Backcountry Driving, Part 1: Finding the Right Tool for the Job

As you'd expect, paved roads don't often reach the places that are most off the beaten track.  Getting to the backcountry therefore means using the right tool for the job, which will often be a four-wheel drive vehicle.  This next set of blog entries is for those of you that have no experience with four-wheel driving on really lousy roads, but have a hankering to give it a try.  I'll start with some advice on choosing the right chariot for your adventure.

Not so very long ago, that would have been very simple, in the sense that you'd know exactly what to look for.  That's because there were only two choices:  Jeeps (as in the registered trademark vehicle, not in the generic way the term is sometimes used) and pickup trucks.  The former were built to go anywhere, with no compromises for comfort, and the latter were built to do heavy, high clearance work.  Finding a place that rented a Jeep might not be easy, but at least everyone knew what you were talking about.


Today, however, there are many different types of cars that do some, most, or all of the same jobs.  That's good, because the old Jeeps weren't built to carry much gear, and you don't always need a vehicle that can leap mountains in a single bound.  But it's bad in that the choices become more complicated, and it's therefore easier to end up with the wrong tool for the job.

If you happen to own or can borrow a real Jeep or a similar vehicle, and live close enough to your object to drive all the way there, then you’ve got it made (current fuel prices aside).  But if you need to fly the first leg, then you need to locate a rental agency that will reliably supply the type of car you need.  This can be quite a bit harder than it sounds, because what you may be promised over the telephone may be quite a bit different than what you find waiting for you, if only because the person you talked to may be less than knowledgeable about what the rental office owns.

 Let’s start with the basics.  First of all, what exactly is four-wheel drive?

Most simply, it’s exactly what it sounds like — a power train that is able to deliver torque to all four wheels, rather than just two (the norm for most street sedans).  But that high-level definition also includes “all wheel drive” cars, which are is not the same as “four-wheel drive” cars, and also not what you want.  The difference is that with all-wheel drive, the car does the thinking for you, and decides which wheels should be getting what power on a split second basis.  All-wheel drive trains also lack the high-torque, locked wheel option that true four-wheel drive cars offer. 


The result is that all-wheel drive is an improvement over two-wheel drive train for navigating ordinary snowy or wet paved roads, but it’s not what you need when you’re trying to climb up a rocky grade, or make it through a stretch of deep sand without getting stuck.  It’s also important to remember that there are quite a few all-wheel drive sedans, and you want a high clearance car as well, on which more below.


Most four-wheel drive cars today have four drive options, in addition to the usual four forward gear choices (D 3 2 1).  The Chevy Trailblazer I’m currently driving offers the following options: two-wheel drive, which is the same configuration used by sedans, although the Trailblazer uses the rear wheels in this mode instead of the front axle, which in many sedans today supplies the power.  Two-wheel drive has the best fuel economy, so that’s what you’d use on dry paved roads.  Next up is four-wheel drive automatic, which under normal conditions will still deliver power only through the rear axle, but keeps the front axle always engaged, and ready to be called into action if you skid, lose traction on a rear wheel, or otherwise would be better off with the ability to apply power via the extra wheels.  You still get pretty good mileage in this mode, since the front axle is “free wheeling” most of the time.


With the next option, things begin to get more serious.  The Trailblazer calls it “Four-wheel High,” because all four wheels are receiving power all the time, and because you can use this option at highway speeds.  This is a good choice to use on paved roads in snow or rain.  On most reasonable dirt and gravel roads, it would be a good choice as well.


The last option is the one that can really pay off when you need a four-wheel drive car the most, and that’s why you want the four-wheel drive and not the all-wheel drive.  In this mode, all four wheels are locked into the same ratio, and with far higher torque (on the Trailblazer, it’s called “four-wheel drive low,” because the gearing ratios are lower).  The good news is that in this mode you have the maximum amount of power on every wheel to keep you out of – or if you get stuck, to get you out of – a bad spot.  With an all-wheel drive car, you can stay in first gear, but that’s as close as you can get to achieving the same result.


It’s important to know that on most four-wheel drive cars, you don’t just shift into the fourth four-wheel drive mode, as there’s a lot more going on inside the gear box than when you shift between regular gears, or between the other drive options.  In the Trailblazer, you should reduce speed to one to two miles an hour, shift into neutral, turn the shift control to four-wheel drive low, and then wait several seconds until you see a light change from blinking to constant before putting the car back into gear.  Obviously, not something you’d know without reading manual.  As importantly, it’s also something that you can’t do suddenly, so you need to be thinking down the road (as it were) rather than in the moment if conditions will demand this option.


