for something more durable then cardboard. They come with handles that clamp the lid down and in sizes to match any need.

Build your own wooden boxes that meet your needs. You can buy custom boxes that provide security in addition to a sliding drawer -like the Tuffy security drawer boxes. Be careful if you go to the Tuffy site – they have a lot of cool items.

There are quite a few solutions for a “grub” or “chuck box” on the market also.

Effective Use

As a RULE, I find it takes 3 trips to find the best way to pack my gear with any new storage solution. Each time I break camp and repack, I discover a better way to fit it all in. In fact, I get efficient enough to add more gear next time. My friend Montego made a suggestion many years ago. He said: on that day everything fits perfectly take a picture. Take a picture from the tail gate as packed. Unpack the first layer and take another picture. Unpack the next layer & take a picture. Now you have a record to recreate the perfect pack every time.

Your 4WD vehicle is more than just a vehicle. It is in fact one big storage bin. Like traditional storage containers, it has limitations. But it also has one distinct advantage: it can hold items on the outside. With proper planning, you can maximize the amount of gear you take, yet still manage all those supplies in a fast and efficient manner.

10 Excuses Heard Off-Road

You’ve heard fishermen complain about the “big one that got away,” right? Well, there’s a similar phenomenon that occurs when four wheelers go off road. Inevitably, something goes awry during a trip. Usually it’s a minor thing, such as someone forgetting to pack a piece of gear. As I noted in another article, Extra Gear To Loan, other drivers often step in and help out. Other issues generate the funniest explanations (excuses, really) in the drivers.

In the 40 years I’ve been involved in this hobby (10 years of which spent as an instructor), I think I’ve heard it all. (And in all honesty, I’ve used—or tried to use—a few of these myself.) Even though some incidents are fairly significant, sitting around the campfire that night we can’t help but marvel as the driver puts his spin on the tale.

Photo by Lion

Here, in no particular order, are my 10 excuses heard while four wheeling.

  1. I was doing just fine until my spotter screwed up. Texting while spotting should be a crime. I just learned you cannot trust a spotter with a camera in one hand! I think he just wanted a good picture.
  2. That blasted rock moved! I had a good line until the rock my tire was on rolled under the vehicle.
  3. They told me that pond/stream/mud pit wasn’t that deep. Of course, they should’ve known I’d be coming through here this weekend. Who put that log in there?
  4. That approach worked last time!
  5. My mechanic told me he fixed it.
  6. The vehicle in front of me created so much dust that I didn’t see that big hole.
  7. My air gauge must be off. It’s my spare gauge. I loaned out my good one and didn’t get it back yet. Anyway, that brand of tire is known for breaking beads.
  8. My vehicle is stock. I don’t have enough clearance for off-road use. On top of that, I have all these new parts on it that haven’t been tested. I am waiting for them to make a better one.
  9. The dog ate my map. Right. Who needs to read the map anyway?
  10. The electronic controls messed me up. This “drive by wire” has me all messed up. It just spins tires!

As you can see, four wheelers are pretty creative when it comes to making excuses. Fortunately, they are also quite resourceful. That resourcefulness allows them to get out of the quirky situations they sometimes get into.

Combination Of Self-Sufficiency, Generosity Ensure Successful 4 x 4 Experience

Maybe you never caught a touchdown pass. Maybe you never rescued a damsel in distress but if you 4-wheel you can be a hero to someone. If that someone came ill prepared for the excursion you can stepped forward to help out with extra gear.

Four wheelers know that preparation is key. Each driver must account for his or her own needs. But the real gentlemen in our hobby go above and beyond: The try to anticipate what may occur and pack extra supplies accordingly.

All trips entail a certain amount of group dynamics. Personalities play a part, of course. But preparation–or the lack thereof–can be a factor, too. If the trip is short, you probably won’t have any issues. On a longer trip, something as simple as a shortage of basic gear can cause friction and conflicts. You and the others can minimize or eliminate these by packing extra gear.

