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January 26, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm a total noob when it comes to off-roading; can you help me figure out how to get started?

It seems like lately I've been putting more dirt-road mileage on my Honda Accord than city miles. I live about a half mile from where I work, so my in-town vehicular needs are minimal, and most of my fun these days consists of getting out into the desert and going hiking or camping. Now the lure of more remote trailheads and campsites beckons, and I'm thinking of getting a vehicle that might be better suited to rougher terrain.

I'm thinking small SUV, but I'll consider pickups, and I'm not sure whether I should be looking at 4wd or all-wheel drive, or just standard two-wheel drive. My primary criteria would be reliability. I'm not going to be doing any heavy-duty rock crawling, but enough clearance to navigate primitive roads would be good. It'll mostly be used to get me and a couple of friends out into nature for a couple of days at a time, plus the usual in-town errands and such. Since I'm going to need to feel okay about beating it up a bit, nothing really new; let's say a price range around eight grand.

More than that, though, I'd like advice on what I should know before starting out. What resources do you recommend for learning how to handle a vehicle off-road, how to prepare for off-road automotive emergencies, and so on? What do you wish all the newbies out there knew?
posted by MrVisible to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Spend the time getting a lesson from a professional who teaches exactly this. Don't be that guy who thinks he knows how to drive cause he's had a licence for years and has driven the same mile and a half to and from work every day for the past five years. Driving off road is a different beast altogether.
posted by dougrayrankin at 9:53 AM on January 26, 2011

Find and join a ORV club in your area would be step one.

It's way safer and more fun to go with a group and they can teach you how to wheel in your area. For example I got started in the mud on low flat flood plains. That's very different skill and a different vehicle type than driving up steep hills or rocks.

As for the vehicle, you only want 4 wheel drive. You probably want solid axles and not IFS. I'd suggest you look at the Jeep Cherokee but I'm biased because I've owned 4.

Why the XJ? Parts and mechanics are plentiful. There are tons of sites for heavy modding, but you can take them on primitive roads in stock running gear without worry. They are cheap too - $4k for good condition, then the other $4k is for parts/maintenance/camping beers. And the look is just.. cool.
posted by anti social order at 10:08 AM on January 26, 2011

Find a group of off-road enthusiasts in your area and go on some trail rides as a passenger. Ask questions (not in the middle of delicate maneuvers, obviously). I'm most familiar with off-road groups being brand-specific (Jeep, Toyota, etc.), but there are some that are broader.

I'm reasonably familiar with the Toyota off-road scene, and it's pretty big and pretty diverse, with local chapters throughout the country. I'm sure other brands are just as well represented. The main thing would be to meet people who are actively participating in this and ask some questions. No need to be shy, either, as we love talking about our trucks!
posted by mosk at 10:09 AM on January 26, 2011

I don't think people understand how important clearance is. The amount of clearance the vehicle has will really determine where you can go. With two choices I would buy the vehicle with the highest clearance.
posted by cda at 10:13 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in the same boat as yourself. What I have done is started hanging out on the local offroad forums. The local off road association puts on an easy newbie ride every month, so I'm going to tag along!

I see that you're in Arizona. A quick google search yields this.
posted by aeighty at 10:22 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: I have a jeep wrangler, with slightly larger than stock tires and a stock suspension. I've been all over utah, nevada, idaho, montana, oregon and washington in it and have never pined for greater clearance. it gets me over the highway comfortably and over the rough stuff in style.
I carry proper safety equipment, a radio, and always have a buddy if the going is going to be sketchy. yes i have a winch, but am seldom forced to use it.
For a noob, start w/ a stock vehicle with the proper tires, learn that slow is the best way to handle rough terrain, have a spotter help you navigate and you will be surprised at just how much fun you will have. you can always graduate to purpose built off road vehicles, but why run before you know how to walk.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:24 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: After getting stuck overnight in the middle of Nevada, twenty miles from the nearest paved road, with a broken transfer-case shifter and no food, water, tools, or warm clothing, I heartily recommend being better prepared for disaster than I was. My (ex-)wife and I got through it alright but it was an unpleasant and extremely stressful experience.

