In this post I’m going to try to give you some tips about how to get just a little further into the back-country than most of the camping hordes. I’m assuming none of us are hard-core 4-Wheelers and we just want to go places that are a tiny bit risky. If that describes you, then these tips might be all you need with minimal risk. Because this is just a quick overview I highly recommend you talk to experienced back-country explorers for advice and that you pick up this book as an outstanding introduction: “4-Wheel Freedom: The Art of Off-Road Driving” by Brad DeLong. Get it from Amazon here: 4-Wheel Freedom: The Art Of Off-Road Driving. I own it and consider it essential to everyone who wants to boondock on public land.
Many of you are preparing for or are just starting out on your new vandwelling life and part of that might be exploring out-of-the-way places in the back-country. If you are on a tight budget, the cheapest way to live is by boondocking on Public Land. Both the National Forests and the BLM allow “Dispersed Camping” which means that you just find a place you like and pull over and set up camp. You aren’t in a formal campground and there may not be anybody else around for miles. Best of all, it’s free and there are no hosts to boss you around.
I love dispersed camping and do it year-around, but it does come with a disadvantage that you are at much greater risk of getting stuck. Many of the roads you’re traveling on are not maintained and at certain times of the year can become impassable. When I first went full-time as a boondocker on public land I was in a 4×4 truck and never got stuck. After 3 years I sold the truck and bought a van. In the 3 years since selling it I’ve been stuck six times; three times in the mud in the NF after a rain and three times in sand on BLM land.
For some people the answer is to just stop taking risks and only go where you know for sure you won’t get stuck. While that is the safe way, the problem is every other camper is doing the same thing so they are all camped close together in the “safe” areas, while just a little ways down the road the “risky” area is empty. If you don’t mind being surrounded by others, you will be very happy there. My problem is, I’m not happy with being surrounded by strangers, I want to step out of my trailer and not see anyone around me except the people I’ve invited to be there.
For example, I was camping outside of Moab, UT once and I headed down a road that was well known as a boondocking spot. About a mile back it ran into a 30 foot wide dry wash that was sandy enough no one except the Jeeps and ATVs crossed it. If I had my 4×4 truck I would have crossed it no problem, but with my van I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So I camped with all the other campers. Had I been able to cross that wash I would have gone another 1/2 mile and been all alone. That’s what I want! At that moment I very much regretted not having 4×4.
But, even if you resign yourself to always stay in safe areas, there is still a risk you still might find yourself stuck. All over the country there are roads that once they get soaking wet, they turn into a type of gumbo mud that you can’t drive through. Often those roads are posted with a warning telling you that, but just as often they are not. And sometimes the area can get an unusually great amount of rain and roads that typically would not be a problem are suddenly impassable and you’ll be stuck instantly if you try to drive on them. Or, a desert area might look perfectly safe, but all of a sudden you’re in deep, loose sand, and bam, you’re stuck.
How to Not Get Stuck, or Get Unstuck if You Do:
1) The single most important thing to do is to carry an air compressor and air down your tires. That alone will do more than even 4×4 to get us into the easy places the majority of us want to go. As soon as your tires start spinning, stop!! You’re not stuck yet but digging a deeper hole will only make things worse and you will be stuck! Get out, go back and air down your tires to 10 PSI, then try to very slowly get out again. The majority of times, this alone will be enough to get you out and you never really did get stuck. After you’re out, air your tires back up.
2) Get more aggressive tires on the rear axle. The combination of airing-down your tires and having aggressive tires will make it much more likely you get out before you get stuck. Notice in the pictures of my tires that they have lugs on the sidewalls; when I air them down the sidewalls are down on the ground and bear some of the weight adding flotation to the tire; they also provide more traction. That’s your best hope to avoid getting stuck in the first place.
3) Learn to read the terrain. The best solution is to avoid getting stuck at all and you do that by trial and error of learning where you’ll get stuck and where you won’t. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do this but to practice. Reading books and looking at pictures help, but nothing beats actually driving on different terrain and either getting stuck or not. If in doubt about getting stuck, stop, get out and walk it first before driving it.
