Sometimes I think “off-roader” is not a broad enough term.
Racing through the sand with blistering speed is not the same as going sideways around a snowy corner or crawling slowly over slick rocks. Each one of these is considered off-roading, but really, each is vastly different.
And none more so than rock crawling.
The thought occurred to me while attending a trail ride hosted by BF Goodrich tires at the 2017 Easter Jeep Safari held in Moab, Utah, each year. I’ve spent years playing in the dirt, but my goal has always been to drive as fast as possible over things in a vain attempt to feel like a World Rally Champion.
The “crawling” part of the equation was quickly apparent when our convoy of about 20 vehicles set out for “Hell-dorado,” marked as an expert trail by the folks at Area BFE, the facility that hosted this trail ride.
As our convoy descended on the first impassable-looking piece of the trail, I began to understand the draw of this event.
First of all, you very quickly learn that, like with most things, it is the people that make this activity so enjoyable. Because the convoy moves slower than a snail, most folks mill about while each obstacle is tackled one at a time, and everyone needs to be ready to help.
Right away, a challenge arose from a tight squeeze between two boulders that was sure to scrape and dent the upper roof corners of each rig trying to pass. While some of the rock crawlers with bare roll cages didn’t mind some scraping, a few of the nicer rigs were worth saving. For these rigs, a team of bystanders would tie a strap to one side of the roll cage and pull, tug-of-war style, to save it from damage.
Spotters are also constantly necessary, and relying on a spotter takes trust. As much as each person here has their own crawling rig, the entire endeavor is really about making sure everyone makes it through as safely as possible.
That sense of teamwork instantly bonds groups of people and is certainly a draw towards this type of off-roading.
2. Come Prepared
It’s almost cliche now, but after seeing these rock crawlers in action, being prepared and having the right equipment for the trail can’t be stressed enough. The final obstacle, a nearly vertical climb, required many of the rigs to winch up and over, with no chance of actually driving over it. Without a capable winch, many of the Jeeps would have been stuck, just one example of the crucial equipment on a trail like this.
Hauling tools, safety equipment, straps, jacks and more with you on the trail can be the difference between a horrible day and a great one, so come prepared.
3. Choose Your Rig, Know Your Trail
While getting into unknown situations can be half the fun of off-roading sometimes, in the crawling world, it’s always better to know exactly what trail you’ll be hitting to make sure your vehicle can make it through.
A classic example of this on our trail ride was knowing the limits of your wheelbase. While trying to climb “The Waterfall,” a near vertical rock face, a long wheelbase is absolutely crucial, as the front tires are able to get up over the lip and pull the rears up. A few rigs were successful, but many others had to winch their way over, as there was no chance a vehicle with a short wheelbase was going to make it.
On the flip side, a long wheelbase means a worse breakover angle, leading to the middle of your rig getting hung up on rocks and obstacles more often. I watched a particularly long crawler get all four of its wheels off the ground at the same time because of a large rock, while the shorter machines in the bunch crawled right up and over without getting stuck.
Installing armor is also advisable. If crawling is something you want to do as a hobby, your vehicle will be banged up in a hurry, so installing skid plates, rock sliders and steel bumpers will help keep you on the trail without your rig getting too damaged.
4. Must Trust
You have to trust and listen to the people you are wheeling with, especially when rock crawling. Having sets of eyes all around your vehicle is necessary to watch each wheel as it progresses over the rocks. So be prepared to give up some control and trust the other folks on the trail.
5. Tires are Everything
This is certainly not a revelation, but watching these big crawlers pull themselves up rock shelves with nothing but the sidewall gave me a whole new appreciation for what the four rubber donuts actually do for each and every one of us. And if you really want to push them by rock crawling, you’ll need a good set of tires that are not only durable but also offer maximum grip.
When crawling, it’s best to air-down the tires, and a set of beadlock wheels can also go a long way to making sure you climb over everything on the trail.