From then on I left a trunk in the back of my jeep containing a (sealed) gallon of water, a dozen powerbars, cans of fruit juice, a spare blanket and fleece jacket, a flashlight, and a box of tools. I almost never needed this stuff but it sure was nice not to have to worry about dying of exposure in the wilderness anymore.

Aside from that, I learned most of what I know about off-road driving by going out on trail rides with a 4x4 club. When you're out on your own you have to play it safe, because getting stuck means digging or winching yourself out. When you're out with a group, though, you can be as aggressive as you want, because the other vehicles can pull you out. It's a lot easier to push yourself and improve your technique. You can also learn a lot by watching the other drivers tackle the same obstacle, one after another; you start to see what works and what doesn't, and you can try it out when it's your turn.

When you're a newbie in a 4x4 club it's good etiquette to bring your own tow strap. Get the kind with screw-in D-shackles, not the kind with hooks - the hooks are useless off-road as they will pop loose and hurt people. Other drivers will likely have their own tow straps, but if you're the newbie you'll be getting pulled most often, so make it convenient for the other drivers.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:56 AM on January 26, 2011

4wd Toyota Tacoma! Very reliable, great for off-roading and plenty of online discussion.
posted by meta87 at 10:58 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm in a similar situation to you, and stumbled upon a well maintained Cherokee with brand new mud tires. (91)
It's been a solidly reliable vehicle, and they were common enough that parts are plentiful if anything did go wrong. I'd recommend it. Mine has been good for gas milage as well. (for it's class.

I don't think people understand how important clearance is. The amount of clearance the vehicle has will really determine where you can go. With two choices I would buy the vehicle with the highest clearance.

The trade off there is that the higher you sit, the better your chances of rolling right?
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:10 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Lots of good info here, and I'll add from my experience. Is this solely going to be an off-road rig or will it be a daily driver as well? Big suspension lifts are fun, for creeks and rock crawling, but a huge pain in the ass for highway driving. Same for tires, if you throw bias-ply super swampers on your rig, you'll wear them out in less than a month of freeway driving.

If it's going to be a multipurpose vehicle as well as a "for fun" rig, start with a good compromise. Go stock or a very minimal suspension lift, good all-terrain tires (BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A are fantastic for all purpose off-roading, they are easily recognized by their "C-pattern" treads), and know your vehicle. My first rig was a '78 Bronco with stock suspension and 33" tires, and for my camping/hiking/hunting purposes, there was nowhere I wanted to go that that rig couldn't take me. Sure, when you get into serious rock crawling, we're talking about an entirely different animal, but from what it sounds like you want out of a vehicle, I think a stock or close-to-stock SUV with a good set of tires will do you just fine.

The XJ recommendation is a good one, it drives great on- and off-road, and will take you anywhere you want to go. Parts are plentiful and cheap, and there are tons of modifications out there.

As to your 4WD vs AWD question, you definitely want 4WD. Having a hi/lo range is a great tool to have at your disposal.
posted by xedrik at 12:16 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've found the forums for a couple of local clubs dedicated to off-road vehicles, and their interests seem a lot more hard-core than I'd like to get. These are people with serious heavy-duty fully-customized rock-crawlers. I'm just looking at getting a few miles further on kind of rough roads so I can enjoy the peace and quiet.

The answers so far have brought up a ton of questions. How would I find a professional who teaches this? What are the proper tires? Assuming I'm not going to join an ORV club, is there any other way to find out more about how to make the right decisions about vehicle choice, training, and equipment?
posted by MrVisible at 12:20 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: xedrik, thanks for the great info. This would be my only vehicle, so your compromise solution is definitely on the right track.
posted by MrVisible at 12:36 PM on January 26, 2011

What about 5k on an SUV/pickup and 3k on a dirtbike? That'd be way more fun than an 8k SUV!
posted by speedgraphic at 4:48 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Honestly, I think you need to read a bunch more, and once you have read a ton start meeting people and asking questions. There are a gazillion off road forums, some of them geographically- or brand-specific, others for hard core people, and so on. My guess is that you should start with places more focused on the "expedition" style of off roading -- not hard core rock crawling, but longer trips, often alone or in small groups, to interesting places (Here is an excellent one, for example.) -- and move from there to brand-specific forums as you narrow in on your options.

