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Backroad Driving

By Chris Collard - October 16th, 2006

National Geographic Adventure Website

The labyrinth of backcountry roads crisscrossing America's public lands is so vast that no one has managed to tally its total mileage. Think about that. Fire roads, old stagecoach routes, logging tracks-there are potentially millions of miles out there just waiting to lead you to your new favorite trailhead or river put-in. "We manage thousands of miles of OHV [off-highway vehicle] routes in southern California alone," says Mike Ahrens, OHV program coordinator at the Bureau of Land Management's Barstow office. "Most are underutilized and provide perfect paths to the wilderness." That, of course, presumes you've got the skills and confidence to navigate rough terrain in even the sloppiest of conditions. Backcountry driving requires more than a map, a compass, and a no-spill coffee mug. Start with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then ramp up your skill set with this dirt-devil primer.

Note: Backroad driving is not the same as off-the-road driving. Stay on existing routes and maintain your vehicle: Good intentions won't clean up after a leaky engine. The Tread Lightly program ( provides a wealth of info on low-impact OHV use.



Where To Go


West: Follow the 1860s wagon tracks of the 144-mile (232 kilometer) Applegate Immigrant Trail through northern Nevada's beautiful but unforgiving High Rock Desert. Maps are available through the Nevada BLM (775-861-6500).

Rockies: The lands surrounding the towns of Telluride and Ouray in southwestern Colorado are like open-air history museums of the hardscrabble West. Explore 19th-century alpine gold-mining camps on the12-mile (19 kilometer) Black Bear Pass. Check with Uncompahgre National Forest ( for details.

East: North Carolina's Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the jumping-off point to Hatteras Island and 70-plus miles (113 kilometers) of open beach driving. Call ahead for seasonal restrictions that protect loggerhead sea turtles and piping plovers.

Core Knowledge

Dirt Road 101
  • Take it slow: Most of today's off-the-shelf 4WDs are equipped with ABS (antilock braking system), HDC (hill-descent control), GPS, and enough ground clearance to keep you and your undercarriage unscathed. But backroad travel is not about acronymed gadgetry. Slow down. Engage 4WD before you get stuck, and shift the transfer case (the lever that changes your vehicle from two- to four-wheel drive) into low-range in rough terrain. It'll halve your speed and save passengers some teeth-rattling.
  • Convoy: Whether heading out for a weekend paddle or on a ten-day expedition, arrange to travel with another vehicle. If that's not possible, make sure to leave your itinerary with someone in case of emergency. And if you break down beyond repair in unfamiliar surroundings, stay with your vehicle. Exposure to the elements can cause you more grief than spending a few nights in your rig.
  • Make the Grade: When traversing steep inclines, use your lowest gear and shift your transfer case to low. While trail conditions (i.e., mud, snow, sand, loose rocks) may make or break your climb, up your chances of success by keeping the tires on the same plane, which prevents spinning. If forward progress ceases, back up and try a different line, or run a winch uphill.
  • Test the Waters: River crossings can be deceptive. Check the depth on foot, then pop the hood and locate your engine's air intake: If the water is deep enough to reach it, find another route. If not, enter slowly and at a 90-degree angle to the current. If you suck water into your motor and the engine stops, do not restart it. Get towed out, then remove the spark plugs and rev the engine for 30 seconds. This will pump water out of the cylinders and save you a costly trip to the mechanic.
  • Get Schooled: Fine-tune your skills with Bill Burke, owner of 4-Wheeling America in Moab, Utah, whose hands-on one- to five-day clinics teach recovery, vehicle preparation, and terrain technique ($350 for a two-day group course;

Get in Gear

Flat tires happen. Rather than swap out your spare, a trail fix is fast and easy using a pair of pliers and Safety Seal ($50;, shown. Stuck in the mud? A tug from another vehicle using a Pro Comp Explorer tow strap ($35; may extricate you. If not, a sturdy bumper such as the ARB Bull Bar ($650; and the Warn electric winch ($800;, both shown, may save the day. Be advised: A winch's pull rating should be one-and-a-half times your vehicle's weight.

Most factory jacks are barely suitable for changing a tire on dry pavement. Opt instead for a Hi-Lift Jack ($70;, which also serves as a log splitter and a hand winch. Come time for the dirty work, slap on a pair of Mechanix Wear Gloves ($25;, shown, to keep hands clean and protected.

Obstacle Course
  • Don't Get in a Rut: When traversing a gully, avoid axle damage or a buried bumper by straddling the depression with one set of tires on either side. Once under way, watch the driver's-side tires to maintain your position and go slowly in your lowest gear. For shallower ditches like water bars-the man-made diagonal drainage troughs that cross fire roads and other access routes-take an angled approach to maximize ground clearance and to allow your suspension to work properly.
  • Airtime: Lowering the air pressure in your tires gives you a larger "footprint" (gearhead speak for more surface area) and, therefore, more traction. On dirt roads, reduce the pressure to 50 percent of the maximum stated on the tire. In soft sand or snow, you can go as low as 30 percent. Air them up before returning to pavement with a rechargeable Power Tank air system ($429;, a dive tank, regulated for inflating tires and kayaks and powering pneumatic tools.
  • Winching Basics: For the tree's sake, never wrap a winch cable directly around its trunk. A raw-steel cable will permanently scar the bark and possibly kill the tree. Instead loop a tree-saver strap around the base of the trunk and secure it to the winch cable with a Warn D-Shackle ($29; And before you start winching, lay a jacket, sleeping bag, or personal flotation device mid-span over the cable. This simple technique could help save you and your car by absorbing excess energy in the event of a cable snap.

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