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.