Eventually you'll want to start shopping, and basically you will want a relatively unmodified vehicle with an excellent reputation for reliability. Think Toyota (4Runner, Tacoma, or LandCruiser), Nissan (pickup or Xterra), Jeep (Wranger or XJ), etc. Avoid huge, heavy behemoths (good luck ever getting one unstuck), vehicles that never sold well (you can't get parts), or that were highly modified and driven hard (you'll be fixing previous owner problems instead of exploring).
posted by Forktine at 6:41 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Jeep Wrangler owner for 20 years. Designed from the ground up to go anywhere, with a fun factor that nothing else can ever touch. There's a reason that they have been making these things for 70 years. There is nothing else like them. Convertible in the summer, hardtop in the winter, what's not to like? Cruising along on a hot summer back-country road with the doors off and windshield down with your bikes on the rack, headed to the free-campsite across the creek from everyone else at the kayak put-in? That, my friend, is true off-road heaven.

I just bought the new 4 Door Unlimited after someone torched my beloved 98 TJ ( TJ in Canada equals Wrangler in U.S.) . I'm single, never married, no kids, I make a good income, and can afford anything I want, but I wouldn't want anything else. As the saying goes "Its a Jeep Thing. You wouldn't understand". 8 grand puts you really nicely in Sahara country, like the one I linked at the top, insist on the hard-top as well.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:55 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Descriptions of trips on sites like Expedition Portal and Horizon's Unlimited are great ways to see, from the comfort of your own chair, what has worked and what hasn't for other people. The cross-Congo trip that was turned into an FPP here (with plenty of snark and acrimony, of course) is an excellent reminder that you don't need to spend tens of thousands on crazy vehicle modifications; a decent stock 4x4 will go all kinds of places as long as you carry some basic equipment and are willing to figure out how to get yourself back out of trouble.
posted by Forktine at 5:57 AM on January 27, 2011

Best answer: You might look into this book: Backcountry Adventures: Arizona. We have used the Northern California Version to take our Tacoma to lots of neat places. The rating system is graded, and doesn't include any crazy rock crawling stuff. Just light offroad. Also talks a lot about preparation and what to bring.

I know the club scene can be intimidating. Do you know any one else with a simlar interests and a vehicle? Find a partner with another vehicle and start exploring. As mentioned above two vehicles for safety, even if just exploring old dirt roads, can make the trip much more enjoyable as the fear of getting stranded disappears.
posted by Big_B at 11:30 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For those of you playing along at home, here's how things turned out.

I considered a Wrangler seriously, but came to the realization that taking two or three friends out camping for a few days is one of my favorite things to do; the Wranglers just don't have the cargo space for that, at least not without serious modifications.

Anyway, I did the research, looked around, then talked to my mechanic, who is as a god among men. He was enthusiastic about just two choices; Toyotas and Nissans. So I looked around some more, test drove a couple of different models, even other brands, annoying the owners to no end.

And a 1998 Pathfinder popped up on Craigslist at a reputable local dealer. No rust; it's been an Arizona car for life. No damage. The SE model, so manual five-speed 4wd. Timing belt just got replaced as part of regular maintenance. The exhaust manifold is intact. Mileage is high; 153,000.

And test-driving it made me very, very happy.

I picked it up for 5 grand. Minus a good chunk for my very-high-mileage Accord trade-in.

Thank you for all your help with this. The resources, links, and discussion really helped make this possible. I really appreciate it.
posted by MrVisible at 2:05 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: That's a great truck; I think you'll be happy with it.

Your next step should be to throw a bit of money at it in preventative maintenance (eg fluids, belts, hoses, spark plugs and wires, etc) because that's a lot cheaper than breaking down in the desert. If the tires are more than half worn, replace them, too.

Check that the spare is good (many aren't), and check that the tire changing equipment (jack, etc) are there and work. Again, cheaper to fix now than fifty miles out of town.

And then spend just a bit more money on the most basic of extraction and safety equipment (tow line, water, etc). I'm pretty sure your Pathfinder has tow hooks front and back, but if it doesn't, add them now.

Then go get it dirty!
posted by Forktine at 3:43 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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