If you are like many first-time owners, your new (or new to you) Jeep is your one and only off-roader. It is most likely your one and only vehicle as well. Welcome to the edge of sanity, where temptation relentlessly drags you toward every tree-strewn dirt road, overgrown terrain, or bottomless mudhole within 100 miles of you. You will hear voices in your head saying things like “I can make it through this!” or “I can make it over that!” or “It’s a Jeep! It’s built for this kind of stuff.”
Don’t listen to those voices. They can’t write the checks necessary to undo what you will inevitably do to your poor daily driver. Thankfully, it is absolutely possible to “weekend wheel” your daily driver — if you know what you’re getting into and whether your vehicle can handle it.
Before you take your daily driver on an off-road excursion, be sure you are mentally and mechanically prepared.
- Air down your tires for sugar sand trails. Air them up for the long drive home.
- Drive slowly, let the four-wheel-drive and low-range gearing do the work, and stay out of the throttle.
- Bring recovery straps and know where the rated recovery points are on your vehicle.
- Install all-terrain tires designed to perform well on asphalt and various off-road terrains.
- Bring a pair of clippers and a bow saw to cut back the trail if you need to prevent branch-induced pinstripes.
- Invest in proper skid plates to protect your undercarriage.
- Install a winch if possible.
- Don’t be afraid to let others know this is your daily driver and you can’t afford to break an axle or puncture your oil pan.
- Drive with caution and think things through. Pick your lines carefully and thoughtfully.
- Never wheel alone! Go with a minimum of two vehicles and two drivers.
- Use radios to communicate. If you don’t have radios, check your cell signals. You may have to call for help.
Know Where You’re Going
Yes, it sounds obvious and simple. But many of us have been following our fellow Jeepers down a trail only to realize that they care much less than you do about rubbing the occasional tree or dragging the transmission over a large rock. This often results in you just following their line and hoping for the best, because you don’t want to hold up the ride and you don’t want to look like a mall-crawling sissy.
Bravado and pride are expensive traits. If your buddy isn’t paying the mailman, don’t send it. Y’all know what I mean.
So take note of where the trail leads and what obstacles you will encounter. Ask the trail ride organizer if there are bypasses available for obstacles that could damage your vehicle. It could be a narrow trail lined with the fiendish claws of Mother Nature, waiting to tear scratches into the sides of your ride, or large rock outcroppings reaching out with granite daggers to rip off your bumper.
It could even be the most deceptive hazard of all: the puddle of doom. You only know it has you in its tentacles when forward momentum suddenly halts, and the muddy spray of spinning tires rises up around you like a dirty kraken. It may look like a little puddle in the middle of the trail. Heck, you can see grass growing up out of the top of the water for land’s sake. How deep could it be? That’s when the bottom drops out and you’re left-high-centered or perched on your axles, wheels just spinning helplessly.
Don’t be lulled into complacency or revved up into throttle-happy madness. If you are being cautious and getting out to check the train ahead, and plotting the path of least damage, you are treating your daily driver with the respect and care it deserves. After all, it still has to get you to work Monday morning. Treat your Jeep kindly and it will never leave you stranded.
Know Your Limits
Get familiar with your daily driver and how it performs off-road by exposing it to incrementally more challenging terrain. You should know where the corners of your vehicle are instinctually. Wheeling an expensive machine that you do not want to break is a different skillset than just “sending it” with arms locked on the steering wheel and your right foot mashed to the floor.
Wheeling with care and intent is about finesse and delicate precision. Much like hardcore rock-crawling, you need to know where each tire is at all times, how much available traction each tire has to work with, and where each tree, branch or boulder is in relationship to your Jeep’s body and bumpers.
When approaching a “harmless puddle,” if you are leading, stop to check its depth. If you are following, compare the leader’s ground clearance to yours. Don’t be afraid to admit when the chance of causing serious damage is real. There is no shame in keeping your Jeep unscathed so you can wheel again next weekend. A broken Jeep is not a fun Jeep. The bumper sticker my wife got me at last year’s Jeeptoberfest sums it up very well:
“Remember, Stupid, You Have to Drive This Home”
The most important takeaway here is that you can wheel your daily driver. You don’t have to imprison your Jeep on pavement just to keep it running. You just have to take things slower and more cautiously than the folks with two or three Jeeps at their disposal.
I wheel my daily driver every chance I get. I’ve tried to prepare it the best I can to survive each excursion and get us back home safely each and every time — whether I’m towing my trailer loaded with UTVs 500 miles to the North Georgia mountains or running my favorite loop around the bombing range in the Ocala National Forest. I put on the largest mud tires that will fit under my air-lift suspension. I installed full-steel skid plates bumper-to-bumper, sourced from Australia. I have steel rock rails and locking front and rear diffs.
I’ve gotten my fair share of Florida pinstripes and trail damage, and, yes, I’ve been stuck, and I’ve been recovered. I’ve pushed the limits of what I should tackle with my WK2, and I’ve been lucky so far, but I know my luck will run out eventually. Breaking things is just a fact of wheeling.
I now try to take a more pragmatic approach to Jeepin’. I’ve bowed out of an obstacle and taken the bypass around it, and I’m OK with that. I know I have nothing to prove and too much to lose. I’ve never loved a vehicle so much as my Jeep, and I would be heartbroken if I damaged it. More importantly, it’s my only ride. My family depends on this Jeep, and so I must wheel with care and caution.
But make no mistake: I still wheel as often as possible. I’ll keep my beloved WK2 as safe from harm as my daily driver, as I plan for the monster JKU (or JLU) I will build in the future. For now, as I send my daughter through college, I’ll take the fiscally responsible road — or as much as I can resist the temptation of the gnarly trails I so love to ride.
Nuts and Bolts
Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and proud owner of “BlackWidow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk.