This is what you need to know before you take your truck off-road for the first time. It’s tempting to jump into the truck, drive to a trail or off-road park and just start driving, but if you don’t take a few steps before you need to turn on 4 wheel drive and test your skills and the vehicle’s capabilities.
There’s a good chance you’re at least familiar with using four wheel drive in the snow, but conquering a trail or tackling giant sand dunes is vastly different. We recently took the 2017 Nissan Titan Pro 4X to the Silver Lake Dunes and want to help you learn the things you need to know and do before you go off-road.
If you plan ahead and come with the right gear, you can save money, have more fun and make your way through the off-road course without damaging your truck. It’s a good idea to start at an off-road park where other people are around so that you can get help if you are stuck or need to learn how to tackle an obstacle. Most people you meet will be glad to help pull you out of a jam or share tips on how to approach an obstacle. Off-road parks and ORV areas will also offer a range of conditions and many opportunities to turn around if you need to, which could be problematic on a trail into the woods.
Buy The Right Supplies
If you buy your supplies ahead of time you can save a lot of money. For instance, the tire deflating kit that we used on the Nissan Titan was $20 on Amazon compared to $70 to $100 for a similar tool at shops across from the Silver Lake Dunes. A kit with a rapid deflator will allow you to air down to the recommended levels faster.
At the minimum, you will need a flag to take your truck to an off-road park. You can buy these at most parks and you can even get small ones that clip into your window, but some parks require that you have a taller flag. In many cases, it’s going to be cheaper to buy a flag at the location for your first trip, especially if it needs to be 8 foot. That said, you can still buy a tow hook mount for a flag online ahead of time or plan to buy one at the shop. These are easy to install, but you’ll want a set of wrenches to put it on when you get there. If the flag is close to your truck’s body, get a foam protector, which is basically a pool noodle that keeps it from hitting your truck.
We also recommend bringing water and some snacks so you can stay hydrated and alert while driving off-road. It is a mentally challenging experience and if you don’t stay on top of it, you could end up getting stuck or doing something stupid. You should also plan on bringing a tow strap if you are going to a place where there is a good chance you will get stuck or need help up a hill.
Make sure you dress appropriately. If you are going to the Dunes or someplace sandy, you may want to go with flip flops and shorts, but if you are going to muddy, shrub filled areas, jeans and boots are a good idea.
Before you leave, make sure you know what you need to do for admittance. If it is a private location, you usually just need to pay an entry fee and sign a waiver. If it is public, like the Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan, you need to buy permits and a parking pass. figure this out before you leave home and if you can, buy the items before you get there — especially if you are going on a weekend.
Air Down Your Tires
When you get to the location, you will likely need to air down your tires using the kit we recommended above. Many locations will offer a suggestion and some places will post a maximum inflation.
Silver Lake Dunes requires you deflate your tires to 18 PSI or lower. We took the Titan’s General Grabber tires down to 15 PSI and were amazed at the performance. Lower tire pressure allows you to get more contact and better grip.
Check with other people using your vehicle or with the park rules to figure out the best PSI for your trip off-road. When you air down, make sure you pay attention to where you can air back up. Many parks offer a free air hose to fill back up before you leave. The Titan will even beep when you fill the tires back up to the right level.
Go With Friends
We’ve gone to many off-road parks and after trying solo exploration vs going with someone who knows the park there is a clear advantage to going with someone who knows the area.
If you can arrange a trip with a friend or a local off-road group you will have a better time guaranteed. On your own, you might spend 30 minutes just trying to get from the parking lot to a cool off-road obstacle.
When you go with someone who has been to the place before they can help you get to the fun areas, advise you if your vehicle is capable for an obstacle and help you out if you get stuck.
Know Your Truck’s Capabilities
We’re not suggesting you memorize your truck’s specs, but you should be at the very least familiar with your ground clearance, how much water you can drive through and if you have skid plates installed.
The location of your truck’s air intake and the computer will help you know how much water you can drive through. Driving into water that is too deep can cause major damage very quickly. Some manufacturers will publish water fording depths, while you’ll need to do some math for others.
In addition to water, it’s important to know about the modes your truck offers, when to use 4 high and 4 low, as well as which safety systems and tools to leave on. This varies based on the situation and vehicle, which is why you will need to do more vehicle specific research or go with someone who knows your vehicle.
Go Slow and When in Doubt Back Out
When you are off-roading for the first time, it’s important to go slow, until you need to go fast. While exploring the park you should go slow as you learn the terrain and how your vehicle handles. If you go too fast, you could hit a bump and damage your truck by slamming into the mud or sand. Even as you learn the limits and speeds needed, you’ll likely run into more water than you expect or hit some bumps going too fast.
The biggest area where you need speed is going up a hill. You will need speed to get up — many times full throttle. Once you get up the hill, you need to let off the gas and even hit the brakes. You don’t want to catch air and you need to be ready to maneuver on the other side.
If you don’t get up a hill, do not try to turn around. Back down the hill and try again with more momentum. There is no need to be embarrassed by backing down. Many people do this every day and it’s a sign of a smart driver to regroup rather than try to foolishly power through and end up stuck.
When it comes to water, test slowly as many water and mud holes are deeper than you think. Go in with just the left or right set of tires or slowly go in, but be ready to brake and back out if it gets too deep. When a hole starts to get deep, it can get deep very fast. You don’t want to get stuck in a hole of mud or water.