Back-Road Driving 101
Leaving the highway behind? Here's how to stay safe when driving gets adventurous.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Want to go somewhere exciting and new? Chances are you’re going to need to drive some pretty lonely roads to get there. I’ve done road trips everywhere from the frozen tundra of Siberia to the red-sand deserts of the Australian outback. Here’s what I’ve learned about keeping safe along the way.
The Threat: Animals
From deer to wombats, there’s no faster way to run into trouble on a back road. Critters can actually be attracted to roads at night for anything from their warmth to water collected in drainage ditches to the grass that grows on roadsides. And depending on the size of the animal, hitting one can do anything from causing you to temporarily lose control to totaling your car—or worse.
What you can do about it: Where possible, simply avoid traveling from dusk to dawn, when animals are most active. If you must drive at night, slow down. Lower speeds will give you more time to react and reduce the outright severity of a collision. If you’re surprised by an animal running into the road, your avoidance strategy should involve braking as hard as possible. Every mile per hour you can shed before an inevitable impact will make that impact hurt less. Do not attempt to swerve to avoid an animal, as doing so can cause you to lose control of your vehicle—and a tree or a rollover is going to do a lot more damage than a deer.
Gear that can help: The bull bars that mount over or around your stock bumpers are poorly designed and tend to increase damage to your vehicle in a crash. Instead, look for a quality replacement bumper that’s made from thick steel. Good ones retain the function of your airbag sensors and crumple zones in big crashes, enabling that life-saving equipment to work as intended, and they’ll protect your vehicle’s bodywork, lights, and radiator in the event of an animal strike. ARB bumpers are certified to the strictest standards in the world—those of the Australian government—and fit a wide range of trucks and SUVs. Aftermarket lights mount to those bumpers, and their incredible illumination can help you spot animals earlier and further from the edges of the road. ARB again provides some of the best options; I run its AR21’s on my 4Runner.
The Threat: Black Ice
Black ice isn’t black; it’s so clear that it’s invisible. Which is a problem because you won’t know it’s there until your car is spinning out of control. Black ice may be present on any road that’s near or below 32 degrees.
What you can do about it: Slow down. Take corners especially easy when temperatures drop, because that's where black ice presents the most danger.
Gear that can help: If you regularly drive in temperatures below 45 degrees, then you’ll benefit from running winter tires in the winter months—put them on in November and take them off in April. Unlike all-season tires, winters are made from a rubber compound that remains pliable in cold temperatures and is designed to provide grip on ice. We thoroughly explained the benefits of winter tires here.
The Threat: Precipitous Drops
No guardrail but a thousand-foot cliff. Driving over the edge would ruin your day.
What you can do about it: Mountain roads without guardrails also tend to be narrow. So what you really need to watch out for is oncoming traffic. Veering to avoid an oncoming tourist bus that’s taking up your entire lane on a blind corner just does not pair well with said thousand-food cliff. You know what advice I’m going to give here: slow down. The fastest safe pace on roads like these is often equivalent to walking.
Gear that can help: In the mountains, roads tend to be slick with precipitation, runoff, or even moss and leaves. Nothing helps you drive safely on those surfaces like a good set of tires. Make sure yours are less than five years old and aren’t worn out.
The Threat: Falling Rocks
In all my miles, I’ve never actually seen a rock fall onto a road and hit someone. But I have come across an awful lot of rocks, gravel, and dirt that have fallen onto the road, either blocking it, creating obstacles, or reducing traction.
What you can do about it: It’s good, general practice to only drive as fast as you can see, meaning you should only drive at a speed which allows you to come to a complete stop in a controlled manner in the time it takes to cover the distance you can see ahead. In some very rare circumstances, when you’re really in the middle of nowhere, you may find that a landslide or a boulder has fallen on the road, preventing you from getting by. If you come across something of the sort, park your car where other vehicles can easily see that it’s stopped, and get out to assess the situation on foot. Never try to squeeze through a gap that’s too narrow, especially if there’s a cliff on one side of the road.
Gear that can help: A shovel is a good multipurpose tool to carry in or on your vehicle. Here, it may allow you to pry away or remove fallen debris. You can also use a winch, or simply a tow strap can help you pull large rocks out of the way with your truck.
The Threat: Breakdowns
There’s a loud noise, then suddenly your car starts driving funny. Uh-oh.
What you can do about it: Give any vehicle, even a rental car, a once-over before driving it anywhere remote. Check the tire pressure, check the fluid levels, look for leaks or loose parts. Once you’re on the move, regularly scan the gauges for any signs of irregularity, and remain alert for any signs that your vehicle may be in trouble. If you even start to suspect that there might be trouble, pull over as soon as it’s safe, switch the car off, and inspect it for problems. Some issues, like a flat tire, are easy to fix yourself. Others may require a tow to a mechanic. In all cases, you will limit the amount of damage, reduce your cost, and save yourself time if you stop driving immediately.
Gear that can help: Never travel anywhere without the ability to deal with a flat tire. That means making sure that you have an inflated spare that’s in good shape, a jack, and a lug wrench. That’s at the very minimum. Because punctures are common, and because you can get more than one at at time, I never go anywhere without an air compressor, a tire-repair kit, and a can or three of Fix-a-Flat.
The Threat: Getting Lost
Especially these days, when we’ve all become so reliant on our cell phones to tell us where we’re going, it’s incredibly easy to lose your way. In remote areas, this can become very problematic very fast. Getting lost can cause you to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or it may take you into terrain your vehicle is not prepared to handle. In some places, it could take you into dangerous areas. Luckily, getting lost is easy to avoid.
What you can do about it: Take the time to create a map before you travel. You can totally do this on your cell phone. If you’re staying on paved roads, then just download an area on Google Maps for off-line use, and plot your route while you still have cell signal. Off-road, take the time to create a custom map, which I showed you how to do here.
Gear that can help: I never travel though an unfamiliar area without a paper map and compass. They’re just so easy to carry and so cheap to buy that even if you only ever have to fall back on them once, they’re totally worth it. I carry a road atlas that spans the entire country in all my vehicles.
The Threat: Getting Stuck
What looked like a simple puddle turned out to be a deep mud pit, and now you’re stuck in it. This can happen on other surfaces, too. I once got a brand-new Mercedes stuck in sand on the shoulder of a highway in Nevada when I stopped to take a picture of it in front of some neat rocks.
What you can do about it: Try and be smart about what surfaces you drive on. Know your vehicle’s capabilities and how to use its drive system and mechanical or electronic traction aids to their full ability. If none of that works, then let most of the air out of your tires, and try shoving anything that might add grip under the tires.
Gear that can help: Cars and trucks are heavy, and trying to get them unstuck can get really dangerous. By far the easiest, most effective, and safest way to get out of a sticky situation is to carry a set of MaxTrax. Just shove the studded nylon recovery boards under your tires, and drive on out.