Driving Dirt Roads
We are fortunate to live in a state where designated dirt roads can bring you to within several miles of the even the most remote Wilderness destination. From the end of these roads, we can shoulder a pack or load up our pack animals to enter into the wild. These “dirt” roads actually include a wide variety of roads, from well-constructed, graded, and maintained county roads that can be safely driven with passenger cars at 45-50 mph, to fuel-eating routes that are so rough and rocky, that you can only crawl over them in high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles at less than 5 mph. Every “dirt” road in Nevada can become hazardous during inclement weather and/or be washed out and destroyed from a hard winter or a single summer thunderstorm. Driving off designated roads and vehicle trails is illegal and cause extensive environmental damage. Google Maps and Onboard Vehicle Navigation systems are not accurate for Backcountry Roads (see Navigation Tab on Left)
KNOW YOUR VEHICLE
Fuel Capacity- Highway driving range? Driving steep and rough roads range?
4-Wheel Drive- Is it full-time or do you need to engage it?
Tires- Passenger car tires, found on most vehicles, including rental cars, vans, and pickup trucks, are easily damaged by rough surfaces, rocks, and stones found on dirt roads. It is not uncommon for two passenger rated tires to be damaged and go flat at the same time. Load range "D" or "E" tires can significantly reduce the risk of tire damage while traveling dirt roads.
Locking Differentials or Traction Control- Without this, uneven ground, snow, sand, or mud can create situations where alternate wheels lose traction and spin, effectively trapping your vehicle.
Ground Clearance- Driving rough roads requires constant evaluation of rocks and uneven road surface to determine if you vehicle can safely drive over or would need to drive around the obstacle.
The Lowest and most Vulnerable parts of your vehicle- The ground clearance of a vehicle is not uniform under the vehicle. There are higher and lower clearances. Unfortunately some of the lowest points, such as an oil pan, gas tank, transmission, or axle housings can cause immediate catastrophic damage to the vehicle if impacted by a rock or dragged across the ground.
Skid Plates- This can help ease your mind, but any part of the underside of the car, including skid plates, can bring the vehicle to a complete stop and a difficult recovery situation if they are ground into a sharp rise or a rock in the dirt road.
Entry and Exit Angles- Crossing over washout or a sharp dip in the road can cause the front (on entry into) or the back (on exit from) of the vehicle to be driven into the dirt and render the wheels useless. This creates a very difficult extraction and can inflict substantial damage to the vehicle.
Know Where All Four Tires Are- Hitting tires excessively hard on sharp stones or big rocks can create enough force to damage even high-load rated tires. Knowing where all for wheels are at all times is the best way to avoid tire damage.
Tip-Over Angle- As dirt roads deteriorate, the cross-hill surface will begin to slip downhill. Your vehicle will then begin to tip to the downhill side (this is called “side-hilling.”) There is a point at which the vehicle either rolls over, and or begins to slide down the hill. This is very, very dangerous
Room do to turn Vehicle Around- Eventually you will need to turn your vehicle around because the road has been damaged or deteriorated beyond use, or because you have run out of time. Finding a place to turn your vehicle around on narrow roads can be challenging.
Opportunities to allow Approaching Vehicles to Pass- Although many dirt roads start as two-way roads, they often deteriorate into single lane routes. Opposing vehicles can only get around each other at very specific occasions. The rules of the road state that downhill traffic must yield to uphill traffic, which means if you are going downhill and encounter a vehicle on a one way track, you must back up to the last point where vehicles can pass.
Safe Speed- Unlike paved roads, dirt road surfaces and corner radii can change in moments and without forewarning traffic signs. The best answer is to drive no faster than you can safely control the vehicle and safely stop for anything unforeseen in or on the road ahead. Remember the road surface of a well-graded and graveled road is actually quite slippery. Driving too fast, sudden swerves, and even moderate corners can lead to a vehicle sliding out of control.
Dust Cloud- Breathing dust by following another vehicle too close is unhealthful and can coat everything in the car with dust. Driving in a dust cloud is driving blind. A good rule of thumb when traveling with other vehicles on dirt roads is to follow the "caravan protocol." This involves the principal that every driver is responsible for the vehicle behind them. Most likely the vehicle behind you will drop back to avoid driving in your dust. If you come to a junction, wait for the car behind you to catch up to assure they do not take a wrong turn. Likewise, if you have not seen the car behind you for awhile, stop and wait for them to catch up to assure that nothing has happened. Walkie Talkies are somewhat useful when traveling in caravans, although the range is often limited.
Washboard Roads- A "washboard" road can be tedious to drive as the vehicles pounds down into every depression and hammers the vehicle, passengers, and cargo. If you have a vehicle with a good suspension and higher load-rated tires, a slight increase of speed on the washboard can keep the vehicle from hitting the bottom of every washboard bump. But this comes at the expense of traction. A vehicle traveling over an “washboard” dirt road surface is not in constant contact with the road surface. This condition makes the vehicle handel as if it is on ice. Washboard roads, traveling downhill, will give the braking system feedback similar to an icy surface- that the wheels are “sliding.” This will trigger the antilock brake system not to apply enough pressure to risk increasing the “sliding”wheels. This effectively cancels-out the effects of pressing the brake pedal. This very scary and dangerous situation can lead to uncontrolable swerving and sliding off the road.