Perfect 4-Wheel Drive Weekend

What makes the perfect 4WD trip? Close your eyes and think about that for a moment. Picture the ideal off-road adventure. What does it look like?

I got to thinking about this the other day. I had just returned from a couple days off road. I was sitting in my favorite chair, with my feet up and my left hand occupied with some of nature’s golden nectar. While relaxing (meaning, the tequila was kicking in), I had the chance to reflect. It dawned on me that, yeah, this is a pretty neat hobby. Four wheeling allows us to escape the grind of urban life for a few hours and become immersed in Mother Nature. Just can’t beat it.

Over 40-plus years, I’ve enjoyed some pretty good times on the trails. As I sipped away, I began to dwell more seriously—good tequila does that to you—on what constitutes a successful 4WD excursion. A number of important components came to mind.

Good companions: Those who show up on time, stocked up on gas, wood and all the appropriate gear so you can leave before traffic and stop at a familiar donut shop. The guy with the new truck who says, “I wanna get it dirty and dented.” (That’s my kind of 4-wheeler.) Good companions bring important skills, too. They can fix vehicles, cook great meals, know first aid, and can spin a yarn like the best of them. Yep, a good story teller is always in demand. You know, it can get a little boring sitting around the camp fire if no one has any good stories or jokes to tell. Do you really want to make an impression? Offer to cook for the gang. You’ll be everyone’s buddy. Are you any good at donuts and Dutch oven peach cobbler? Just icing on the cake, as we say.

Perfect weather: We marvel at the striking sunrises and sunsets. Every day is dry and sunny, mid-70s. No wind, rain, snow, sleet or hail to deal with. Nights are perfect for campfires (calm breezes) and sleeping—high 50s or so. Somehow you managed to pitch your tent so sun hits it with the first ray to dry it and wake you up nice and warm. Someone has already made a pot of coffee and offers you a cup as soon as you get up.

Trail: The perfect trail provides a certain amount of 4WD challenge but is still doable. But there is that anticipation of the unknown challenges ahead. It’s not too far away—we don’t want to waste valuable time getting there—and offers great scenery, historic features (old mines and ghost towns are favorites) and lots of fresh air. Driving is part of the fun, but we also like to explore and learn while off road. At the end of the trail there’s the perfect campsite with an epic view. See – Perfect Base Camp. You spot someone through a difficult obstacle and they don’t get stuck. No story to tell here. You get to use your tools or that new winch to rescue someone (not in your group) – hero! And no broken parts. You see a new accessory on a buddy’s vehicle that will make your life better – maybe complete! You must have it!

Great camp fire: The smoke goes straight up, not into your face. You enjoy those dancing flames without your clothing smelling like a furnace. Everyone brought wood, so we don’t run out. The wood is cured properly, too. None of that just-cut crud that hisses and foams without throwing any heat. Nope. Real campers like their fires clean and mean. The temperature is just right, though: hot enough to enjoy, but you can sit close by. And to make it more perfect the campfire ring is pre-built and someone left wood.

Story telling: The heart and soul of every great camp fire. Lies, jokes, good-natured ribbing, crazy stories—they’re what make the evening special. You’re sitting back and relaxing after a hard day of four wheeling and your buddy Jim opens up about the time when…well, like the fish story that gets more outlandish with each telling. The bigger the lie, the better. Though we’ve heard ‘em all before—about the lost dog, Larry’s rock or the Rubicon trip—we patiently listen to these stories once more. And when someone tosses out a bad joke (you hear the one about flying geese?), everyone chuckles.

Tequila: Very important out in the desert. After a long and dusty day, there’s nothing like tequila to quench your thirst or clear your throat. Heck, that’s why it was invented. But there’s a proper technique to consuming this fine liquor. Because we four wheelers are a cultured lot, we sip our tequila. None of this chugging stuff. We’re not college kids on spring break–we’re sophisticated. Thankfully, most of the tequila is pretty good stuff. If you want to make a margarita, that’s fine. But, boy, it’s tough to beat a shot of tequila at the end of the day. Especially while sitting around that perfect campfire.
Sitting there, you don’t want the trip to end, but console yourself with the thought of that great burger place on the way home.

