Of all the concerns expressed by my newer students, #1 is damage to a new or expensive vehicle. That’s understandable. You buy this special vehicle, then decide to take it off road. The last thing you want to see are marks and scratches.
I understand how you feel. That first “ouch” really hurts. Usually it’s just some minor scratches or pinstriping. But you’re bummed nonetheless. Over time you’ll come to accept those, because you’re having so much fun. Even so, there are some ways to minimize the damage.
One problem with stock vehicles is that they don’t offer enough clearance on the approach and departure angle. You’re going to have some scrapes and dings on the bumper. You’re also likely to lose the air dam early on.
If you want to go off road, there’s no avoiding some abuse. You will have to accept a certain amount of bruising in order to enjoy the trails. But it’s worth it.
How to minimize damage to your vehicle
There’s one very easy way to avoid damage to a new car, which I’ll get to later. Let’s look at some steps you can take now. By the way, these suggestions apply to all vehicles and four-wheelers, not just new ones.
The best advice I can give to all drivers is: “Keep all four wheels on the ground and go slowly.” By driving slowly you can pick good lines, and feel your way through a rough patch. Ask one of your buddies to spot for you as you approach an obstacle. Realize that what’s under and really close to you is out of sight. Most of the undercarriage is pretty strong. You can scrape it but not hurt the vehicle. It’s when you go airborne and drop it on a rock or other hard surface that you experience big problems.
Another good tip is to watch the vehicle in front of you. Observe how that driver faced the obstacle; what did and did not work. It may also help to get out and study the obstacle. Your perspective from inside the vehicle is different.
Consider adding armor to your vehicle. Most off-road vehicles come with a skid plate over the gas tank and a small one over the transfer case. Add those if they are missing. Even if yours has a transfer case skid plate, you may consider swapping it for an after-market model. OEM pieces aren’t that strong.
A really important item, though, is rock rails. The bottoms of the rock rail protect you from the effect of sliding on rocks and other stuff. The rails stick out three or four inches, and allow you to pivot away from rocks on the sides. Rock rails are critical, because the side panels are really vulnerable.
If you have a new Jeep you might look into covering it with “Jeep Skins” to protect the paint. Check out http://www.jeepskins.com.
The best mitigating factor is driving experience. As you gain experience, you learn how to read a trail and how best to address or avoid an obstacle.
Avoiding obstacles not always best idea
You may wonder: Why not avoid obstacles all the time? Surprisingly, that’s not always the best advice.
Every trail has some sort of hazard. You can start on a mild trail, and then find yourself facing an obstacle that you can’t avoid. You may not be able to drive around it or back up. Perhaps conditions on the trail behind you have changed.
Other times a driver tries to drive around a rock and ends up off-camber. The vehicle is on a bit of a slope with its wheels spinning. The driver is stuck. Plus, the vehicle drifts when spinning the wheels and slides against the rock; now there’s no way to avoid damage.
In this case the better path would’ve been to pick a good, clean sight line up and over the rock. The vehicle would have been level and had traction on all four wheels.
It’s good for you to learn how to drive through these conditions. If you can go around something safely, that’s fine. Sometimes, though, the safest route is up and over the obstacle. It takes experience to make that call.
How to avoid damaging a new car
Buy a used car. Yep, that’s right. Keep the nice one at home, and take the other one off road.
However, I think by now you can see that even a new vehicle has its place on the back roads. Plus, you may not be able to afford another vehicle. Don’t deny yourself the fun and excitement of four-wheeling just because your vehicle is in pristine shape.
Follow the suggestions I’ve listed here, and you can enjoy the great outdoors.