What Kind Of 4WD Vehicle Do I Need?

I often get asked, particularly by those new to 4WD, which vehicle to buy. Meaning, of course, which brand and model. I don’t like to recommend particular brands and models. As you’ll see, there are too many personal variables that affect the buying process. But I can help you with the decision making process by structuring and identify the questions you need to answer.

An important question to ask yourself is, “What will I use it for?” For most 4WD owners, off-road use represents just a small percentage of their driving. Most is done on paved roads. Imbedded in this question is an issue that I will call the Four Wheeler’s Conundrum: Because you’re new, you don’t know what you don’t know. That is, you don’t know at this stage what your long-term needs will be and what direction four wheeling will take you.

It takes time off-road to determine what types of driving you’ll ultimately want to do. It may take a year or two for you to decide that. See also: “Help! I’m Stuck in an Endless Circle of Indecision” .

Your best estimation at the time of purchase is the best place to start.

Bottom line: assume that your vehicle will evolve over time. You may even trade up after getting some experience under your belt. This is a very fluid hobby.

Other Questions

Start by answering these additional questions. It will help you make that decision:

  • How much you want or can afford to spend?
  • Do you want new or used? I generally recommend used. First, a used vehicle is cheaper. It might come with some modifications already- Score! And a scratch now and then on the trail is not a big deal. The money you saved can be used to make changes.
  • How frequently will you drive it off road vs on paved roads? Will it be a daily driver? That will affect your decision on fuel economy, tire tread pattern, and other modifications.
  • How many passenger do you need to take? How much cargo space you need, for camping, overlanding, etc.? Clearly, if you take the family you need a larger vehicle. But you also need to look at the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum weight capability including passengers and cargo. Subtract the curb weight of the vehicle from GVWR and you have the weight you can add for passengers, cargo, and armor (skid plates, etc.).
  • Do you want to sleep inside the vehicle?
  • How much you want to invest in build-up. This can be difficult to determine, but give it a good guess. For a used vehicle, figure you will invest the same amount as the purchase price in modifications. For a brand new vehicle, plan about 1/3 of the purchase price. Remember that this can be over time, making it easier on your budget.
  • Do you expect to make modifications? Some vehicles adapt better to modifications than others. Older vehicles may also have more aftermarket suppliers to choose from. No matter what type of four wheeling you plan, rock sliders are a worthwhile improvement right away to protect the investment in your vehicle. So before you buy the vehicle, check for rock sliders suppliers. Custom work is expensive.
  • Do you expect to trailer the vehicle or drive it to and from the trail? Motor homes (RVs) have towing weight restrictions. Make sure you don’t buy too heavy of a vehicle.
  • Conversely, will the 4WD vehicle need to tow a trailer? Perhaps you want to tow an adventure trailer or off-road tear drop trailer. A small utility trailer might solve the space issue for a large family outing.
  • If you plan to join a 4-wheel drive club, find out what most of the club members drive. Your vehicle should be at least in the middle of the “pack” on capability.
  • What security needs do you have? A pickup will have a high GVWR which is attractive. But you may need to make accommodations to protect items in the open bed from theft, snow, rain, etc.
  • And you want the best approach, departure, and break over angles you can get. With all the other constrains to balance and compromise, this is one that can be improved after you buy it. It just requires money!


OK, so you’ve settled on a particular vehicle. Now it’s time to modify. That process can be maddening, too. If it’s a new vehicle, the after-market guys may not be producing parts yet. Or, they don’t make ‘em for your vehicle. Keep in mind that those manufacturers focus on parts that will sell. If your vehicle (or model) isn’t popular with four wheelers, you may find it difficult to get gear at a store near you. In that case, check out the forums for your vehicle. Others may have found a vendor.

An example might be a pickup trucks. It can be tough to find rock rails for many standard pickups. That’s why it’s critical to buy the right kind of vehicle up front. (You can still buy a pickup—they are useful—you may just not have as many choices.)

Bear in mind that a change in one part of your vehicle may involve modifications elsewhere. For example, installing larger tires may require changing the ring and pinion in the differential. In addition to the cost of the parts, you’re looking at additional labor (from you or someone else). But that’s normal for 4WD vehicles. Incidentally, if in your deepest heart you want big tires (35” or 37”), don’t compromise now. You will always want them! It is cheaper in the long run.

Every step entails some compromise. The biggest compromise is a financial one. As my daddy used to say, “If you can buy your way out, you don’t’ have a problem.” But very few of us are blessed with deep pockets. Not only do you compromise, but you adapt as time goes on. Your vehicle evolves as your needs and resources allow.

My Personal List

Here are some features that I look for in a 4WD vehicle:

  1. Something I can afford without taking out a loan. This kind of rules out a new show room model!
  2. 4 doors. I like the convenience of access with 4 doors. I will likely take the back seats out.
  3. Solid axles front and rear. It is getting more and more difficult to find a new vehicle with a solid front axle. An IFS axle works fine but is weaker than a solid axle in the factory version and a bit more expensive for the lift kit than solid axles.
  4. These first 3 features really cut down the possible vehicles. But add in the next one and it really shrinks.
  5. Body on a solid frame – Holds up better long-term than a unibody. I’ve had more maintenance issues with unibody frames.
  6. Fuel-injected engine – Won’t stall on a steep hill like a carbureted engine does. So I am not going to be looking for a classic!
  7. Coil springs on all four corners for better articulation. However, the linkage on coil springs is more complex and is more prone to wear and tear.
  8. Automatic transmission. This is mostly a personal preference. I feel it is easier to learn off-road in an automatic. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. You can get compression breaking with an automatic, but it will never be as effective as a manual. On the other hand, the auto will hold you part way up a hill without stalling.

As you can see, a lot of factors go into a buying decision. Start with a vehicle you like and one that includes most of the features you seek. Modify a bit to get you off road, then adapt later on as needed. The key is to get behind the wheel and enjoy the trails.