Every four-wheeler has his or her idea of what makes a perfect 4WD trip. These are my top elements. Of course, not every trip is perfect. But we enjoy ourselves nonetheless. What’s important is that we get out on the trails, and frequently. As I like to say, a day on the trails beats a day at work any day. Wouldn’t you agree?

Impressive Base Camp Selection

Because many 4WD excursions last two days or more, there’s usually the need to select a campsite arrangement. You can elect to go with a base camp, or set up camp at a different location each night (what I call a cruise or a moving camp).

Another option is a hybrid variety. This is handy for really long excursions, say in excess of seven days. Use a base camp for a few days, then a moving camp for other days in your trip.

There are no hard and fast rules. Select the arrangement(s) best suited to your trip, its location and the needs of your guests.

Before going further, we should review some fundamentals of campsites. Regardless of the style you select, it should:

  • Have an epic view
  • Provide Level spots for tents (or trailers)
  • Be Remote
  • Allow the ability to have a fire
  • Include the possibility of shade
  • Be easy to find for those who arrive on their own.
  • Be large enough for all vehicles, including trailers.
  • Offer multiple trails out the backdoor or at least an easy drive in and out. Long, difficult drives become tiresome, especially after a hard day on the trails.
  • Someone suggested “no wind” but that might be hard to control!
  • And let’s not forget Tread Lightly! – the best camp site are found not made – use existing campsite.

It might be impossible to combine all the criteria into one penultimate campsite. Compromise on the items that are less imperative to you.

I prefer a moving camp for nearly all my trips, but I understand the interest in base camps. Let’s look at the pros and cons of using a base camp for your 4WD excursion.
Advantages of a base camp

A base camp is ground zero for a four wheeling experience and becomes the launching point for each day’s driving. Upon arrival you off-load much of your gear, including tents; unhitch trailers; and set up portable toilets or PETT systems, among other items. Extra fuel, water and firewood are also stored at the base camp.

It takes a fair amount of work to set up and break down a campsite. Therefore, if you can minimize those events, you’ll save a lot of valuable time and aggravation. A base camp can be set up and left for several days.

A prepared campsite is a real sight for sore eyes—and a relief for tired butts—after a long day of driving. And if you happen to run long one day, you’re not stuck having to set up camp in twilight and on an empty (or near empty) stomach.

Or if a storm hits, you are not setting up in the rain and snow. You are not packing away wet gear and tents. In fact, you might make your current site a base camp and hunker down to wait out a storm.

Similarly, mornings tend to start at a leisurely pace. You’re not scrambling to break camp. You can take a shower, spend time with your buddies, and enjoy a fine cup of coffee with a full breakfast. Your “home port” (aka base camp) affords you a little more time to enjoy the peaceful early morning hours.

One of my most enjoyable mornings was sitting around a breakfast campfire in the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area (OHV) drinking coffee. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Most mornings we are up early, break camp and don’t have time to sit around much less build a fire. This day we had no plans. The weather was a bit on the crisp side but there was brilliant sunshine you only get in the desert. I spent a couple of hours talking to some great people I just met, who invited me to share their camp fire and coffee. A day in the desert sure enhances simple pleasures!

If you build a “breakfast fire” be sure it is dead out before leaving for the day.

As you prepare to hit the trails for the day, you have time to make sure all tasks are completed properly. That means securing all gear, cleaning up thoroughly and, most importantly, making sure any fire you started is out cold. Never leave a campsite with hot embers in the pit. Speaking of fires, if you happen to be in a rush one morning, skip the campfire. Use propane stoves for cooking.

Disadvantages of a base camp

One big advantage of a base camp—leaving most of your gear behind for lighter, less-cumbersome four wheeling—is also its Achilles’ heel. Inclement weather and a significant breakdown can leave you stranded.

If the weather turns sour, you’ll have to decide quickly whether to turn back or hunker down for the night. Can you get by without a tent, sleeping bag and your main stash of food? Extra gas, water and other supplies are hours away. What will you do?

