Four-Wheel Driving Guide For The Smart Survivalist

I remember back in the 90s when we were headed back down the mountain after a crisp, clear day of skiing. The road from a ski resort back down to Salt Lake City got to be steep in some places, so we were careful to drive slowly on the snow-packed road. It was then that I realized the importance of four-wheel driving.

At lower elevations, the road appeared to dry out, so we picked up a little speed. As we rounded a bend — surprise — more snow! My Toyota 2WD pick-up lost traction and spun out facing uphill with rear bumper hidden in the snow bank.

What’s more embarrassing than getting stuck in the snow with California license plates? Getting pulled out by a guy with a big Ford 4×4 truck, with Utah license plates.

For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of big four-wheel drive trucks and jeeps. The powerful engines, the big tires, and their ability to go anywhere in any weather condition really prompted my respect for four-wheel driving. Preparing a survival kit for your car may help when the weather turns on you, but nothing compares to your driving skills to save your life.

A little bit of history of four-wheel driving

Two polls were taken in the early part of 1980, one in the United States and the other in Japan. When asked what was the “most popular” and the “most memorable” motor vehicle in the world, the results showed overwhelmingly that the lowly jeep was the winner in both categories.

Four-wheel driving was invented in the early 1800s. A land steam vehicle was made in 1824 by Timothy Burstall and James Hill in England. In fact, the vehicle was quite advanced for its day.

The axles drove through free-wheeling clutches which could be locked for driving in reverse. In turn, these free-wheeling clutches also compensated for the wheels running at different speeds during turning — the first limited slip.

During World War I the French Army sought to eliminate the horse from the job of transporting heavy artillery pieces on the battlefield. They needed something that could haul heavy artillery through difficult terrain.Four-wheel driving - The good old Wrangler

For this work, it was impossible to consider the ordinary truck. Artillery rarely operated along main roads, and in most cases there were no roads at all. A tractor-like truck with four-wheel drive was introduced to the war and did the work faster than horses could.

Before World War II, the U.S. Army was looking for a small, general-purpose vehicle that could transport three people over a variety of terrain and be able to carry 500 pounds of gear.

Designers at Ford, Dodge, and the American Bantam Company came up with good prototypes in the early competitions, but it was the chief engineer at Willy’s Overland Motors, Delmar Roos, that took the best design features from the early entries and combined them into one vehicle.

After more field testing and competition trials between the automakers, Willys won the contract award. The General Purpose Vehicle (GP) became known as the jeep.

Its low profile design featuring four-wheel drive, a powerful four-cylinder engine, drop frame for the chassis, and a tough front-end suspension system proved practical and reliable. Sufficient numbers were produced so that by the time the U.S. entered World War II, the jeep was deployed everywhere and was used for reconnaissance, communications, and supported the infantrymen’s advance with the forward displacement of automatic weapons, infantry mortars, antitank guns, and ammunition.

The jeep’s use in the war was so profound that two presidents of the United States termed it the “most important contribution” and the ‘most valuable weapon” of World War.

The Willys-Overland Corporation started producing civilian vehicles before the war officially ended. Servicemen from all branches of the military expressed a strong desire to have their own jeep when they came back home.

By mid-1946 sales for the CJ model were booming. Willys set up production lines for trucks and station wagons as well.

Today the four-wheel-drive vehicle is as popular as ever, and four-wheel driving has become a hobby. With new models and styles coming off the line every day, more and more of the benefits of four-wheel driving are being shared by the public.

Besides the ability to climb hills, ford streams, traverse rocky trails and power through sand, four-wheel-drive vehicles have endeared themselves to families for their additional safety on wet and snowy roads.

The importance of four-wheel driving for the prepared citizen

Because a survival retreat is most likely to be located off the beaten path, a four-wheel-drive truck or jeep-like vehicle can make a good survival vehicle.

I admit that a sturdy two-wheel-drive truck can handle just about any terrain possible, but the added traction of all-wheel drive can make getting unstuck an easier and faster operation.

When I was 19 years old and living in Corpus Christi, Texas, Padre Island was a favorite area. Unlike the beaches on the West Coast, you can drive on the beach at Padre Island and so with a group of friends we began to try out some soft sand in a Volkswagen bug.