7 Key Skills – Know Your 4×4

Four wheeling naturally involves an orderly process. Driving through difficult terrain far from home is demanding on drivers and their vehicles. Just like driving on roads, you need a lot of hours behind the wheel to become adept off road. Many of my articles are dedicated to reviewing various aspects of four wheeling. This column reviews several more important fundamentals that can be helpful if you are just starting four wheeling.

1. Shift into and out of 4L (4 low) properly. It’s easy to forget this step while maneuvering through rough terrain. It’s quite simple, but you can mess up your transfer box pretty good if you don’t follow this suggestion.

Bring your vehicle to a stop (or near stop), and shift the transmission into neutral. Then you can safely and easily shift into 4L. Shift the transmission back into drive, and continue on. Repeat when you need to shift out of 4L. Most of the newer vehicles with electronic selection of 4 low will let you turn the knob but it will not be in 4 low unless you start with the transmission in neutral. If you overlook the flashing light on the dash and press on thinking you are in 4L, you will likely get stuck. Those vehicles with levers will grind or be extremely difficult if not impossible to engage into 4L. Unless you have a classic “collectors” vintage 4-wheel drive vehicle with the older all-gear transfer case, I would take it back to the dealer if you cannot shift into 4 low from a dead stop. If you get stuck while driving in 4 high (like sand dunes), many times you can drive out by shifting to 4 low. Then you have enough power to turn the wheels. You are stuck, so moving the vehicle as a requirement to shift into 4 low is not an option! Electronic shifting transfer cases may need a bit of movement to engage. Hopefully on your vehicle that requires just that slight bump you get to shift from neutral to drive.

One side note: You can shift from 2 wheel drive (2H) to 4 High and back again “on the fly.” This means you can shift while driving at any speed. I have done it at 70 MPH with no ill effect. Check your owner’s manual for their suggestion on the top speed – most likely 50 MPH. Vehicles are getting more and more complicated and there may be a reason to limit the top speed for shifting on the fly.

2. Know your vehicle’s lowest points of clearance. As you approach obstacles, paint a mental picture of your vehicle’s low points. Use that knowledge to navigate around (or over) the obstacles without getting hung up. We recommend picking the 3 lowest spots on the front axle and the 3 lowest on the rear axle. You can do more but it becomes difficult to process it all in real time. Whether you have solid axles front and rear or independent front suspension makes a difference.

On a solid axle, the lowest point is the bottom of the differential. That’s usually only 9 inches off the ground. The front differential also gives you a low point, but it’s not in line with the rear differential. Note which side it is on. The other low points (front and back) are the shock mounts or control arms that hold the axle into position.

In an independent front suspension vehicle, the back is the same as with a solid axle. However, up-front the lowest points are just inside each wheel. The center of the vehicle is pretty flat and doesn’t present any low points. But don’t line up the center in front with a 12″ rock. The rear diff with not clear it.

3. Where your front wheels are. Most drivers have a pretty good idea of where the left tire is, but are usually off a foot or two regarding the right. It is critical while off-road that you can place your tires exactly on the obstacle as you planned even when the obstacle disappears into your blind spot.

Have someone place their hand on the front face of the right front tire and lift it straight up until you can see where that point is on the hood. It can be helpful, too, if they locate the center line of the tire and show you the point on the hood that is the intersection of the centerline and front face of the tire. Remember the spots.

If you are really having difficulty remembering the spot, we can put “training wheels” on (so to speak). Get a small telescoping magnet from the auto store and put the magnet on the spot with the handle straight up. Then practice, practice, practice until you can place the front tires exactly where you want – almost every time.

4. Know your blind spots. Speaking of blind spots, the most important one is out front. On average, the front blind spot extends about 17 feet from the face of your left front tire. (Add 12 to 18 inches more distance for the right tire.) You can reduce this distance as much as 3 to 5 feet by doing what I call “active” looking. That means leaning forward as much as possible and stretching your neck out.

Three factors influence the size of the blind spot: how tall you are, how your seat is positioned, and the design of your vehicle. You cannot do much about the vehicle design or your height, but you can change the seat. Lift it up and bring the seat back forward. If your seat does not have adjustments for height, have the seat mounts modified to permanently raise it a few inches.

Remember that as you approach a rock, it will eventually enter your blind spot. Now you see (no pun intended) why it’s useful to know where your tires are, as well as your low points.

5. Throttle control while in 4 low. The first time in low range, a driver’s instinct is to push the accelerator like you normally do. Low range has a lot of torque and power so this causes the vehicle to leap forward. The driver backs off on the gas. Due to the low gearing, the vehicle slows down immediately – too slow now. The driver hits the gas again, with the result being a jerky motion.

For 4 wheel drive, you need a nice, smooth throttle. Remind yourself that when in 4L, apply lighter pressure to the accelerator. Over time you’ll educate your right leg. For more on the effect of a smooth throttle (or lack of), see the article on “Cobblestone” .

6. Fuel usage. Because your mileage drops while off road, especially in 4L, it’s good to calculate your off-road fuel mileage. You’ll find that mileage drops anywhere from 2 to 5 mpg while off-road. Of course, that affects your range based on the fuel in your vehicle’s tank. But remember you also bring along a spare fuel can. (You do, don’t you?!)

Assume you bring a 5 gal gas can. At 10 mpg, that gas will get you 50 miles. At 15 mpg, you’ll go for 75 miles, and so forth.

Compute Off-Road Mileage: Fuel up as close to the trail head as possible. Gas up again afterward, and calculate your fuel mileage. Your off-road driving involved a combination of 4L and 4H, but at least you’ll have a reasonable average to work with later. Sounds to me like a legitimate reason for a day of 4-wheeling. “Dear, I am going 4-wheeling. Tom says I have to compute my off-road mileage. I don’t want to risk your and the kids’ safety by running out of gas.”