Breakdowns happen, as you know. Axles and other power train parts break. Radiator hoses blow. Tires burst and valve stems crack. Vehicles run out of gas. If you have all your gear and supplies with you, these issues are manageable. If all that stuff is back at camp, you could be in deep doo-doo.

This is why I prefer a moving camp. I (and my guests) carry basics such as a sleeping bag, fuel, food and other necessities the entire trip. If something happens, we can set up camp right there. We’ll get a good night’s sleep and deal with the problem in the morning. At least we’re safe and secure.

If using a base camp, you’ll pack lightly each day: a lunch and a small container of water, along with some basic tools. You’re counting on nothing significant happening while on the trail. Granted, you rarely experience major issues, but four wheeling is inherently risky. You’re off road and usually hours from civilization. You must be self-sufficient at all times.

Another disadvantage is that you’re limited in how far you can travel each day. You don’t want to stray too far, because eventually you have to return to base. A moving camp allows you to plop down where you want, which is nice if you’re pooped after a day on the trails.

A base camp is a useful option for four wheeling. Account for its inherent drawbacks, and you and your guests will enjoy a nice outing in the wild.

Fire Below!

Jim and his buddy Tim were doing a pre-run on permitted but seldom-used trails in the vicinity of Tonopah, Nev. back in August. They stopped to check the map and both noticed the smell of burning grass. They did a 360 inspection and found nothing. Wildfires blazed in the Sierras, but were too far away to be the source for this odor. They resumed their drive.

After a full day of driving, Jim stopped for another map check. He noticed smoke and flames billowing up the left side of his vehicle. Jim grabbed his 10 lb. dry chemical fire extinguisher. Lying on the ground he could see 4”-6” flames surrounding the transmission on both sides. A half dozen short blasts on each side of the transmission extinguished the flames.

A thorough inspection revealed that the area above the skid plate had become packed with dried vegetation. The front edge of his skid plate had lopped off the tops of grasses and brush as they rolled along. This vegetation, tinder dry from the hot summer, needed just a heat source to light up. (Later, Jim discovered scorched grasses in the open pocket around the plastic gas tank skid pad. Had that area ignited, he would’ve had a really serious incident on his hands.)

Jim’s experience, though uncommonly severe, serves as a good reminder of a hazard four wheelers can face. Driving through tall or heavy vegetation presents a real fire hazard. Make sure you thoroughly inspect the undercarriage whenever you stop —whether for lunch, photo opps or a 10-100. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to stop frequently if you’re driving in those conditions. It doesn’t take long for the vegetation to build up.

Look inside every nook and cranny underneath. You’ll be surprised where that stuff turns up. In Jim’s case, he found debris packed in the transmission cross member the next day. Don’t stop inspecting until you’re positive you’re clear of any fire hazard.

A fire hazard isn’t limited to drive times, either. Once at your campsite, avoid parking over tall grasses. The catalytic converter can start a fire. (Just like parking over a pile of leaves in the city.)

How to minimize the fire hazards

Start with a thorough inspection and cleaning, of course. Increasing your vehicle’s ground clearance helps, too. A typical vehicle offers about 10-12 inches of clearance under its skid plate. Lifting an additional 3 to 4 inches makes a big difference. (“Honey, Tom says I need to lift the vehicle for the safety of you and the kids!”). Drill large holes in the skid plate, if you have the capability. (This is what Jim eventually did with his.) Or look for a replacement model designed that way. Much of debris should fall out as you’re driving along.

If and when a fire starts—whether under the frame or under the hood—you’ll want a chance to fight it. A good fire extinguisher is a must for every 4WD vehicle. (More on fire extinguishers at “Pack A Fire Extinguisher So You Don’t Get Burned.”) Two are even better: one up front and another in the back. Inspect those periodically to see that they’re still charged.

While I’m on the subject of fire extinguishers, I’d like to offer this thought. If someone walking down the street spots a fire, and a fire extinguisher on my vehicle is handy, I’d want him to use it. That’s what fire extinguishers are for: saving property and lives. I don’t care if I’m not the one helping out. Wouldn’t you be glad that a stranger grabbed the nearest tool to douse a fire involving some of your property?
Heck, I would even pay to recharge it. You get my point!

