Ultimate Guide to Off-Road Cars and Racing
Driving off-road cars is many people’s drug of choice. It can feel liberating to surmount obstacles that would ruin a passenger car without so much as a scratch, not to talk about the primal satisfaction of driving through thick patches of mud without getting stuck.
On the other hand, getting into off-roading can seem daunting. Not only are off-road cars expensive, but they also require constant maintenance and upkeep. To make matters worse, they’re not that easy to drive, either. Great wheels can only get you so far!
Fortunately, we love welcoming new people into the hobby. So if you’re interested in the off-road lifestyle but don’t know where to start, this article will be the perfect foundation for an enduring passion we’ll help you blossom.
Here are all the basics that you need to know.
What Is “Off-Roading?”
Most automobiles have been designed for urban use. Take an average Sedan through the woods, and you’ll take note of how badly it performs. Best case scenario, you get stuck in the mud for half an hour or suffer a couple of minor scratches from errant tree branches.
Worst case scenario? Let’s just say you’re not going to get out of the forest anytime soon.
Off-road vehicles, on the other hand, are perfect for extreme terrain conditions. While a typical car would struggle going up a steep hill or driving over a patch of jagged rocks, an off-road vehicle would succeed much more efficiently.
While several factors differentiate an off-road vehicle from a passenger car, the takeaway is that any automobile that can sustain and endure off-road traveling without breaking apart fits the bill.
Despite common belief, off-roading doesn’t implicitly include going off-road. While you can certainly go off-trail, we don’t recommend it since you put yourself in danger and harm the environment. Most off-roading is therefore done on designated trails. In addition, some places like California even banned off-roading.
How Fun Is Off-Roading?
According to millions of off-roading fans from across the world, very fun. Off-roading is an inclusive hobby that attracts people from all walks of life.
Everyone can find an aspect of off-roading they can enjoy. A lot of people cultivate the hobby because of the freedom and the excitement that it brings. Surmounting terrain obstacles or driving through sloshy mud can be a very satisfying experience for a passenger car driver.
While off-roading is fun to watch, some argue that it is not a spectator sport. The real fun, they claim, is getting behind the wheel and experiencing off-roading for yourself. It is not surprising, then, that the fan base is predominantly composed of drivers, mechanics, and crew members.
Our opinion is different. While putting the pedal to the medal by yourself certainly improves your appreciation of the hobby, you can be a passionate, die-hard off-road fan without ever having set foot inside a 4x4.
After all, most off-road enthusiasts started without an off-road car.
Preparing Your Vehicle
If watching off-road races is not enough for you, and you would like to jump into the thick of it, you will need an appropriate vehicle to start your journey. Even driving into a thicket can ruin a passenger car, so your current concern isn’t to get a vehicle to compete in races with but a simple off-roader that you can get used to.
Depending on your budget, needs, and desires, you will either have to modify a normal car into an off-roader or buy a car designed to go off-road from the start. If you can afford the latter option, then that is what we recommend, although you might want to customize your experience more than otherwise by creating your own model.
It goes without saying, of course, that “upgrading” a normal vehicle into an off-roader is not recommended without extensive mechanical knowledge. Therefore, it should not be attempted by the untrained or the unskilled for risk of ruining expensive car parts or outright totaling the vehicle.
We’ve broken down the most important pieces of equipment and essentials you should acquire in order to comfortably call your car an off-road vehicle. This list is important for both upgraders and buyers as it will help understand what makes an off-road car.
Off-Road Car Parts
Your vehicle will need the following parts to be an off-road vehicle. High-quality parts are important, as cheap parts are much more likely to break during critical moments.
The suspension kit is what saves both you and your vehicle from terrain abuse. If driving over a bumpy country road in a passenger car is painful, then that’s because it doesn’t have the correct suspension kit. So spend a decent amount of budget on your suspension kit, as it determines how comfortable you’ll be when you are getting jolted around.
Probably the most eye-catching aspect of an off-road vehicle. The tires are extraordinarily important and must be given serious thought and consideration. A reliable vehicle with great car parts is still going to underperform if it has poor tires. Talk to your mechanic and see what advice they have for picking the models.
