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.

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