Fires, while rare, are real concerns while four wheeling. Vegetation packed in the undercarriage can go unnoticed until it builds to the point of combusting. Eliminate that hazard by thoroughly inspecting the underside of your vehicle when driving through vegetation. Also, make sure you have at least one properly rated fire extinguisher aboard at all times. These small steps can prevent disasters while off road.

A Good Rendezvous isn’t a Secret

While many four wheelers view the trailhead as the starting point of any trip, in reality all the fun begins at the rendezvous point. That is where all drivers congregate initially. Final supplies are purchased if necessary, and trip plans are reviewed. A lot of thought should go into the selection of a meeting place. If the rendezvous spot isn’t chosen properly, the trip may not get off to a good start.

A good rendezvous point looks like this:

  • Close to the trailhead, though that’s a relative term, as we will see.
  • Offers lots of parking.
  • Easy to find.
  • Near a gas station and convenience store.
  • Offers cell coverage

How close you can get to the trailhead varies a lot. A prime location could be 50 miles or more from the trailhead. It all depends on how remote your off-road destination is—and how far away the other drivers are.

Depending on the size of your group, you may need a lot of room. Select a spot that is large enough for everyone to meet—including those with trailers—but that still has enough room for regular customers of that establishment. (Be a good sport. Don’t hog the parking lot.) Big box stores always have large lots, but they aren’t very common in rural areas.

I have used parking lots for grocery stores, restaurants and BLM field offices. Truck stops are nice, too. The parking lot for an office building might work on weekends when the business is closed.

The rendezvous spot should be easy to find. This, too, can be relative. A location near a city should be more convenient than one out in the country. Also, the mapping format your guests use plays a big part. Don’t assume everyone uses GPS. (And that GPS is always accurate.)

Determine which kind of directions each driver is comfortable with. Some people prefer GPS coordinates. Others like a map (whether official variety or hand-drawn). Still others will ask for the address so they can type that into their GPS units. This last option has a potential downfall: In more rural settings, GPS can be less accurate.

Remember that the more remote your rendezvous point is, the more likely you’ll need more than one type of mapping format. Be as clear as possible when you provide directions. You are probably more familiar with the area than your guests are. Don’t be shy with details and directions.

A rendezvous point near a gas station and convenience store is a real plus. In fact, I want to say that it’s a necessity. Why? Some—maybe all—of your guests will need to stock up on something. It’s usually gas, food or firewood—maybe all three. Plus, you can pull a 10-100 visit in the meantime.

In remote, rural areas you don’t have a choice. Your rendezvous point is the last location that offers gas and convenience items. Your guests could be 50, 100 or more miles from home. Of course they will have to top off their tanks. Therefore, a gas station/convenience store combo is the ideal location.

But here’s the rub: Last-minute purchases take time. Those precious minutes come out of your day. Knowing this, it might be a good idea to arrange your rendezvous 15 to 30 minutes earlier than you originally planned. (Remember that you’ll have down time at the trailhead, too.)

It’s also important for drivers to bring along extra gas. Once off-road, you could be long distances from any gas station. Take Nevada, for example. Esmeralda and Mineral Counties are quite remote. Total surface area is some 7,400 square miles. Esmeralda has one gas station in the entire county and it is not even in the county seat which has no gas station. There are three gas stations in Mineral County, but all are in Hawthorne. Many of the rural gas stations have only 2 options for fuel: 87 octane and diesel. If you need a higher octane, bring more gas with you or add an octane booster.

Gas isn’t the only necessity in short supply. Cell coverage can be spotty, even nonexistent when off road. Make sure cell phones operate in and near the rendezvous point. Your guests can contact you while en route.

When selecting a rendezvous point, the location might be obvious. It could be the parking lot, intersection or other noteworthy stop nearest the trailhead. In other cases, you may have a choice. Always recon those locations so you’re familiar with them. Provide your guests detailed directions—in whatever format they prefer—and implore on all to arrive on time and ready to go.

Once you leave the rendezvous point, you can focus on the trailhead and four-wheel excursion ahead.

