How to Use Your Compact SUV Off-Road

Published: 20th January 2012
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Not all compact SUVs are built alike. While one brand or type of compact SUV might be well-suited to traveling off-road, it's important to note that not all compact SUVs are. Before you attempt to drive your new SUV off-road, it's a good idea to ascertain whether or not it would be a good performer in the type of terrain you intend to drive in. Thankfully, the SUV itself will provide you with some clues to its ability to drive in various off-road situations without getting stuck or breaking down.

To determine whether your compact SUV is actually capable of off-road travel, begin by looking at the tyres that were equipped from the factory. Are they all-terrain tyres, or road tyres? All-terrain tyres are designed to handle most off-road situations, but road tyres indicate that the compact SUV was never meant for more off-roading than a moderately rough dirt road. The second indicator is whether or not your compact SUV has a locking differential and four-wheel drive. While many compact SUVs today come equipped with all-wheel drive, this is another beast entirely. All-wheel drive is intended to provide optimal traction in slick or snowy conditions, but because the engine computer disengages power to some of the wheels, all-wheel drive is seldom ever useful on rocky or muddy terrain.

A true, locking four-wheel drive system allows you to shift between all four wheels of the compact SUV spinning together to gain traction and forward momentum, and two-wheel drive, where optimal fuel economy is desired.

Just because you own a vehicle that isn't ideally suited to tough off-road conditions, doesn't mean that you're forever relegated to a life on pavement. You just have to know the limits of your vehicle. For instance, most all-wheel drive compact SUVs should have no problem traversing well-established dry trails such as access roads. You're going to want to avoid trails that are particularly muddy, flooded out, or that have steep rocky inclines or rock trails that are larger than about eight inches. Because these trails are typically close to populated areas, few, if any, pieces of additional equipment are generally warranted. However, it's a good idea whenever you travel off-road to make certain you carry with you a tow strap, a spare tire, and plenty of water, both for cooling an overheated engine and for quenching your thirst should you be traveling on a hot day.

Four-wheel drive compact SUVs that are designed for off-road travel are much more forgiving when it comes to rougher terrain, and can generally traverse much more complicated trails. With these vehicles, it is best to keep the vehicle in its two-wheel drive mode until you reach a portion of the trail that you feel would require all four drive wheels. This might include steep inclines, muddy areas, creek beds or rocky trails. One thing you'll want to keep in mind is what is called "approach angle." the approach angle of a compact SUV indicates how large an obstacle the SUV can successfully climb over. When driving, you should always gauge the terrain by this measurement. If the terrain is higher than the approach angle, the SUV won't be able to traverse it.

Even with compact SUVs that are intended to be able to traverse rough terrain, you'll need some accessories that will make the trip easier and more enjoyable. In addition to the items listed for the all-wheel drive vehicle, also carry with you an extra can of gasoline, a tool box with a variety of tools, and plan to equip the compact SUV with a winch. Proper preparation will keep you from getting stuck and having to leave your compact SUV on the trail while you try to find help.

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