The second thing you care about is clearance, and clearance is just as important for off-road driving as four-wheel drive.  As between the two, clearance can be even more important, because there are plenty of roads without deep sand or other obstacles where four-wheel drive is still useful, but just about all roads you’ll want to explore at some point will have roots, rocks, bumps, ditches, washouts and other impediments that a normal street car won’t clear.  If you run into such situations, there are ways to get you over the problem (more on that in Part II), but having to stop and rework a piece of road surface more than a few times a day can get very old very fast.


Clearance in the breach is about more than just the nominal height from the road to the lowest part of your undercarriage.  The length of your wheelbase is also important, because the greater the differenced between axles, the more room there is for the total vertical rise in the road surface to be greater as well.  For example, picture a Matchbox toy car on a basketball.  No problem, yes?  Now picture the same toy car on a golf ball: this time the chassis of the car is sitting on the golf ball, while the wheels are dangling in mid air.  You’d be surprised how often that extra foot or two between points of road contact can make all the difference between bottoming out or sailing through.


Yet another thing to keep in mind when selecting a rental car is that not all cars are built alike.  The Jeep Grand Cherokee I have at home was built to be used off-road, and therefore has a number of design features that make it more durable and less likely to be damaged than many four-wheel drive SUVs made by other manufacturers to contend merely with snow and rain.  Had I wanted, I could have ordered my Jeep with additional off-road features, such as extra “armor” on the underside, to protect the car from damage when bottoming out.


How different can two four-wheel drive SUVs be?  Let’s use bumpers as an example.  Time was when a bumper was a heavy metal battering ram that was intended to protect the rest of the car from damage.  Back then, a car could sustain a reasonably healthy bump without sending you to the body shop.  Through the process of automotive design evolution, the bumper on most cars has atrophied into a pathetic, vestigial mockery of its original self, a veritable automotive appendix or spleen no longer worthy of its name.  Today, most bumpers are flimsy affairs that do nothing practical, other than line the pockets of body shops and parts dealers since cars do still bump into things.


Let’s compare my Jeep to the Trailblazer I’m driving now, and see how they compare.  While the Jeep was built to be driven off-road as well as on, the Trailblazer looks to have been designed to deal well with rain and snow, carry a lot of freight, and have a pretty soft ride.  Not surprisingly, instead of a functional bumper, the Trailblazer has a piece of plastic wrapped low around its nose that helps keep overall vehicle weight down while providing a style feature and some aerodynamic properties, but that’s it.  Look at it from the front, and it looks substantial, just like a real bumper.  Take a peek underneath, however, and you’ll see that it’s held in place by more snap-in-place plastic brackets than bolts. Tap it, and you’ll feel how thin it is.  Even the struts that support its lower edge are plastic.  A faux bumper at best.


My Jeep, on the other hand, has a heavy rubber bumper that’s solidly attached and can give real protection.  It can also take real abuse without given up the ghost.


How much does this matter?  Here’s a typical situation that you’ll run into frequently out west: crossing a dry wash.  Typically, a wash will have a fairly flat bottom and high sides.  When you enter the wash, if the entry is too abrupt, you’ll put your nose down into the deck.  When you want to get out of the wash on the other side, it’s the same thing over again: you may well put your nose into the dirt before your wheels reach the rise.


Sometimes the dirt on the other side will be soft, perhaps tenderized by a few folks that went before you, and you may be tempted to try and power your way out of the wash by simply plowing the dirt out of the way, using your bumper.  If you try this and fail in the Jeep, no harm done.  Try it in the Trailblazer, though, and you will have just done a perfect one-two combo on your flimsy excuse of a bumper.  It works like this: on your way up, you push in the bottom of the bumper and break those toy plastic struts, and when you back up again, the bottom edge of the bumper digs in, and pulls the entire bumper part or all the way loose. 


Being able to bull your way out of a wash is not only sometimes a time saver, but its part of the fun of off-road driving as well.  You’re better off if you’ve got a vehicle that was built to take it, but more important is to know what you’re vehicle is capable of and what it’s not — especially if you didn’t take out insurance, on which more below.


