Tom Severin, 4x4 Coach, teaches 4WD owners how to confidently and safely use their vehicles to the fullest extent in difficult terrain and adverse driving conditions. Visit to develop or improve your driving skill. 

Tom Severin

Things to Know About Your Vehicle

pick a line

1. Shift into and out of 4L (4 low) properly. It’s easy to forget this step while maneuvering through rough terrain. It’s quite simple, but you can mess up your transfer box pretty good if you don’t follow this suggestion.

Bring your vehicle to a stop (or near stop), and shift the transmission into neutral. Then you can safely and easily shift into 4L. Shift the transmission back into drive, and continue on. Repeat when you need to shift out of 4L. Most of the newer vehicles with electronic selection of 4 low will let you turn the knob but it will not be in 4 low unless you start with the transmission in neutral. If you overlook the flashing light on the dash and press on thinking you are in 4L, you will likely get stuck. Those vehicles with levers will grind or be extremely difficult if not impossible to engage into 4L. Unless you have a classic "collectors" vintage 4-wheel drive vehicle with the older all-gear transfer case, I would take it back to the dealer if you cannot shift into 4 low from a dead stop. If you get stuck while driving in 4 high (like sand dunes), many times you can drive out by shifting to 4 low. Then you have enough power to turn the wheels. You are stuck, so moving the vehicle as a requirement to shift into 4 low is not an option! Electronic shifting transfer cases may need a bit of movement to engage. Hopefully on your vehicle that requires just that slight bump you get to shift from neutral to drive.

One side note: You can shift from 2 wheel drive (2H) to 4 High and back again "on the fly." This means you can shift while driving at any speed. I have done it at 70 MPH with no ill effect. Check your owner’s manual for their suggestion on the top speed - most likely 50 MPH. Vehicles are getting more and more complicated and there may be a reason to limit the top speed for shifting on the fly.

2. Know your vehicle’s lowest points of clearance. As you approach obstacles, paint a mental picture of your vehicle’s low points. Use that knowledge to navigate around (or over) the obstacles without getting hung up. We recommend picking the 3 lowest spots on the front axle and the 3 lowest on the rear axle. You can do more but it becomes difficult to process it all in real time. Whether you have solid axles front and rear or independent front suspension makes a difference.

On a solid axle, the lowest point is the bottom of the differential. That’s usually only 9 inches off the ground. The front differential also gives you a low point, but it’s not in line with the rear differential. Note which side it is on. The other low points (front and back) are the shock mounts or control arms that hold the axle into position.

In an independent front suspension vehicle, the back is the same as with a solid axle. However, up-front the lowest points are just inside each wheel. The center of the vehicle is pretty flat and doesn’t present any low points. But don't line up the center in front with a 12" rock. The rear diff with not clear it.

Plan your line but also plan your contingency skills

3. Where your front wheels are. Most drivers have a pretty good idea of where the left tire is, but are usually off a foot or two regarding the right. It is critical while off-road that you can place your tires exactly on the obstacle as you planned even when the obstacle disappears into your blind spot.

Have someone place their hand on the front face of the right front tire and lift it straight up until you can see where that point is on the hood. It can be helpful, too, if they locate the center line of the tire and show you the point on the hood that is the intersection of the centerline and front face of the tire. Remember the spots.

If you are really having difficulty remembering the spot, we can put "training wheels" on (so to speak). Get a small telescoping magnet from the auto store and put the magnet on the spot with the handle straight up. Then practice, practice, practice until you can place the front tires exactly where you want - almost every time.

4. Know your blind spots. Speaking of blind spots, the most important one is out front. On average, the front blind spot extends about 17 feet from the face of your left front tire. (Add 12 to 18 inches more distance for the right tire.) You can reduce this distance as much as 3 to 5 feet by doing what I call "active" looking. That means leaning forward as much as possible and stretching your neck out.

Three factors influence the size of the blind spot: how tall you are, how your seat is positioned, and the design of your vehicle. You cannot do much about the vehicle design or your height, but you can change the seat. Lift it up and bring the seat back forward. If your seat does not have adjustments for height, have the seat mounts modified to permanently raise it a few inches.

Remember that as you approach a rock, it will eventually enter your blind spot. Now you see (no pun intended) why it’s useful to know where your tires are, as well as your low points.

5. Throttle control while in 4 low. The first time in low range, a driver’s instinct is to push the accelerator like you normally do. Low range has a lot of torque and power so this causes the vehicle to leap forward. The driver backs off on the gas. Due to the low gearing, the vehicle slows down immediately - too slow now. The driver hits the gas again, with the result being a jerky motion.

