For people who really want to get off the beaten path, off-roading is the ultimate driving adventure. Off-roading is used to describe driving on any unpaved surfaces -- which can include mud puddles, grassy fields, rocks, steep hills, sand dunes and more.
Although you could technically take any car off-road, not every vehicle is equipped to handle the many bumps and ditches associated with uneven ground. Off-road vehicles are designed to tackle rough driving conditions because they're equipped with four-wheel drive (4WD or 4x4). In a 4WD vehicle, the engine powers all four wheels, giving them greater traction. In vehicles with two-wheel drive (2WD), the engine powers only two wheels (usually the front wheels). 2WD vehicles aren't necessarily more dangerous off-road, but they may be harder to navigate over rugged terrain, which means you might wind up getting stuck [source: Burke].
Whether you take a 2WD or a 4WD off-roading, you want it to be well equipped. Adequate ground clearance (the distance between the bottom of the chassis and the ground when the car is on a flat surface) will help you get over rocks, hills and other uneven surfaces. A good suspension is also essential. "Most cars, you're going to get 2 to 3 inches of suspension movement, which is fine for speed bumps and corners, but not if you go into a deeper hole," explains Bill Burke, owner of 4-Wheeling America in Colorado. "When you're off-road, you need a suspension that will move up and down with the bumps and the holes."
Read on to learn why traction is important when you're off-roading, and the advantages of driving with 4WD.
Importance of 4x4 in Off-Roading
One of the biggest advantages to taking a 4WD vehicle off-road is increased traction on the road -- that is, the ability of the wheels to cling to the ground, no matter how rough the terrain is. That means even if your back two wheels get stuck in the mud, your front two wheels have enough traction to pull you out. "The 4WD will help you get through more technical terrain or softer terrain," Burke says.
4WD vehicles also have low-range gearing, which will help you make it through deep puddles and climb steep hills. Yet 4WD vehicles can still get stuck in the mud more often than people think, because they have the same basic differentials as a 2WD car. Differentials are what allow the wheels to spin at different speeds during a turn. "[In] off-road or in minimum traction conditions, the differentials tend to think we're in turns all the time so they'll put power to the tire that's easiest to turn, and if that tire is starting to slip or skid or spin, then we basically get stuck, whether we're in a 2WD or 4WD," Burke says.
Buying a 4WD vehicle is cost prohibitive for a lot of people, but you don't necessarily need to spend extra money to have a great off-roading experience. Today, many 2WD models are designed with suspension systems that can handle off-road terrain. Plus, you can customize your 2WD vehicle with lift kits (which provide extra ground clearance) and bigger wheels that give you greater traction off-road. You can also get traction enhancement devices, like a locking system for the differential gear, which will lock up the axle when a wheel starts to slip, delivering full power to both wheels if you get stuck in the mud.
For more information on off-roading, take a look at the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Burke, Bill. Owner of 4-Wheeling America. Phone Interview. December 1, 2009.
- Murphy, Debbie. "2WD vs. 4WD: Do you really need four-wheel drive?" autoMedia.com (Accessed November 30, 2009)http://www.automedia.com/2WD_Vs._4WD/dsm2005090124/1.
- St. Louis Public Library. "2WD, 4WD, or AWD?" (Accessed November 30, 2009)http://www.slps.org/slpl/interests/article240137660.asp.