Backcountry Touring 101

Excerpts from the Backcountry Byways series (Wilderness Press)

Most of the time, simply driving more slowly and cautiously than you do on paved roads will get you where you want to go and back again. Here are some tips for those inevitable times when the going will get rough.

All thumbs? You won't be for long if you forget to keep them on the outside edge of the steering wheel. Otherwise, the wheel's spokes can badly injure your thumbs if a front wheel is suddenly jerked in an unexpected direction. If the steering wheel is being rocked back and forth by the terrain, keep your hands loose on the wheel, at 10 and 2 o'clock. Leaning forward in especially rough conditions and keeping your back away from the seat will prevent you from being tossed about so much.

Uphill traffic has the right of way, if practical, because it's usually easier and safer to back up to a pullout, using gravity as a brake, than to back down a slope while fighting the pull of gravity.

Think ahead. If you have a part-time 4WD system, engage it before you need it to stay out of trouble.

When in doubt, scout. If you're uncertain about the road ahead, check it out on foot.

Air down in sand, deep mud and rocky terrain. While standard tire pressure usually will provide adequate traction, soft, dry sand—which you will encounter on some routes in this book—can require temporarily airing down (letting air out) to 15 psi or perhaps even 10 psi in some conditions to expand the tire's "footprint," or contact patch, for greater flotation and traction. The risk in doing this, however, is that you will lose ground clearance and the tires' relatively thin sidewalls will bulge, making them more vulnerable to cuts and punctures. On rocky terrain, airing down to perhaps 20 psi will soften the ride some and lessen the punishment the roadbed inflicts on the suspension. On especially rocky and steep ground, airing down even more also will allow the tires to wrap themselves around the rocks for better grip. Shallow mud can be underlain by firm ground, so normal tire inflation or overinflation can help tires penetrate to terra firma.

Tire manufacturer Dunlop recommends deflating tires in off-highway conditions by the following percentages from normal pressure:
Rough terrain: -10 percent
Sand: -25 to -40 percent
Mud: -30 percent
Loose ground at very low speed for short distances: as much as -50 percent

Remember to reinflate the tires before driving at speed or on pavement.

Maintain speed and forward momentum. Go as slowly as you can but as quickly as you must. Slowing down or stopping in sand and mud can be the worst thing to do. Keep up your speed, and keep moving. Drive in established tracks. Higher gears tend to be more effective than lower gears in poor-traction conditions.

Because of the range of problems that driving in mud poses (roadbed damage, vehicle damage, transporting biological organisms from one ecosystem to another), avoid it. If it rains, pull onto firm, high ground and let the storm pass. Then wait for the road to dry out and for any potential flood danger to pass. If you begin to lose traction in mud, turn the steering wheel rapidly one way and then the other, back and forth, which can help the tires grip. If you do get stuck, dig out the sides of the tires to relieve suction, and pack debris around the tires for traction.

Dust storms and flash floods are dangerous. Blinding dust storms can kick up suddenly in the desert. Do not attempt to drive through one. Instead, pull over to a safe place, turn off the engine and wait it out, keeping the windows and doors closed. In summer, the season of sudden monsoonal downpours, you are likely to encounter floods and washed-out roads. Never enter a flooded area. If you're in a wash or narrow canyon when a storm appears to be developing, even far away, get out, or at least get to high ground. If a section of road is washed out, you'll have to decide for yourself whether you can get through safely. Often, though, desert floods will create steep and high banks and debris fields that you won't be able to get over or through easily.

Stick to the high points. When the going gets particularly rough, shift into low range, go slow, and keep the tires on the high spots, thus keeping the undercarriage high and away from obstacles that can damage the differentials (or "pumpkins") or other components. Place the tires on the rocks to keep the vehicle high. Do not let large rocks pass directly beneath the vehicle.

Straddle ruts, letting them pass beneath the vehicle. If you must cross a rut, do so at an angle, easing one tire at a time across it. Do the same for depressions, dips, ledges or "steps," and ditches.

If you get stuck, don't panic. Calmly analyze the situation. With thought and work, you'll get out. Don't spin your tires, which will dig you in deeper. Jack up the vehicle if you can, backfill the hole beneath the problem wheel, building a base high enough to give you a bit of a rolling downhill start. Put the planks, sand ladders or strips of carpet you brought beneath and ahead of each tire (or behind, if you're hoping to back out) for traction. If you have water to spare, dampen the sand to firm it up. Lower the vehicle, and if you're faced with soft sand, reduce the tire pressure to 15 psi or even lower to increase the tires' footprint.

