If you like puzzles, problem solving, and breaking conformity, there’s a motorized hobby to waste your time and money. Off-roading seems simple enough; take a vehicle away from the pavement and drive around places that haven’t been destroyed by bureaucracy. However, there’s a fine line between being a mall crawler and getting stuck. Here’s how to ride that line and get hopelessly addicted to wheeling.

Pick Your Poison:

First, you’re going to need a rig. The recipe for a good one includes four wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case, a solid rear axle at the least, and decent aftermarket support. For beginners, you’ll want to pick something with tidy dimensions and minimal body overhangs so you can start with generous approach, departure, and break-over angles. The greater the angles, the taller the obstacle you can crawl over before you snag your bumper or high-center your frame.

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Compact and mid-size SUVs and trucks are your best bet as navigating full-size rigs takes experience to avoid physical damage to the truck, and emotional damage to your ego.

Strong axles (explained by Chevrolet’s old full-float units) and differentials (explained by vintage General Motors) are some of the most critical components of off-roading, so you’ll want to start with a platform that either comes with robust ones out of the box, or a rig that can easily be upgraded.

In terms of actual manufacturers, there is a “holy trinity” of off-roading – Toyota, Land Rover, and Jeep – so keep these in mind. Unless your pockets are deep, older rigs will be favored to keep overall costs down and your budget happy. The 1990s was a great decade for starter platforms as it includes the second and third gen Toyota 4Runner and FJ80 Land Cruiser, Jeep XJ Cherokee and TJ Wrangler, and the Series I and II Land Rover Discovery. All of these can be had for reasonable prices and will perform beyond your expectations, even when left stock. While you may want a vehicle that’s already modified, if it’s your first time really doing this, it’s highly recommended you find something factory fresh so you can learn.

Join a Group, Get Dirty:

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Once you have your rig, you need to tighten the nut behind the wheel and the best way to do this is by finding an off-road group and joining them on a trip. As long as you’re willing to learn, you’ll be hard pressed to find a club that won’t accept you and show you the ropes, even if you’re stock. Keep in mind if you come to a run that’s meant for 38s, lockers, and rock sliders in your stock 4Runner, you probably won’t make it, so be honest with the club about your experience and your equipment. You’ll surely find a few trucks willing to take you out so you can discover your limitations, find out what’s strong, what needs to be upgraded or repaired, and discover the idiosyncrasies of the wheeling community. If you’re lucky, you’ll get stuck so you can also learn proper recovery techniques.

In essence: never wheel alone. This mantra is more than just trail etiquette, it’s a philosophy that will save your life.

Get Equipped:

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You’ve got your rig, your club, and some mud on the tires – now’s the time to spend money. Start upgrading by fixing anything broken like u-joints and wheel hubs that are typically the first to go bad on an off-road rig. Next, you’ll probably want better tires, otherwise known as the most important aspect of wheeling. Bald TigerPaws aren’t going to cut it, so invest in a set of all-terrains or mud-terrains and size them appropriately. Because of the heavy tread, off-road tires will increase your unsprung weight, so be aware of your axle gearing. You don’t want to overwork your rig just getting to the trail head.

The off-road community will debate for years about which brand and type of tire is best, but the simple answer is – it doesn’t matter when you’re first starting. As long as you have something with an aggressive tread and strong sidewall, you’ll have a better chance of learning proper driving technique. Whatever you pick, remember to air down before you hit the trails. Going from 35 psi to 15 increases the tire’s contact patch and allows it to deform around obstacles rather than bounce off of them. For standard wheels without beadlocks, be modest with how low you go – typically never dropping below 10 psi to avoid your tire coming off the wheel.

Just like you can autocross a stock Honda Civic, you can wheel a stock Jeep, so get out there and get dirty. As long as you remember to air down, never wheel alone, and tread lightly, you’ll gain the understanding needed to try harder trails, recover stuck rigs, and be an off-roading hero.

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