Year: 2010

Eliminate “Off-Road” Abuse!

That should get everyone's attention! 😀 What I am actually referring to is the overuse of the term "off road" as opposed to "off highway," "off pavement," or "4-wheeling." For as long as I can remember, the recreational sport of 4-wheeling has been called "off-roading," as in "Hey, y'all, let's load up the Jeep and spend the weekend offroading!" Somewhere along the way, the legal definition of "OFF road" came to mean when you are NOT on an established public thoroughfare.

As a group, those of us who engage in the use of unpaved roads and trails for recreation need to update our vocabulary to more legally accurate terms, and here is why: I frequently experience incidents where a mere misunderstanding of each party's definitions have caused unnecessary conflict and confusion.

For example, when a local Forest Service district announced they were considering eliminating all off-road use, the local Jeep club came unglued, until the fine print was reviewed, revealing that what was actually proposed was the elimination of allowing people to drive off of the established trails onto virgin terrain--our favorite 4-wheeling trails were not actually in peril (that time).

Another common confusion I encounter is in the Jeep rental business. We frequently have guests tell us "I'm not sure if my insurance covers me off road," to which we reply "That's fine since you aren't actually going off road today." Then we explain it: The legal definition of "off road" by land management agencies and insurance companies is "off of an established public thoroughfare." When a ranger or insurance adjuster says "off road", what they mean is "were you on a named and/or numbered, identifiably established trail?" Even trails like Smasher Canyon and Broken Arrow are officially-recognized public thoroughfares--legally, you are "ON road". 

Therefore, I have been trying to catch myself whenever I say "off-road" and changing it to "4-wheeling," "off-highway," "trail riding" or " rock crawling." I should also mention that the term "trail" in Forest Service-ese means hiking, so mindful of that, too. Sheesh! 
Bottom line: stay off of the topsoil, ask about the local rules, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification. 
Happy trails!

Enjoy the Trip!

This past Saturday, I ventured out onto Diamondback Gulch. It's a moderate Jeep trail in West Sedona that is not nearly as well known as Broken Arrow, Soldier Pass, or Schnebly Hill. In fact, on busy Saturdays, it's one of those trails you take because you know there will only be a few folks out there. But on this Saturday, there were countless tour Jeeps and three different 4x4 clubs on this mere 6-mile trail. What is usually a casual two-hour excursion was a harried 3-hour stop, wait, and back-up game.

With Spring Breaks starting all across the west this week, traffic snarls and manic visitors are the expected fare in tourism towns all over, both on and off pavement. This carries over onto even our most exclusive 4-wheeling Jeep trails. A few reminders:

  1. Safety comes first--no matter how late you may be to whatever appointment or next scheduled activity, it's never worth the safety of you or your family to hurry: stay calm, pay attention (no texting or taking pictures while driving), don't rush. There are way too many other harried people out there this time of year. Stay alert!
  2. Educate yourself--call ahead to your destination or next activity to find out what the weather conditions are, what road construction snarls you may be able to avoid, or what alternate activities or timing could better suit your needs to help you avoid peak traffic. Most business operators are happy to help direct visitors to a time frame that will be better for everyone. Some Jeep trails are busier certain days of the week or time of day. Some road construction snags can be avoided by alternate routes or different times of day.
  3. Have fun! Remember why you are out there--to enjoy the natural beauty of your surroundings, and share a fun experience with friends and loved ones. Plan some extra time in case of unplanned snags in your schedule--have snacks or activities for kids ready. Make the best of whatever situation you encounter. Keep everything in perspective and ENJOY your trip.

Happy Trails!

Trail Clean-up: What are YOU doing next Saturday?

I'll keep this short and sweet...well, at least short. If you love the outdoors--four-wheeling, hiking, fishing, whatever--you need to give back. Disrespectful, lazy, worthless scum leave trash on our trails every day. No, it's not our trash, but it is our land and our responsibility to take care of it. Participating in a trail clean-up is a great way to get started on responsible land use, a great way to meet other like-minded recreationists, and the most fun trash pickin' you will ever have.

Four Peaks is a beautiful area northeast of Phoenix that is abused by slobs. There is an annual clean-up there, and we are making headway--every year gets a little better. This year's event is NEXT SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2010. Join me and a bunch of other people here, or watch for a clean-up near you through your local club, association, or land management agency.

Happy Trails!

Winter Driving: On and Off Pavement

I am always appalled when a driver speeds past me on an icy highway, refusing to drop below the speed limit regardless of road conditions. More often than not, you see that same driver slide out into the median some miles up. And, also more often than not, when you ask them what they were thinking they reply, “It’s 4-wheel-drive!”

Today’s new vehicles almost all provide some sort of anti-skid program. On Jeeps it’s called ESP (Electronic Stability Program), which senses when the vehicle is going to slide and uses the brake system (ABS) to correct the vehicle. However, ice is still ice, and though an anti-skid program may prevent you from doing a triple sow cow with a double axle (a lovely spinning figure skating maneuver--I have done this particular maneuver before, in a 2wd pickup in Colorado), slide you will if you don’t employ good driving BEFORE hitting the ice.