A Good Trail Master Masters Meal Planning

We were in a real jam. Two days into a 10-day trip in Monument Valley, mechanical problems forced two vehicles to head home. We hated to lose our the four-wheeling friends, but more importantly, we ran into a minor food crisis: How do we account for the meals those individuals were scheduled to prepare?

Each of us brought food for our designated meals, but we were counting on those individuals to contribute on their assigned days. Suddenly we were scrambling to account for their departure.

This incident, while not typical of a 4WD experience, does happen. A good Trail Master understands and accepts this, and factors it into trip planning. Of all the myriad decisions you make, one is how to handle meals.

There are three possibilities, although only two are practical for the average 4WD trip.

  • Everyone cooks their own meals
  • Cooking duties are rotated among the participants
  • All or most of the meals are catered

At the end of a long day, I am not interested in cooking for a large crowd, so I won’t deal with the catered meal option. It can and does work if you have a club (with lots of volunteers) putting on an event.

Make this decision early on so you can move forward with your planning. Generally this is a fairly easy decision when traveling with friends or family members. Even better, you might have a cook in the group. That’s a huge plus. It gets a bit more complicated when you travel with those you don’t know as well.

Want to make it easy on yourself? Ask everybody to be responsible for their own meals.

Let’s study your options for meal preparation.

Participants cook their own

We talk a lot about self-sufficiency in four wheeling. It’s important for participants to have the right gear and supplies with them. Responsible four wheelers never go off-road hoping they can lean on others. Food is no different. At a minimum, all four wheelers need to prepare for emergencies, which can include being stranded alone. A big advantage here is that everyone enjoys their favorite meals. (Remember that we’re talking about breakfast, lunch and dinner.) The entire party doesn’t encounter issues related to personal preferences, allergies or other matters. In theory, everyone is a happy camper, at least as far as meals go.

As Trail Master, your trip plan should include enough information so that participants can plan their meals accordingly. Even so, be prepared to help a guest who forgot a key item or utensil.

And, you may have a cook in your group—that’s a big plus. On my last trip, I heard “cook you breakfast if you have the bacon and eggs”. I did and enjoyed it.

There are a couple drawbacks to this model

If one group forgot to pack a particular food item or utensil, those folks may have to go without. Just depends on whether anyone else has what they need.

The larger issue I’ve seen is more of a social one. Everyone tends to gravitate toward and hang around their own campsites. We don’t get as much interaction and bonding. I prefer that in my outings.

There is a hybrid model that works pretty well for dinners. With this, we set up a big grill over the campfire. Everyone cooks their own food on the grill. Participants still congregate, and there is no squabbling over preferences. (Those who don’t like grilled food, of course, are encouraged to bring something else.)

Rotate cooking duties

With this arrangement, each vehicle/group cooks at least one day’s worth of meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). That can entail a significant amount of food for larger parties and longer excursions. (Each vehicle/group would be responsible for more than one day of cooking.)

This arrangement promotes family-style dining. Everyone gathers around a campfire at day’s end, then enjoys what the “cooks of the day” have prepared. It’s a great way to spend an early evening.

It is nice to have several days off cooking detail. The diversity of meals is generally enhanced. But ask everyone for their menu to avoid chicken every night. The next outing might promote some competition among the chefs to the benefit of the “eaters”.

It takes significantly more planning and coordination. You need to know all the participants can cook a reasonable meal for everyone’s enjoyment – beyond hot dogs and bean.

One risk with shared meals is that you’ll get shorted if a vehicle backs out. That was the case in Monument Valley. The remaining meals were now spread among fewer participants.

Those leaving offered us the food planned for their meals. Problem was, we were really tight for space, especially for perishables. One guy lent us an ice chest, but the on-board refrigerators left with their owners. (The remaining vehicles didn’t have the room for those anyway.) There were some tense moments for a while. Had those vehicles departed later in the trip, everyone’s supplies would’ve been down and storing the extra food would not have been a problem.

If this happens during your trip, make sure you grab any utensils, spices or other ingredients necessary for those other meals. They are easy to forget in the chaos of the moment.

We managed to pack in the extra food and finish our trip through Monument Valley.

Dinners can also go potluck style. Make sure everyone is clear on what they’re expected to bring. Otherwise you could end up with nothing but chips and salsa.

