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Venturing Into New Country

The dos and dont's of safely and responsibly taking your vehicle into the outdoors

Venturing Into New CountryNew country has always been the inspiration for photographers to venture beyond where others station wagon and as modern as Kennan Wardhave stopped, and the vehicles to get them there are as old as Henry Jackson’s mule or Ansel Adams’ “Woody”s Sportsmobile 4×4 home-on-wheels. In more recent years, the most popular-selling vehicles in this country have been SUVs to the extent that our own demographic studies indicate that approximately half of Outdoor Photographer readers have one in the family.

The challenge is to explore without exploiting. SUVs are referred to as off-road vehicles, but in more practical terms, the reference means “off pavement” or “off highway,” as in dirt roads and designated four-wheel trails. There are never any good reasons for blazing new trails across untracked country; just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The following tips will help you get the most out of the responsible use of your SUV. This won’t make you an off-road, off-highway expert with a highly modified charger bent on testing machine against all manner of terrain. We do hope to
help the casual SUV explorer looking for new landscapes to photograph.

The nonprofit organization Tread Lightly!® provides principles and tips to help you minimize your impact when driving your truck, SUV or other vehicle for a photo shoot. These tips will help you negotiate terrain while remaining environmentally sensitive. Use these along with common sense and the Tread Lightly! principles.

1. Drive Safely Up, Down Or Over Hills. This requires excellent judgment and an understanding of what your vehicle can and can’t do. If you have any doubt about you or your vehicle’s ability, don’t drive up or down that hill; turn around and find another route. Re-tracking is a normal part of safe off-highway use. If your wheels begin to spin or slip on steep climbs or descents, don’t let your vehicle skid sideways.

2. Don’t Traverse A Hill. Travel straight up or down a hill or grade. Use a low gear in the transmission and transfer case. Don’t climb at an angle or cross the face of the hill below the top. You may slide sideways or even roll your vehicle.

3. Don’t Straddle Big Rocks.
Carefully put a tire on the rock. Proceed very slowly in 4 low or low range, with just enough throttle to maintain headway. This raises the vehicle, adding clearance to the undercarriage. Straddling the rock may leave you high-centered on the frame or differential, and damage the frame or driveline. Make sure you know where the low points on your vehicle are and what size obstacles the vehicle can clear.

4. Beware Of Entry And Exit Angles.
Your front and rear bumpers have a certain overhang that can cause problems when attempting to cross a deep wash, gully or ditch. Getting stuck “head first” makes it particularly difficult to get unstuck. Know your vehicle’s front and back clearance. Some vehicles require the removal of front air spoilers.

5. Cross Obstacles At An Angle. You may come upon obstacles on a trail, such as fallen trees. Driving around them can destroy vegetation surrounding the trail, so sometimes it’s best to move the object or drive over it. Cross obstacles at an angle, one wheel at a time; don’t cross the obstacle straight on. Be aware that your rear overhang is usually greater than your front overhang.

6. Use A Spotter In Questionable Spots. Anytime you’re in doubt, ask a passenger to get out and direct you over obstacles. Better yet, get out and take a look yourself before proceeding. And make sure your spotter knows what he or she is doing. Discuss the plan with him or her so you’re both on the same page.

7. Crawl, Don’t Run. Keep your speed down on rough ground. Use a low gear or low range to creep over obstacles, and don’t let your vehicle start to bob and bounce. Even on graded dirt, it’s important to watch your speed as tires riding on gravel have limited traction for cornering and braking.

8. Do Straddle Ruts. Straddle ruts, even if they’re wider than your vehicle. This may mean running your tires on the sidewalls along the inside of the rut, which will keep your vehicle level. Be patient and go slowly to maintain control and keep your vehicle balanced, front to back, and side to side. If you feel the vehicle tilt, turn into the direction of the tilt, gently apply more power, and as it levels out, return your steering back to the direction you want to go. Don’t spin your wheels. You may dig in, get hung up, or slide or roll your vehicle.

9. Don’t Gun Your Engine In Mud, Sand Or Soft Soil.
Avoid mud if you can while remaining on the road or trail. If you can’t, use low gearing and just enough throttle to maintain forward movement. Don’t gun the engine. This will spin the tires and dig you down, not forward, and could bury you to the frame. Consistent, easy power is better than too much power. If you sense a loss of traction, turn the wheel rapidly from side to side. Sometimes this will give your tires a better bite. If you do get stuck and dig a hole, fill it in so you won’t leave the trail scarred or leave a hazard for the next driver.

Tread Lightly!

T ravel and recreate with
minimum impact
R espect the environment
and the rights of others
E ducate yourself—plan and
prepare before you go
A llow for future use of the
outdoors—leave it better
than you found it
D iscover the rewards of
responsible recreation

10. Stay On The Trail. Drive only on trails designated for off-highway vehicle use. Always ride in the middle of the trail to avoid widening it and never make your own shortcuts, switchbacks or trails. As you charge ahead with the enthusiasm of following a new trail, take a moment and consider whether getting back will be more difficult than going in.As you proceed, make a mental note of the last place where there’s enough room to turn around.

11. Do Or Don’t Let The Air Out Of Your Tires.
Many manuals mention reducing your tire pressure to increase floatation in soft sand. Use caution when taking this step. First, the sand has to be extremely soft to make this necessary. Further, you may have a problem if you don’t have the means to reinflate the tires and the trail ahead involves sharp rocks or the need for maximum ground clearance.

12. Carry Some Basic Gear For Getting Out Of Jams.
This should include a high-lift jack, a shovel and a tow-strap, at the very least. Off-highway terrain generally exceeds the limitations of the standard car jacks that are made for changing tires on level, even ground. A seemingly obvious, but often overlooked point, is to know how to remove your spare tire and that all the necessary tools are still in their place.

13. Cross Streams At Trail Fording Points. If you must cross a stream, do so only at trail fording points. Check the water depth. If it’s higher than your engine’s air intake, don’t cross. Water in the engine will stall it. Cross slowly at a 90-degree angle to the stream, or at a slight angle to minimize streambed damage. Crossing slowly also helps keep water out of the engine’s air intake.

14. Don’t Try To Turn Around On A Narrow Or Steep Trail.
Never attempt to turn around on a narrow road or trail, unstable ground or steep hillside. You may damage surrounding vegetation or roll the vehicle. Back up until there’s enough space to turn around. If you’re backing down a hill or steep incline, back straight down without turning the wheel. Use your lowest gears to slow your speed of descent. Keep your foot away from the clutch and brake lightly if necessary.

15. Don’t Litter On The Trail.
If you brought it in, bring it back out. Do more than your share. Keep some garbage bags with your photo gear and pick up litter left by others. One of the great enigmas of the backcountry is that those with the vehicles to easily carry it out tend to be the ones who leave it behind.

Many of these tips were taken from The Tread Lightly! Guide to Responsible Four Wheeling, a free publication available from Tread Lightly! ( for all photographers who want to protect the areas they drive through. Your vehicle can be a valuable asset to your photographic adventures, but it also can leave a lasting impact on the environment if not used correctly. Although SUV commercials sometimes can make destructive behavior look acceptable, use common sense and keep the Tread Lightly! principles tucked in the back of your mind and your camera bag. Don’t just capture the outdoors—help preserve it for generations to come.

Based in Ogden, Utah, Tread Lightly! is a nonprofit organization for educating outdoor enthusiasts and the industries that serve them. Tread Lightly! carries out programs designed to instill a proactive, low-impact message. Monica Sheffield is Tread Lightly!’s communications specialist.