7. Rehearse your contingency steps. Many obstacles require you to get out of the vehicle and recon (look at / walk) the terrain. That is how you avoid falling off a cliff you can’t see from behind the wheel. It gives you more time to plan the line you want to take and asses the risks. Add to that planning what steps you will take if results on the ground do not go as planned. If you plant it in your mind in advance the specific skills you will use on this obstacle, you can react quickly. My favorite contingency is – stop, back out (if you can) and recon again.

Another example: You are looking down a steep, off camber, rutted slope. It appears to have good traction, but you’re concerned that your wheels might slide. If so, you’d turn sideways and roll over. If you still feel the risk is not high enough to turn around, your contingency plan might be: If the wheels start to slide, I am going to let up on the foot brake pressure. If the wheels are still sliding, I’ll power up enough to gain control and take any lumps from hitting the bottom too fast.

At first glance, these tips may appear daunting. You probably wonder how you’ll remember it all, especially the vehicle’s low points. Over time these will become second nature. As you drive a trail, your brain will work through the various processes and steps, and you will automatically perform these steps. The result will be a more enjoyable off-road experience.

Beware Flash Floods

Four wheelers who drive throughout the desert southwest are quite accustomed to tough conditions. Not just terrain, either: The heat can be brutal. Encountering a flash flood is probably the last thing on your mind. But it can happen, and the results can be tragic.

A deadly flood in Zion National Park, Utah, last month is a sobering reminder of that hazard. The flood, which tore through Keyhole Canyon, claimed the lives of seven. Granted, those individuals were on foot, but flash floods affect vehicles, too, even 4,000 – 5,000 lb. four wheelers.

Forecasters are saying that the El Niño phenomenon will be particularly strong this winter. That heightens the chance for moisture throughout the West, including the desert areas.

You’re probably thinking: “A flash flood in a desert? C’mon, Tom!” Yes, they are possible, in the right areas. But also in mountainous terrain, which should be apparent.

Four wheelers, accustomed to driving in tough conditions, figure they can just plow through that water. Not a chance. 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.

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:

Of course, flash floods aren’t confined to remote areas. Urban communities across the country suffer floods frequently. One big difference off road is that the threat isn’t always very apparent. Turnaround. Don’t Drown.

You could be camping, driving or hiking on a bright sunny day. Unbeknownst to you, a storm is raging in the mountains several miles away. Eventually a trickle shows up on that nearby wash. You think nothing of it. Minutes later, the water is cascading down, getting deeper by the moment. You may have only minutes to find an escape route.

This is why I always recommend moving out when water appears in a wash or a nearby stream. That stream could gain new life and momentum. Soon, a flood is roaring down on you.

Video of a flash flood

As with any trip, preparation helps you avoid disaster. Check the weather forecast before and, if possible, during your trip. If the park has a website and Facebook page, monitor those, too. Zion National Park posts weather advisories on its Facebook page when appropriate.

Pack a weather radio and, if you’re a ham radio operator, your radio gear. Cell phones are OK, but coverage is spotty in the wild. Consider buying a satellite phone. You can learn more about communications options in Communications equipment is critical for off-road driving.

It’s also good to know the various warnings that the weather service issues, including flood advisory and flash flood warning. Read more about those here .

If near a wash, stream or river, always take a moment to plan an escape route. Don’t wait for disaster to strike. You won’t be able to think clearly, and you may end up downstream. If a trickle of water appears, move to higher ground. That might mean simply climbing up on a rock or hiking away. Leave your vehicle and your gear. Those can be replaced.

Rapidly changing weather is nothing new to seasoned 4WD enthusiasts. Flash flooding in normally dry areas may be hard to imagine, but it does happen. Don’t try to fight it. Odds are the water will win, which means you’ll lose.

Do you Know Jack?

A jack is one of those pieces of equipment that is just plain essential for four wheeling. The stock jack supplied by the manufacturer isn’t going to help off road: terrain is rarely level and never smooth. You have three styles to choose from: Hi-Lift, X-Jack and bottle jack.

The first step in any situation is to make sure the vehicle cannot move. Sometimes the emergency brake isn’t enough, because you might be lifting that wheel. You might have to chock the opposite side. Seldom is the terrain flat and level. Run the winch out to a tree or stretch a strap tightly from the vehicle to be jacked. Always be careful when jacking.

Hi-Lift Jack

The Hi-Lift is very versatile but has a lot of safety risks. It is versatile in the sense you can lift (jack) with it, you can “pole vault” with it, and you can use it as a “poor man’s” winch in a pinch.

Lift as close 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 in one direction. Vehicles today don’t have notches in the frame for a jack. So latch onto the bumper as close 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 and support cables.

“Pole vaulting” involves shifting a vehicle sideways while jacked up. Let’s say you’re stuck and just need to move a foot or two to one side. Set the jack near the middle of the opposite side, at a slight angle. Once both wheels on the near (jack) side are off the ground, the vehicle will fall away. Repeat as needed to move away from the obstruction.

With a chain on one end and a tree strap on the other, the Hi-Lift can be used as “poor man’s” winch by laying it sideways. The chain allows you to adjust the distance from the vehicle to your anchor point. Since you can only move the stuck vehicle about 3 feet at a time the chain makes it easier to reset the jack each time. By looping the chain around the “nose” of the jack, you can shorten it with a grab hook. Besides all the hard work, the difficulty is keeping the vehicle in place every time you reset for a new bite. Hi-Lift recovery kit has all the gear your need to solve this problem.

You need to be careful with Hi-Lifts. Use only on solid ground and when the main part is straight up and down. If you must jack on sand or soft soil, place a piece of plywood or other board under the foot.