If you’d prefer to skip professional advice and do it yourself, then two main types of tires concern you. First, there are all-terrain tires, which have been designed to endure most terrain conditions regardless of season or weather, and mud-terrain tires, which are better when driving through snow, sand, or gravel, albeit at the cost of being noisy.
While all-terrain tires offer a solid level of traction that fits most environments, mud-terrain tires have a much more aggressive tread pattern and increased grip. They tend to be more expensive than all-terrain tires because of their performance and will not slip and slide as much as your typical tire.
It can be hard to determine what sort of tire you need for your rig. If buying two pairs of different tires is not an option, we recommend considering hybrid tires instead, also known as rugged-terrain tires. They are a mix of both worlds, featuring a central tread pattern typical of all-terrain tires and the shoulder lug setup of mud-terrain tires. The noise they make is also less prevalent than mud-terrain tires as well.
The size of your tires is also an important factor. Theoretically, the bigger the tires, the better, although this will consume more fuel than otherwise and might require adjustments to your axle or transmission systems. It ultimately depends on the size of your rig as well as the terrain you have in mind.
Our recommended brand is Fuel Tires, one of the most involved off-roading businesses in the industry. Everything is manufactured in-house and by experienced drivers, ensuring a degree of authenticity and performance when compared to other brands.
An off-road car might have a bigger chassis and thicker tires, but there is only so much damage it can sustain before it shows. Since you’ll be going out into rough terrain conditions, you will bump or crash into a tree or large rock at some point or another.
A front or back bumper is an additional layer of protection that will protect your car’s body or chassis from scratches or dents. Bumpers are not exactly designed to act as impervious armor but rather to absorb and cover any minor damage your car might take.
There is also an additional type of bumpers called “off-road bumpers.” Compared to your usual Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) bumpers, these special bumpers are bulkier and more imposing.
The advantages to opting for an aftermarket off-road bumper are many, as they increase your vehicle’s approach and departure angles, give you more space to mount lights, and offer more recovery points when using a recovery tool such as a winch.
On the other hand, off-road bumpers are typically made of steel, which is very heavy. Most off-road enthusiasts who opt for off-road bumpers also provide their rig with a lift kit to help balance out the weight. Consider this as a potential additional cost when buying an off-road bumper.
Powerful headlights are very useful when off-roading at night, as it can be difficult to see when you’re driving through untamed wilderness. Also, noticing an obstacle before you crash into it is far better than dealing with a dented bumper or a punctured tire.
Normal lights for night driving work just fine, though you might want to take it a step further by mounting auxiliary lights for increased visibility or even a spotlight or two. Having a clear trail line-of-sight at night is highly important and gives you the possibility of continuing your off-road adventures at night.
Besides increasing visibility, there are reasons other than fashion to opt for additional lights. Say, for example, that it’s the middle of the night, you’re stuck out in the desert, and your rig’s camo blends in with the background. A spotlight or a floodlight could make it easier for rescue teams to glean your location and save you.
Outfitting your car with a winch would also be a wise move. Even though your vehicle might be a beast that can drive over any rock, hill, or mountain, it will, eventually and undeniably, get stuck at least once. A winch is an industrial-strength rope with a hook that you can attach to an immobile object which will help drive yourself out.
Never make the mistake of going off-road without a form of communication. If your car fails in the middle of a thick, wolf-infested forest, or a cold, coyote-ridden desert, then you are going to wish you had bought a radio. So always have a radio in your car for when you need to call help. It can make the difference between life and death!
There is only so much that theory can teach you before you must practice to improve and acclimatize. Fortunately, the following advice applies regardless of your experience in off-roading.
Here’s a couple of quick tips on diving into the wide world of off-road possibilities.
Ten Pieces of Advice
Know Your Limits
It can be easy to get drunk with off-road power. However, a consensus throughout the off-road fanbase is that drivers should always know their limits and that of their vehicle. Don’t try and drive over obstacles you are not skilled enough to traverse, as it could ruin your car and lead to physical injury.
A good way to ensure you know your limits is by having a spotter. A spotter is usually an experienced off-roader who can give you advice on how to approach obstacles, the angles required for the maneuver, as well as any complications you should avoid. For example, the difference between a healthy tire and a punctured one is probably a spotter.
Most new off-roaders think they’ve driven passenger cars for long enough to understand how 4x4 cars function as well. Unfortunately, that is not the case, with many damaging their rigs before realizing they have much to learn.