Off-road tools and gear to pack

When deciding what additional items to pack, think of basic needs. Space permitting, I suggest you bring extra gas, blankets (or a sleeping bag) and radios. Don’t worry about trying to pack for everyone. Even one extra blanket can come in handy.

If space is limited, focus on smaller items. Some of the more valuable ones include batteries, rope, band aids, aspirin, ibuprofen, tire plugs, tin foil, toilet paper, garbage bags, Ziploc bags, and tent stakes.

While gas is always in demand, you may not have extra room. If your vehicle holds only two containers and those are spoken for (one each for gas and water, for example), don’t sweat it. Concentrate on smaller items.

Having this extra gear has as much a physical effect as a psychological one. Drivers are more focused and less worried about their gas situation when the tank gets low. Therefore, I always recommend bringing an extra 5 gallons of gas, even if you don’t need it. The additional gas provides peace of mind, and adds a dimension to your excursion: You could take an unplanned side trip along the way.

Similarly, a cold, restless night can really spoil the trip for a participant. That person’s demeanor can affect the entire group. Your extra blanket or sleeping bag can make a big difference.

Bear in mind that four wheeling naturally requires a certain amount of self-sufficiency. You should put a lot of thought and preparation into each trip.

Should you divvy up the gear among your drivers? That may sound logical, but it can cause some serious problems.

First is that the group may have only one of a particular item (say, a stove). If that breaks or the owner gets separated from the group, the other drivers will be forced to compensate.

Another drawback is that everyone in the group then starts relying on the others for gear. As I mentioned above, four wheelers are naturally self-sufficient. If you’re going to participate, you must be able to handle your own basic needs. What would you do, for example, if you got separated or stranded?

Another possibility is that you have to bifurcate your group. Drivers with certain skills or interests go in one direction, while the rest remain on the established route. (In extreme cases—say, due to severe weather or other dangerous situations—you may need to split up your group.) If gear is divided up among the vehicles, each group is going to be short of a number of items.

Bring the gear even if you’re not skilled

Some guys wonder whether they should bring a piece of equipment that they can’t use (or use very well) themselves. I always recommend that they do. Even if that person isn’t very adept with the tool, another driver may be. Having that piece of equipment on hand could mean the difference between a successful trip and one that ends early.

Due to the punishing nature of four wheeling, various parts can break on a vehicle during the trip. Someone with welding skills is a real asset to the group. You may not be skilled at welding, but you can still pack the necessary supplies.

Believe it or not, it is possible to weld with two 12v batteries and some jumper cables. (Eye and face protection are crucial, too.) Another useful tool is an axle nut socket. Got one laying around? Throw it in your vehicle before the next trip. If anyone breaks an axle along the way, you’ll be considered a hero.

While you cannot be responsible for anyone else’s careless attitude and you can’t possibly foresee every issue that may arise, you can mitigate many problems with a little more planning. Carrying some extra gear you can give or lend to a teammate can improve the 4 x 4 experience for everyone.

Checking out the Carson & Colorado RR Tunnel

View from the C&C railroad bed on Montgomery Pass.

One of the great advantages four wheeling has over regular road trips is the ability to go places and see things that you can’t normally. Ghost towns, discontinued mines, remote campsites, mountain streams and meadows—among other scenic areas—are within our reach.

As part of my ongoing scouting, I’m always looking for new trails and destinations. Many of my excursions occur over several days, but I also seek shorter routes. One day, I crossed over the bed of the Carson and Colorado railroad. There was a marker and a brief history of the now ghost railroad. I became really fascinated by railroad history in general and C & C line in particular. I wanted to know how much of the railroad bed existed, old stations still stood, and how accessible they are today.

During various trips last year I travelled almost the entire length in Nevada and California. The old route offers an interesting lesson in railroad history because of its importance in the development and growth in the southwest.

This year I decided to organize a trip to one section I could not previously find: the tunnel cut through Montgomery Pass.