Make sure the handle is straight up when at rest. When lowering a vehicle, place a hand at the top of the center piece and gently coax the lever up and down. Keep your fingers on top and clear; if the lever takes off, you’ll get “hammer thumb.” Keep your head out of the way, as well for the same reason.

A basic Hi-lift runs about $70. They’re rated to nearly 5000 lbs. for the first 4 feet. With safety accessories, you’re looking at about $230. Though there are safety issues, the Hi-Lift jack is an extremely versatile and useful tool. Don’t leave home without one in the group.


The X-jack is really helpful in sand and snow. You slide it under the vehicle, and use exhaust to inflate the bag and raise the vehicle.

Watch for sharp edges of the body or frame, and keep the bag away from the exhaust pipe. It’s a good idea to place padding on top of the bag. (See Figure N.) The X-Jack comes with a pad, but I suggest grabbing one or two floor mats for additional padding. Make sure there are no kinks in the hose as you’re playing it out.

The X-Jack works best with two people: one to hold the funnel tightly on the exhaust pipe and the other to keep the bag in position. If working alone, use a compressor. The bag also has a valve stem to attach a compressor so you can tap into that while positioning the bag.

Be careful if lifting on sand. We tend to use high RPM in the sand. This causes a hotter exhaust, and it’s easier to melt the hose. If you have a compressor, use that instead. You may find that the bag quits inflating the last foot or so. It is necessary to run the engine at a higher RPM (than idle) to fully inflate the bag. Another reason to have help.

A drawback is that the kit takes up a fair amount of space in the vehicle. Consider tying it on the outside or roof if space is a premium.

Bottle jack

Compact and more stable than the Hi-Lift, a bottle jack allows you to lift just an axle as opposed to an entire side of the vehicle. A big disadvantage is that you don’t always have sufficient clearance under the vehicle (use the Hi-lift or X- jack).

The second downside is that it won’t always lift high enough for what you need. The post usually extends only about 5- 6 inches. That’s why you may want to buy extensions. If you don’t care to do that, try a block of wood. The Safe Jack Company has a number of extensions available for the bottle jack. If you have a vehicle close to 10,000 GVWR (like a Sportsmobile), Safe Jack has 5 ton accessories.

Bottle jacks come in a variety of sizes. A 3-ton model is sufficient for most 4WD use. For larger vehicles like a Sportsmobiles, a 5-ton jack is better. I’ve seen good results with electric models.

A standard bottle jack runs $40 to $60 at auto parts stores. Regardless of the style of jack you have, you must always use it safely. Before jacking, make sure that the vehicle cannot move. Use the jack properly, and—in the case of the Hi-Lift—keep your hands and fingers (and even body) out of harm’s way. Be patient. Sometimes you need to think through the lift process to avoid serious injury. Learn the proper way to use the jack, and practice back home to become familiar with it. Finally, if you must work under the vehicle while it’s raised, use your spare tire or other sturdy object as a safety jack. I recommend you carry at least 2 of the above!

Maintain Proper Distance Off-Road

Maintaining the proper distance between your vehicle and the one ahead can be tricky. Speeds vary, the terrain changes frequently, and visibility can drop quickly.

You want to stay close enough to the vehicle in front so you can learn from it but not tailgate and risk causing an accident or worse: not be able to read the terrain for yourself.

Even experienced drivers find it challenging to monitor trail conditions and nearby vehicles. Newer drivers tend to focus so much on the vehicle ahead that they end up tailgating—in essence, glued to his backside. In the process, they lose sight of the trail and any obstacles or difficult conditions. More important they lose track of the vehicle behind, which can throw off the entire caravan.

Appropriate distance for safe off-road four wheeling

As a rule of thumb, you should be far enough back to at least see the other guy’s rear differential. (If the differential is just visible above your hood, you’re about 17 feet away.) Any closer than that, and everything between you and the other vehicle is in a blind spot. You never see the difficult obstacles so you can pick a line. And you won’t have time to react if need be. Back off so you have a better view of the trail and obstacles ahead.

Tailgating is a real problem on dusty roads—you can’t see squat. There could be a washout or deep rut up ahead, and you wouldn’t see it until it’s too late.

As soon as you see the driver ahead kicking up dust, back off. Stay behind the dust cloud, and monitor that to determine how the other driver is responding to conditions ahead. (Another advantage to staying back is that you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery.)

You’re probably wondering, aren’t the drivers communicating with each other? Maybe, but maybe not. A good 2-way radio is indispensable in these circumstances. That’s why I always require a 2-way radio in each vehicle during my off road trips. CB is fine, but I’ve found that FRS radios performs well.

The lead driver lets everyone know of obstacles, blind curves, oncoming vehicles, and other issues. During my trips, I ask the last driver (my “tail gunner”) to acknowledge my broadcast. That way I know it’s been received properly. Any vehicle that didn’t hear my message will likely hear the follow-up transmission.

In addition to keeping an eye on the vehicle ahead, drivers should occasionally glance in the mirror to make sure the trailing vehicle is still in view. If not, he should contact the driver. (Of course, it’s also important for the driver in distress to speak up when he gets in a bind.)

I can’t stress enough that you must keep your 2-way radio on and any distracting noises to a minimum. Turn down the commercial radio and your iPod. You should be focused on the road ahead and any instructions coming over the 2-way radio.

When you’re the lead driver, remind the others to keep their trailing vehicle in sight. If each driver does this, no one loses a vehicle when the driving gets tough. Even with reliable communications, verify that the trailing vehicle is still behind you after you take that fork in the trail or make some other change. Any drivers really focused on the obstacle just ahead can forget a set of instructions they heard moments before.

Similarly, if your vehicle encounters a problem, make sure you get on the radio. The vehicles ahead and behind should stop. If everyone is looking out for the guy behind, the entire caravan will soon stop. Address your problem, and resume the drive. It all boils down to teamwork and trust, with every driver knowing and adhering to protocol.


