Going offroad is amazing. Whether you are conquering challenging terrain or traveling to remote locations, offroad travel has major benefits. It also comes with some responsibilities. There are some general safety rules and proper trail etiquette that everyone should know before venturing off the pavement.
1. Know Your Rig
You should have a good understanding of your vehicle before you hit the dirt. You need to familiarize yourself with the strengths and potential faults found on your model vehicle, and the specific weaknesses of your own rig. It’s also a good idea to regularly inspect it for loose bolts, leaking fluids, or unnoticed damage.
If you know what it’s supposed to look like, it makes it much easier to assess what’s wrong if you run into trouble. At the same time, you need to have a decent supply of typical replacement parts and the tools needed to replace them. Things like belts, hoses, U-joints, and tire repair kits are universally brought along for emergency use. If you are not mechanically inclined, it’s safer to travel in a group with someone who is.
2. Know Yourself
Do you take regular medication? Do you have allergies to poison ivy, bee stings, or sunburn easily? Make sure you have what your body needs to function properly and let others know your condition so they can assist you if needed. Always have water and food. If you take more than you need, you can share it on the trail with those who are in need. I always have a box filled with drinks and snacks that stays in the truck at all times.
It’s also important to carry clothing. Do you have a change of clothes in case you get wet, or coated in something foul? How about a windbreaker, or raincoat? Changes in elevation or location can cause huge swings in temperature and humidity. A good pair of gloves will protect your hands, and keep them warm if needed. Being prepared also includes having a bedroll or some warm blankets just in case. Things that every vehicle should have are a first aid kit, tow rope, and a fire extinguisher.
3. Know Where You Are Going
Many of us live to explore and are driven by our curiosity of what lies around the bend, or over the next hill, but it’s wise to do a little research before you venture out. Is there a highway to the north, a major river that runs to the ocean, or a mountain peak you can use for reference? You should have a general idea what’s out there. Trails can be blocked, vehicles might be damaged; emergencies can, and will happen. Do you know which direction to go for help? Always have options in case something goes wrong.
4. Know How To Navigate
Can you read a map and a compass? Do you understand topography? There are things in nature that can assist you when navigating through the wilderness. Water generally runs downhill. The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, and the higher you go, the less vegetation will be present. If you need to signal someone, head to the highest point.
If you seek shelter, get down in the valley. A couple more good bits of advice are that perfectly straight lines in the distance usually means something there is man-made, and nobody builds a road in the wilderness for no good reason.
5. Know the Rules of the Trail
The first rule is to stay on the trail! If the trail you are on is not challenging enough, find one that is. Never head off the trail to challenge obstacles or take short cuts. Trail etiquette includes keeping the trail clear if you decide to stop. Always give the vehicle heading uphill the right of way, and don’t follow too closely. Always make sure others on the trail are OK. We can be stubborn asking for help, so always break the ice with strangers you may meet by offering help if it is needed.
When someone pulls over to let you pass, let them know how many vehicles are traveling in your group. Hold up however many fingers corresponds with the size of your group, or if it’s more than 10, you might want to stop and tell them.
Always have options in case something goes wrong.
If you encounter wildlife or animals on the trail, give them space. Take pictures, admire them, but don’t startle them, or harass them. Taking a selfie with a wild animal is not wise for several reasons. Always pack out your trash, and don’t feed the animals.
6. Know How To Communicate
Almost everyone carries a cell phone these days but reception in more remote areas is spotty at best. Do you have a 2-way radio? Do you use a device that will send an emergency beacon if needed? How about a satellite phone? There are all types of communication available both high tech and primitive.
You can use rocks or sticks to show which direction you are traveling and use a whistle to send messages as far as the sound will travel. Like stated in #4, perfectly straight lines are typically man-made, so a giant X or an arrow can help people in the air spot your location. The military uses hand signals to communicate when they need to be silent. The same techniques may be useful when you are within sight, but out of shouting distance.
7. Know Your Biology
You should know what types of plants, and/or animals pose a danger to you where you are traveling. Is that a typically docile lynx, or a mountain lion looking for a meal? In the worst case scenario, you will need to know how to find food and water. Do you know which types of plants need lots of water to grow? This also provides a great way to stay entertained.
If the kids get bored, quiz them on what types of plants they are seeing. Get some books and keep track of the plants or animals you see along the way. The more you know about the ecosystem you are in, the more you will appreciate how nature works. It can also help you with situational awareness. When the vegetation changes, you know you are entering someplace different.
8. Know Situational Awareness
It’s easy to forget about what you are doing when you are away from the crowds. Nature is so rewarding, but it can also be dangerous. Whenever you are on the trail, you need to read the terrain. Is the trail getting rockier, sandier, or muddier? Are you heading down into a valley, or higher into the hills? Do you see weather conditions changing on the horizon? You should be relaxed and enjoying yourself, but you should also be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Many people just follow the trail without making a mental note of landmarks they can use on the way back. If they get mixed up and on the wrong trail, they get lost. Part of navigating successfully is paying attention to the direction of travel, forks in the road, side trails, and other distinguishing points along the way. You might not know exactly where you are at all times, but you should be able to realize when you are going down instead of up or heading into the sun instead of away from it.
9. Know How To Relax
Taking your vehicle offroad can be stressful. Learning your capabilities takes time and experimentation. You will get stuck. You will get flat tires. You will probably get lost. The key in all those situations is to relax. Things are usually not as bad as they seem and if you have done all the other things mentioned here, you will be prepared. The situations that come up might be daunting at the time, but they will become fond memories and great stories to share in the future.
Solving problems is part of the adventure.
Most of the negative things that happen are caused by rushing. See some sketchy obstacle ahead? Get out and check it first. When you go to try it, is your seat belt on? Did you air down your tires? Are you in the right gear? Slow down and relax, it will pay off in spades. If you are in a situation, a clear head will be vital in solving your dilemma. Solving problems is part of the adventure. Adversity helps us to appreciate how easy most of us have it in our daily lives. If you are not on fire, you aren’t dying of thirst, and you are not injured, it’s not that bad, you’ll be OK.
10. Know All These Things and More
These are only a few ideas that will make your offroad journeys more pleasant. There are endless things to learn and understand about nature. Many people love to cook in the outdoors and thank goodness they do. There is nothing better than a gourmet meal in the fresh air of the wilderness. You may develop an interest in bird watching, photography, geology, hiking, biking, you name it.
There are so many opportunities that make themselves available once you become an offroad traveler. The key is to keep learning as much as you can. The skills you pick up along the way will benefit you your entire life and can be passed on to your friends and family as well. So hit the dirt, have fun, and stay safe on the trail.
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