History of the Carson & Colorado railroad

The C & C began operation in August 1883. Interestingly it was owned by the Virginia and Truckee RR (V&T) – a short line serving the Comstock mining district in the Carson City and Virginia City NV area. To save money, it was designed as a narrow gauge (3 ft. wide) railroad. Covering about 300 miles, the railroad ran from Mound House, Nev. to Keeler, Calif. Its primary function was to haul the vast minerals, mainly gold and silver, from the mines in Nevada. It also served the Ranchers and farmers hauling agriculture products to markets in the east.

The rail line climbed to more than 7,100 feet as it worked its way through Montgomery Pass. It is there that engineers cut the only tunnel to maintain about a 2% grade needed for the route. (It is that tunnel that is the focus of a recent expedition.)

The name C&C came from the original plan to build the railroad from the Carson River to the Colorado River.

Southern Pacific purchased the C & C railroad in 1900, and in 1905 converted 140 miles of track in Nevada to standard gauge. Most of that track was abandoned in the 1930s and ’40s. The final run on the narrow gauge track occurred on April 29, 1960.

First train through the Montgomery Pass tunnel

Route to the C & C railroad tunnel

Thanks to Roger Mitchell’s guide book Great Basin SUV Trails Vol. II, I mapped out a route from Bishop, Calif., to the tunnel. [Note: you can reach the start of the trail head from Tonopah, NV as well.] It proved to be just as interesting as I imagined. It’s a relatively short drive (as four wheeling goes), and the trail is in good shape.

The drive from Bishop to the trail head took about an hour. We drove US6 for about 50 miles to a point near [N37 58.338 W118 19.785] where the old railroad bed crosses the highway almost at the top of Montgomery Pass.

Although the trail is in pretty good shape, you definitely need a 4WD vehicle. Driving was smooth overall, though you need to use compression braking while changing grade in the mountain passes.

Deep cut through the mountains.

I was continually amazed at the condition of the trail, especially over old washes. Engineers many years ago filled in and leveled those sections. The fill, 10-15 deep in places, was just as solid and stable as the day it was built. It’s a testament to their engineering and construction ability.

The north end of the tunnel is about 2.2 miles in. We were there in 45 minutes. There were some truly awesome views of the White Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains on the way in. The tunnel can no longer be safely entered. By traversing down a steep bypass, we dropped to the lower RR bed as it winds out of the south entrance on the mountain contours. A very short drive put us at the south entrance. We chose not turn retrace out path but follow the south bound RR bed until in came out again on the highway.

Well-constructed fill.

Total distance to and from the highway was about 4.5 miles. We averaged around 3 mph, so the railroad part of the trip took about 90 minutes. But that includes stops for picture taking and walking around. After returning to the highway, we headed back to Bishop.

The entire drive was approximately 150 miles, and took about [4.5 hours]. Most vehicles can make that with a tank of gas. Prepare as you would for any other drive in the remote areas. On your return to Bishop, stop at the C&C Railroad Museum in Laws, CA. (Laws was a major station on the California section just east of Bishop.)

Driving the old railroad beds adds an interesting dimension to four wheeling. These old beds tie together so many historical places and events. The C & C tunnel near (Bishop/Montgomery Pass) offers a unique and fascinating look at railroad history in the southwest. I suggest you consider it the next time you’re looking for a day excursion when you are near Bishop, Calif., or Tonopah, Nev.

North Entrance to the C&C tunnel

South Entrance to the C&C tunnel

5 Reasons To Love Your 4WD Vehicle

White Pockets, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ

As a four-wheeler, you probably spend a lot of time off road. Doing so allows you to marvel at the many amazing sights and sounds of the great outdoors. You can really appreciate and experience nature.

How often, though, do you take time to appreciate the amazing piece of hardware that got you to your remote destination? I won’t get all philosophical on you, but I think it’s important to reflect on your 4WD vehicle. Not from an engineering perspective (how thousands of parts work so smoothly together), but how the vehicle adds so much value to your life.

