By Katie Langrock

January 21, 2011 7 min read

Winter woes weigh you down? Well, then step outside! The sun is shining, baby! And what better way to spend a day in the sun than off-roading with your top down?

Before you go traipsing and wheeling through the woods or dirt or sand or wherever chasing the sun may take you, make sure your vehicle is ready for this rock-and-rollercoaster ride.

First things first: Look at your car. Go ahead; look at it. If it is not a utility vehicle and doesn't have four-wheel drive, you probably want to consider an afternoon picnic instead. It's dangerous to voyage off the road most traveled if you are not in the proper vehicle. According to the Jeep Wrangler's owners manual: "Utility vehicles have higher ground clearance and a narrower track to make them capable of performing in a wide variety of off-road applications. These specific design characteristics give them a higher center of gravity than ordinary cars." The right vehicle, a 4WD utility vehicle, will not only be able to read the uncertain terrain better but also enable the driver to read it better. "The advantage of higher ground clearance is a better view of the road, allowing you to anticipate problems."

Now that you've noted your Volkswagen Beetle may not be best-suited for sand dunes and mud pits, it's time to prep your utility vehicle for your off-road adventure. Start with checking the basics, according to, a website dedicated to getting all types of utility vehicles off the pavement and onto the dirt. "Check all your fluids -- coolant, oil, windshield washer fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, ATF, differentials, etc. Make sure there are no leaks (and) everything is at the proper level, and carry extra fluids just in case. Also check the air filter and the air filter box for debris. Also, if you are aware of any mechanical or electrical problems with your 4x4, repair them beforehand." The website also recommends checking all your ball joints and checking "your shocks for signs of leakage or damage or (that) they're just plain worn-out. You're going to need those shocks."

Tires can seem like accessories when you see pickup trucks with pumped-up rims sitting next to you on the highway during rush hour, but making sure they're up to par before an off-roading trip is essential, even if your tires are the same old boring ones your car came with. "Be sure your tires are all inflated to the proper highway speed pressures, including the spare," says. "Take note of your tread, and think about the terrain you will be traveling on. Are you ready for that deep mud hole with that tread?"

When you think about the terrain you will be driving over, consider whether there are any accessories your car may need to survive your wet-and-wheeling adventure. Do you need a snorkel for zipping through (and under) large streams? Do you need bigger, badder tires to take on boulder valley? Should you purchase a removable windshield so flying rocks don't crack it? Buying the right accessories for your car not only will make you look super-cool as you're hitting the slopes but also could very well save the life of your car, if not your own life.

Now that your vehicle is ready for the ride, make sure you and your passengers are. Start by equipping your car with a GPS system. If you already have one, be sure to install all recent updates to ensure the map is as thorough as possible. On a similar note, bring a cell phone with you, preferably one with excellent service. If you know your phone service is hit-or-miss, it may be worth purchasing a satellite phone or an in-vehicle communicator, such as OnStar, so you are never out of contact with the world and could be located if the worst were to happen.

Before you take off on your trip, pack your car with the essentials: water, maps, food and toilet paper; you never know when nature will call. You also should bring a first-aid kit, an emergency car kit and a flashlight.

The last thing to do before hitting the road is to check the weather. According to, you should "watch the weather patterns for the region you are visiting and the route along the way. Be prepared with the appropriate clothing and protective gear (rain jacket, hats, sunglasses, lip balm, sunscreen). Pack extra clothing in case you get wet or it gets a little colder than expected. Even if you are not 'planning' to stay the night, it's good to have a sleeping bag. It's always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared."

Now you are ready to ride! But just because you are putting your pedal to the metal doesn't mean you can stop thinking safety. An empty mind is a useless mind, and the same can be said about your gas tank. "Fill the gas tank prior to every trip. When you reach your destination, top it off again before hitting the trail. The last thing you want to do is start worrying about running out of gas while (off-roading)," warns. "Remember the One-Third/Two-Thirds Rule: Use one-third of a tank to get where you are going and save two-thirds for getting out. If your fuel tank doesn't have the capacity for the off-road portion of the trip, carry extra fuel or rethink your route."

When you're back from your off-road adventure, it's important to inspect your vehicle. OK, fine, have a celebratory beer with your mates first, but then please go check your car. Your 4WD baby was nice to you, and you should be nice back. "Off-road operation puts more stress on your vehicle than does most on-road driving. After driving off-road, it is always a good idea to check for damage," says the Jeep Wrangler manual. "Completely inspect the underbody of your vehicle. Check tires, body structure, steering, suspension and exhaust system for damage. Check threaded fasteners for looseness. Lastly, check for accumulations of plant or brush. These things could be a fire hazard."

I hope you've enjoyed exploring the road less traveled -- and have the tan to prove you rocked the off-road adventure.

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