Spotting Principles For Safe Four-Wheeling

Should have asked for a spot

Safe and effective spotting occurs when the driver and spotter work together. Each knows what to expect from the other and they work together as a team. Proper spotting is challenging, but it’s a skill that can be learned.

This is not a discussion of spotting style and hand signals. There are many articles on different hand signals. Find a set you find comfortable with and develop your own style. Just make sure the driver can see your hands and be decisive. Instead, we’ll review the principles of spotting. That is, the thought processes and decisions that both a driver and spotter undergo. We’ll also touch on ways for a four-wheeler to gain spotting experience. That experience can lead to regular spotting opportunities.

Three fundamentals of spotting

First, three general rules of spotting:

  1. There’s only one spotter. Anyone else offering hand signals will confuse the driver and could lead to a mishap.
  2. A potential spotter should always ask first. Don’t just jump in and start directing. A driver will generally welcome the help. Ask to assist, and be open to discussing the situation with the driver. Successful spotting hinges on a collaborative effort between the driver and spotter.
  3. The spotter stays a safe distance from the vehicle and is positioned so he can see underneath the vehicle and both sides.

Typical driver concerns about the spotter

Drivers are naturally cautious about accepting directions from someone they don’t know. After all, their vehicle – and possibly well-being – rest on those instructions.

Some of the thoughts running through their minds include:

How do I know the spotter is trustworthy?

Can I be confident he’ll pick the right lines?

Who taught the spotter? How did he learn this skill?

If the spotter is a member of a club, or has gone four-wheeling a lot, that trust could have been earned over time. Perhaps the driver has seen the spotter in action or has used the person on occasion.

Discuss the options

Good communication between driver and spotter is key. Assess the situation together and discuss the options. Listen to the spotter. Does he exude confidence and knowledge? Feel free to question a suggestion made. Listen for the rationale behind the decision. Challenging situations require careful, thorough planning.

Finally, review the hand signals the spotter will use. Make sure you understand them. Any disagreement must be resolved, or a new spotter found.

Every driver must be humble enough to ask for spotting. There’s a huge blind spot in front of the vehicle. A good driver will stop and ask for help when necessary. And be willing to work with a newer spotter.

Need a spot?

Make a decision, and stick with it

Once both spotter and driver agree on a course of action, they must hold to it. As long as the spotter is giving the expected commands, the driver must follow the instructions.

The driver must avoid the temptation to make last-second changes in the course. The obstacle or trail edge may be in your blind spot. Ignoring the hand signals could be perilous. Follow the spotter’s hand signals to keep the vehicle on course.

Rely on the spotter to stop all forward progress, in the event a plan will not work as the vehicle closes in on the obstacle. A new course of action must be agreed upon.

Spotting is challenging but rewarding

Spotting is a good way to help fellow drivers and develop an important skill. But it is mentally challenging. A lot rides on the signals given.

As a prospective spotter, ask yourself: Do I want to risk being responsible for damaging someone else’s vehicle? What if the spotting doesn’t go well? If the driver doesn’t follow my commands?

Prospective spotters must be honest with themselves. They shouldn’t volunteer if they are not comfortable with the risk. Those individuals with no experience should leave the spotting to an experienced person. (See below for more on how to gain experience.)

If a spotting incident goes poorly, it’s important to stop immediately. Consult with the driver on the next course of action. Perhaps the driver didn’t see the signals well or understand them. He may even get out of the vehicle for a new look. (I highly recommend that, by the way.)

Discuss the new approach or lines to take, and resume spotting. (Incidentally, you use the same hand signals whether the vehicle is moving forward or backward. Just point in the direction you want the vehicle to move.)

Just because a spotter is relatively new doesn’t make his opinions any less valuable. If the driver refuses to follow the hand signals after several confabs, the spotter should consider quitting.

I said this before, but there must be good communication between the driver and spotter. They must want to work together. If either party is uncomfortable, a new arrangement must be made.

Practice as often as you can

How does someone get experience spotting?

Start by asking a friend to coach you. Find a trail or open area where you can practice with a buddy for a while.

Your coach will first review the hand signals to use. Next, have your buddy position his vehicle near a location that requires spotting. Discuss the lines you intend to pick. Ideally, the driver will agree with your assessment.

Now with your coach standing behind, guide the driver through the course. Your coach may whisper suggestions but will not offer hand signals. Only one person – you, in this case – should offer hand signals.

Afterward, you and your coach will evaluate your performance. Practice as many times as you’re able to; every spotting situation is unique.

The next step is to guide a driver around a slightly challenging obstacle. Continue practicing until you feel comfortable with a real situation.

For the first ‘live’ spotting, choose an outing among friends or club members. They’re more likely to give you a chance to spot in a real situation. Feel free to ask a veteran driver to stand behind you as a coach.

Incidentally, I am open to offering a course on spotting and hand signals. Contact me for details.

Spotting is very common in four-wheeling. You don’t need a white-knuckle course to find sections that require spotting. Prospective spotters can gain valuable experience guiding someone through a relatively easy situation or obstacle. At the same time, drivers should keep an open mind. They may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of spotting offered by the newer spotter.

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4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.

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