It is for this reason that we recommend attending a training course. There, you can learn how to drive down a trail through practice and receive valuable advice from more knowledgeable drivers. Even if you are experienced, the occasional visit to a training course is sure to resharpen your skills.
When off-roading, speed is your number one enemy. Tom Collins, a popular off-road driver and Land Rover driving instructor, famously claims that the most common off-roading mistake is using too much speed. While it is not exactly clear who originated this quote, the phrase “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary” is one of the most important off-road maxims out there.
Grab a Friend
Driving off-road with a friend is always going to be more fun than being alone. Not only will you have someone to appreciate the sights and the journey with, but you will also have someone to help you survive and contact help in case you get stuck away from civilization. It is also useful to have a helping hand nearby when you need to change your tires.
In the event of an injury, then another person is a godsend. They can try to patch up your wounds to the best of their ability, which is likely to extend your survival until a rescue team discovers you. For this reason, we always recommend carrying a spare medical kit or two inside your rig.
Make sure to leave some space between you and other vehicles. In the scenario that the car in front of you slips while driving up a hill or, worse - rolls over - then odds are it is going to crash into your rig. Of course, you don’t want this, so always leave enough space between yourself and other vehicles so you can quickly attempt maneuvering yourself out of harm’s way if the situation demands it.
The amount of space you need to leave depends on various factors. There is no established minimum safe distance, but the general rule of thumb is that you should remain at least two seconds behind any vehicle driving in front of you.
Stay on Trail
Off-roading trails have been designed for off-road driving. If you have it in mind to “blaze your own trail,” then make sure to do it responsibly. Odds are, going off-trail in your country might even be illegal. The downside to going off-trail is that you will not only harm the environment but also put yourself at risk of getting your car stuck or damaged.
You should therefore stay on marked trails and out of designated wilderness areas. To make matters worse, going off-trail runs the risk of entering a person’s private property, which attracts a lot more trouble than just making ruts in the road.
Check Your Convoy
If you’re off-road traveling in a group, then make sure to stop every once in a while to check that no vehicle has been left behind. This can frequently happen when driving through harsh terrain conditions and should be outright expected depending on the area. Likewise, if a car breaks down or has to stop to perform repairs, then correct off-roader etiquette is to wait for them.
Furthermore, traveling in a convoy also adds another layer of etiquette to off-roading. For example, when two groups of vehicles pass each other, you are expected to announce how many rigs are in your group with your fingers. Three fingers, then, means three cars, while a raised fist means that car was the last of the convoy.
Fear the Water
Even highly experienced off-roaders can get anxious when having to cross a stream or a river. The first thing you should do in this situation is to probe the depth of the water to ensure your car can drive over it without sinking. You can do this with a long pole or a stick.
Don’t get too close to the shore, as you might be swept away depending on the strength of the water current. Furthermore, if you cannot walk across the water without being diverted by the current or because it is too deep, your car will not be able to either. In this case, you should look for a nearby bridge to cross.
Outfitting your rig with additional equipment such as an extended breather kit can reduce the worries of a water crossing. Double-check your car to see if any exposed electric components might come into contact with water and take measures to ensure they are protected, such as by coating them in dielectric grease.
In general, the only time you should cross a body of water is at a designated fording point. Almost every trail containing a stream or a creek will have a fording point, if not an outright bridge.
It’s no secret that off-road vehicles are very harmful to the environment. Off-road cars disturb the ground by churning the soil and damaging root systems, destroying the vegetation they drive over, and scaring off the wildlife.
We’re not expecting you to change your hobby, but driving responsibly and with respect to the great outdoors will keep the planet healthy and in good condition. After all, you want to continue off-roading in leisure, don’t you?
Clean Up After Yourself
We cannot emphasize the importance of cleaning up after yourself. Our recommendation would be to take a trash bag or several together with you on your adventures, as there is nothing worse than discarding candy bar wrappers and plastic water bottles all over the trail.
All it takes is a single person dirtying up a famous trail to attract the ire of the legal system, which might make off-roading more difficult for everyone involved. If anything, we would even encourage you to go out of your way to clean up the trail if you find any trash. You’ll sleep better at night knowing you’re a true protector of motorsport.
