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.