Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Multisport Skills

Afraid of Getting Stuck? Here’s How to Drive the Gnarliest Roads to Trailheads

Don't get stuck in the mud. Learn to evaluate road hazards, overcome obstacles, and navigate the unpaved passages between your front door and your next adventure.

Lock Icon

Become a member to unlock this story and receive other great perks.

Already have an Outside Account? Sign in

Outside+ Logo

All-Access
Intro Offer
$3.99 / month*

  • A $500 value with everything in the Print + Digital Plan plus 25+ benefits including:
  • Member-only content from every title in the Outside network like Outside, SKI, Climbing, and more
  • Annual gear guides for backpacking, camping, skiing , climbing, and more
  • Outside Learn, our new online education hub loaded with more than 2,000 videos across 450 lessons including Wilderness Weather Fundamentals and 6 Weeks to Trail Fit
  • Gaia GPS Premium with hundreds of maps and global trail recommendations, a $39.99 value
  • Premium access to Outside Watch and 1,000+ hours of exclusive shows
  • Exclusive discounts on gear, travel, and race-entry fees
  • Annual subscription to Outside magazine
Join Outside+
Backpacker

Digital + Print
Intro Offer
$2.99 / month*

  • Annual subscription to Backpacker magazine
  • Access to all member-exclusive content and gear reviews on Backpacker.com
  • Ad-free access to Backpacker.com
Join Backpacker

*Outside memberships are billed annually. Print subscriptions available to U.S. residents only. You may cancel your membership at anytime, but no refunds will be issued for payments already made. Upon cancellation, you will have access to your membership through the end of your paid year. More Details

When it comes to backpacking, sometimes remoteness starts right at the trailhead. And that can mean driving on rough, rutted dirt roads, which can feel even more treacherous than scrambling an exposed ridge. If you’re headed to an area where adventure begins as soon as you exit the highway, it’s important to be confident in your driving skills so you don’t start your hike with frayed nerves—or worse, a stuck car. Follow these tips to arrive safely at your destination.

Know Your Vehicle

Drive in a range of conditions so you’re familiar with your car’s capabilities. Measure the clearance (most standard vehicles have five to six inches) between the ground and the lowest point on the undercarriage. An experienced driver in a four-wheel-drive (4WD) can expect to tackle boulders and uneven surfaces. An all-wheel-drive (AWD) can maneuver over smaller rocks (within a few inches of its clearance height). Two-wheel drives should stick to maintained dirt or gravel.

Scout Road Conditions

Call rangers and ask about seasonal challenges like thick mud or stream crossings, specific hazards or impasse zones, and possible turnaround points.

Tackle Obstacles Safely

Water Crossings

  1. Check depth. Get out of your car and walk across puddles or streams to scout for rocks and assess the depth before driving. If the water is shallower than your tires’ hubs, it’s safe to cross. Any deeper and you may stall or damage the engine.
  2. Test the flow. Current too strong to walk across? Don’t drive through it. Tires act like pontoons, and you may float downstream.
  3. Cross. Go slow and angle slightly upstream, which helps keep sediment in place and improves traction. Use designated crossings.

Steeps

  1. Assess the angle. A 4WD vehicle can handle inclines up 35 degrees on firm surfaces. In AWD vehicles or on loose turf, be cautious. Don’t charge hills; hitting the slope at speed can harm your alignment.
  2. Scout the descent. Recon steepness before committing.
  3. Go slow. Three to five mph is the sweet spot where you’ll have enough speed so the tires won’t slide, but not so much that a rock could derail the car. Downshift for more control.

Large Boulders

  1. Pick a line. Get out of the car and plan your path. Check for rock height, sufficient width, and safe places to stop. If possible, have one passenger get out and direct the driver.
  2. Beware of wheel cheat. In turns, a car’s front and back wheels don’t track the same. Compensate by making wide turns. Adjust your mirrors to monitor your rear tires.
  3. Use rocks.If two rocks are aligned with your wheel base but are too tall to straddle, drive directly over them to avoid getting hung up. Tip: Build a ramp so the approach angle isn’t so steep that you hit the car’s undercarriage.

Get Unstuck

(Photo: BanksPhotos/E+ via Getty Images)

1. Jack each wheel above surface level. Use plywood, a log, or a wide rock to keep your jack from sinking. Fill holes under the tire with sand, dirt, wood, or rocks. Beware of flying debris upon acceleration.
2. Find traction. Place branches, planks, or floor mats in front of, under, and in line with tires. The traction aid needs to be at least halfway under the tire for the rubber to bite.
3. Deflate tires. Drop to 15 to 18 psi (from 30 to 32). You’ll increase the tire’s surface area and improve flotation. Drive slowly (less than 35 mph) until you can reinflate.

Park Smart

Don’t rest a car’s weight on its transmission. On steeps, apply the emergency brake, shift the car into park (reverse for manuals), then turn it off. When departing, shift into neutral before releasing the brake. Avoid plants so you don’t ignite dry grass with a hot catalytic converter. Face downhill on soft surfaces or if rain threatens; you may need gravity’s help to get moving.

Equip for Off-Road Safety

Must-have

  • Jack, spare tire, pressurized sealant
  • Fluids: brake, power steering, transmission, oil
  • Tow strap
  • Sturdy shovel
  • Map and GPS
  • Cell phone
  • Car manual
  • Food and water
  • First-aid kit

Nice-to-have

  • Portable battery jump-starter
  • AAA 200-mile-tow insurance or local tow truck contact
  • Fire extinguisher

Originally published in 2012; last updated in December 2021