Types of Off-Roading
The off-road community has hundreds of terms they use to refer to specific concepts. Perfecting the vocabulary of an off-roader is not a necessity, but knowing a couple of the most popular terms will help you carry a conversation about the topic.
Using a couple of obscure words doesn't matter if you don’t know what types of off-road driving there are, though. So here are the three most popular forms of off-road driving.
Driving over any terrain that has not been paved is called green laning. Basically, any road that has not been covered in metal, Tarmac, or some form of concrete is a “green road.” The examples that most frequently come to mind are animal trails.
Many people believe that green laning and off-roading are interchangeable terms, although this could not be further from the truth. Green laning is a type of off-roading, but off-roading is not green laning. Some say that green laning is not off-roading since you are simply driving on an unpaved road.
If you’re just getting into off-road driving, our suggestion would be to start green laning first. This type of activity is not even limited to off-road vehicles, with passionate motorcyclists green laning their vehicles soon after purchase to break them in.
Green laning is common among new drivers because it is far more manageable than going out into, say, a field of rocky outcrops. Skilled drivers also go green laning to relax and have a calmer experience compared to other, more bumpy sojourns.
If you plan to go green laning, then make sure to drive over areas with less vegetation than otherwise. Off-road driving is damaging to the environment, which is why we should stick as close as possible to the roads.
Commonly seen in 4x4 commercials, dune bashing is when you go off-roading over sand dunes. This type of off-road driving is not easy, and you need to be experienced as well as have knowledge of the terrain to enjoy yourself properly.
To give an example of how risky it can be, making a badly executed turning maneuver while you are at the peak of a dune will likely lead to your car rolling over. This is even more of a reason to drive with a friend or in convoy.
In general, wide tires tend to perform better on sand. However, depending on your needs, you might want to opt for a dune buggy, a specialized off-road vehicle designed for beach, dune, and desert environments.
The United Arab Emirates has a very developed dune bashing tourism industry, with thousands of people from across the world visiting each year to partake in a bit of desert driving fun. Interestingly enough, dune bashing has been dubbed the “whitewater rafting of the desert.”
Dune bashing is less prevalent in other parts of the world since it damages the environment. Before getting ready to slip and slide over sand dunes, make sure to find a correct driving location and check the laws and regulations in your area.
You will also want to dress light and loose since sand is going to fly all over. Avoid getting sand out of your shoes by opting for sandals. Headwear would also be useful if you don’t want to wash the sand out of your hair later.
This type of off-roading is considered especially difficult and involves driving over rocks regardless of size. You need to master your car to perfect rock crawling since even the slightest mistake can lead to a rollover or a damaged vehicle.
Driving over rocks should be done at a very slow pace. The recommended speed is less than three miles per hour - hence the “crawling” part of the name. Rock crawling requires extreme precision and control, and fans of the activity fear the gas pedal as much as the Devil.
Rock crawling is dangerous because of two main reasons. The first is that you are likely to roll over if you plan badly. Second, not picking your line properly can easily lead to your car dipping to one side and crashing down the hill.
Another reason is that rocks tend to be sharp, which runs the risk of puncturing your tires if driven directly over them. You must avoid this by carefully planning your route and only driving on the sides of rocks.
Having a spotter is especially crucial when rock crawling, as rocks can sneak up on you. Grab a friend to let you know what surprises lie ahead, as well as to give you advice. In addition, learning several basic hand signals would be very helpful.
Airing down your tires is an important aspect of rock crawling. This allows them to spread out over the terrain and thus acquire more traction. Experienced crawlers recommend a PSI range of about 10-13, though it depends on the size of your rig.
As with every subculture, off-roading has developed hundreds of terms that can confuse the average reader. Here is a short list of the most common and important words you should know.
While memorizing these terms is under no circumstance a necessity, it can be helpful to refer to specific concepts when discussing with other enthusiasts. Your mechanic will also be able to give you better advice on your rig as well.
The maximum angle that a vehicle can climb before making contact with the ground. Too steep of a steep contact angle, for example, would have the bumper of the car rub against the obstacle during the maneuver. On the other hand, a perfect approach angle will easily allow your car to climb without any interference.
The opposite of an approach angle is called a departure angle and virtually functions the same way. However, we have chosen to omit that term from the glossary for the sake of brevity.
