Backcountry Touring 101

Excerpts from the Backcountry Byways series (Wilderness Press)

Properly equipped sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks, dual-sport motorcycles and the like are built to take people to places that sedans, vans and station wagons either cannot or should not go. Despite their comforts, they are rugged and reliable transport—backcountry, frontcountry, any country. They can go from the showroom straight into the hills without modifications. For people who are committed to an active outdoor lifestyle, they can be indispensable.

One of my family's two Toyota 4Runners has a 5-speed manual transmission and a stock 4-cylinder engine, which I've found to be quite adequate, not to mention economical, even when it's loaded with the four of us and our camping gear. The other has a V6 and an automatic transmission. I've never felt any need for a V8.

I've learned to appreciate options that I once dismissed as extravagant. Take easily adjusted electric side mirrors. They will pay for themselves the first time you have to back up a narrow track above a killer drop-off to let another vehicle pass. Normally I have nothing good to say about sunroofs, until I'm in a high-walled canyon gazing up at soaring cliffs or a high rock face covered with prehistoric rock art.

There is a huge four-wheel-drive accessories market. Are those add-ons necessary? It depends on how much, and what type, of adventure motoring you plan to do. The requirements of serious four-wheeling on technically challenging routes differ from those of backcountry touring. The former can require extensive vehicle modifications, which can degrade on-highway performance and reliability. The latter does not.

Still, if you enjoy traveling the West's vast network of backcountry roads, there can be real benefits to adding extra lights, sturdier or even larger tires, a suspension lift kit, a more versatile roof carrier, heavier skid plates, perhaps even an after-market locking differential. (I've never owned a winch.) These enhancements can make it far easier to traverse rough terrain and get deeper into the wild as a self-contained explorer.

Backcountry roads can give even the toughest vehicle a workout, so follow the recommendations in your owner's manual for dusty, wet and muddy conditions. Check the tires often because no part of your vehicle will take a greater beating. If you pass through an old mining area, expect to pick up a nail now and then. Always travel with a good spare. You will eventually need it.

When you get back to town, head for the car wash. It's important to clean the wheels, brakes and undercarriage to prevent rust, corrosion and abrasion. You also don't want to carry home the mud, dirt and debris that has collected underneath because transporting spores, insects and other organisms to disparate geographic regions via off-highway vehicles can spread pests and disease to areas where plants and animals lack resistance.

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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