Work, home, grocery store, repeat. For the average American driver, navigating local roads isn't particularly skill-intensive. But even if your idea of adventurous driving is trying to find parking at the local strip mall, there's merit in learning how to be a better motorist.
"You don't want to wait until you're stuck or the bridge is washed out to find out what your vehicle and your driving skills are capable of," says Mark Cox, an instructor at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School and a longtime rally-racing veteran.
"Driving off-road really makes you think about the whole process and experience," adds Justin Hayes, product manager for Firestone's Destination M/T off-road tires. "I definitely have more confidence on pavement than I did before I started driving off-road."
Off-road driving and street cruising are pretty different, and not all the skills translate on every surface. But these five are essential for every driver to know.
Momentum is Your Friend
Say you're driving down a dirt road that turns to mostly sand. If you've done some off-roading, you'll know your best bet is to just keep rolling. "If you lose momentum, it's going to be very hard to get going again," says Hayes — especially if you're not using a tire made for loose ground. You don't want to hit the sand and accelerate, but slamming on the breaks won't help you either.
Really, momentum works to your advantage in almost all driving situations — from climbing steep hills to crossing water. It's one of the first things you pick up when off-roading, and one that translates to almost every kind of driving.
If You're Not Thinking Ahead, You're Already In Trouble
Before you start up a steep embankment, it's important to pick how you'll navigate the roots, rocks, and uneven surfaces. Regularly playing in the dirt makes you more aware of how in the moment you are when driving the streets, Hayes says. And while being in the moment is better than being mid-text message, if you can train your brain to think a step ahead, you'll navigate harsh curves, short on-ramps, and crowded parking lots more efficiently.
Know Your Limits Before It's Time to Test Them
Cox likes to compare a car to a paintbrush — it does whatever the connected hand tells it to do. But the type of brush you're painting with matters, too. "You need to know the capability of your tires, the ground clearance of the car, and your own abilities," he says. The best way to figure all those things out is to get out and put your car to use.
However, before you just launch into the wilderness, Cox recommends you spend at least a few hours with your owner's manual. "Most people don't really understand all the systems and technology available in their vehicle," he says. To get an even better feel for what your gear can do, join your local enthusiast's club. "Often you can learn from people, so you don't have to make the mistakes they did."
When To Rock And When To Winch
"There will come a time when everyone needs a winch," says Wayde Fishman, the co-founder and lead off-road guide for Hawaii Jeep Tours. "You can get yourself out of any situation as long as you have your head on straight; to panic during an off-road event can seal your doom, and that is when you'll need your winch."
Cox says that the most valuable thing you'll learn from getting stuck is how to rock your car out of it. You want to do this slowly, moving forward and back no more than an inch at a time. There's a specific feel you're looking for; the motion should be gentle. The second you apply too much gas, you just dig yourself in deeper. This is one of those things that's great to practice on a Saturday afternoon when you're out playing in the woods — not when you're late to the wedding someone planned 17 miles into the wilderness.
If you get stuck and add too much power, your wheels will spin and drive you further into the mud or sand. If this happens, cut your loses and get out the winch, says Fishman. The good news is, knowing how to use a winch properly is a great skill, especially when it comes to winter commuting. Carry one in your car, and you may be surprised how often you use it to help pull people out.
There's More Than One Type Of Skid
Actually, Cox says there are a variety of different skids, but they mainly fall into two categories: front skids and rear skids. In a front skid, you turn the steering wheel but the car still goes straight. Moving too quickly into a turn or accelerating while turning almost always causes this type of skid. To correct it, "We usually tell people to gently lift off the gas and steer straight just a bit. It's intellectually really easy, but hard to put into practice on the road."
Rear-wheel skids are when you don't have enough loaded on the back wheels and they slide out from underneath the car. "Look in the direction you'd rather go and then add a bit of acceleration," says Cox. This one can be easier to get the hang of, "but the time to practice isn't when you're under pressure."