In the mid-season two-part special of the Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May were constantly getting stuck in Namibian sand dunes. They didn’t seem to follow any proper protocols – at least on camera – of getting out of ruts. Snow, mud, and sand all present different challenges when going off the beaten path. Driving in snow or sand could easily lead to a boiled radiator. Mud will always find a way into car fluids. While trying to get out of ruts may seem similar, as all three cause your truck or Jeep to sink, techniques differ for getting unstuck. Your suspension could make it easier or tougher, depending on what you are stuck in. Let’s go over the differences of how you can have fun and not get your wheels stuck – or how to get unstuck in the elements safely so the fun doesn’t stop, no matter the season.
Let’s start with the most common off-road obstacle, often found fall through spring, that may be the trickiest: mud. Before you start, if you know that you are going to be in mud, get tires meant for slick ground, like these Cooper tires. Try to maintain momentum, which means you will likely be in 4×4 High. Know how deep and far the mud is, in case you do get stuck. Gut instinct probably tells you to gun the throttle to try to get out, but that will only make it worse.
Try this instead: First, let air out of your tires until it’s 20 psi. This will give the tires more traction. Turn traction control off, and put the car in 4×4 High. If possible, choose a higher gear. Rock back and forth at low RPMs. If you have a winch and tow cable (you should!), try to find something heavy to use to pull yourself out. If you keep the throttle up too much, especially without progress, you could end up overheating the radiator. Keep spare water on hand to cool it down, just in case.
Once you are out, you will want to flush engine lines. Mud has a habit of getting everywhere, and will not do your engine any favors.
Next, snow in the winter and spring. Many of the same techniques from tackling mud apply here. Be sure to have a shovel to dig out snow if you are stuck. The snow itself may impede the chassis, axle, or just the tires.
Just like knowing how far and deep the mud is, knowing what what kind of snow you will face is half the battle. Is it new powder, which can be very hard to drive in and is easy to get stuck in? Or is it packed down and hard, solid enough to provide adequate grip? If the snow is a few days old, but temperature has fluctuated, there may be ice – which means more slipping and sliding. And the snow could change throughout the day, meaning you will face different conditions when you leave an area than when you arrived.
Much like mud, spinning tires in snowy conditions could boil your radiator. Making your own trail is also hard on the cooling system, so if possible, switch off which car is in the lead. Snow can also clog the radiator, limiting air intake and thus the ability to cool. Running straight water can lead to lines freezing, so mix in a bit of antifreeze.
One of the best ways of getting unstuck is to create traction. You can use tree branches, bark, or dirt. But the best way to ensure you have a way out? Bring cat litter. Throw a bag in the back, and pour some on the snow where you are stuck.
Finally, although keeping momentum can be key to not getting stuck, you still want to proceed cautiously. Snow can hide rocks and other objects that are just waiting to break your car. The treads on the tire can also affect how snow and slush is directed out from the tire, so be sure to have snow-ready tires.
Circling back to the Grand Tour hosts, they got stuck between a large sand dune and the sea – as tide was coming in. How can you avoid this situation, when you are out enjoying the beach in the summer? The first step is to travel light. With little to use as an anchor, you can probably leave your winch at camp. Alternatively, if you are alone, bring the winch and a land anchor to pull yourself out. Travel fast and light – just like the dune buggies of old, with high horsepower, an air-cooled engine, and light chassis. The Grand Tour gang had modified buggies, for the most part, which likely didn’t help.
Next, to sound like a broken record, keep tire pressure down to 15 to 20 psi. Shock and suspension also come into play here, with more ground clearance being critical for dunes. Uneven ground means a good suspension is worth its weight in gold, and an independent front suspension is best for sand. While more delicate, IFS systems will let you go faster over dunes – maintaining momentum – and give you greater control.
That being said, don’t take sharp corners. Back out if needed and use a floor mat for traction. Front-wheel drives will get stuck in loose sand immediately, while back-wheel drive will do better. 4WD is best, of course.
Now that you know how to tackle common off-road environments, jump in your car and go have fun in any season!