If the vehicle gets high-centered, meaning your undercarriage is lodged on something and your tires can't grip the ground, take out your jack (don't use a bumper jack) and the little board you brought to set it on. Carefully raise the vehicle, little by little, placing rocks, dirt and debris under each suspended tire until you've made a downslope that will help you get going and keep going.

To get over a ledge, either use the rock ramp that is likely to be there already, or use a few nearby rocks to build one. Put one wheel over at a time. Don't leave an excavation site behind.

Be prepared to remove deadfall from the roadway. Occasionally you may encounter a fallen tree or limb in the road. It's usually possible to drive around it. If you must drive over it, approach at an angle and put one wheel at a time over it. If you carry a folding saw, as I do, cut it away. If the obstacle is too large to cut or move by hand, consider using your tow strap to pull it out of the way.

Have someone act as a spotter to help you maneuver through difficult places, and use low range and a low gear for better control and to keep the engine revs high.

Try not to spin your tires, which tears up the road and can get you stuck, or stuck worse than you already may be. Some newer 4WD vehicles have sophisticated electronic traction-control systems designed to eliminate wheel spin by instantly transferring power from spinning wheels to the wheel or wheels with traction. Hills are often badly chewed up by the spinning tires of vehicles that lack locking differentials or traction-control systems. If you encounter such a hill, shift into low range and keep your wheels on the high spots between the holes.

Before climbing over a steep, blind hilltop, find out what's up there and on the other side. Depending on how steep it is and how much power your vehicle has, shift into low range. Drive straight up, accelerate as you climb, keep moving and then slow down as you near the top.

If the engine stalls on a hill, stop and immediately set the parking brake hard and tight. Here, an automatic transmission can help you get going again easily. Just shift into "park" and turn the key. If you have a manual transmission, you may be able to compression-start the engine if you're facing downhill. If you're facing uphill, try shifting into first gear/low range. Turn the engine over without clutching and let the starter motor move things along a bit until the engine starts and takes over. Otherwise, you'll have to work the clutch, hand brake and accelerator simultaneously to get going again without rolling backward. Modern clutch-equipped vehicles require the driver to depress the clutch pedal to start the engine, which is fine in a parking lot but difficult on a steep mountain incline. However, some vehicles have clutch bypass switches that let you start the engine without depressing the clutch, a great help when stalled on a climb.

If you can't make it up a hill, don't try to turn around. Stop and put the transmission in reverse/low range. Tilt the exterior mirrors, if you can, so that you can see what the rear tires are doing. Then slowly back straight down. Never descend in neutral, relying on the brakes. If you must apply the brakes, do so lightly and steadily to minimize the risk of losing traction and going into a slide. Go straight down steep inclines, using low range and the lowest driving gear so the engine can help brake. But remember that automatic transmissions, which I think are best overall, don't provide as much engine-braking ability as manual transmissions.

Avoid traversing the side of a steep hill. Occasionally, though, mountain roads do cross steep slopes, sometimes tilting the vehicle "off-camber," or toward the downhill side. It's almost always an unnerving experience for me. Lean heavily (no pun intended) toward caution under such circumstances. You might want to remove cargo from the roof to lower your vehicle's already-high center of gravity and proceed slowly. It might help to turn the front wheels up-slope, into the hill. If you decide not to continue, do not attempt to turn around. Tilt the exterior mirrors so you can watch the rear tires, shift into reverse/low range for greater low-speed control, and slowly back up until you reach a spot where you can turn around safely.

Don't cross waterways if there's an alternative. Fording streams and shallow rivers is fun, to be sure. But many living things reside in or otherwise depend on streams and can be harmed by careless and unnecessary crossings that stir up sediment and erode stream banks. If you must cross, use an established crossing point. Check the depth with a stick if necessary, comparing the depth to your vehicle (hub deep generally is the deepest you should go). Another possibility is to walk across first.

Don't cross if the current is fast and deep. Never enter a flooding desert wash. Often, a somewhat fast-moving perennial stream will be safer to cross than a sluggish one because continuously moving water prevents sediments from settling, keeping the bed rocky and firm. Slow-moving or still water, on the other hand, lets sediment and mud build up.

Once across, stop and inspect the vehicle. The brakes will be wet, so use them a few times to dry them out. The tires also will be wet and may not grip the roadbed as well.

Tony Huegel is the author of the acclaimed Backcountry Byways series of books, published by Wilderness Press. Find out more about his books at

Published: 3 Jul 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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