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9 Keys to Safe Rock and Hill Climbing

Successfully navigating steep obstacles requires advanced Jeepin’ skills and experience. Keep these safety tips in mind the next time you hit a rocky or hilly trail.
By: Al Feliz

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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.

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jeepin' Central Florida or any employee thereof.

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