For 4 wheel drive, you need a nice, smooth throttle. Remind yourself that when in 4L, apply lighter pressure to the accelerator. Over time you’ll educate your right leg. For more on the effect of a smooth throttle (or lack of), see the article on "Cobblestone" .

6. Fuel usage. Because your mileage drops while off road, especially in 4L, it’s good to calculate your off-road fuel mileage. You’ll find that mileage drops anywhere from 2 to 5 mpg while off-road. Of course, that affects your range based on the fuel in your vehicle’s tank. But remember you also bring along a spare fuel can. (You do, don’t you?!)

Assume you bring a 5 gal gas can. At 10 mpg, that gas will get you 50 miles. At 15 mpg, you’ll go for 75 miles, and so forth.

Compute Off-Road Mileage: Fuel up as close to the trail head as possible. Gas up again afterward, and calculate your fuel mileage. Your off-road driving involved a combination of 4L and 4H, but at least you’ll have a reasonable average to work with later. Sounds to me like a legitimate reason for a day of 4-wheeling. "Dear, I am going 4-wheeling. Tom says I have to compute my off-road mileage. I don't want to risk your and the kids' safety by running out of gas."

7. Rehearse your contingency steps. Many obstacles require you to get out of the vehicle and recon (look at / walk) the terrain. That is how you avoid falling off a cliff you can't see from behind the wheel. It gives you more time to plan the line you want to take and asses the risks. Add to that planning what steps you will take if results on the ground do not go as planned. If you plant it in your mind in advance the specific skills you will use on this obstacle, you can react quickly. My favorite contingency is - stop, back out (if you can) and recon again.

Another example: You are looking down a steep, off camber, rutted slope. It appears to have good traction, but you're concerned that your wheels might slide. If so, you'd turn sideways and roll over. If you still feel the risk is not high enough to turn around, your contingency plan might be: If the wheels start to slide, I am going to let up on the foot brake pressure. If the wheels are still sliding, I'll power up enough to gain control and take any lumps from hitting the bottom too fast.

At first glance, these tips may appear daunting. You probably wonder how you’ll remember it all, especially the vehicle’s low points. Over time these will become second nature. As you drive a trail, your brain will work through the various processes and steps, and you will automatically perform these steps. The result will be a more enjoyable off-road experience.

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Tom Severin

Maintain Proper Distance Off-Road

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 perform 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.


Related Articles from Badlands Off-road Adventures

What Causes Wash Board Roads?
10 Rules of Trail Etiquette
Weather to Go
Respect Your Teammates. Arrive Prepared.
Meet At The Trailhead, And Caravan In From There
Did you miss the previous article?

I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President
Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.

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Tom Severin

Top 10 Fears of New 4WD Owners

Stuck Forever Results of Stuck forever.
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Driving off road presents a host of challenges for any driver. Four wheeling can be especially intimidating for new drivers. Those initial concerns are understandable. It takes off-road experience to build skillset and confidence.

If you’ve considered going off road but are reluctant to do so, relax. The following information should convince you take up the hobby. While you are reading this remember: in town, you can be in a pile-up as the result of other driver’s errors and actions. Off-road in almost every instance the driver made the decision and judgment that lead to his predicament.

After years of talking with new 4-wheel drive owners, here is my perception of the Top 10 Fears of newer drivers, and what to do about them.
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Tom Severin

Avoid "Trail Prices" - Take Spare Parts

Avoid "Trail Prices" - Take Spare Parts

Need to figure out what is wrong!
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In last month’s article, Proper Storage Maximizes Space, Minimizes Down Time, we reviewed various storage methods and explained why it’s important to be neat and compact. This article goes into more detail about what you should carry.

Normally we think of in terms of basic supplies. Here we’re focusing on spare parts. Bear in mind that the farther you are from civilization, the more troublesome a breakdown can be.

Remember this important axiom of four wheeling from last month’s article:

The more difficult and more remote the trip, the more stuff you need to take.

For a day trip to the local mountains, you may only need to throw in a cooler and a warm jacket. Your buddy can run into town and bring back tools and parts. For a longer camping trip or a difficult trip like the Rubicon, you need a lot of gear and in particular spare parts.

You may wonder, what are "trail prices"? The term refers to the extra price you pay to compensate for a critical part you didn't bring along. One example is the part you had to buy from a buddy. You might pay 3 times what it cost at the auto parts store. Another example is the time needed to acquire or fabricate a part.In essence, any cost that allows you to drive off the trail under your own power.

