How to off-road like a pro in your own vehicle

Five tips for novice off-roaders on everything from vehicle upgrades to finding routes and staying safe

Photo: Sanna Boman

The trail ahead looks impossibly steep and narrow. I’m in the driver’s seat of a Chevrolet Silverado LT Trail Boss, both hands gripping the wheel, and it feels unlikely that this massive vehicle will be able to make it to the top of the trail. But I give it gas and go. As I do, a muffled voice buzzes into the handheld radio next to me, telling me to switch into four-wheel drive for a smoother ride. 

I do so with the push of a button, and with my foot only lightly touching the accelerator, the truck expertly climbs over deep ruts and dodges protruding branches. We make it to our destination without issue. My hands are shaking slightly with adrenaline, but I brush it off and take in the views around me. I’m standing high up in the El Paso Mountains in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, and a vast expanse of desolate, dry land sprawls out below me in every direction. 

I’ve been invited by Chevrolet to get a crash course in off-roading with Dirt Days, a company that offers guided off-road tours in California and Baja, Mexico. I’m not a complete novice—a few years ago, I had the opportunity to drive a Jeep through the Nevada desert on one leg of the Rebelle Rally. I also ride dirt bikes and adventure motorcycles regularly. But driving a fully off-road capable 4×4 truck of this size is a completely new experience for me—and it doesn’t take me long to realize why people love it.  

An aerial view of a desert trail system
Off-road trails in California’s Mojave Desert. | Photo courtesy of Dirt Days

Off-roading and overlanding have exploded in popularity during the last few years. “We have a huge influx of young people right now—huge,” says Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association (CORVA). Due in part to lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has seen a surge in the sales of off-road vehicles, including UTVs, ATVs, and motorcycles.    

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But you don’t have to invest in a specialty vehicle to hit the trails. Many modern pickup trucks and other 4×4 vehicles come loaded with features that make them more or less off-road ready off the bat, including settings for traction control, locking differentials, and 4WD Low. Even without these upgrades, many older four-wheel drive vehicles are more than capable of handling basic dirt roads. For those who are curious about trail driving in their own vehicle—but aren’t sure where to start—here are five tips for getting off the pavement.

1. Never go off-roading alone

“I always joke with the people who come out on runs with us: It’s safety first, fun second,” says Liana Prieto of Dirt Days. She recommends always bringing at least two vehicles when off-roading, in case something happens to one. Granat echoes this sentiment. “The most important thing is to never go alone, ever,” she says. 

There are plenty of possible problems, both serious and less serious, that could occur when you’re far from civilization, no matter your experience level. You may have a vehicle issue and no cell service, and you may be too far from any major roads to hike out. You could get lost, stuck, or injured, become dehydrated, or get a flat tire. In these situations, it’s good to have a backup vehicle and a friend to help out. 

“The trucks are capable, and most times, what will cause you problems is human error,” says Prieto. “So it’s always best to go out with somebody else.” 

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If you don’t have friends or family members who are interested in off-roading, Granat recommends joining a local club instead. “Clubs are great because they will do beginner runs, and the people in clubs are there to help each other,” she says. There are off-road clubs for specific vehicles, such as Jeeps or ATVs, or more general clubs for anyone with a 4×4 vehicle. A quick Google search should help you find what’s available in your area. 

Three pickup trucks on a desert trail, seen from above
It’s always a good idea to bring a second (or third) vehicle when off-roading. | Photo courtesy of Dirt Days

2. Make sure you have good off-road tires

Of all the possible modifications that can be made to a vehicle to make it more off-road capable, tires are arguably the most important. And as long as you’re not taking on any advanced terrain—like slick mud or sand dunes—a good set of all-terrain tires may be the only upgrade you need to start off-roading. Just don’t forget to bring a spare.

“All mechanical vehicles have parts that either wear out or can break, so you want to have a little bit of knowledge about what spare parts to bring. The most common one for people to bring is a spare tire,” Granat says. “There could be sharp rocks. There could be high clearance trails, where you need to really slow down, plan your line, and make sure you know where you’re going—but something can still happen to a vehicle. So understand how your vehicle works and understand what spare parts you need to bring. Sometimes it’s as simple as a spare tire and some duct tape. Duct tape comes in handy for a whole bunch of stuff.” 

To increase and maintain traction on non-paved surfaces, make sure to air down your tires to the appropriate PSI (typically around 20, depending on the vehicle and surface). You can make this process smoother by using a tire deflator. You’ll also need a portable air compressor to air the tires back up once you’re ready to get back on the pavement. 

3. Bring gear and provisions

When heading out on the trails, it’s good practice to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. While most off-roading excursions go off without a hitch, there’s always the possibility of something going wrong. 

“Off-roading takes you into areas where law enforcement and the authorities aren’t readily available. They’re not out there. So how do you protect yourself and your family?” says Granat. She recommends carrying a bag of essentials that can come in handy in case of an emergency. “I have my Jeep backpack prepared all the time. When I come home from a trip, I’ll replenish whatever’s in there.” 

Your list of gear and provisions to bring will vary slightly depending on things like time of year and personal preferences, but some recommended items include water, wet wipes, a first-aid kit, toilet paper, duct tape, a camping stove, some food items (Granat recommends cans of soup and crackers), a sleeping bag, and extra layers of clothing. 

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“You always want to make sure that your tires are sound, your oil is topped off, and you have enough gas,” Granat says. However, this doesn’t guarantee you won’t have vehicle issues, so it’s also wise to carry extra gas, basic tools, and tow straps. 

4. Off-road responsibly 

When the pandemic hit in the U.S., many people started looking for ways to get outside and recreate safely. According to a 2020 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, “running, bicycling, day hiking, bird watching, and camping participation all rose noticeably among urban respondents since March shutdowns.” In 2021, national parks and other outdoor areas saw a similar increase in visitors. But with more people comes more problems, and off-highway vehicle (OHV) areas are not immune to the impact of more traffic.

One of CORVA’s main purposes is to work with land managers “for responsible off-highway vehicular access and recreation opportunities,” and that includes advocating for environmental sustainability in off-roading.   

“Part of my job is to work with the Forest Service on defining environmental sustainability for any form of recreation,” says Granat. “This includes hiking, whitewater rafting—any form of activity on public lands.” The organization encourages anyone who enjoys the use of public lands to have a plan for carrying out trash, properly disposing of human waste, sticking to designated trails, and respecting wildlife.

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“The core of environmental sustainability is to make sure that you’re following the rules of the trail,” she says. “And one of those primary rules is: pack it in, pack it out.”

5. Find designated off-road trails

Once you’ve done your research and prepared your vehicle (and yourself) for any potential emergencies, it’s time for the fun part: hitting the trails. But how do you know where to start? Prieto recommends using a satellite map to look for interesting locations. “A lot of the desert looks the same, so when something looks different—try and find your way there,” she says. “There’s always a dirt road.”

Two Chevrolet pickup trucks parked on a dry desert lake bed
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land offers many off-road opportunities. | Photo: Sanna Boman

In the western parts of the U.S., public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are full of off-roading opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service also offers trail access within national forests across the country. Additionally, apps such as onXOffroad and Gaia GPS can be useful when looking for trails available to off-roaders.

“All the Forest Service and BLM areas have maps of designated trails,” Granat says. “You can map out where the closest ranger station is if you need it, and start with the easiest trails that are like going on a paved road, except you’re not on a paved road.”

“Find a map, pick a direction, and go,” Prieto says.