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Off-Road Tire Pressure: When to Air Down

A mud-covered off-road vehicle driving through mud, surrounded by trees

You’ve probably been taught to maintain proper tire pressure at all times. It’s generally a good idea, as it helps to manage tire wear and promote safety. For some instances, however, it’s better to go against the manufacturer’s recommendations by releasing a significant amount of air from a tire. One such case is when you need to drop off-road tire pressure.

Get a Grip

When you head to the beach or trail, traction is the name of the game. Sure, you need proper grip when driving on solid pavement, but holding fast while off-roading doesn’t happen easily with fully inflated tires. Releasing air, also known as airing down, allows the tires to adapt to the surface by supplying more rubber for improved grip. Instead of sinking into the terrain, deflated tires “float” as you drive around. Lowering the tire pressure also relieves the suspension system and driveline, reducing bounce for a softer ride.

4x4 Adventuring

When and How to Air Down

Airing down should only take place the moment you’re ready to leave the pavement for sand, mud, deep snow or rocks. You can easily release air by removing each tire cap and using the pointy side of a tire gauge to manage air pressure.

How much air you should release per tire is open to debate, with some claiming that dropping pressure to as low as 10 psi is manageable. But keep in mind that as you drop air, the tires’ sidewalls become more exposed to the surface you’re on. That might not be an issue on sand, but it could pose a problem on rocks, which could puncture your tires.

The best option is to release 5 psi per tire on dirt or sand and up to 10 psi on rocky terrain. If you find yourself becoming stuck at any time (even with the transmission in low gear), you can release additional air to increase grip. Just remember that low tire pressure and low speeds go together, so take it slow. Reducing pressure isn’t ideal if you’re trail-trekking at a sustained clip.

Back on Pavement

At the end of your journey, you’ll need to add air, which means having an air compressor or other tire inflation device on hand before you start your off-roading adventure. Don’t rely on driving to a service station to inflate your tires because you may damage them during the journey.

Once you hit asphalt, inflate your tire pressure to the manufacturer’s setting. You should check it again after you reach your destination, giving the tires three hours to cool down for an accurate reading, and inflate as needed. If your vehicle has a tire-pressure monitoring system, you may need to reset it. Check your owners manual for guidance.

Off-Road Tools

Besides a tire gauge and inflator, there are a few other tools to bring with you to the trail less traveled. Along with a standard emergency kit, consider bringing work gloves, a fully inflated spare, a tire repair kit, a winch and a folding spade (for freeing a tire stuck in a hole). If you’re traveling through a thickly wooded area, an ax and bow saw might also prove handy.

No matter where your adventures take you, a little know-how and preparation, as well as the right tools, can make off-roading both thrilling and safe.

Check out all the tire service tools available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For additional information on off-road tire pressure, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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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