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After we lost momentum, the tires dug in, and we were stuck. After futile attempts to get free a guy came by in a jacked-up 4×4 and demanded 25 dollars to pull us out. I was mad. We didn’t have 25 dollars and so after haggling with the guy we turned over all the cash we had on hand — a measly 10 dollars and 25 cents.

He pulled us out all right, but he also left a bad taste in my mouth for macho four-wheelers.

Getting Unstuck

Even with four-wheel driving it is possible to get high-centered in a ravine or trapped in some way were even “rocking” (backing up and going forward) doesn’t work.

A prepared off-roader will have brought the means to get himself out of trouble. Usually, a jack and a few one-foot squares of one-inch thick plywood will do the job.

Use a piece of plywood to create a better foundation for the jack and then carefully jack up the frame near the sunken tire. Then gather rocks to build up a small road-way under the tire.

Lower the jack with the tire resting on your new roadbed. Using other squares of plywood to provide traction for the other tires, it should be a simple matter to drive on out. Carpet squares or floor mats can also provide traction.

A small shovel and leather work gloves can help in these kinds of situations.

In extreme cases, whether bogged down in thick mud or where insufficient power or traction is available to climb a steep slope, a winch can be the answer. Winches are available for a wide variety of applications. Be sure to get one with a single line rating about 1 ½ times greater than your vehicle’s weight. Your winch should be able to pull the vehicle’s weight plus overcome the added resistance caused by whatever the vehicle is stuck in.

Use an anchor that is sturdy enough to withstand the load you intend to pull. After spooling out the wire rope, use a tree trunk protector — a wide nylon strap with loops, and attach the clevis pin where the loops come together.

Hook the wire rope securely to the clevis. Never wrap the wire rope around an anchor and hook it back onto itself. The cable will kink and will become permanently weakened and damaged. Keep the wire rope as straight as possible.

Now with the remote control attached to the winch, get into the driver’s seat and put the transfer case lever in 4-Low with the transmission in first gear. Startup your vehicle’s engine. With both the winch and your 4×4 working together, you should be able to pull out.

Be sure to keep bystanders away from the area should the cable snap or the anchor fail.

Winches are also useful in other types of chores: pull stumps and snags, haul firewood out of steep ravines, drag heavy cargo up to your truck for loading, stretch wire fencing, and rescue other drivers in unfortunate situations.

Having a 4×4 with tow straps and a winch is like having a first-aid kit. You can help yourself and others in emergency situations. Sometimes it’s inconvenient and a dirty job to help others in distress, but you’re going to want every bit of help you can get when caught in the same situation. Be courteous and offer help freely. If you want to make money with your winch, get a real tow truck and stay in the city!

Most four-wheel driving systems are classified as part-time four-wheel drive as opposed to full-time. Part-time four-wheel drive can only be used on sand, gravel, dirt, mud, snow or wet pavement. Using it on dry pavement can damage the vehicle because the two drive shafts will want to move at different speeds.

On dry pavement, the tires have almost 100 percent traction and therefore cannot slip and give. Stress and damage to the transfer case can result.

When using the four-wheel drive you will mostly use 4-High. Driving on wet streets and snow with the transfer case lever in 4-High will provide you with the traction and power you need for safe travel.

4-Low is used only when additional power is needed to get out of a stuck situation like sand or mud and should never be used at speeds over two to three miles per hour. 4-Low is also useful when boulder hopping or descending steep hills.

Engine compression will slow you down when descending in 4-Low. Keep your foot off the brake and avoid brake wear.

To avoid excessive clutch wear, it is possible to start your vehicle in 4-Low and first gear. The vehicle will begin moving as you turn the key. This trick will help if the engine stalls on a steep hill. With the brake pedal depressed and the emergency brake on you could still roll back once you depress the clutch. Don’t do it!

The engine is still holding you up there with the transfer case in 4-Low and trans-mission in first gear. Starting the vehicle without the clutch could save your life. Idling speed in 4-Low is only about two miles per hour — slower than you can walk. This speed is best for rocky trails. Like a poor man’s cruise control, you don’t have to touch the acceleration pedal until the steep part begins.

Four-wheel driving on sand

Four-wheel driving on driving on sand is not difficult if you remember two things.

In minor short stretches of sand, you can usually power through with sufficient momentum to get to the other side.

Otherwise, you will need to bring a tire pressure gauge and a portable tire inflation device — the kind you can plug into the cigarette lighter.

By decreasing the air pressure of your tires, you will be able to float over the sand better instead of digging in. Eight to 10 PSI will give your four-wheel drive bigger feet.