As Trail Master you have many responsibilities. One of these is coordinating the meals. What are some issues you’ll face, and how will you address them? Based upon the make-up of your party, try to determine what offers the most enjoyment for your participants.

Lots of other things can go wrong on a trip. That just adds to the adventure. But great meals and plenty of food make the trip!

Mechanical Sympathy / Damage Mitigation

I vividly recall a beautiful morning in the sand dunes drinking my first cup of coffee while watching the sun poke its nose over the bank of clouds behind a 60 foot dune. An early four-wheeler was testing his new injection system nearby. As he went up a razorback, I could tell he had too much throttle. As he cleared the top, a trail of sand followed the jeep a good six feet above the crest. As razorbacks have a habit of doing, the drop off on the other side proved more extreme than the Jeeper expected. The resulting endo was disastrous for his weekend. Luckily, he walked away but the Jeep was another matter.

It goes without saying that a reliable vehicle is a must for four wheeling. Without a dependable 4WD vehicle, we literally could not participate in this exciting hobby. That dependability is affected by how well we maintain our vehicles and how we treat them off road.

Which brings me to “mechanical sympathy.” I know it sounds strange. After all, do you really have sympathy for your 4WD vehicle? You probably do, but just don’t call it that. Mechanical sympathy involves taking care of your vehicle and driving properly to mitigation possible damage so that the vehicle gets you back home.

Mechanical sympathy entails several facets. Here are the more important ones.

– Avoid reckless driving. Testosterone poisoning can be a big problem among four wheelers. When affected by this disease, we feel we need to prove ourselves by using excessive momentum to overcome lack of tractions, going air borne for the record, and trying highly risky obstacles. In addition to putting people at risk, that behavior is tough on vehicles (and the environment). The only thing to “prove” while off road is your ability to be a good ambassador for four wheeling. Save the hot dogging for the Xbox game back home.

– Be aware of the environment. Note the terrain around and below your vehicle. Listen for anything unusual. A slow pace allows you to properly place your tires (though a spotter is useful in some situations). You also have time to respond to changes in the environment. Roll down the windows, turn the radio off, turn the air conditioner off, and listen carefully. Your vehicle tells you a lot about how it feels and a good deal about the terrain.

With the windows down, I know immediately when there’s a new sound coming from the vehicle. Not every sound is a cause for concern. Some scraping under the vehicle is ok and won’t cause damage. If you hear scraping and feel resistance, however, stop, back out and recon before trying again – perhaps a few inches over.

– Maintain proper speed. Some four wheelers think that if a little bit of momentum is good, a lot more must be better. That’s simply not true. We want to drive as slowly as possible…the old adage is, “As slowly as possible but as fast as necessary.” Too much momentum—read that as “speed”—can be dangerous. It’s too easy to lose control. The terrain takes over control. It can flip you up a bank or off the deep end of a shelf road. High speed on bumpy terrain is tough on your vehicle, too.

– Keep up with maintenance. A properly maintained vehicle is less likely to break down—on the road or on the trails. Refer to your owner’s manual for regularly scheduled maintenance. “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” as the old saying goes. Regular maintenance can mean the difference between a vehicle that survives the trails and one that doesn’t.

– Perform a full inspection of your vehicle. Before starting and after lunch are good times for a 360-degree inspection. (And, of course, before you get back on the highway.) Even after numerous trips with no issues, don’t stop the inspection regimen. Parts can break at any time. Plus, you become so familiar with your vehicle; it’s much easier to recognize a problem. A new sound or symptom is readily apparent because it is so unusual.

I recommend a complete inspection before every 4WD excursion. But inspections are crucial while four wheeling, as well. Look for drips or puddles, stuff hanging down, loose nuts and bolts and anything else out of place. Inspect the engine compartment, too. Anything out of place is really noticeable. Which is another reason to keep the engine bay clean.

“Mechanical sympathy” is a fancy term for a basic but important concept. Just as you (I hope!) take good care of your health, so should you take good care of your vehicle. Regular maintenance and sound driving habits will keep your vehicle at peak performance. And ensure that it’s ready to take you on those thrilling 4WD excursions.