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Treading Lightly - Driving Off-Road Safely

By Mark Sasser, Wildlife Biologist

To drive “off-road” means to drive off a paved roadway. Usually this is done with a four-wheel drive vehicle and requires good judgment to avoid personal injury and vehicle damage. This good judgment is often directly related to vehicle speed. The faster you go, the more things can go wrong.

When driving in mud, be cautious of sudden vehicle speeds or directions that could mean a loss of traction. Apply the accelerator slowly and avoid spinning the wheels if possible. When you spin your tires, you could just be digging your way to being stuck. If the rear of the vehicle slides while cornering, steer in the direction of the slide until you regain control of your vehicle. Use these same recommendations when driving over sand, as well.

Before driving through water, try to determine the depth by stopping and probing the water with a long stick. Drive slowly and try to avoid water higher than the center of the wheel. Driving fast could cause splashing that could drown out the ignition system, stalling the vehicle. Once out of the water, the brakes may not stop the vehicle as effectively as dry brakes. Dry the brakes by applying light pressure to the brake pedal while driving the vehicle slowly for a short distance.

Although natural obstacles may make it necessary to travel up or down a hill or steep incline, you should always try to drive straight up or straight down. Avoid driving crosswise on steep slopes or hills. A danger lies in losing traction, slipping sideways and possibly rolling over.

When climbing a steep slope or hill, start out in a lower gear rather than downshifting to a lower gear from a higher gear once you have started to ascend. This reduces the strain on your engine and will help prevent it from stalling. If your engine stalls out, do not try to turn around because you might start a rollover. Always back down to a safe location.

Descend a hill in the same gear you would use to climb up the hill to avoid excessive brake pressure and overheating. As you descend, avoid sharp, hard braking to avoid losing control. In a vehicle without four-wheel anti-lock brakes, if you lock up the front brakes, the front wheels can’t roll and if they aren’t rolling, you won’t be able to steer. The front wheels have to be rolling in order to steer the vehicle. Rapid pumping of the brakes will help you slow the vehicle and still maintain steering control. If your vehicle has four-wheel anti-lock brakes, do not pump the brakes, but apply and hold the brakes firmly.

Always be considerate of the landowner, whether on private or public land. Drive responsibly and avoid as much damage to the landscape as possible to prevent erosion problems. If on public lands, be aware of land-use regulations and responsibilities. Know the terrain and map out your area before driving off road. “Treading lightly” should be your off-road motto.

For more information, contact Mark Sasser, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, 334-242-3469.


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