A beginner’s guide to going off-road

Excellent news: you’ve bought an off-roader. A new world awaits: a world without asphalt, road rage, roadside rubbish, middle-lane hogs or tailgaters. Or public toilets or recovery services, but let’s not dwell.

Using a 4×4 as it was intended for the first time can be somewhat daunting, though. This, then, is a rough, step-by-step guide to off-roading. It’s by no means a comprehensive instruction for every situation you could possibly find yourself in, but it contains lots of good advice – and, crucially, we hope, no bad advice.

Step 1: Know your vehicle

You might be using a full-on 4×4, but even many modest crossovers have a surprising degree of ability. Four-wheel drive is crucial in poor conditions, but all-terrain tyres are even more essential. Tyre quality is typically what stands between a vehicle making it somewhere and back and not doing so.

The handbook will list off-roading angles: approach, breakover (ramp), departure and perhaps the angle at which it will tip over sideways. But unless you carry a protractor, these aren’t essential to memorise.

Better to know what’s vulnerable on the underside of the vehicle: if there are skidplates or if the sump, exhaust and more are exposed. Also from where, if you’re among company (we’d recommend you are), the vehicle can tow. 4x4s have hooks designed for this. Know how to get to the spare wheel, too. It’s worth noting the wet wade depth and where the engine air intake is – although if you’re challenging these on your first time out, you’ve been quite ambitious.

Finally, get to know what, if any, off-road-specific technology the car comes with; most modern 4x4s have hill descent control and perhaps stability control that can be tuned for different underwheel terrains.

Step 2: Know where you’re going

In short, you only want to drive where it’s legal to do so. If you’ve heard of people talking about green lanes, they mean byways that are open to all traffic, or unclassified roads. Both appear on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, but that doesn’t always mean you can drive on them. Access is restricted in winter on some and some are width-restricted or subject to other local by-laws.

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At the end of the day, you’ll arrive back on the road. But first, it pays to check over the car for damage or lodged debris and that its lights, windows and numberplates are clear.

If you reduced the tyre pressures, reinflate them (there’s no set rule on this: lowering the pressure increases surface area and can smoothen the off-road ride and decrease the risk of punctures, but it also reduces ground clearance and can be a faff).

Then set off slowly – to let the tyres clear themselves of terra firma – and make sure that the car steers and stops normally. Then enjoy the warm glow of knowing that your 4×4 has done what a 4×4 is designed to do.