Regardless of your vehicles programming, you are better off preparing in advance for what may come than trying to recover from it after you have made some driving errors. Slow down and try to just maintain a steady pace rather than “making good time”. The goal is to get home in one piece, not necessarily on time. Be alert to changing conditions and anticipate what changes may occur on the road surface.

The concept of situational awareness and constant vigilance while driving, in any conditions, is one I attempted to relate to the author of a survival book who came to me for advice about what to do if your car careens down a steep mountainside. I told him “If you have already made the series of wrong choices that led to you careening off of the road in the first place, it is unlikely that you will be able to properly execute the techniques to save your hide as you are sliding down the hillside.” I humored him anyway, but my opinion stays the same: it is preferable to properly prepare than to engage in recovery.

Here are a few tips for winter driving conditions, applicable to both paved and unpaved driving:

  1. 4-wheel-drive vehicles are not invincible. Ice provides little or no traction, regardless of whether you have power to one wheel or four or eighteen. When I warn people about icy roads going to Flagstaff, and they shrug and say “I have a 4-wheel-drive”, I usually respond “…with studded tires? Because ice doesn’t care how-many-drive you have. No traction is no traction.” I’ll put my money on an experienced winter driver in a front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla over an inexperienced driver in a 4wd Lincoln Navigator any day. Also, if you have huge lug gaps in some super aggressive rock tires, you can paddle powder like a champ, but your tires will be lost on ice.
  2. Slow and steady wins the race. When you find yourself on slippery roads, paved or not, maintaining a slow steady pace, with as few speed or course corrections as possible, will get you across the slick section better than hitting gas, slamming brake, or yanking wheels back and forth. On pavement, do NOT use cruise control on wet or icy roads. Do NOT use axle locks, except at low, slow speeds—driving a full time locked Jeep on a highway with icy patches was one of the most thrilling and frightening experiences of my life. All that said, the number one mistake I see is SPEED—whether on dry sandstone or icy highway, it seems that I am always yelling at people to slow down. But, inversely, you also don’t want to panic stop—if you are wheeling along a shelf road and you start sliding toward the edge, often a little more steady pressure on the throttle will keep you moving forward on the road, whereas braking will just enhance the slide. STEADY is the key. Did I mention that you should slow down?
  3. Give yourself some space. Not only should you allow plenty of extra time in winter conditions, but remember that the same dirt road that allows you to stop within 10 feet, may take 30-50 feet or more if it’s muddy or icy, depending on your momentum (see point 2, above, about slowing down!). If you are traveling with other vehicles, proceed one at a time up or down even hills that are easy when dry, that can become like a greased slide when wet.
  4. Plan ahead. Many tragedies can be averted by just a little planning, research, and preparation. What are the current conditions where you are going? At what altitudes will you be traveling? What is the weather forecast? What is the temperature range for your route (day and night)? What time does it get dark? Are you prepared to turn back if conditions get dicey? Are you prepared to be outdoors in cold/dark/wet conditions? Let’s say you blow a tire or your vehicle battery dies at night in a snow storm—do you have sufficient equipment and clothing for it NOT to become a life-threatening incident? Always have an escape plan—where is the best turn around point? Where is the closest point of civilization?
  5. Anticipate. It’s better to be proactive than reactive. If you come to a decline that is slushy, muddy or icy, and you have only driven it dry before, you should expect this descent to be quite different! You should anticipate it to be slippery. You should be reminding yourself that if the rear end starts to come around, you want to ease off the brake and turn the wheel into the slide or lean. If it’s solid ice, you may want to consider what the bumpstop is at the bottom, or decide not to proceed at all! All of these things should be mentally assessed BEFORE you proceed. Be alert--LOOK and THINK!

Even the most careful drivers and trip planners encounter problems. Here are some for recovering from sliding or getting unstuck:

  1. In a slide or a lean, turn your tires into the slide/lean for the best control. The instinct of many drivers is to turn away from the slide or lean, but that will actually diminish your traction and control. Watch what this guy does with the steering wheel when his Corvette starts to slide at the 27-second mark of the video.
  2. Understand where your best power is. The rear wheels are always pushing you forward. The more you crank your front tires to one side or another, the more resistance you are creating to the forward power which your rear wheels are trying to provide. Keep your front tires straight for maximum forward power.
  3. Balance the weight: if passengers or luggage can be shifted in the vehicle to balance the weight on the wheels, you have a better chance for traction with equal weight distribution between each of the 4 wheels. Sometimes, just lightening the load in the vehicle is enough to get you unstuck, by either getting passengers or luggage safely out and away from the vehicle.
  4. Give the tires something to grab: rocks, floor mats, salt or sand. If you have a tire on one side of the axle spinning and not the other, concentrate on giving the spinning tire the traction. Another trick for this situation is to use left-foot braking (if you have an automatic) or e-brake application (if you have a manual)—applying the brake, while applying a little throttle at the same time allows some power to transfer to the other wheel, arguably the one that does have traction.
  5. A winch or another vehicle with a strap is always a great option for a seriously lodged vehicle, but always remember personal safety first. Take the time to carefully assess the situation and make sure all PEOPLE are safe before proceeding with any recovery of a vehicle.

Some more reading about Winter 4-wheeling:

Happy trails!