Off-Road Hazards to Be Aware Of…

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Learn how to recognize off-road hazards and steer clear of the most common 4X4 pitfalls. Being prepared is one thing, but not being aware is another! We all carry tools, spares, jacks, winches etc. just in case we need them! The question is, are we really aware of the problems we might encounter while 4-wheeling and how can we best recognize them in advance?

Flat TiresTake flat tires for example, we all know that we can get them, but have you ever thought about the most common causes of off-road flats? When off-roading, sidewall punctures and rock cuts seem to top the list, followed by bad valve stems.

Flat tire

Of course the tougher the tire, the less probability there is of getting a flat in the first place. Running poor tires off-road, creates a major risk for flats under most conditions.

Terrain Conducive to Flats Which of the following road conditions do you think presents the greatest risk of having a flat tire?

1. Rugged, narrow, rocky jeep trail.

2. Freshly graded dirt road or highway.

If you answered number 2, freshly graded dirt road or highway, you got it right. Here in Nevada, as with numerous other states, there exist many local dirt roads and highways. As a consequence, many times I have seen multiple flats on the same vehicle from such surfaces. Remember, heavier duty tires aren’t as susceptible to such damage.

Sharp rock

When a dirt road is graded, the grader blade brings up lots of small rocks from the edge of the road and spreads them with the dirt, many of them very sharp and a serious off-road hazard.

The sharp rocks are initially imbedded near the surface of the fresh soft dirt, so when the tire travels over it, the sharp point punctures the tire carcass. The more the road is driven, the safer it becomes as rocks become more firmly packed down.

Underground Springs Underground springs present a hidden danger for off-road travelers and rate high on the list of off-road hazards.

Muddy spring

One minute you’re traveling on a dry dusty trail and the next, you find yourself stuck up to the axles in mud or collapsed earth. Look for the obvious signs such as an active spring or water running alongside, running over, or under the jeep trail.

Sometimes the water source starts off to the side and up hill from the trail. The water travels underground beneath the trail and underminds it. I have gotten so badly stuck from this scenario that it took several vehicles and lots of manpower to get me out, not to mention the long walk out to get help!

Rocks Rocks come in many shapes and sizes while presenting various hazards to off-road travelers. Sharp rocks are great at slashing sidewalls and generally puncturing tires. Larger rocks can also cause you to high-center, especially when driving over small boulders, and don’t forget about holes in the oil pan and smashed suspension parts.

Steep Terrain Traversing steep terrain with a 4WD on firm dry surfaces is usually fairly safe and easy. Throw in some loose rocks, soft dirt, snow or a little mud and it can get tricky very fast. Loose slippery surfaces on steep trails can cause you to get crossways and maybe even upset the rig. Also, be aware that some steep trails are easy to go down, but difficult to get back up!

Dry washes Dry washes are challenging and can be a lot of fun to follow, however, they are mostly composed of soft dirt, sand, with few exits and lots of rocks. Most of these rocks are unstable and can slide down the embankment and hit you from the side or move as you are driving over them, jamming themselves between the frame and ground.

Another hazard from these washes is flash floods that can happen unexpectedly. Sometimes an unseen thunderstorm 5-10 miles up the canyon drops lots of moisture causing a rapid flow of water. This flow is sometimes so powerful as to move boulders and, of course, ruin 4X4’s. Always keep an eye on the weather when traveling in a dry wash.

Sagebrush Be aware when driving over sagebrush because when broken, the woody parts become great pungee sticks puncturing tires from all angles, and are especially hard on sidewalls. Another problem with driving over sagebrush is that it’s possible to start a range fire. Other woody objects and brush can present the same problems.

Alkali Flats and Dry Lake Beds Alkali flats and dry lakebeds are fun to drive and play on, but can provide some hidden dangers and off-road hazards.

Alkali flat

It’s easy to get stuck in the soft, dry alkali powder, not to mention when the surface is wet and muddy. Often times, when the surface is hard and crusty, there is a soft wet area below that can cause sinking. Please note that alkali can be highly corrosive to your rig if not removed!



Side Hills Extreme side hills are obvious off-road hazards and can cause rollovers if you're not careful.

Side hill

An inclinometer will come in handy if you know how many degrees tilt it takes to roll your vehicle. A method we’ve used for years when we just have to get past a tight spot is to tie ropes on the upside of the rig and have two or more spotters walk the vehicle through this off-road hazard. Otherwise it’s best to avoid steep side hills.

Water Crossings Water crossings include; creeks, streams, rivers and any other body of water you wish to cross. These crossings rate well up in the list of off-road hazards

Creek crossing

The problem is that there usually isn’t a sure way to gauge the crossing safety, other than wading out into the water to access the depth, current and firmness of the bottom. Unfortunately, most of us just blast through or ease slowly into the water hoping we will be able to backup if necessary.




Snow Driving in snow carries with it many obvious off-road hazards and some not so obvious ones.

Snow road

For example, the photo to the right shows a stuck 4X4 truck being pulled out in what appears to be about 4-6 inches of fresh snow. What you can’t see from the photo, nor did the driver of the truck who got stuck notice in time, was the 3 inches of solid ice just beneath the snow. Worn tires and a slight incline were contributing factors too!

Getting Lost Getting lost… is always looming out on the jeep trail, even for most experienced off-road outdoorsman! I personally have been lost many times over the years. The problem with jeep trails is that there normally isn’t just one trail to follow in and out. Most often there are many trails going in all directions! The biggest problem arises after dark and in poor visibility, when every jeep trail looks the same.

One of the problems, and a most serious off-road hazard you can create, is taking a dead end shortcut, especially a trail that goes down a steep hill that you can’t get back up. It’s a good idea to carry a compass, maps and, better yet, a good GPS like my Garmin Etrex Vista with mapping features that can display your position relative to landmarks, roads, lakes etc. on a topo map like display. See my Etrex Vista review here!


Other Off-road Hazards To Be Aware Of

  • Lightning
  • Snakes and poisonous insects
  • Wild animals
  • Avalanches
  • Rockslides
  • Dust storms

Conclusion... As we can see, four-wheeling is a lot more than turning off the pavement and shifting into four-wheel drive. Remember, it’s always a good idea to keep a sharp eye open for Off-road hazards.

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