Keep Calm and Wheel On

I have noticed some Jeepers carry spare parts with them on the trail. Is that really necessary, and if so, what are the “must-haves”?

A: Murphy’s Law tells us that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and Jeepin’ is no exception. Experienced off-roaders tend to carry a lot of equipment and a number of spare parts whenever they hit the trails. They do so because they have learned the first rule of wheeling: Always go prepared and expect the unexpected!

Making it home safely should always be your top priority. A fully stocked first aid kit is a must, but vehicles need TLC too. Jeep people are some of savviest trail mechanics around, and it helps that many parts work for multiple models and model-years.

Onboard Parts Store

Depending on your level of wheeling experience or the distance you travel, your “must-have” spare parts could include U-joint strap kits or bolts for axle ends and driveshafts, a spare drive belt for your engine, and a spare tire. Repair kits are useful, but some tire damage can’t be fixed with a plug.

Some Jeepers carry extra front-end linkage pieces, such as tie rod ends or drag link ends. Also consider stocking unit bearings — which are non-serviceable wheel bearings for front axles — as well as assorted fuses and varying lengths of wire to bypass shortages caused by water damage or trail damage.

“Advanced” Jeepers may also choose to carry an extra fuel filter, gearbox oil, a short section of tubing that will fit inside radiator hoses, spark plugs and a spare axle shaft. If your Jeep is equipped with a stick shift, a spare manual hub assembly could come in handy someday.
Finally, every Jeeper should carry the basics: water, flashlight, towels, engine oil, a toolkit, zip ties, a jack, duct tape and electrical tape, assorted nuts, bolts and hose clamps, a JB weld, a silicone gasket maker, valve stems and a valve core tool, and a small air compressor (unless you have onboard air).

Keep Your Cool

Most importantly, when trouble arises, don’t lose your cool. The most reliable Jeepers are those who remain calm under pressure and are able to think outside the box to come up with a solution to any problem.

With a good head on your shoulders and the proper equipment, you can complete every journey and be an asset to your fellow wheelers.

Nuts and Bolts

John Ryzowicz is an experienced mechanic and trail leader and the owner of Trinity Auto Worx in Odessa, Fla. He advises Jeepers to take a number of key supplies and spare parts on every off-road adventure.

Secrets of a Master Spotter

When we are four-wheeling, there is a lot going on. There is engine noise, other vehicles moving around, and people talking. When a driver is in the middle of an obstacle, the distance from the Jeep to the spotter means shouting is not always the most effective way to communicate directions.

A good spotter can help a driver get through obstacles they never could have driven on their own. Like any valuable skill, spotting takes practice to be able to guide the blind down the trail.

Put Your Hands Up

Great spotters know their hand signals and make sure their drivers understand and agree to use them before each ride. Here are a few basic signals:

  • Stop: Use a closed fist to signal a stop.
  • Turn right or left: Point with your index finger (or thumb) in the desired direction. For a harder turn, simultaneously point and push.
  • Advance: Extend an open hand with your palm facing toward you. Tuck your thumb in to avoid the appearance of a directional signal and, keeping your fingers together, wave them toward yourself in a repeated beckoning motion.
  • Reverse: Extend one or both hands with your palms facing the driver. Make a repeated pushing motion. It may be necessary to position yourself toward the back of the vehicle to help your driver back up safely.

You can create combinations by using one hand for a directional signal and the other for motion. To get the driver to turn the wheels without moving, simply hold up one closed fist and use the other hand to point. To signal movement, keep the directional finger pointing and open the closed fist to signal the direction you want.

Don’t be afraid to ask an observer to help. The observer will not communicate with the driver. Their sole function is to yell “Stop!” so you can signal the driver by hand. This is helpful when you are backing your driver up or trying to signal very minor adjustments.

