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Driving on Dirt Roads and Other Adventures

Driving on a dirt road with a 4 x 4.

Adventure-minded people like to take their trucks, SUVs and cars on the road less traveled. As in traversing dirt roads, navigating majestic mountain passages and driving on beaches. Such out of the ordinary driving can take its toll on your vehicle. Whether you’re driving on dirt roads or fording a stream, you need to ensure that your vehicle is up to the task.

A Matter of Altitude

Nearly all vehicles should be able to handle driving at a high altitude, including elevations of 10,000 feet and above. However, your car will behave differently as thinner air will cut power by approximately 3 percent for every 1,000 feet of altitude. That means a 30 percent loss in power as you ascend that 10,000-foot summit.

You can mitigate this problem by driving a vehicle with a V6 or a V8 engine. Forced induction motors, including turbos and superchargers, also handle higher elevations with precision. The bottom line here is that your car should be in top shape before you head out, with the oil changed, tires properly inflated, the suspension system and the brakes in excellent condition. Traveling with a light load allows for less strenuous mountain crossings, too.

Driving on Dirt Roads

This 4x4 is ready for a cleaning after navigating a nearby morass. If you have a four- or all-wheel drive vehicle, light duty off road travel shouldn’t be a problem, including driving on dirt roads. As long as the pavement is firm and your tires are in satisfactory condition, your vehicle should be up to the task.

The problem with regularly driving on dirt roads is what it can do to your car. Dust will kick up everywhere, and you’ll battle your share of rock chips. The suspension system may take a beating, especially the shocks and bushings. Driving on dirt roads also means following the “severe duty” maintenance schedule as outlined in your owner’s manual.

Beyond Dirt Roads

Although driving on dirt roads shouldn’t pose much of a problem for the majority of vehicles, only 4×4 models can handle the toughest off-road conditions, including rocks and terrain with steep approach and departure angles.

Ground clearance is another consideration, therefore steel skid plates will protect the underside of the vehicle, including the typically vulnerable gas tank. Wheel articulation, breakover angles, gearing, low-end torque and oversized tires are additional considerations. A rear-locking differential (what enables both wheels to spin at the same time) is ideal to help if you find yourself stuck. Another consideration is tow hooks and recovery shackles, these help pull the vehicle out of a quagmire. Be prepared for the worst and always bring a nylon tow rope on your excursions.

To the Beach

Off-roading and dirt roads are certainly challenging, but what about driving on sand? There are places around the country where driving on the shoreline is permissible. Permissible, but not always wise.

If the sand is compacted, you’re safe to travel with most 4×4 or all-wheel drive vehicles. Front- and rear-wheel drive vehicles are more likely to become grounded, so stay off the sand. Before hitting the sand, remove up to 10 psi from the tires. Avoid sharp turns and, if you do get stuck, then utilize your car’s floor mats to work your way out of the muck. Sufficient ground clearance and four-wheel drive gearing options are other considerations when traversing sand. Don’t forget to verify that all the tires are inflated back to normal levels before hitting solid pavement again.

Check out all the steering and suspension parts available on NAPAonline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on driving adventures, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.

Photo courtesy of Matt Keegan

Matthew C. Keegan View All

Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.

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