As you prepare for your next 4WD adventure, consider these five qualities inherent in your 4WD vehicle. Regardless of the make or model, that vehicle offers you far more than a standard car could.


Four wheeling offers a sense of adventure. Your vehicle can take you places a car cannot, and allow you to engage in activities you otherwise would not. You’re no longer confined to the concrete and asphalt barriers of ordinary driving. Nothing wrong with driving on roads, of course. But being able to get away from it all is so liberating.

Visit ghost towns, fjord streams, cross deserts and sand dunes; experience the peaks and valleys of nature. Enjoy the outdoors with many or with none at all. Let the wind blow through your hair as you leave life behind, if only for an afternoon. You decide.


Four wheeling by its nature involves encountering and overcoming challenges. You drive in areas not designed for the average vehicle. In the process you develop skills that serve you off the trails as well.

You are more skilled and better prepared—at least compared to the average driver—for bad weather, terrible road conditions and disaster situations. Your vehicle is equipped with gear that can carry you through some of the worst conditions you may face in urban areas. Get stuck in a snow bank? You know what to do.

Driving off road makes you a better driver on the roads. You are more in tune with the dynamics and characteristics of your vehicle: how wide it is, how it performs in certain situations, and so forth. That knowledge and those skills stick with you for life.

I recently received an email from a former student who said she avoided an accident on the road because of her off-road capabilities. Having driven on rocky terrain, she had a good understanding of her vehicle’s dimensions. As the pileup occurred in front of her, this woman realized she could squeeze between two vehicles, thereby keeping her from becoming part of the mess. She got through with just inches to spare on either side.

While off-road, every obstacle is different. This forces you to make certain calculations and judgments: What kind of terrain you’re facing, how your vehicle will react, your vehicle’s dimensions (including clearance), and, finally, how best to handle the obstacle. You don’t get that kind of training driving on streets.


4WD vehicles are quite versatile. They can go off-road easily enough, of course, and they are not some huge RV that stays parked in the yard and is used only four or five times a year. 4WD vehicles are used every day to commute, get groceries and run other errands. They are generally very good at hauling heavier loads like pulling a boat out of the water. When coupled with a trailer, a 4WD vehicle allows you to bring home plywood or camp in comfort.

Even though I spread out when I go by myself, I still have room for several passengers. So you can take your family or friends along. In fact, I encourage you to do just that. A Good Hobby

With your 4WD vehicle, you can choose to take day trips, weekend getaways, or escape for a week or more. You’re not as limited as others might be. Your training, gear and vehicle allow you to experience so much more during your free time. And, you may even decide to take more free time. Now there’s a great idea!

Year-round birthday gift:

What other gift have you received or given yourself that offers so much pleasure? And that allows you to keep on enhancing? 4WD vehicles are like good websites: they keep on changing. Just think of all the goodies you can add or replace over time: tires, rims, bumpers, rocker rails, lift kits, radios…the list is nearly endless. I mean, heck, why keep the money in your wallet when it can do more good on your vehicle, right?

A 4WD vehicle is infinitely customizable. There are dozens of firms out there willing to help you part with your hard-earned cash so you can express your true self.

Sound Investment:

Because of their versatility and durability, 4WD vehicles tend to hold their value. They are even quite popular with folks who spend their days on the roads. You can expect a pretty good resale value for your vehicle when the time comes.

This is why many households purchase a 4WD vehicle (or one that’s easily convertible to off-road use). The vehicles are just as useful for everyday driving as they are for going on the trails. The next time you need to replace a car, consider purchasing a 4WD vehicle.

Someone once said that a man’s best friend is his dog. That’s probably true. But a close second has to be his 4WD vehicle. It may not be able to wag its tail and lick your face, but it can be quite the companion nonetheless.

Carry Three Ways to Make Fire

Four wheelers know it’s critical to be prepared when they go off road. One area that sometimes gets taken for granted is the ability to start fires. We just assume that a book of matches or lighter will be handy when needed.