- Is it deep, loose sand? That’s always a risk but even if it looks hard packed, you can still get stuck. I’ve done it lots of times!
- Is there a deep ditch or tall knob you can high center on? Can you drive around it?
- Has it been raining with water standing on the ground?
- Can you get a running start and keep your speed up across it? Airing down and keeping your speed up will get you through some pretty bad stuff.
- If it’s a puddle or sandy wash, how deep and wide is it? Are other people getting through it?
- Is it a steep hill? Can you drive it without 4-wheel Low Range? If you don’t have that, avoid steep hills.
- Are there any boulders that can break something like your oil or transmission pan?
If you’re not sure, and don’t have the time or knowledge to get yourself unstuck, don’t risk it. But, if you have the time, and you want to learn enough to be able to travel freely, you’re going to have to take some risks and try things out and risk getting stuck. It’s better to do this with someone else along who has a winch or can snatch you out. After trying different terrains, you’ll build up a database in your mind of where you can safely go and where you can’t. Just be careful and slowly build up your risk-taking so you are never in any danger, just inconvenienced.
3) Travel with a partner and carry recovery gear. With just a few simple tools you can get yourself unstuck with a partner and or with the right tools you don’t even need a partner, just a tree or buried anchor. This is a very basic introduction, do your research to learn the details.
- Air Compressor: Nothing will do you as much good as airing down your tires to 10 PSI. But you can’t drive at speed with tires that low, so you MUST fill them with air before speeding up. I highly recommend a MV-50, 12-volt air compressor to every vandweller!! It’s by far the best bang for your buck and I’ve never had it let me down. Many Jeep-ers carry them with complete confidence. Buy one!! I bought mine from Amazon here: MV50 High-Volume 12-Volt Air Compressor
- Snatch Strap: With a friend along he can pull you out from your hole. A tow strap will work but a snatch strap is better. It is designed to be slightly stretchy so he can get a running start and “snap” you out. Get at least a 3 inch strap rated for 30,000 pounds and 30 feet long. Having a tow strap along is also a good idea. I bought mine from from Amazon here: Smittybilt 3″ x 30′ Recovery Strap – 30,000 lb
- Come-Along: If you are alone a simple come-along will get you out as long as there is a nearby tree or rock to anchor to. If worse comes to worse, you can deeply bury your spare tire and hook up to it. You do have a shovel, extra tow straps, clevis pins and chains don’t you? I bought this one from Amazon: TEKTON 4-Ton Dual Gear Come-Along
- Portable receiver winch: If you take a lot of remote back-country roads, you might consider a winch. Instead of permanently mounting it, you can buy them that slide into and out of your receiver hitch. I put a receiver hitch on both the front and back of my van so I can put the winch either place. Smittybilt is a very good name at a very good prices. I haven’t bought one of these yet because they are expensive, heavy and bulky. You’ll have to decide for yourself if they’re worth carrying. Smittybilt Winch – 9500 lb. Load Capacity
- Sand Rails: These are plastic or aluminum strips you place under the stuck tires to drive up on. I own the “Portable Tow Truck” brand and so far I’m very pleased with them. I’ve driven over them several times and they are very strong and bendable. They have little nubs on both sides that bite both the tire and the ground so they grip hard. I’ve not used them when I was stuck, but I think when I do get stuck again, they should work well. I bought them from Amazon here: Portable Tow Truck (orange)
4) Put a locker on the rear of the van, a couple inches of body lift on it and bigger, more aggressive tires. You’ll be spending some big money but you’ve also turned your van into a very capable off-road machine that can take the sandy washes no problem without getting stuck, and laugh at most mud. It’ll cost several thousand dollars but still less than a 4×4! A 4×4 costs much more up-front to buy, gets worse MPG and has higher maintenance expenses than a van with a locker. In the long run, a van with a locker will cost much less to own, operate and repair than 4×4 and yet will take you to 90% of the places you want to go. It’s an option to seriously consider.
Now, do some shopping, get these few essential tools, and get out there and have an adventure!!!!