Nuts and Bolts

Ted Johns is president of Bear Offroad Alliance and an experienced driver and spotter. He advises Jeepers to master the techniques and habits of master spotters, including:

  • Agreeing to a series of hand signals and
    round rules with each driver.
  • Asking an observer to assist if necessary.
  • Test-driving each Jeep to get a feel for its capabilities.
  • Asking whether the driver prefers to attack obstacles
    or tractor over them.

Advanced Spotting (and Driving) Skills

A good spotter is usually also a good driver. Why? Unless you experience the capabilities of a rig firsthand, by driving it, it’s very difficult to predict its characteristics on the rocks. You should know your driver’s vehicle from top to bottom.

You also need to know what the spotted vehicle can and cannot do. This means knowing at a quick glance what will clear at a given point under the rig. A good spotter knows where to position the tires and differentials for clearance. Sometimes the route requires the tires to be on top of the rocks, sometimes between, sometimes directly over.

Spotters should know in advance how much traction the tires have in a given situation, taking into account each obstacle’s steepness and surface grip and the air pressure of the tires, noting that lower inflation can affect the vehicle’s center of gravity.

Finally, knowing what kind of style the driver prefers is also important. Drivers eager to use the “bump it over” approach may prefer to hit the same obstacle faster than those who like to “tractor” over obstacles.

Some Jeepers believe they are too skilled to want or need a spotter. These Jeepers rely on memorizing the trail just before they go over it, taking mental snapshots of the route. If you encounter one of these talented and highly developed Jeepers, just stay out of the way, sit back, and enjoy the show. Most of us are not of that caliber. We must rely on someone to spot us over the really tough areas.

Whenever there is a chance a Jeep could slide out of control, roll over, or go over a cliff, a few inches can make a great deal of difference, particularly when driving on loose terrain. Whatever the driver’s skill level, in these situations, most of us need a spotter.

Being a spotter and seeing Jeepers put their rigs through the paces can be very rewarding. I encourage you to practice these techniques. You’ll find a pleasant reduction in everyone’s blood pressure and, hopefully, a diminishing of those ugly metal sounds associated with a truly tough trail.

Ground Rules

Great spotters earn the trust of their drivers by establishing a set of signals and rules and sticking to them. Here are the basic ground rules for spotters:

1. Trust is a must. 

Drivers and spotters are teammates and should act accordingly.

2. Hand signals are best. 

Both driver and spotter must clearly understand all hand signals before proceeding.

3. Stand where the driver can see you. 

The spotter usually stands in front, facing the vehicle. If you position yourself on one side of the vehicle, choose the side from which the driver can see you, not necessarily the driver’s side.

4. Ask for help.

Some situations may call for an additional spotter at the rear or any other problem area. This spotter is limited to yelling “Stop” or “Wait” at the primary spotter, who will then signal the driver.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize.

The spotter watches the trail and the driver watches the spotter.

6. Don’t interfere. 

The next time you start yelling at a stranger creeping over some rough real estate, thinking you’re helping them out, think again. They may be silently communicating with a spotter you can’t see.

Everybody Needs a Spotter

How important is it to have a spotter on new trails?

A: In the world of off-roading, obstacles can appear on the trail that can only be safely negotiated with the help of an external pair of eyes. “Spotting,” as it’s known by the four-wheel-drive community, can make the difference between finding the perfect line through a rock garden or finding the perfect repair facility for a freshly demolished rig.

OK, things aren’t quite that drastic, but spotting is a great way to save the day from being consumed by easily avoidable recovery efforts.

Essentially, the spotter is the person driving the vehicle through the obstacle. Solely by hand signals or verbal commands, the spotter maintains control of the situation. While being spotted, the person in the driver’s seat is simply a robot carrying out orders. Those orders need to be as clear and concise as possible.

Directional Commands

When referring to the direction of steering, using the words “left” and “right” on the trail can result in responses like “Huh?” and “My left or your left?” When the spotter needs to direct the rig a certain direction, only the words “driver” and “passenger” should refer to steering wheel turns. Using commands like these completely eliminate confusion as to which side is which. There is, after all, only one driver’s side to the vehicle.

