Crawling the Rocks of Moab

The How Tos

Published in the May 2017 Issue May 2017 Feature Jerry Mathews - Starting Line Products

On a recent trip to Moab, UT, Dirt Toys editor Lane Lindstrom and I were discussing driving techniques on the rocks and some of the more common pitfalls that newcomers experience.

We were in a RZR 4 1000 with 33-inch tires, long travel suspension and a variety of other mods to make our car more capable. The trail we chose was Cliffhanger due to its spectacular views and difficult obstacles. We do like a challenge. I started talking to him about thinking four dimensionally while driving. Now this is not the 4th dimensional thinking that has been spoken of and written about in science fiction, but simply paying attention to where all four of your tires are at any given point in time. And furthermore, anticipating (much like in a chess match) where your rear tires will end up as you approach the obstacle with your fronts.

You see, the trick to overcoming obstacles in Moab (or anywhere else for that matter) is to focus on maintaining traction as you “crawl” over them. If you high-center on your belly pan, rocker panel or trailing arms, the tires lose contact with the ground and there you are, stuck on the obstacle with everyone around looking at you. When you start thinking four dimensionally, you will actually visualize how the tires will climb over obstacles with little to no contact on the bottom of the vehicle. Seldom will you have to “bump” over an obstacle by hitting it with enough momentum to slide the bottom of the vehicle far enough over the rock to allow the tire to grab traction again.

Driving in this manner is a lot easier on drivetrain parts as well. When I see axles break, differentials explode, steering tie rods bend or cars ending up on their sides or tops, it is typically a result of a heavy throttle foot trying to use momentum and tire speed to get over an obstacle, rather than the driver picking the proper line for his car and crawling it over the obstacle.

Now, there are some obstacles that we cannot just crawl over, so that is where we may need to get creative. If there isn’t a good line available, you might have to just make one. Rock stacking is a technique we use here. Usually, only a few rocks will have to be stacked into a hole to give one tire the ramp that it may need to get over the obstacle safely. Taking the time to stack a few rocks with strategic placement will help keep your tires in contact with the ground rather than unloading them and leaving you sitting stuck on your belly. Remember that the rocks you stack will easily be spit out from under the tire if you spin it, so don’t let anyone stand directly behind your vehicle (not a good idea to hang out there anyway) and try to crawl rather than spin up and over the obstacle.

The bump technique is one that should be used with caution. Sometimes an obstacle is such that a small amount of momentum will get you up out of the hole and allow you to continue on your way. Typically I find that it is easy to get your front tires on top of the obstacle or hole, but when you try to step up with your rears, they spin out. Sometimes this is from the belly pan or rocker panels high centering and sometimes it is simply from an undercut rock or hole that your rear tire drops into or has to crawl over. When this happens, try backing up slightly (usually a foot or two is plenty) without dropping your fronts off the obstacle or out of position. Then you can give it some throttle (make sure you put the tranny back in low/forward) to create a small amount of momentum and bump your rear tire over the rock or obstacle. Care should be taken to continue to crawl once above the obstacle.

On really technical obstacles, a good spotter can be a huge help as the driver is strapped in the car and cannot see exactly where the rear tires are tracking. The spotter typically will stand in front of the car and guide the driver by hand signals or voice commands. Trust your spotter. They can see where all four of your tires are at. Many times they will be giving you different directions than what you feel you should do from the driver’s seat, and that is because they have a better view than you do. Trust them and follow their commands and you will get over the obstacle with ease.

Stepping up on a steep wall is a fun challenge, but be careful with this one. In Moab, we have some pretty steep walls that we can play on. Tire composition, tire pressure, ambient temperature (outside air temperature) and wheelbase determine whether or not you can climb up and over the wall. Sometimes you can step up onto the wall, spin your tires until the rubber gets hot enough to grip the wall and then climb up and over it. This can be a fun, but I recommend roping off (tying a rope to your roll cage, front bumper or winch) with several people at the top taking up the slack and holding slight tension on the rope in case you get out of position. Should you spin out of position on a wall and need to back off of it, simply coast backwards, taking care not to use your brakes until you are on the flat area below. If you brake on the wall, you will most likely end up on your top.

Dropping a ledge can be extremely sensational. We have one specific ledge on Steel Bender that provides plenty of excitement. This ledge is at the waterfall and is about 8 feet high and about straight off. I tie off all short wheelbase cars and act as the anchor to keep them from going over should the driver make an error. A spotter is placed at the bottom to guide the driver off of the ledge. The trick to dropping this ledge is to drop the front tires over the ledge, slide slowly on the skid plate off of the ledge and as soon as the front tires touch the rocks below, give it a little throttle and drop the back tires off (you must be in 4WD when performing this maneuver with the differential locked). Should you freeze up and forget to throttle when the front tires touch the bottom, you will go over if someone isn’t acting as the anchor on the rope from behind (and I mean all the way over on your top). Pretty exciting stuff here.

Roping off is a technique we use often when traversing an obstacle (up or down) where a roll over is likely. We use a rope that is about 30 feet long with a loop tied into it at one end and has a heavy-duty clip. This allows us to tie onto a roll bar or bumper quickly. When manning the rope, never wrap it around your hands or legs as you want to be able to let go of the rope should things go bad. Always choose a rope without any knots, or loops in it that can grab you when the vehicle drives off. And always use a good pair of leather gloves when manning the rope.

Dragging the brake is a technique that should be mastered as it can be very beneficial when crawling on and off obstacles. Most good drivers use both feet when crawling, the right one on the gas and the left one on the brake. This allows you to drag the brake to slow your momentum without getting off of the throttle. This gives a more consistent crawl rate and helps maintain traction and position on the obstacle.

Tire pressure is often overlooked. You should check and set your tire pressure based on what trails you will be running and how fast you plan to run them. We check and set our tire pressure each day as the pressure will change based on the ambient temperature. When crawling on difficult trails, we set our tire pressure between 5 and 8 psi depending on the tires we are running and whether or not we are using beadlock wheels. Normally we can run 5 psi on beadlock wheels with tires having stout sidewalls. For stock tires and wheels we are typically around 8 psi. However, if the trail you plan to run has many sharp rocks on it and you want to run fast, you may need to increase your tire pressure to somewhere between 8 and 12 psi depending on the tire. This is to keep from pinching a sidewall or bending a wheel should you hit a sharp rock hard. Remember that you will not have as much traction on obstacles should you choose to run the higher tire pressure.

Even though many stock UTVs work extremely well in Moab, enhancement parts can be added to make them even better. The most common changes are larger tires, clutch kits, high clearance suspension kits, wheel spacers, heavy duty skid plates and exhausts. 

With the proper knowledge, experience and equipment any trail in Moab is possible.

(Mathews is the operations manager at Starting Line Products and a veteran on the Moab trails.)

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