4-Wheel Trail Driving Tips

by Len Wilcox

Fish Creek Anza Borrego DSP

Taking a sport utility vehicle off-highway can be a tremendous adventure -- but it can also be a complete disaster, unless you first take the time to prepare yourself and your vehicle for the trail. Here are a few tips to help make your trip a fun, safe experience that you'll want to repeat.



Rule number one is always be prepared. The desert can be a dangerous and lonely place, if you find yourself stuck or broke down and without help. Take a look at our emergency supply list, and add other things you might need.

Another good rule is to always know where you are, and where you're going. Take good maps along, and consider getting a GPS. In addition to maps, DesertUSA has several excellent guidebooks that will help you find some interesting and scenic trails.

You should always let someone know where you are going, and set a time to contact them to let them know you are okay. If you do get lost or break down, then the people at home should know when and where to start looking. That person should have the phone number of the nearest sheriff, Park Service or BLM office (depending on who has jurisdiction over the land you're traveling on; if in doubt, call the sheriff), and know to call them if you do not check back on time. And don't forget to call them when you return; you don't want a rescue team out looking for you while you're resting at a camp or in a hotel room somewhere.

Another important element is to be aware of the damage you and your vehicle can do to the desert environment. We all need to Tread Lightly. The first reason is, we are all visitors in someone else's home when we're out on the desert; be aware that many animals live above, on and under the sands, and we don't really have a right to destroy their homes. And, there is constant pressure from environmental groups to close these wonderful lands to all vehicle access. So it is in our own best interests to not give them a reason by tearing up the desert.

Off-Road Guidelines

Don't blaze a new trail; stay on the established path. The ruts made by your tires may be left behind for years, even decades, as an example of a thoughtless 4-wheeler, and may be used in photographs and publications as a good reason to close off the land. Plus, the weight of your vehicle might crush some of the multitudes of tunnels and tiny excavations of field mice, kangaroo rats and so on. These ruts may also cause erosion.

Don't litter - not even a cigarette butt or a candy wrapper. If you pack it in, pack it out. Trash doesn't rot on the desert like it does in wet environments; once it's there, it's there for a very long time.

Don't spin your tires and chew up the soil - it breaks the surface crust and leads to erosion. If you need to pile stones up to get over an obstacle, then put the stones back where you found them afterwards.

Don't disturb the wildlife. Leave desert tortoises and other critters where they are; you are visiting their home, and chances are good they really don't want to leave it for yours.

Slow down and enjoy the scenery; you're out here to have fun, not to spend your day repairing damage you wouldn't have done if you'd driven a little slower.

Mojave Road

Desert Driving Tips
If you want to get off the pavement and onto the sand, you need 4-wheel-drive, and the tougher, the better. Whatever vehicle you choose to drive out there, make sure it's in good condition, has good trail tires and is ready for the trail. Your vehicle is your lifeline in and out of the desert. Do a complete vehicle check before leaving, and make sure all of your fluids are topped off and your tires are ready for the trip.

Driving technique is equally important. There are some basic tips; first is drive slow and easy. You'll damage tires, break things, run over desert tortoises and lose out on experiences if you try to drive too fast.

Second, stay on top of, not in, the ruts (except in sand, of course; when driving in sand I try to keep the wheels where the sand is best packed from the previous vehicles).
Put your vehicle in 4-wheel drive before you need it, and shift to low range early to reduce the strain on your vehicle.

When in deep sand, keep your speed up and use higher gears; don't spin the tires, and don't stop till you're clear of it. If you get stuck in sand, try letting some of the air out of your tires (remember to air them up again as soon as you can). After digging out the sand that is blocking your tires, you can use a piece of wood, some canvas or (if no other choice) some brush for traction. If you have plenty of water available you might try moistening the sand in front of your tires.

When you're approaching a hill, don't just rush into it blindly -- look it over, and realize the road might make a sharp turn just when you can't see anything but your hood.

Another good rule: remember that any hill you go down you may also have to come back up. If you don't think you can come back up it, don't go down unless there is another clear and obvious trail out. You will occasionally encounter other vehicles on the trail. Just as on the street, you should stay right to avoid oncoming traffic, if you can. If it is safer to move left instead of right, then by all means do so; the rule of common sense applies. If there is only room for one vehicle to pass, the more maneuverable vehicle, or the more experienced driver, should give way.

When two vehicles meet on a grade and there isn't a safe place to pull over, the vehicle traveling uphill has the right of way. It is safer for the vehicle traveling downhill to back up, and it will be much easier for the downhill vehicle to get under way.

Remember that what may look like a short trip on the map may take many hours in 4-wheel drive -- so allow enough time for safe travel. Also, know that a short trip by car can be a day-long hike. Plan accordingly; if you break down you may need to hike out if help doesn't come along in a reasonable time.

Sandy Road

If you do get lost, stuck, or if you break down:

Stay with your vehicle or otherwise make yourself visible.

Keep calm -- don't panic and don't waste time on the 'if' word ('If only I hadn't done that'). It's wasted effort, you did it, or it happened, whatever. Spend your time constructively.

Think through your options. Take stock of your supplies and situation.

Stay put, unless you have a clear and specific destination.

If you choose to hike out, avoid walking during the heat of the day; morning and evening walking is better for conserving your body's moisture. If you must leave your vehicle, leave a note telling the direction of your travel, your destination, and the date and time you left.

Seek shelter from the elements, but try to make yourself visible (with smoke or a signal fire, or a brightly colored tarp).

What can happen if you leave your car.

Emergency Supplies

Aside from the usual tools, spare tire, jack and so on, carry enough food and camping equipment to stay alive and relatively comfortable for several days in adverse conditions. I keep my emergency stores in a plastic carton in the garage, ready to be loaded first when I'm getting ready to hit the trail. In that carton are these supplies:

First aid kit - includes a snake bite kit (be sure to replace the rubber suction cups each spring), suntan lotion, insect bite spray, burn ointment, ace bandage, iodine, bandages and Band-Aids.

Heat tablets - There's not much wood on the desert.

MRE's - they really aren't too bad if you're hungry enough. Army surplus stores have them. Spare compass, flashlight (check the batteries before you go), matches, pocketknife, spare blanket - one of those tiny aluminum emergency blankets (space blankets) you'll find in the sporting goods section.

A small shovel, a towrope, and two 2-foot-long boards in case I get stuck.

Camping and emergency tools: aerial or road flares, rope or cord, duct tape, electrician's tape, small tarp or ground cover. I carry lots of fluids - usually a gallon of water per person, plus an ice chest with Gatorade.

And, I take a cell phone. They work in many of the remote desert areas.

I also take along maps - usually two or three of the same area, as they don't always agree - and a fire extinguisher. These items remain up front with me, close at hand.

  • On longer 4-wheeling backcountry trips, additional supplies may be needed:
    • An extra spare.
    • Compressor or manual tire pump.
    • 2 gallons of water for the radiator.
    • 1 gallon of engine oil.
    • 5 gallons of spare gas/diesel in a jerry can.
    • Appropriate manuals for the vehicle to aid in trailside repairs.
    • Hi-Lift jack (or Jack-all)


Part 1: Lippincott Mine Rd. - 4WD Route to Racetrack Playa
Part 2: The Racetrack Playa
Part 3: Off Road Driving Tips


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