Spotting Hand Signals

Without proper channels of communication while spotting, there are numerous flips and flops that can happen to ruin a perfectly good day on the trail. When moving forward and backward, hand signals work best. The spotter must maintain a direct line of sight with the driver at all times for everyone’s safety. Hand signals also let the spotter simultaneously direct the vehicle forward while guiding it with voice commands. Using solely vocal commands like “Whoa!” or “Go!” can be confusing.

In terms of hand signals, the flat open palm gesture like a high-five toward the driver clearly means to stop or pause. This signal gives the spotter a chance to reposition vantage points and is easy to maintain while traversing rough terrain.

When the spotter wants the driver to move the rig forward, they quickly turn the pause-hand inward and use the first four fingers in a beckoning motion. The transfer between the pause-hand and the beckon-hand is extremely quick and simple, resulting in little time lost during the switch.

One Hand Signals the Other

Another way for the spotter to maneuver the vehicle with nothing but hand signals is to use one hand for forward and reverse and the other for steering. A simple point of the index finger or thumb replaces the words “driver” or “passenger.” This works well when the spotter needs to guide the vehicle from a reasonable distance down the trail or when voice commands would be difficult to hear over environmental noise.

Without proper channels of communication while spotting, there are numerous things that can happen to ruin a perfectly good day on the trail. Establishing a solid base of communication between the driver and the spotter is paramount before any obstacle conquering can be made.

Nuts and Bolts

Ted Johns is the president of Bear Offroad Alliance and one of the most knowledgeable Jeepers in the industry. He advises Jeepers to:

  • Use a trusted spotter on challenging or unfamiliar terrain.
  • Maintain line-of-sight and use hand signals.
  • Say “driver” and “passenger” rather than “left” and “right.”

Trust Your Spotter

The driver must always have full trust in their spotter. Most spotters are the passenger or another driver on trail that has experience in the terrain. Remember, a driver has the right to fire his spotter or to halt anytime they feel uncomfortable. When going to events that have spotters on obstacles, if your guy is someone you feel good working with, ask the designated spotter if they can let your guy work with you and they can just supervise to halt any problems they see.

Always and foremost, there can only be one spotter working with the driver. If a third person is needed, they should only communicate with the first spotter. The driver should always follow only one person’s directions.

Please note these are basic spotting guidelines that are intended to help the driver and spotter communicate. There is a lot more that can be written on obstacles, hill descents and crossing uneven terrain. You will learn more as you conquer more trails.

9 Keys to Safe Rock and Hill Climbing

Not all rocks and hills are created equal. Some are harder or steeper than others and may create a problem if you are not prepared. Here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind whether you are a novice or seasoned Jeeper. 

1. Maintain Traction.

The biggest mistake we see new drivers make when attempting steep obstacles is to mash the gas when they get frustrated. This usually doesn’t help much with the obstacle. Instead of slamming the gas pedal, back down and analyze the obstacle. Rock and hill climbing is a process, so try a slightly different line or a little more speed or a bump. Spinning the tires won’t give you as much traction as tires that are stuck to the ground.  

2. Stay Off the Brakes.

When going down a steep slope, the natural reaction is to hit the brakes and most times this causes the tires to lose traction and the Jeep to slide wherever gravity and fate take it. With a manual transmission, it is easy to use compression braking to hold the vehicle back and keep it from going too fast. With an automatic, this is more difficult, but you can still shift into a lower gear. 

If you do start sliding, point the front tires downhill and accelerate to straighten the vehicle out. It might seem strange to hit the gas when you are headed downhill without full control of your Jeep, but this is the best way to regain traction and control.

3. Choose the Right Gear.

The key to making it up (or down) excessively steep terrain is to pick the right gear. Too high of a gear and you risk stalling; too low of a gear and you might not have the speed to keep your vehicle moving. You want to have enough speed to make it to the end of the climb without having to shift in the middle of the obstacle.

