Technical > Four Wheel Finesse
Are You Driving in Terrain Over Your Budget?
by Jim Allen
Before and after. While stock, this ’95 Wrangler was hard pressed to get across this gully without spinning a tire. In order to get this rig through harder terrain, excessive amounts of momentum must be used. Contrast that with the built up iteration. The stock rig would have to be hauled in by helicopter to get this far up 21 Road in Colorado.
You probably think I’m going to do a Finesse on “Pay to Play” off-road parks. Not a bad idea, but no, this one covers the way your hard-earned dollars connect to the type of terrain you drive. Yep, there’s a connection, but not in the way you might think.
Not long ago, I saw a young guy with a fairly stock rig on the trail. He was on some moderately tough stuff and his rig had been having a hard time. In reality, his rig was in terrain two notches ahead of where it should be, and the terrain was at least three notches ahead of his driving skills. Now he was broke. His immortal words inspired this column.
“S—-, the axle broke again! Man, I’m outta bucks! I just can’t afford to ‘wheel any more!”
Pay to Play: The Vehicle
“Can’t afford to ‘wheel.” This got me to thinking on a variety of levels. Maybe the pay to play thing is more apt than I thought. It’s a fact of nature no matter what the endeavor; you’re gonna pay your dues. In the ‘four-wheeling world, the question becomes whether that’s before or after something breaks. If you don’t do at least the basic buildup and durability stuff before you go ‘wheeling, you’ll wind up spending an equal or greater amount on repairs after. The bad part of that is that you won’t necessarily be better off after making those repairs. Under the same circumstances, the same thing will happen again because you haven’t improved anything.
Following that logic, maybe it’s actually cheaper to make the improvements beforehand, and not break, than it is to break and do an OE type repair on a weak part. You may wind up replacing something you wouldn’t have had to if your rig had been properly built in the first place. By properly built I mean that it has enough of a performance edge that it doesn’t have to be thrown at the terrain to conquer it. Yes, an extremely skilled driver can do amazing things with a stock rig, but the vehicle will always be a weak link and more subject to breakage from being worked too hard. The performance edge I mentioned would include the necessary durability mods.
Every vehicle has a “degree-of-difficulty terrain limit”and driving past that limit amounts to punishment to the vehicle. The result of that punishment will be broken parts, sooner or later, and that’s a direct impact on your wallet. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bone-stock rig or not, though it’s the stock rigs that are most often abused to death. Ultimately, the choice comes down to making the improvements or limiting the severity of the terrain you ‘wheel over.
Pay to play rears it’s head on modified vehicles also. Once you start down the modification road, you gotta go all the way to the stop sign. An obvious example of stopping ahead of the stop sign is big tires on weak axles. Another is a big V8 swap using the original small six radiator. You have to follow all the threads that lead off from that central point called the stock vehicle and take them all the way to the stop sign. If you don’t, you may have created a weak link in any one of those threads.
Pay to Play: The Driver
You could look at driving skill and experience in the same money-preserving way, regardless of the level to which a 4-by is built. Driving in terrain far past a person’s level of experience can be very hard on any rig. A well built rig will bring that level up for any driver, but the driver is still the limiting factor. Hey, we’re only human. Nobody picks up the skills just by breathing the pure mountain air (though it helps!). We get it by ‘wheeling, but common sense has to be applied.
The Army doesn’t send soldiers into combat a week after teaching them to salute and slap a magazine into an M-16. They are brought up in stages, each step a bit more difficult than the last, until they are ready for that final step. That’s how to approach the ‘wheeling game. Match the trails you cover tomorrow to your current level of experience (and equipment, of course), but regularly up the ante as your experience grows. The challenges of something new and a step higher in difficulty are incentives to learn, advance and excel. Just make sure it’s not going from the four-wheeling equivalent of paint-ball warfare to being parachuted into Fallujah, Iraq with just a knife and a Beretta.
The First Payment
The first couple of payments on the ‘wheeling account may be the most important. Where that money is spent could make or break your rig... pun intended. A basic course on four-wheeling skills could be of great use to the totally untried and even the slightly tried. Hell, even the most grizzled of the gear grinders among us could use some fresh perspective at times. The costs for these courses range from very reasonable to choke-on-your-food expensive. The next Finesse will round up the major schools around the country, so stay tuned.
When it comes to the vehicle, the two most important performance items would include tires and at least one differential traction aid. There are a host of attendant items that must go with those two items, such as a lift to fit the tires, gear changes to accommodate the change in tire size and perhaps some drivetrain durability mods depending on the vehicle and the tires you picked. That’s just the beginning.
The temptation is to buy only what you can afford right now and leave out certain pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes, with some vehicles, that works. With other rigs, you’ve actually shot yourself in the foot and end up with more trouble than if you were still stock. The equalizer in all cases goes back to moderating the ‘wheeling to suit the rig and the driver. By the time you’ve got the whole puzzle together, your driving skills will be as honed as your rig and you won’t have wasted money on breaking stuff needlessly.
This is what “overwhelmed by the terrain” looks like. A bone-stock Explorer with street tires has no chance in mud like this. Luckily Explorers are tougher than they look, because this driver pounded his rig up and down trails all day without breaking. Luckily it was a one-day event. Another day would have killed it.