That’s usually the case while in camp or in the vehicle. But what happens when you’re alone in the wild? Could you start a fire if you had to? Hikers, campers and just plain vacationers occasionally get lost and find themselves in a dangerous situation. It may never happen to you, but it’s always good to be prepared.

I suggest you always carry three forms of fire-starting methods on you along with some tinder, and practice with them throughout the year. Why three methods? Redundancy, as NASA will tell you, is good. In fact, it could save your life. By carrying three forms of fire-starting material, you essentially eliminate the possibility of not being able to at least create a spark. (You still need tinder and a supply of fuel.)

The importance of fire-building capability can’t be understated. Fire can be used to:

  1. provide heat
  2. cook and preserve food
  3. purify water & sterilize wound dressings
  4. act as a signaling device

As important as the uses of fire listed above are perhaps the most important use is for comfort and companionship. Humans have been staring into a fire forever during long nights. A fire helps maintain a positive mental attitude and chase away boredom, loneliness and fear.

A fire could literally save your life. Granted, only a tiny number of people get caught in survival situations each year. But those incidents can occur in many areas and in any climate.

Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel

There are several methods to start a fire that we all can master without resorting to primitive methods like a bow drill. They include:

  1. Butane lighter
  2. Matches (kept in a waterproof case)
  3. Magnesium bar with built in flint and your knife. I like Doan Magnesium Starters because of the quality. There are other metal bars out there; look for pure magnesium. The magnesium burns quickly, so make sure the magnesium powder is on top of your tinder. Add a short piece of a hacksaw blade on the chain on the bar so you always have a scraper/striker even if you lose your knife.
  4. Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel. This is a manufactured magnesium fire stick that produces an incredible spark. It includes the stainless striker tools you need to create a spark. There are several sizes. I like the smallest one, because I can carry it in my pocket. (The size determines the ultimate number of strikes – from 1,500 to 12,000.) The manufacturer claims it creates sparks in any weather and at any altitude.

It’s also a good idea to carry tinder. Then you don’t need to go scrounging for tinder, which naturally will be damp during wet weather. There are numerous commercially available products. Many are well engineered to catch a spark and fire up quickly. A small package of 5 or 6 is only a few dollars. If they are compressed, pull one end apart or use a rock to break up the fibers. You might even be able to reuse one if you can transfer the fire to your kindling and extinguish it before it is all gone.

Ready to make some cotton fire balls.

My favorite homemade tinder is cotton balls smeared with a dab of Vaseline. These catch a spark in most conditions, and the Vaseline provides a sustained burn which is needed to start larger tinder. Don’t overdo the Vaseline. Some cotton fibers are needed to catch the spark.

Make up about a half dozen cotton balls and pack them in a little container. 35 mm film canisters are perfect, if you can find any. You can also use pill or aspirin bottles; many outdoor stores sells small plastic bottles that work as well.

Other ways to start a fire include:

– Steel wool and a battery. Fine grade (00) steel wool and a D cell work nicely. If you don’t have a D cell, try two AA batteries. You’ll drain the battery rather quickly. Assume one shot with a AA battery and maybe a couple tries on a D cell.

– Magnifying glass – Easy to slip into a pocket. You need sun, however.

Whatever methods you choose, make sure you practice them several times a year and under various conditions. Don’t wait until disaster hits. Between your emotional state and the weather conditions, you’ll have a heck of a time making it work.

Carry your three fire starters and tinder in your pocket. While you may have extras in your vehicle, backpack and tent, you need to keep these tools on your person. You could be separated from your vehicle, backpack and even fanny pack. Tuck your materials in a pants or shirt pocket each time you step outdoors.

Remember to replenish any supplies you use. Also, add a category on your preparation checklist for “pocket fire starter.” That will remind you to add this important outdoor gear each time.

Going forward, you will always be prepared to start a fire if need be.

