Hit the Trails, but Know Before You Go

By MS. LISHA DUNLAP, Staff Writer

We are an outdoorsy family, so we look for fun and adventure throughout the summer, with excuses to stay outside until the sun sets. As much as we enjoy hiking, swimming, and all the other traditional summer activities, we also enjoy a little something extra … namely four big tires and a road off the beaten path.

Off-roading is growing in popularity, even though it has been around a long time. Now you can rent a Jeep and hit the road, even if you have never driven an SUV or off-road vehicle (ORV) before. But 4-wheel-drive and gadgets do not do you any good if you do not know what you are doing! In fact, more power can get you into more trouble if you are not prepared. Our first time out on the trails we ended up pretty stuck in some deep mud—and once we got out, it was our turn to tow someone else.

The National Park Service recommends the following checklist to “Know before you go” when you are off-roading at a state park:• Have a permit and pay the fee, where required.• Know the designated access points, routes, and areas for the park.• Pack the required equipment and proof of insurance.• Be ready for a safety and equipment check by a ranger.• Know the rules for the park and the federal and state traffic rules that apply to ORV driving.• Be sure to drive in a way that respects other visitors and their experience.What are the different types of ORVs? There are Jeeps, swamp buggies, air boats, dune buggies, ATVs, or any vehicle capable of cross-country travel on land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, etc. An ORV can even be a regular truck that has been modified for terrain.If you are new to off-roading, there are some easy ways to plan ahead to make sure you get back home safely. First of all, plan to be there a while—just in case you do not have a choice! If your trip goes awry, a drive that you planned for a couple of hours could easily last half a day. Have plenty of water, snacks, a first aid kit, and sunscreen. It does not hurt to have towels and a change of clothes in case of an unexpected mud bath.

Also, never go alone. You will need a wingman in case something goes wrong on the trail. From getting a flat to getting stuck, being by yourself is a bad idea when adventure-seeking. Bring someone along who can help with the mechanical components, or even just be there to call for help in case of an emergency.

Now let us talk tools and ways to get unstuck. Make sure to at least have a tow strap; you can not count on another vehicle to have one if you are knee-deep in mud. It is also a good idea to have a winch, a pulley strap, tracks, and a jack. Tire pressure is also important—lowering your tire pressure can help you gain traction and decrease your chances of getting stuck. But if you do get stuck, stop. The more you spin, the worse you will get stuck. If you are applying an even amount of throttle and losing momentum, you know you are about to need some assistance.

If you are going to be in some really tough terrain, you might even bring some items to prepare for worst-case scenarios. A fire extinguisher, seat-belt cutter, and glass breaker are all really helpful for emergency exits from your vehicle.

Wherever you go, make sure off-roading is allowed. It is often prohibited in state parks. When it is allowed, it is regulated by the National Park Service (NPS). Check in with the park’s visitor center for routes, permits, and other essentials. According to the NPS, “Anyone who causes injury to or destroys National Park Service property or natural or cultural resources can be held personally liable for the cost to investigate and assess the damage, to restore the property or resources, and to compensate the American people.” Do your part to protect the parks. If you see others causing destruction or trouble, please report it to a national park ranger, park headquarters, or the visitor center.

Once you have prepared, you are ready to simply enjoy the ride! Going off-road is an exciting, memorable way to explore the outdoors. From the spectacular views, thrilling trails, to the cool photography opportunities, you can enjoy the journey and get a little mud on your tires.