Here are the top three areas to focus on :

Tires Drive train Electronics Tires top the list because of all the abuse and stress they take. Of course, your vehicle comes with a spare tire. Is it in good shape and inflated to proper level? Do you have a tire repair kit? Many tire problems experienced off road can be repaired on the spot, so it’s good to review tire repair procedures. See: Tire problems shouldn’t deflate your day
Stuck 3 day on Rubicon. Had to go to town for parts.
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The drive train also takes a lot of abuse. Tie rods and drag links are particularly susceptible. They hang down in front of the vehicle and are susceptible to being hit and bent, even broken. Consider buying heavy duty replacement parts. They are pricey and available only from a dealer, but you’re stuck without functioning parts. Axles, u-joints and drive shafts are at risk as well. A set of U-joints are small, easy to pack and good insurance. See Expedient Field Repair - U Joints
A complete set of front axles (inner & outer for both left and right) is a good investment if you are doing extreme and remote trails like the Rubicon.

The electronic system in today's vehicle has components and sensors for which there is no work around. The worry here is that a critical part will go out leaving you stranded. Without a spare sensor the vehicle's brain will not function. On the list of critical parts with no work around are your coil/ coil pack, fuel pump, MAP sensor, crank sensor and the starter (on automatic transmissions). Spark plugs and spark plug wires (on older vehicles) bear watching, too. Replace the set of wires if any are cracked. When you replace the wires, save the longer ones and pack them with your spare gear. If you ever need a spark plug wire while off road, you’ll have a spare.

Regular inspection, while important, won’t catch all the parts that are ready to go. Sensors are perfect examples. There’s no way to tell in advance when a sensor will fail. If your vehicle has a lot of miles on it, I encourage you to replace the sensors mentioned above, and keep the old one to bring as a spare.

Upgrade vs. Stock

One big decision 4WD owners need to make after buying a vehicle is whether (and to what extent) to upgrade their vehicle. Should they swap in a heavy duty tie rod with beefier tie rod ends, for example, or leave the vehicle in stock condition? Understand that upgrading adds cost and, in the case of heavy duty tie rods, new tie rod ends might be available for purchase only from the manufacturer. Damage one on the Rubicon and you will be waiting on the Greyhound bus to deliver a part (and that is just into the closest town, not out on the trail).

There are good reasons to go either way. My suggestion is that if you decide to upgrade, keep the stock parts in your vehicle. You may discover while on the trail it is easier to convert back to stock parts than to repair.

Final route: fabricate, fix

Even with a comprehensive set of spare parts, you may find that you need to fabricate or fix a certain part. Consequently, I suggest you buy and pack some additional general purpose gear. Useful spares include fuses, hoses, sealants, hose clamps, baling wire, electric wire, chain, duct tape, zip ties, ratchet straps, and the ability to weld. Install a Premier Welder under the hood. Now you’ve got a welder at your disposal, but it doesn’t take up valuable space inside your vehicle.
Broken track bar
Many four wheelers have fixed a bent tie rod using the handle from a Hi-lift to reinforce the tie rod. A few track bars were fixed (just to get home) by welding two big wrenches across the broken section. A cracked axle tube was held together with chain wrapped around the lower control arms and then using the winch to take the slack out of the chain. A broken rear control arm bracket was held together with a number of ratchet straps until pavement was reached.

A mechanic’s tool set is always valuable. You don’t need a full, 200-piece set, however. Select the top tools, and store in soft-sided containers (pouches or military packs). Those will tuck nicely into nearly any spare space or crevice.

Final thoughts

Taking a friend on the trail with a similar vehicle doubles your spare parts. While it will not help get you off the trail, AAA's 200-mile tow plan will get your vehicle home where it is easier to work on it. And in the worst case turn the hubs to free-wheeling and drop the rear drive shaft. Yep, turn your vehicle into a trailer.

Packing spare parts may seem like a daunting task. There’s no way to know in advance which, if any parts, will crap out on you. And, you have a limited amount of space to work with.

Driving off road for decades has given me some invaluable insight; following the suggestions above will help ensure any breakdown you experience has a minimal effect on your trip.

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Tom Severin

Proper Storage Maximizes Space, Minimizes Down Time

Outstanding Camp Site!
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Got a new vehicle - or new to you? After you put the lift on, bigger tires and rock sliders, you still have a major task ahead of you. How do you get all that stuff you want to take in the vehicle? Sure you can just make a big pile. The trick is how to organize it so it can be retrieved quickly (read that – move as little other stuff out of the way to put your hands on the item you want). And how can you store it safely and securely. Hit a big rock or flop your vehicle on the side, you want most (actually all!) of you gear to stay put.
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