By Jim Travers
When the folks at Northeast Off-Road Adventures invited us to spend a day at off-road driving school, we jumped at the chance. Somebody else’s car, somebody else’s rocks, what’s not to like? The ever patient NORA instructors delivered, with not just a Jeep and boulders in a variety of sizes, but by teaching even remedial students like us how to avoid damaging either.
Best of all, many of their tips and techniques can be applied to everyday driving on the mean streets of what passes for civilization these days, far from their headquarters in the bucolic woods of Ellenville, New York.
Parking tips from the woods
One of the first, and most interesting lessons at NORA involves slowly driving up to a cone and stopping when you think you’re about to hit it. Most drivers are way off. It’s not your fault, it’s just hard to gauge how far away something is when you’re looking over a long stretch of hood. And it’s even scarier when you risk doing some expensive damage. Try practicing at home or in an empty parking lot. If you don’t have a cone, use a sawhorse, an old chair, or a relative. And try the same trick backing up, and even to the sides to replicate a tight parking space. You’ll gain confidence, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a parallel parking ace.
Go smooth and steady
Successfully navigating a trail through the woods is all about being smooth with the throttle, brakes, and steering. Dirt trails, rocks, and bumps are more slippery than pavement, and being smooth can help prevent digging in your wheels and getting stuck, in addition to making for a smoother ride. Using the same technique on the street will not only make you a calmer and safer driver, it’ll improve gas mileage, be easier on mechanical components, and leave you with fewer car sick passengers.
Know your boundaries
Ever been stuck behind a stopped delivery truck on a city street, and wondered if you could squeeze past without hitting other traffic or parked cars? Once you’ve practiced threading between a tree and a rock the size of your car, that UPS truck will never look so big again.
Ever wonder whether you should try to steer around an object or straddle it? Off-road school helps teach you how to determine which is best for any given situation, and how to apply those skills to your own car. Take a look under your car to see how much clearance you really have. Then try practicing in your driveway or other safe area, and you can even try sliding a few common objects under the car to get a sense of scale - an empty bottle, box, or that relative if they haven’t left yet. That way, you’ll have a better idea of your clearance out on the road.
If you’re stuck in mud or snow, remember to be extra smooth and use gentle throttle pressure. Start in second gear if you can, and keep your front wheels as straight as possible to reduce resistance. Try rocking back and forth between forward and reverse gears. In a pinch, you can even use floor mats under the drive wheels for extra traction.
Stow your stuff
That old driver’s ed warning about how an umbrella can become a deadly projectile in a crash is true, but let’s not forget all that other crap in your car. A forgotten water bottle under the seats won’t do you any favors if it gets stuck under the brake pedal. Keep everything secure, and maybe even clean it out once in a while.