Exploring the backcountry in your vehicle is one of the best ways to get to remote spots that would be tough or impossible to hike or bike to.
But can your vehicle handle it? If you have a 4-wheel-drive truck or Jeep, chances are that you’ll be fine on all but the most challenging off-road trails. Far more people, however, drive less aggressively designed SUVs and figuring out if these vehicles can cope with your off-road ambitions can be trickier.
Here, we’ll offer a few things to consider when determining what your SUV can handle. As a rule of thumb, before we jump into more detail, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere because you pushed your ride too hard.
Does your SUV have all-wheel drive?
Hard-core off-roading rigs are outfitted with true four-wheel drive, meaning the vehicle has a center differential that allows the engine to power all four wheels. Switching the vehicle into 4-wheel drive engages both axles, spinning the four wheels. In contrast, all wheel drive engineering, which is more common on SUVs, typically uses only two wheels (front or rear) and then engages the other two wheels only when it senses it needs more traction.
If you are planning to head off-road, it’s wise to at least have all-wheel-drive, which will help you deal with things like mud, snow and sand. Even front wheel drives can do pretty well in challenging conditions. Rear-wheel drive is typically the worst performer.
Does your SUV have ground clearance?
Ground clearance allows your undercarriage (axles, chassis, etc) to pass over obstacles in the road that would otherwise cause damage or cause you to get stuck. In large part, clearance comes from the size of your tires, which is why you’ll see off-roading enthusiasts put larger tires on their vehicle (along with suspension lifts to make room for those tires).
As a point of reference, a 2021 Jeep Wrangler, one of the most aggressive stock off-road vehicles, has a ground clearance of 10.8 inches. A 2021 Subaru Outback has a ground clearance of 8.7 inches, which is pretty good for a small SUV. A Toyota RAV 4 has 8.4 inches of ground clearance, and a Honda CRV has 7.8 inches of clearance.
Even these last two can handle some relatively mellow dirt trails. But if you happen upon a road with deep potholes or ruts or rocky areas, proceed with caution.
Does your SUV have recovery points?
If you get stuck and need to get towed out, how will another vehicle pull you free? They will need to connect to your vehicle at a recovery point, a loop, hook or hole connects firmly to the frame.
For instance, Jeep Wranglers come with metal hooks that stick up from the front bumper (but are connected to the frame). You should never connect a tow strap or winch hook to the bumper or axle of a car (unless, like the Jeep, the recovery point on the bumper connects to the frame), as this can rip your bumper or axle off the vehicle. That would make matters worse.
Sometimes the recovery point will be located on the frame just under the bumper. If you have a tow hitch, you may be able to get an aftermarket recovery point that will attach to it. An SUV with a recovery point is far easier to pull out of a predicament than one without.
Do you have good tires?
Tires make a huge difference in your vehicle’s ability to get traction in challenging terrain. All-season tires are good on pavement, but all-terrain tires have a tread depth and pattern that will work well both on the pavement and off.
If you really want to step it up, mud-terrain tires have even deeper and more aggressive lugs on the tread that will help prevent mud, sand, and rocks from getting stuck in them — thus giving you better traction in loose ground. Mud terrains don’t do very well on slick roads.
For most people just getting started exploring off-road, all-terrain tires are the best option, offering a balance between off-road and on-road performance.
Do you have recovery gear?
The backcountry is filled with myriad adventures and plenty of pitfalls, too. Make sure that you have the appropriate recovery gear to roll again if you get stuck.
Basic off-road recovery gear includes a shovel, jack, recovery straps (for towing), shackles (for connecting your straps to your vehicle), an air compressor, and possibly traction pads that you can put under your wheels in mud, sand or snow.
It’s also a good idea to bring some basic tools, such as wrenches and screwdrivers, in case you need to perform simple repairs.
Oh, yeah, a tire repair kit may come in handy in case you bust two tires. Your spare will only cover one of them, so you’ll need to repair one of them.
As a side note, it’s typically a good idea to lower the air pressure in your tires when you travel off-road. This will help protect your tires, give you better grip, and make for a smoother ride. Just remember to bring your air compressors so you can inflate your tires when you hit the pavement again.
Travelling in the backcountry requires more consideration than whether your SUV can handle it or not.
You should also have a good emergency plan in place, maps and other navigation equipment so you don’t get lost, and a first aid kit and training.
But we hope this article gives you some criteria for assessing whether your vehicle is up to exploring beyond where the pavement ends.
If your ride isn’t up to the task, maybe it’s time to start looking for a new ride!
Author Bio: Chris Emery is the editor of Ordealist, the guide to overland and off-road adventure.