Hit the Trail after 55

Photo by Denis Snow

Four wheeling is often looked at as a young man’s game. The perception is that you use a 4WD for hard core rock crawling, heart pumping, sweaty palm adrenaline charged terrain.

The fact is that there are hundreds and thousands of scenic sites, great camp grounds, old mines, and ghost towns to visit that require a 4 wheel drive. The difficulty rating is mostly 4 or less (out of 10). While many regular drivers are in their 20s and 30s, we are seeing a lot more folks in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s.

A 4WD vehicle, and four-wheeling in general, offers a number of
advantages over other motorized activities for older folks.

Top Reasons

Here, in no particular order, are my top reasons why four wheeling could / should be a part of your life at age 55 and beyond.

  1. Easier on the body. Hiking, mountain biking, riding motorcycles and ATVs/UTVs off road can be tough on an older body. You end up with too many aches and pains. A 4WD vehicle offers a much more comfortable and less-strenuous ride.
  2. You have the resources. Generally at this age people can afford an off-road vehicle—the kids are gone and the mortgage is paid off. You can now indulge in that hobby you’ve been fantasizing about for years.
  3. Companionship. 4WD vehicles allow you to share the ride and experience with one or more companions. True, other vehicles can transport at least one buddy, but it’s not the same. With a 4WD vehicle you toodle along in the outback, enjoying the scenery and conversation. And it doesn’t stop with just the people riding with you. There is safety in numbers so you will be traveling with and meeting like-minded people. Many who are foot-loose and fancy-free just like you. Great comradely develops among 4-wheelers on the trail and around the camp fire.
  4. Interior comfort and protection from the environment. The enclosed cabins offer heat and air conditioning. The windows keep out the bugs, dust, brush and noise.
  5. Get more out of your RVing experience. Towing a 4WD vehicle adds a new dimension to your RV trips. Now you can go off-road as well.
  6. You have more time & flexible schedule. You have more time to visit old ghost towns, mines and scenic areas that you can only get to with a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Maybe there are a whole bunch of things you’d like to see. A 4WD vehicle will get you there.
  7. More room. A 4WD vehicle has more room to carry the kind and amount of gear you’d need while in those remote areas. Indulge your passion for camping, hunting, fishing, photography, astronomy; whatever you like to do while outdoors. Plus, you have the room to take along creature comforts like an air mattress, mini-fridge and extra clothing. Perhaps you currently may not be involved in a particular activity simply because you can’t get to those remote spots. Well, now you can. Your “retirement” years become that much more fun and memorable.
    Safer ride. Airbags, sturdy frames, independent four-wheel suspension and durable glass give 4WD vehicles an edge in safety.
  8. Versatile vehicle. 4WD vehicles are street legal, so you can use them on the roads as well as on the trails. No need to trailer them from one location to another, like you do with dirt bikes and some ATVs. Plus, 4WD vehicles are permitted in all national parks.
  9. Grandkids. A four wheel drive vehicle allows you to take them along and introduce them to the great outdoors, camping and your favorite sports. You have enough room needed to carry extra clothes and food.
  10. Longer drives possible. The longer range of 4WD vehicles, due to large gas tanks and spare gas can on board, give you many more options for going off road. You can plan longer and potentially more exciting expeditions.
  11. Cheaper than an RV and more versatile. As I mentioned above, you can take a 4WD vehicle on the roads or on the trails. An RV is driven somewhere and then parked. Plus, you need a place with utilities. A 4WD vehicle goes where you want to go.
  12. Four wheeling gives you a chance to needle your neighbors: “This ol’ geezer ain’t spending his days in a rocking chair!”

You’ll note that many of these concepts apply regardless of the driver’s age. They are, after all, some of the general advantages of off-road driving. However, if you are 55 or older, I hope you can see how this exciting hobby can be a part of your life.

Odds are you have the time, money and ambition. Why wait any longer? Grab a 4WD vehicle, pick up some instruction (I can help you there Click here), and then start enjoying the great outdoors as you’ve never done before.