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.