How to Off-Road Responsibly
From the right tires for the terrain to proper trail etiquette, here’s everything you need to know
With the #vanlife and overlanding lovers joining the legions of outdoor enthusiasts pushing their trucks and all-wheel-drive wagons and SUVs further into the backcountry, there have never been more people exploring our nation’s back roads, forest service roads, and off-road trails. “Whether your objective is just a fun off-road adventure or you’re using your vehicle to access a trailhead, crag, or river, it’s more important than ever to follow proper off-road rules and etiquette,” says Ryan Dull, stewardship and outreach specialist for Stay the Trail Colorado, an off-roading educator. “The goal is to minimize your impact on the trails but also to safely share the trails with fellow off-roaders and hikers, cyclists, and anyone else who might be enjoying the trail.” From how to navigate obstacles to advice on how match tires to your vehicle and local terrain from the experts at Toyo Tires, here’s everything you need to know to off-road responsibly.
Know Before You Go
“One of the biggest reasons you need to know all the rules and regulations and proper etiquette is to keep these areas open,” says Stay the Trail’s Dull. “Your impact on the land can have lasting damage.” Start by obtaining copies of any applicable maps, like a Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map, which will tell you which roads and trails are legal to drive on, and use mapping apps like Gaia GPS or OnX Off Road. You should also check the land agency’s website or call to ask whether there are any restrictions due to seasonal road closures, forest fires, or other events.
Match Tires to Your Vehicle and Conditions
“When choosing a new set of tires, it’s important to think about your vehicle, your driving habits, where you live, and the terrain and weather you typically encounter,” says Todd Bergeson, senior product manager of light truck tires at Toyo Tire USA. If you principally drive on pavement but plan to spend a fair amount of time on rough dirt roads, Bergeson recommends looking for a tire like the Toyo Open Country A/T III, the tire Bryan Rogala is running on his truck in the video above. With a more aggressive tread pattern and sturdier build than a standard all-weather tire, the Open Country A/T III is designed for lots of miles on dirt and rock and will provide more traction and protection against flats. It also comes with up to a 65,000-mile treadwear warranty and a three-peak mountain snowflake rating, meaning it does well in the snow. And, it’s available in a wide variety of sizes and several load ranges for vehicles ranging from a Subaru Outback or Honda CRV to a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Tacoma, or Ford Super Duty.
If you spend more time off-road but want to maintain lower road noise and comfort for the times you are on pavement, Bergeson recommends a hybrid tire like the Open Country R/T, which offers excellent off-road handling and added durability with the on-road manners of an all-terrain tire. It also comes with a 45,000-mile treadwear warranty. Finally, for overlanders that frequent ungroomed roads with lots of mud, dirt, and rocks, Bergeson points to the legendary Open Country M/T, Toyo Tires’ most durable, aggressive tire. The “M/T” in this case stands for Maximum Traction, which is reflected in this tire’s seriously burly tread and purpose-built sidewalls designed for traction in the most severe terrain.
Whatever tire you chose, remember to inspect them after each adventure. Make sure your air pressure is at the recommended PSI; check your tread depth and look for any signs of punctures, cracking, or wear. If you need someone to help, Toyo Tires has a long list of reputable dealers on their website.
Be Prepared for Anything
As for all the other gear, it’s easy to dive into the gear rabbit hole with off-roading, but beyond tires, you’ll really just need some basic recovery equipment. A tow strap, shovel, water, food, and perhaps some emergency overnight gear will ensure you can handle just about any situation.
How to Navigate Obstacles
Everything from sand pits and stream crossings to rock gardens and deep ruts are all part of the adventure. The key is knowing how to approach them before you encounter them. The number-one rule of off-road driving, says Dull, is to go “as slow as possible and as fast as necessary.” “Always cross a creek at a 90-degree angle, and don’t try to splash water, because that causes more erosion,” Dull says.
You can apply that same principle to rock gardens and hills. Instead of using throttle and momentum to get up a steep hill, or riding your brakes down a scary descent, make sure you put your vehicle in four-wheel low and keep it in first gear to use engine braking and lower gearing to your advantage. “You never want to spin tires. Spinning tires is the quickest way to lose traction, whether you’re on rocks, in the sand, or in mud,” Dull says. “You always want to maintain throttle control with traction.”
Just as with mountain biking, it’s also important to go over obstacles rather than around them. “Always try to place your tire on the obstacle. That leaves the least impact and you’d be surprised how capable your vehicle is of going over things,” Dull says. Driving around a large ledge, rock garden, or other features also causes trail braiding and widening, which should be avoided.
In general, if you’re in a motor vehicle you’ll need to yield to everyone else on the trail and slow down or stop to let hikers, cyclists, or anyone else pass. If you encounter another vehicle on a narrow road and there’s not enough room to turn around, you’ll need to figure out how to move briefly off the trail while doing the least possible damage to plants beside the road. Predetermined hand signals and in-vehicle communication devices like GMRS radios or walkie-talkies come in extremely handy if you’re traveling in a group.
Leave No Trace
Off-roading, just like camping and other outdoor activities, should follow Leave No Trace principles. Don’t drive on muddy trails; pack out everything you pack in; don’t create new campsites, fire rings, or trails; and in general leave wherever you’re exploring better than you found it. Do your homework before you head out—organizations like Tread Lightly and Dull’s Stay the Trail Colorado are great resources for learning more about responsible off-roading. And if you’re new to off-roading, look for a local 4×4 club to go out with your first time. “It’s really pretty simple,” says Outside’s Rogala. “Know your vehicle, know where you’re going, don’t go too fast, and make sure you have a good set of tires.”
Toyo Tires® has delivered innovation, quality, and performance for 75 years. Well-known for the Open Country® line of light truck and SUV tires, the company offers a tire for nearly every vehicle including crossovers, sports cars, and luxury sedans. Many of the tires are built in the United States at their state-of-the-art factory in Georgia. Find the right tire and an authorized dealer at toyotires.com.