If you can’t drive around the rock, slow down to less than 10 mph, drive over the rock, and regain your speed.

Four wheeling offers a wide assortment of terrain to test and hone our skills. Some is really easy; other areas are quite challenging. One surface that often gives newer drivers trouble is what I call cobblestone.

Cobblestone trails are like gravel roads, with one distinct difference. That difference can have a huge impact on your 4WD experience if you’re not paying attention.

Cobblestone are small rocks that are loose or embedded in the trail, giving it that telltale feel. Those harmless-looking rocks can do nasty damage to tires if you hit them wrong. So it’s critical to drive on cobblestone trails properly.

Many drivers follow the maxim, “drive as slowly as possible but as fast as necessary.” That’s great advice, but often newer drivers carry it to extremes and get too concerned about every rock they see. Fact is, you can drive at higher speeds (15 to 20 mph) over most gravel and cobblestone-type roads. Just watch for the cobblestones, and respond accordingly.

The image] shows an example of a cobblestone-type trail. You’ll note that the highlighted rock isn’t jagged or pointed but it can be deadly. What makes them hazardous to your tires is that they are embedded. Unlike gravel, which is loose and gets kicked away, some cobblestone stays put.

If you hit one while going more than 10 mph, with tires aired down to dirt and rock range (15 – 18 psi), you can cut the tires badly. On top of that, you usually cut the back tire before you can stop.

What happened? The sudden impact pinches the sidewall between the rim and the rock. One solution, then, is to steer around these rocks.

If you can’t drive around the rock, slow down to less than 10 mph, drive over the rock, and regain your speed. They generally don’t stand up too high, so you can drive over them even in 4 high. The slower speed allows your tire time to flex properly. In this picture, you could steer slightly to the right and easily miss that rock. The safest thing is nice and slow.

But remember: you don’t have to be overly cautious on gravel and cobblestone-type trails. You just need pay attention to spot cobblestones so you can react accordingly.

Driving uphill on cobblestone

Driving uphill on cobblestone (and, for that matter, gravel) presents its own challenges. Use these tips to climb that hill smoothly.

1. A good, steady throttle is most effective. You’re going up against gravity. If you ease up and lose momentum, then throttle up again, you’ll spin and kick up stones.

2. Double or triple the interval between you and the other vehicle. If the vehicle ahead starts spinning and throwing rocks, your windshield could get damaged severely. (Of course, if you’re towing, you don’t have a choice.) Always keep ample distance between vehicles.

Nearly every trail we four wheelers use offers some hazards. Part of the fun of four wheeling is overcoming those challenges. While cobblestones shouldn’t be ignored, don’t let them control your experience. With practice you just automatically avoid the tire eating cobblestone when possible or slow down and ease over them, thereby allowing you to drive more confidently on those trails.

Deadly Mistakes: Spinning Tires

Hitting the gas causes the wheels to spin. Without traction, you can drift or slide into the ravine.

Getting stuck is a common occurrence among four wheelers. After all, we intentionally drive in difficult areas. Every situation is different, but one common trait I see is the inappropriate use of power to get through. It seems logical enough: I’m stuck or losing momentum; why not just hit the gas? In reality, you want to throttle back or back out in most situations.

Hitting the gas (throttle) often just causes the wheels to spin. Without traction, you begin to drift or slide. Because the ground is never level, you’ll slide in whatever direction is off camber. You could slide into a pile of rocks or worse—go off the edge of a cliff.

You could go from being merely stuck to a life-threatening situation.

It’s easy to lose traction while going uphill. As they near the top, some drivers goose the engine to propel themselves over. More often than not, the wheels start spinning and the vehicle stops. In some cases the front end jumps up and down. This can cause serious damage. When the wheels touch the ground and–therefore, stop suddenly–it sends a shockwave through the drive train. Drive shafts get twisted. The strap that holds the drive shaft to the pinion gets torn off. Axles, lockers, and free-wheeling hubs can break.

In a situation like this, it’s better to back down and rethink your strategy.

Another possibility is that the driver is able to maintain traction as he nears the top. Along the way, the vehicle picks up momentum. At the top of the hill, an automatic transmission may want to gear down. Doing so causes a sudden transfer of power to the wheels resulting in the wheels breaking free and spinning. It’s actually better to ease up on the throttle to gain traction and try “walking” the front wheels before you lose all forward momentum.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: Traction improves at slower speeds. Some situations require you to crawl along at idle speed. Throw the vehicle in Low or first gear, and let it creep by itself. I have been able to make progress up a slope with a thin covering of snow using this method. (You may need to air down, as well.)

Spinning wheels also dig holes in the ground, making it difficult for you (or anyone else) to proceed. This is especially true going uphill. As you’re sitting there spinning your wheels, you’re creating divots in the dirt.

As you back up and try again, your wheels hit those divots, and you lose traction and momentum.

The other thing I see is frequently is the process of turning a small step into a large step. When the front wheels make it up but the back wheels don’t, the application of power most often results in just spinning the wheels. That spinning moves material away from the step digging it deeper and deeper. The obstacle becomes significantly changed making it harder for everyone.

To review, spinning wheels can cause you to:

  1. Drift into a bad situation.
  2. Damage the drive train or other parts.
  3. Modify the trail so it’s more difficult for others to use.

Unhappily, every once in a while it works – a driver is able to get out of the jam (or over the hill) with power, dust flying and tires spinning. That, unfortunately, just reinforces a bad technique. Four wheeling is all about implementing the correct techniques at the proper time. Train yourself to ease up on the accelerator the second you feel your wheels spinning. You’ll regain control of your vehicle, allowing you to “walk” out of a tough situation.

Extra Fuel Cans Are A Real Gas

One well-known model is the “jerry” can (sometimes called NATO style).