It’s the difference between wearing high-heeled shoes with stiletto heels and wearing snowshoes. One will sink into the sand, and one will ride and float on the top.

Never drive your vehicle at high speeds with the pressure reduced. This can cause severe tire damage and even blowouts. When driving at reduced pressure, your tires will be fine as long as you take it slow and avoid jagged rocks and sharp turns. After a day in the sand, get out your portable air compressor and fill your tires back up to recommended highway driving pressure.

Four-wheel driving and river crossings

Before crossing a stream, it is a good idea to stop and check a few things before barreling across. Make sure that the stream is shallow enough and that there are no deep holes that will swallow you up.

If the river is muddy, it might be wise to probe the bottom with a stick. Make sure that the other side has a suitable exit ramp out of the water. A steep bank will not do, especially if the river bottom is covered with slippery rocks.

Don’t count on too much traction from the front tires. They will be dripping wet.

If everything looks O.K., proceed at a constant rate of speed. If the water depth is greater than your exhaust pipe outlet, you may get into trouble. Keep the engine revving and avoid stalling out. If the engine stalls, water will enter the exhaust system and fill the muffler with water.

After this happens, it is almost impossible to blow the water out as the starter cranks the engine. You will need to be towed out of the stream. To get the engine running again the exhaust manifolds will have to be removed to relieve the pressure.

Because many river bottoms are rocky, it is important to know how to drive on rocks whether you like boulder hopping or not. Tire pressure should be around normal because you will encounter a lot of dropping, skid-ding, and sideways pressure. A low-pressure tire could be easily damaged.

Drive at walking speeds (two to three miles per hour) in 4-Low. Speed causes an unpleasant ride and can lead to damage to the axles and undercarriage. Instead of straddling large rocks, place the tire right on them and drive over. This will prevent you from high centering on a skid plate.

Four-wheel driving in mud

It’s fun to see the muck flying, but I consider those who tear up trails and roads “just for the fun of it” environmental vandals. There is nothing worse than driving a trail that was carved up early during the rainy season. The deep troughs and furrows form rock hard scars that make others want to drive off the road causing more damage.

When it is necessary to drive through the mud, take care to scout out the area just as you would a stream crossing. Probe the bottom with a stick and make sure you are not heading into a clay bog that will suck you down for good.

If it looks passable, maintain a reasonable steady speed. Going too fast will cause mud to spray all over the place, coating the windshield and blocking your view. Too slow and you might lose power and stall. Chains may help give you more traction, especially if your tires are more for street use

Avoid mud that packs up under the fender. Once it reaches the wheel, it will cause additional friction and interfere with the suspension movement. All of this mud weighs a hefty amount, and before long you may be toting an extra 800 to 1,200 pounds of additional weight.

If this happens, get out and clear the mud away before the weight causes your tires to penetrate and begin digging instead of making progress.

Four-wheel driving and snow travel

Slow and cautious is the key. Usually, 4-High is sufficient with all-weather tires. Always be aware of road conditions.

Black ice is the invisible culprit that doesn’t care if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle or not. The best way to learn how to drive in snow is to spend a few winters in practice.

Snow hides plenty of things so know what is under there before plowing through a drift. Keep moving at a speed which compacts the snow but does not spin the tires. Spinning tires will create ice, and ice means no traction. Skidding may occur at any time while driving in snow, so drive slowly.

Slow-motion skids are a lot safer than a high-speed loss of control. When coming to a stop, pump the breaks to prevent locking the tires. Skidding tires offer no traction and no control. Allow plenty of space between you and the next car ahead.

Four-wheel driving Survival Kit

There are some items that are necessary if you are an four-wheel driving enthusiasts. These are as follows:


  • Topographic map
  • Highway map
  • Forest service map
  • Altimeter
  • Binoculars
  • CB radio

Four-wheel driving - lifted truck

Personal protection:

Getting unstuck:

  • Leather work gloves
  • Shovel
  • Jack
  • Plywood squares
  • Carpet squares
  • Portable air compressor
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Winch
  • Tow strap and sling

Basic auto equipment:


It takes practice in all types of terrain to become a good off-road driver. Don’t wait until monsoon floods or the white-out blizzard to learn correct driving skills. A prepared survivalist will know his equipment and be able to help himself and others in emergency situations.

Useful resources to check out:

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