Jeeps with more gearing options, such as dual transfer cases or with automatics, can starve for fluid and slip on steep slopes when all of the fluid rushes to the rear of the case. A deep pan that provides more capacity can help overcome the problem. 

4. Stow Your Gear.

We aren’t talking about transmission or transfer case gears here. We are talking about your ice chest, Hi-Lift jack, tools and all of the other things that you carry with you on the trail. These items can become deadly missiles during sudden weight transfers. Make sure that anything you wouldn’t want to hit you in the head is safely stored and strapped down as soon as you lock the hubs and air down your tires.

5. Cage It.

A roll cage is a wise investment for any terrain, but none more so than steep ascents and descents. The chance of a rollover is much greater, and a roll cage is the best way to protect occupants from injury or worse. 

Cages should be constructed of HREW, DOM or chromoly steel. They should tie into the cab or frame in at least four locations. Tying into the frame can be more complicated, but it’s stronger than just bolting the cage to the body. If you do connect the cage to the body, make certain that the plates you use to sandwich the body are different sizes on top and bottom to keep them from punching through the floor. 

Tying the seats and harnesses into the cage makes it even safer, but make sure that you do both the seats and the harnesses at the same time. If your Jeep rolls over, you don’t want your seats to go one direction and your harness to go another.

6. Check Ahead.

If you cannot see the other side of the hill or obstacle you are about to attempt, I would definitely get out and check ahead to make certain that it is safe. When you are belted in and behind the wheel, it is too late to worry about what is on the other side or if there is another Jeep coming the other way down the trail.

Another reason to check ahead is to check the terrain. Once you start up the climb, it is likely that all you will see is hood and sky. You need to plan several steps ahead on steep hills.

Nuts and Bolts

Al Feliz is vice president of Blackwater Jeepers and an experienced off-roader. He recommends keeping the following safety tips in mind when climbing and descending rocks and hills:

  • Maintain traction.
  • Stay off the brakes.
  • Choose the right gear.
  • Stow your gear.
  • Invest in a roll cage.
  • Check the trail ahead.
  • Use your winch.
  • Keep the engine running.
  • Stay calm.

7. Use Your Winch.

If you think that there is a chance you might roll backward off a steep climb or forward off a descent, hook up your winch. It is better to have the winch attached and not need it than to have to fumble to find the controller and unspool the cable in a bad situation. Just remember not to run the cable over as you move forward.

8. Keep the Engine Running.

Its almost impossible to stall an automatic transmission. Manuals, on the other hand, are much easier to stall. When the engine shuts off, power brakes and power steering become manual, and this can greatly reduce your ability to stop and turn just when you need to the most.

Try to keep the vehicle running at all times if possible. If the engine does stall, attempt to restart it with the transmission in gear.  A hand throttle is another helpful modification to keep the engine running while your feet work the clutch and the brake pedals. Bicycle shifters are an inexpensive way to add a hand throttle to your Jeep.

9. Stay Calm.

This is easier said than done. Staying calm while attempting to descend down a huge slope that gives you that “pucker moment” — when all you see is ground through the windshield — is not an easy task. This can’t be taught; it just takes experience. Get as much Jeep time on the trails as you can. Start with small slopes and work your way up to bigger and better obstacles.

9 Safety Items for Every Jeep

Q: I understand the concept of “safety first,” but I don’t want to overload my Jeep. What are the most important safety items to carry on the trail?

A: To me, the most important safety items vary with the trail, but some components of a Jeep safety kit are essential. Let’s run through the three items you will need for recovery and six additional items you or someone in your group should have on hand for every trail ride.

1. Tow points: Every Jeep needs to have at least two tow points, preferably front and rear. They should be at the center of each bumper to prevent twisting of the frame.

2. Tow strap: Your tow strap should be at least 3 inches thick and have a rating of at least 30,000 pounds. When you select your strap, shop for quality, not price. If you ever go out wheeling on your own — which we never recommend you do — you should also buy a tree strap. Also look for a “tree save,” which is a short tow strap that wraps around the trunk. It prevents the winch strap from digging into the bark and potentially damaging or felling the tree.