Due to a number of variables, it’s difficult to say precisely how much extra gas you need for a particular trip. Generally, 5 to 10 gallons is enough for most trips. That will get you to another source of fuel in most circumstances.

One factor is your vehicle’s mileage while off road. As a newer driver, you’re not likely to know that. Your first few trips should be on shorter routes close to civilization. These give you the chance to measure the difference in fuel consumption of your vehicle off-road. (And, of course, build some skills.)

RotopaX cans are rectangular and feature hand holds and openings that allow you to mount them in a variety of ways.

Sizes, styles of gas cans

Rotopax Gas Cans RotopaX cans are rectangular and feature hand holds and openings that allow you to mount them in a variety of ways.
(Click picture for a larger image.) You have several styles and brands to choose from. In most cases, the style is dictated by how you plan to mount the gas can.

One well-known model is the “jerry” can (sometimes called NATO style). Wedco and Wavian make this type, in steel. The most common size is 20 liters, which easily holds 5 gallons. (Incidentally, the 5-liter just the right size for holding wine! But probably not food grade.)

The “jerry” can has been around since WWII. An important feature is the special cap. Note that it clasps securely, thereby eliminating leakage while you’re bouncing along on the trails.

The cans must now be sold with a unique funnel. With that special funnel the gas can is CARB compliant. CARB stands for California Air Resource Board. Look for the “CARB Compliant” label on all gas cans and spouts, even if you live in other states. The EPA has adopted the CARB requirement.

A RotopaX on a vehicle from www.Olympic4x4products.com

RotopaX cans are rectangular and feature hand holds and openings that allow you to mount them in a variety of ways. They come in smaller sizes than the Wedco cans, too. The 2 gallon version is very popular. The cans can be stacked together for easy transport.
Cam Cans , by Daystar, are designed to mount on the inside of the spare tire with the hardware provided. They are available in convenient 2-gallon versions. When you are first setting up your rig and need a quick solution, before you have had time to add tire racks and roof racks, look at the Cam Cans.

Another option is the fuel caddy by AEV. This is designed to mount between the spare tire and tail gate. A nifty arrangement, and at 10 gallons, it has a lot of capacity. The caddy is quite heavy with that amount of gas, so it stays mounted while you refuel. You’ll want to use something like a Super Siphon, described below, to transfer the gas to your tank.

You may have heard of or seen a Sceptor gas can. These are similar to jerry cans made of heavy plastic. They don’t have the CARB compliant cap and cannot be sold legally in the U.S. They are only available to the US military and Homeland Security.

A final option is to install another gas tank. That’s an expensive route, although a very nice solution for long range overlanding. Make sure the gas tank is installed properly and that your vehicle still meets air quality standards; that is your vehicle will still pass the Smog test.

You don’t always need that much extra gas while four wheeling, though. Four to ten gallons is usually plenty.

Gas cans can also be transported on the top of your vehicle. This image shows six jerry gas cans on a roof rack.

How to mount the gas can

Wedco Gas Cans Gas cans can also be transported on the top of your vehicle. This image shows six jerry gas cans on a roof rack.
(Click picture for a larger image.) The most common method involves mounting on an after-market bumper. Most replacement bumpers are designed to accommodate the spare tire and at least one 5 gallon gas can – many come with two slots for cans. RotopaX cans and AEV’s fuel caddy, as mentioned above, mount nicely to the spare wheel assembly. (Some extra hardware may be needed.)

Gas cans may also be transported on the top of your vehicle. The image shows six jerry gas cans on a roof rack. By far the largest drawback to roof top storage is lifting the cans into place. As a rule of thumb, you can assume Gas weighs about 6 pounds per gallon (depending on the blend and additives it can be a bit more or less). So a full 5 gallon can of gas is in the neighborhood of 30 pounds. Not too bad, until you have it overhead.

By the way, a gallon of water is 8.3 pounds, which explains why a 5 gallon can of water at 41.5 pounds is so much harder to lift onto the roof rack. Also you should use these calculations to determine the load you are placing on the roof rack. Six can at 30 pounds is 180 pounds which might actually exceed the rated capability!

I have a backup plan for the day, I feel too weak to muscle a gas of can onto the roof rack. I strategically placed the gas cans behind the sun roof so I can pop through and lift one up from the front seat!
Bumper rack This is a TJ bumper made by www.Nates4x4.com that holds 2 cans flat behind the spare tire.

This is a TJ bumper made by www.Nates4x4.com that holds 2 cans flat behind the spare tire.

How to safely fill and use gas cans

siphon Siphoning doesn’t require you suck gas!
Safety is paramount, even when you’re filling gas cans.

Static electricity is a real concern when working with fuel. Turn off your vehicle before filling. As you step out of your vehicle, touch some metal part of the car. Fill the gas can only when it’s on the ground.

Never smoke while filling. Turn off your engine and extinguish any flame that is nearby. Don’t transport gasoline inside a vehicle. The fumes can build up, overpowering the occupants and creating an explosive situation.

Make sure you use the proper color of gas can for fuels: red for gasoline, yellow for diesel and blue for water. The one drawback to Cam Cans is that they don’t come in red or yellow. Make sure you clearly mark which ones are used for fuel and which contain water.

Siphoning gasoline (and other fuels) used to be a challenge. Remember getting gas in your mouth? Well, times have changed. Safety Siphon and Super Jiggler have developed a nifty siphon that doesn’t require you to suck the gas. The siphon is simply a clear piece of plastic tube with a special brass valve on one end. After inserting the brass end in the source of fuel, you jiggle it a few times. That will get the fuel flowing. It’s like magic!

Both brands are relatively inexpensive, and they’ll drain a gas can in minutes. These siphons rely on gravity flow, so the gas can must be above the gas tank inlet.

Funnels work in a pinch but be careful to minimize spillage.

A common mount for cans on either side of the tire.