A suspension-related term that describes your axle’s vertical motion. Your axle is expected to move in a vertical motion when driving over uneven terrain. Therefore, the better your vehicle’s articulation, the better your wheels will perform.
Off-roaders deflate their car wheels for better traction when driving over rocky terrain. This will go against your vehicle’s manual but will not damage your tires. The gist of airing down is to reduce the PSI range of your tires to an amount that is lower than what the manual recommends.
You can attach the tire’s bead to the wheel so they won’t come apart when you’re off-roading. Bead-lock setups can be recognized by a ring of threaded steel inserts and are especially useful for rigs meant for rock crawling.
Another important term, the breakover angle is the maximum angle that your vehicle can drive over without touching the obstacle with its mid-section, which can damage your car or make it get stuck. The breakover angle is not only used in off-roading but is also relevant when driving over speed bumps or railroad crossings.
An extra degree of protection for the front side of your car. The bull bar reinforces your bumper and grill and turns an already powerful car into nothing short of a tank. They also soften the impact of a crash for increased driver comfort.
An essential component, the bumper protects the front and backside of your vehicle from damage when making contact with hard surfaces. The bumper is important so that you avoid impacting your car’s body.
Here’s where it gets a little bit more complicated. The crawl ratio is the “ratio of torque at the wheels” and determines how much control you have when driving over obstacles. A high crawl ratio is good for climbing, while a low crawl ratio fits normal driving conditions.
Your vehicle’s differential is a set of gears that transmits engine power to the wheels, which is what allows them to turn. There are four types of differentials that you should become acquainted with.
- Open differential - Commonly found in passenger vehicles, this type of differential allows the wheels to rotate at different speeds simultaneously.
- Locking differential - The opposite of an open differential, the locking differential connects the wheel, making them rotate at the same speed.
- Limited-speed differential - A combination between open and locking differentials. Functions the same as an open differential but limits the amount of wheelspin when slippage occurs, as would a locking differential.
- Torque-vectoring differential - Dictates the amount of torque each wheel receives to provide the best experience. It greatly improves vehicle precision and control in most conditions.
The line represents the route a driver will take when driving over an obstacle. “Picking your line” is a common term and critical off-road concept that refers to the process of establishing an approach. Learning how to determine your line gets easier with practice and is arguably one of the aspects that new off-roaders struggle with the most.
An interesting bar that is attached to your grill and that allows your vehicle to push another without causing damage. Push bars are useful in a lot of scenarios and are frequently seen in 4x4 convoys.
Note on ATVs and UTVs
While this article has mostly detailed 4x4 vehicles, we cannot forget about all-terrain and utility-terrain vehicles as well. They are much smaller, lighter, and arguably less specialized, depending on their setup.
Both ATVs and UTVs are considered off-road vehicles, though for obvious reasons, driving and outfitting them is different from a 4x4. Generally, if you can afford a traditional, 4x4 off-road vehicle, then that’s what we recommend, although you might want something different out of your off-roading experience.
For example, an ATV takes up less space than a 4x4 and is also significantly less expensive. If you have an enthusiastic son or daughter that wants to start off-roading, then buying an ATV for them would be a much wiser choice than a Jeep Wrangler.
Both ATVs and UTVs can also be heavily customized Take, for example, the Polaris RZR, which is so modular that off-roaders are always looking for ways to personalize their own models. As a result, Polaris drivers are often seen with modified RZR seats, harnesses, and even speakers.
Only you know what you want out of your off-roading. While a large 4x4 might suit your needs, so might a smaller, more manageable ATV or UTV.
Welcome to the Family
Diving into the world of off-road driving can be daunting. We hope this article has helped you understand the key concepts behind off-roading together with how to take it from there at your own pace.
Feel free to “put yourself out there” and meet off-road enthusiasts with which to share in your passions, as the worldwide off-road family loves new members!
On the other hand, please remember to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and the trails you drive through. Irresponsible off-roading is dangerous motorsport that severely degrades the quality of our environment - cleaning up after yourself is no effort when the alternative is getting the sport banned in even more places.
If this article has inspired you and you would like to attend the next off-road race in your area, then we look forward to seeing you there! Just make sure to prepare well and plan as much as possible for a memorable and fun experience.