Learning the Jeepers rules and tricks of off-road driving helps avoid dangerous situations.

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Jeepers Rules and Tricks

Regardless of how free-form or how structured the off-road experience, there are Jeepers rules and tricks that apply equally.

Some are simple, such as anticipating a four-wheel-drive situation and engaging four-wheel drive before you get stuck. Others are not as obvious. For instance, drivers should grip the steering wheel with thumbs outside the rim. Do otherwise and the steering wheel's spokes could do some painful damage as the wheel reacts to the impact of hitting a log or rock.

Even mildly undulating terrain provides an education in the value of ground clearance and suspension travel. Cherokees and Grand Cherokees get along surprisingly well just as they come from the factory, though lowering tire pressure to 22 psi helps the tread to flex and grip outcroppings.

By comparison, Wranglers and CJs, with their shorter wheelbases, more-modest ground clearance, and relatively limited suspension travel, can benefit from larger non-stock tires and suspension lifts. One trick is to disconnect the Wrangler's front roll bar, which frees the suspension to accommodate widely different side-to-side elevations. Aftermarket locking differentials and winches are useful, and tow hooks are required on all trails with a rating of four or higher.

Engine modifications are rare. Most off-roading is done at a strolling pace, and even Jeeps with four-cylinder engines have enough torque to ascend most any slope. The keys are traction and gearing -- and not just for going uphill. Few automotive sensations rival shifting a Jeep into first gear, setting the transfer case in low range, and trusting against all instinct as the machine noses easily down a grade too steep to walk. Experienced Jeepers know to stay off the brakes in such situations-and to rarely use the clutch.

"Jeeping well is a fine art," Pete Lyons wrote in Car and Driver after his first Rubicon. "First of all, speed has no place on this sort of trail. You must maintain what I've started calling the Jeepers Creep. You just chug-chug along in the lowest gear available, usually keeping your foot completely off the gas. . . . You open the throttle for quick little bursts of torque to surmount a boulder. If you're driving a manual transmission, you are not supposed to use the clutch -- too much risk of burning it out. Even if the engine dies, you're supposed to restart in gear, without declutching. It's hard to remember that in a crisis."

Helping Jamboree participants remember such dictums is the job of official volunteers familiar with each trail. Their on-sight advice about gear selection or exactly where to place the tires to avoid hanging up on that boulder is priceless data to neophytes and veterans alike.

AutoWeek's Wes Raynal, poised to drive a Wrangler through a New York stream on the Adirondack jamboree, got this counsel from a trail volunteer: "just take it slow, try not to let the water hit the base of the windshield. And don't worry about those scraping noises."

"Yeah, right," thought Raynal. "As it turned out," he said, "we made it across the pond with no problems."

On the next page, learn about an obstacle of the Rubicon trail called the Sluice.

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