If you plan to store your gas for at least a month, add fuel stabilizer (STA-BIL or Motor Medic) to the fuel. Typical mix is 2 oz. for every 5 gallons of gas. Manufacturers claim it’ll last up to 1 year. I’ve had gas remain in good condition for upwards of 18 months.

Carrying extra gas is important for every 4WD trip. Use this information to help you determine which type and size(s) of gas cans are best for your vehicle and driving. You can then go four wheeling confident that you have some spare gas if your tank runs low.

Trail Food for the Non-cook

Let’s say you love the outdoors, and yearn for a weekend of four wheeling. But you can’t cook or don’t care to. It’s just not your bag. Should you stay home? Of course not! You can still hit the trails – you just need to plan accordingly.

You’re in luck. Chef Severin has put together a nifty game plan for your next 4WD weekend. It involves selecting the right items and mapping out a menu to make your decision making so much easier. I’ve done all that for you.

Fortunately, much of what you need is inexpensive and convenient. Because many items are packaged or premade, you don’t need to be Chef Cordon Bleu to eat pretty well.

As you long as you can boil water, cook over a fire (or camping stove), and you own a cooler or fridge, you’ll survive!

It’s quite simple, actually. That’s the beauty of it. You can enjoy three meals a day without a lot of fuss and mess. This outline shows you how. Afterward, I provide additional details of what to buy and where.

Outline of a Simple Menu


Breakfast: (at home)
Lunch: Stop at a fast food joint along the way. Your choice. (Heck, I can’t make all the decisions for you!)
Dinner: Steak (over the fire) and lettuce; beer.


Breakfast: Coffee and donuts or Coke and cookies. (Gotta get that energy for the big day ahead!)
Lunch: Prepared sandwich or made on the trail; Chips, soda or sport drink.
Dinner: Pork chops (over the fire) and lettuce; beer. If you’re inclined, heat up some baked beans in the can. Call it a three-course meal.


Breakfast: Coffee and donuts or Coke and Pop Tarts.
Lunch: Chicken wings from the supermarket. Found in the deli, they’re precooked. Don’t grab the uncooked kind. You want to minimize cooking in camp.
Dinner: At home, unless it’s an extended weekend. Then you’ll need to account for supper. Chicken breasts (over the fire) and lettuce. Feel free to substitute brats.

Breakfast: Finish off the pastries or cookies, and wash down with coffee.
Lunch: Remaining prepackaged sandwiches or bring stuff to “you roll your own”.
Dinner: Fast food on the road or at home.

See how simple this is? Nothing fancy here, and just a few food items each meal. All items are prepackage or premade. You simply grab and go.

Let’s look at a few of these food items in greater detail.

Lettuce: Either a head of iceberg or package of Romaine. Cut the iceberg in quarters; each one, to be topped with salad dressing, is your salad. Romaine usually comes with three stalks per package. Each stalk can make at least two salads. You literally just pour on the dressing. Don’t forget a small bottle of salad dressing.

In either case, don’t bother chopping the lettuce in advance. You’ll do that with knife and fork during dinner. (Remember: one objective is to minimize the preparation.)

Just right for manifold cooking!

Sandwiches: For minimal effort, hop into a Subway, gas station or a supermarket. Look at what they have, and grab what looks good and is relatively inexpensive. Don’t care for a sandwich or sub? Other possibilities include Lunchables, Hot Pockets and frozen burritos. Before leaving camp each morning, double wrap the Hot Pockets and burritos in tin foil. Stick then in a secure position above the manifold on the engine. By lunch time you will have a hot with melted cheese meal. Don’t’ worry about nutrition. You just need cheap body fuel for the weekend.

If you prefer to make your own sandwiches, buy some bread (cheapest you can find), cold meat(s) and cheese. Avoid applying any sauces in advance; you’ll do that in camp. Bring along bottles of sauce or grab some of those foil packets from the fast food joint. Lettuce pulls double duty here.

By the way, a loaf of bread (or package of hamburger buns) can be used for sandwiches, brats and wienies. No need to buy separate packages.

Check the reqs where you will be camping to see if glass beverage bottles are allowed.

Eat them whole out of the bag.

Beverages: This is a personal call, but I’ve found that coffee, cola (Coke for me) and beer or Tequila are all I need for a weekend. If you can’t make coffee or get your buddy to make it, buy Starbuck’s coffee in a bottle.

All your food can be purchased on Friday. It will keep throughout the weekend.

Snacking: Whether on the drive to and from the trail or while on the trails themselves, you’re bound to get the munchies at times. Convenient snack foods (which also are good for you) include plums, apples, cucumbers (mini ones in a package), snap peas, and bananas. Cukes, by the way, can also be added to your salads. Another good snack is Mother’s Oatmeal cookies, one of my favorites.
Mixed nuts are good, though they can be a little salty. Avoid shelled nuts (peanuts and pistachios, for example). Too often these become campfire food, and the grounds become littered with shells.

You should plan on contributing to happy hour as well. Here, again, the choices are easy and convenient. Corn chips, salsa and cheese dip are a natural. Other possibilities include wheat chips and cheese (Triscuit, Wheat Thins), beef jerky and even licorice.

Speaking of happy hour, a common effect after a good happy hour is lack of enthusiasm to prepare a full meal. Could be that everyone filled up on snacks or just tanked on beer. This is yet another reason to stock up easy-to-prepare food. A quick bite is possible if the hunger pains strike. (Of course, you can always bribe a buddy to cook for you. Make sure you have enough extra beer or booze with you.)

As you see, preparing for your meals doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking affair. Use these suggestions as a guide when you next visit the store. You’ll quickly fill up your cart and be prepared for your next 4WD outing.

When Disaster Calls, Amateur Radio Answers

It is great to be able to reach out to an Amateur Radio repeater when off-road

A recent act of vandalism serves as a reminder to have diverse communications capability with you while four wheeling.