3. Winch: You will want a winch with at least a 9,500-pound rating and a synthetic rope. In the event of a break, the synthetic rope will just drop, whereas a steel cable will hold the energy and continue to move, potentially causing serious injury or damaging your vehicle.

4. Radio: I never go anywhere without a high-powered ham radio with the ability to reach a repeater. In the event my phone does not have service, I still have a way to reach someone in an emergency.

5. First aid kit: A fully stocked first aid kit should include bite relief in addition to the usual supply of Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, gauze, tape and scissors.

6. Tools: It is always wise to keep a shovel, trail saw, machete and basic toolkit in your Jeep.

7. Zip ties: Even if you have never used a zip tie, buy a bag. You will find several uses for them as time goes on.

8. Flashlight and bug spray: You need a flashlight for night rides. As for the bug spray, we live in Florida, and our critters tend to get a little friendly at night.

9. Refreshments: Last but not least, always pack lots of water and food. You will get thirsty and hungry, and there are no stores or restaurants on the trails.

Nuts and Bolts

Randy Kelly is an experienced off-roader and a member of Blackwater Jeepers. He recommends equipping your Jeep with nine essential safety items:

  • Tow points
  • Tow strap
  • Winch
  • Radio
  • First aid kit
  • Tools
  • Zip ties
  • Flashlight and bug spray
  • Refreshments

How to Winch Safely

A lot of us in the Jeepin’ community have added winches to our rigs. They are very useful if we get stuck or need extra help getting up or through a difficult trail, and they look good, too. But in my experience, too many off-roaders use their winches in an unsafe manner, endangering themselves and those who have gathered to watch the action.

The first rule of safe winching is to read and understand the manual that came with your winch. Following the precautions it lists can mean the difference between keeping and losing a body part or even your life. After you have read the manual and before your next winch, keep these five safety tips in mind:

1. Clear the Area.

This is the No. 1 safety violation I see on the trail. Everyone wants a ringside seat or the best view for a video post. You must keep the area around the vehicle(s) clear of anyone not directly involved in the winching operation – this means well back! A snapped or broken line, hook or shackle can become a projectile, traveling well beyond the distance between vehicles or the winching anchor point.

2: Dampen the Line.

Always use a dampener for your cable or synthetic rope. Lay something across the line that has enough weight to help pull it to the ground in case of a break. Remember, when your cable or rope is under load, there is a lot of stored energy just waiting for a chance to be released. This weight can be a store-bought item made for this type of operation, such as a winch line dampener blanket, or something as simple as a wet towel, floormat, or even a tow strap placed back and forth across the length of the line.

3: Know the Limits of Your Equipment.

Just because your local mechanic installed this winch on your Jeep doesn’t mean it can be used to pull a full-size dually pickup truck. The gear was most likely selected for use on your specific vehicle and its weight. Exceeding the limits of your equipment is just asking for an accident to happen. Every winch has a weight rating, as does every hook, shackle and line.

4. Think About It.

Consider every action related to the winch and whether it is safe. Never stand or walk over a loaded winch cable. Never – and I mean never – tug or snatch with an attached winch cable or synthetic rope. You can easily exceed its rated capacity, causing it to snap and damage your winch’s internal gearing. Don’t grab your line without gloves, as wire-cable fraying is common and can slice your hand open. Synthetic rope can also pick up sand spurs or thorns, which can become a hazard while handling with bare hands. Do not ever bring your hands close to the fairlead (where the line feeds into or out of the winch spool) while unspooling or winching.

5. Plan Ahead.

Always plan your winching operation. Take your time and really think through how you will recover your own or your trail buddy’s stuck vehicle. Think about the angles of recovery and ask yourself: Are the anchor points solid or strong enough to support the winching operation? Can the recovery be done safely? If not, what will you need to make it safe? After all, we all want to come home safely after a fun-filled day on the trail.