With that as background, let’s assume that you’re going to use San Diego as your point of departure before heading to Palm Desert.  Lots of folks that rent a car in San Diego are never going to go very far afield, or in many cases even leave town.  As a result, every rental agency will have SUVs (they hold a lot of people and luggage), but they may not have any four-wheel drive cars at all. 


Worse yet, when you call to rent a car you may find it very difficult to get anyone on the line that really understands the difference between an SUV and a four-wheel drive, or between a four-wheel drive and an all-wheel drive.  And no one these days guarantees that they will have any particular car available for you when you arrive.  Being offered a free upgrade to a town car isn’t much help if it’s the desert rather than the strip that you want to hit.


What you need to do therefore is to get through to someone knowledgeable, and find out the makers and models of cars that the office rents, as well as receive confirmation that the same cars really are equipped with four-wheel drive.  After that, all you can do is keep your fingers crossed that the car you “reserved” is actually available when you arrive.


That sounds simple, so how bad can it be?  Here’s a true story from back before I learned the lessons above.


I had planned a couple of weeks roaming around Nevada, a very-underappreciated state that is huge, beautiful, and incredibly empty.  If you pull out a map and take a look, you’ll see that there are only two highways of any length in the entire state: Route 80, crossing the north, and Route 15, angling across the very bottom of the state.  There are two more paved roads that cross the state from east to west, and two from north to south.  Throw in less than a handful of shorter stretches of paved road, and you’ve now found almost all of the roads outside of the immediate vicinity of towns in the entire state of Nevada that are paved from one end to another.


In short, if you want to do anything in Nevada other than gamble, you’re going to have to drive on some unpaved roads to do it.  And if you want to go camping and hiking, you’re going to spend a lot more time on non-paved roads than ones with a hard surface.


When I called the Hertz office, I was assured that they had four-wheel drive cars.  Hertz was running a national campaign at the time, incidentally, that showed a car rented from “the other guy” that had to stop at the state line.  “Hertz cars,” the announcer would say, “go anywhere!”


When I arrived, I found that this particularly Hertz franchise not only didn’t have four-wheel drive cars, but did not allow you to use their SUVs except on…paved roads.  With a huge convention in town, finding another car wasn’t a good option.  In short, at this agency, “Hertz cars go anywhere…as long as where you want to go is in Las Vegas, or out of state!” 


Unfortunately, things got worse.  That’s because while Nevada doesn’t have many paved roads, it does have many really excellent, well-graded gravel roads.  They’re so good that it takes discipline not to drive 70 (or more) miles an hour on them.  The problem is that hitting sharp gravel at even the legal limit of 55 miles an hour puts your tires through hell.  To make matters worse, the rental agency had fitted the car out with four ply tires, as I found out when I got my first flat, the second day out on one of those same many gravel roads.  Moreover, it was a sidewall puncture, which isn’t repairable, leaving me with no spare.  The service station owner I showed it to just laughed, and asked why any damn fool would be driving a heavy SUV on gravel roads with four ply tires.


I’ve always thought that it would only be a matter of time before that same agency rented a similar car to some nice young family looking forward to a camping trip.  I can just imagine that family sailing along on one of those nice gravel roads at 60 miles an hour, blowing a tire, swerving out of control into the deep roadside ditch, and rolling over, and over and over.  All so the rental agency owner could save about $15 a tire.


I’ll spare you the rest of my own story, but suffice it to say that if you want to be able to spend your vacation as planned, make sure you’ve done your homework.  That means knowing what kind of roads you plan to travel on, and making sure that that the vehicle you need is the one that you’ll actually get.


A final note on insurance.  If you think it’s expensive to get full rental insurance for a sedan, be ready for a shock on a four-wheel drive.  For the one I’m driving, it would be $24 a day.  That’s not too bad for a weekend, if you’re not used to rough driving and want to play it safe.  But on a two-week vacation, it would really add up.  If you have a credit card that offers some degree of insurance on rental cars, be sure you know it’s terms.  Mine only covers the deductible for any damage, which means that I would have to look to my own insurance (or my own pocket) above the deductible.  If you have the same coverage with your credit card and your insurance covers rental cars, that’s fine, but like any other accident, if you have an accident and look to your regular policy, it may raise your rates in future policy years.


Tomorrow:  Part II:  How not to get stuck, and what to do if you do anyway

For more selections from Not Here But There: A Wilderness Journal, click here



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