Vandals cut a major fiber optic cable in Arizona on Feb. 25, disrupting communications throughout the northern part of the state. Cellphone, internet and telephone services were affected, along with ATMs, banks, and other entities.

While this was an isolated incident, it serves as a reminder of how vulnerable our communications infrastructure is. You’re more likely to lose comm to some natural disaster, but in these days, we have to be mindful of willful acts of destruction.

Primer on ham radio

We often say ham radio communication will be the last standing form in the event of a disaster. This is because each ham owns their own transmitter / receiver and most of it works off the grid – on batteries in the vehicle.

Amateur or “ham” radio is a private radio service available to you. It requires a license, for which you take one or more written exams. (There are three classes of license; each requires a written exam.) Once licensed, you have access to various frequency bands and modes of operation. I hold a Technician class license—the first level—and my callsign is KI6FHA. For more on ham radio, check out the website for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio – www.arrl.org .

There are currently over 700,000 licensed ham operators in the United states. The number is growing weekly (at the end of 1991 there were 494,000 hams).

In addition to offering more frequency bands, ham radio equipment generally puts out more power. This is especially true of the mobile radios. While a CB radio is limited to 4 watts output, mobile ham VHF/UHF radios (the kind I’m recommending here) transmit with 40 to 50 watts or more. You can find single band 2 meter (more on “2 meter” later) radios that will transmit up to 75 watts in a mobile radio. As a ham operator you can legally transmit even higher wattage but that is not practical in a mobile unit using a car battery.

Ham radio operators often access repeaters, as well. Repeaters are standalone transceivers (usually on a summit) that automatically retransmit—“repeat”—the signal. This boosts the effective range of a radio considerably. It is not uncommon to talk with someone several counties away.

Before going on the air, make sure you have your ham radio license. You can get by with the Technician class license. Exams cover a host of topics, including rules and regs, radio theory, operating procedures, and more. The ARRL and W5YI-VEC (http://www.w5yi.org/ ) offer study guides. Practice exams are available at various websites, including the ARRL web site and also this one: www.QRZ.com . Finally, the ARRL website is a good resource to find a test session. (BTW there are only 35 multiple choice questions and no Morse code required for the Technician class. And you can get the entire pool of 350 questions to study in advance.)

Now that you’re licensed, it’s time to buy your ham radio gear. Even though you’ll have access to the full ham radio spectrum, for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on VHF and UHF operation.

The most popular band for mobile operation is known as 2 meters. This covers 144 – 148 MHz. A very popular UHF band, often called either 70 cm or “the 440 band”, falls at 420 – 450 MHz (for US hams).

All 2 meter and 440 radios allow users to operate in either simplex or duplex operation. Simplex, in simple terms, is what you would use for vehicle to vehicle chatting on the trail. FRS radios operate this way. Duplex operation is used for repeater operation. Your radio transmits on one frequency and listens for the repeater on a different frequency. Having additional power and repeater capability can be very important while four wheeling. (Of course, that depends on whether a repeater is within range.)

Consider a dual-band radio. A dual band radio provide the capability to use both the 2 meter and 70 cm bands. These give you the ability to adapt to the any repeater in places where you’ll be. (You can find repeater frequencies online.) Prices for a good, used dual-band radio probably run around $150 – $200.

If you’re a bit strapped for cash, consider just a 2 meter radio. Being the more popular band, you’re more likely to find 2 meter repeaters where ever you’re going.

No radio operates without an antenna. For newcomers, I recommend starting with a mag mount style. The mag mount will get you on the air quickly. After you become familiar with your ham radio gear, install a permanent antenna. You set the antenna on the trunk or rear bumper, and string the coax through a window. A down side to a mag mount antenna on the roof of your vehicle is it is easily knocked off if you drive through heavy brush.

A good dual-band mag mount antenna can be had for less than $50, based on a quick peek online. You may have to tune (adjust) the antenna for maximum performance. Most ham radio operators would be happy to assist with that.

Ham radio equipment

Popular brands include Alinco, Kenwood, Icom and Yaesu. Ask some ham radio operators for their suggestions, then try out a few models. Ditto for antennas. I highly recommend the Yaesu FT8800R. It is a bit expensive but it is a dual band radio that has two radios side by side built into one small package. You could talk vehicle-to-vehicle on one radio and listen to a repeater on the other radio.

Here are some things to look for in a mobile ham radio for 4-wheeling:

  1. Dual band feature (2 m / 70 cm) – access any repeaters as you travel regardless if they are 2 meter or 70 centimeters.
  2. High output wattage – nice to have extra power to reach a remote repeater. There seems to be a tradeoff between power and dual band. Most single band 2 meter radios have more output power.
  3. Large memory capability – pre plan the repeaters for a long expedition and have room to store them all
  4. Easy to read display – size, contrast, back light, for driving safety and ease of use
  5. Removable control head – increases mounting options in the vehicle. The bulk of the radio and can go under a seat or in the trunk.
  6. Sealed radio – the cooling fan should not pull air (and, therefore dust) through the radio.
  7. NOAA weather alert – important to keep an eye on the weather when off road.
  8. Cross band repeater function – see above
  9. Ease of use. This is a bit relative. Today’s radios have so many functions, they can be challenging to program the first time. Another reason to get yourself a mentor (known as an Elmer).

You may like other features; this is just a start.

And I should mention that ham radio isn’t restricted to off-road use. Heck, you’re welcome to operate wherever and whenever. In fact, put your ham radio skills and driving skills to use by helping out in a charity ride. You’ll have fun, polish your operating skills, and help a worthy cause.

Incorporating ham radio equipment into your 4WD vehicle adds a new dimension to your communication capabilities. It is very useful for routine operating, and could make a big difference during an emergency in a remote area.