Off-roading: 'It's very much like a game of chess'

Off-roading: 'It's very much like a game of chess'
Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

NEAR TILLAMOOK, Ore. - "It's not just pedal to the metal, 'yee haw!' kind of stuff."

That's Andy Lilienthal talking about some of the misconceptions people sometimes have about off-roaders.

"There are a lot of stereotypes," he said. "But the vast majority of people that are into this are courteous, respectful, they clean up after themselves and they realize that you stay on the trail - you leave minimal impact. We look at it as a way to get out to nature and see these places that are amazing."

Lilienthal and Chad Schroll, both from Warn Industries (a local company that makes high-end winches), recently took this reporter out to the Tillamook State Forest for an off-road run at a place called Browns Camp. The idea was to show me what it was like to do some off-roading and get some tips from the experts.

For the uninitiated, Browns Camp (off Highway 6 at milepost 33) is a campground and staging area for OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) recreation. The surrounding area has miles of trails and attracts a number of off-roaders. The trails range from easy to difficult - there's a little something for everyone of all skill levels.

This is the second installment in a five-part series aimed at getting you to step outside your comfort zone and try something new this summer.  Last week's topic was fly fishing.

"You can sort of putt putt and just go for a beautiful drive on the trails or you can go on things that you would never imagine a vehicle would go over," said Lilienthal.

Lilienthal likes to do a little of both, but he mostly just loves getting in touch with nature.

"I love the excitement of an adventure and I love seeing these places that are so beautiful - places that so few people really get to see," he added.

I love an adventure too and spending a few hours off-roading in the Tillamook State Forest was certainly a lot of fun. And I learned quite a bit from the experts, who had some great advice for newbies. Here are the top tips I came away with:


Make sure you're legal

Scout out where you want to go

If you want to off-road at Browns Camp, for example, be sure to check the trail report for any information on closed sections or dangers you should be aware of. The same goes for anywhere else. You can check online or with a ranger station to find out what the current conditions are.

Know your vehicle

"Learn your vehicle a little bit before you go out there," said Schroll. "Just lay down on the ground in front of it while it's parked - and wheel chocked or whatever so it won't roll over you - and just look at where all your pieces are at. Look at your front differential housing, for example. If you're coming up to a rock that's in the road, you don't want to hit that front differential housing, which is your lowest point, on the rock."

"Parts are expensive, so be careful," he added. "Lots of throttle will break something."

Schroll recommends trying stuff out close to home to get a feel for things - keeping safety in mind.

"If you're driving down the road and there's a pothole or something like that, try and actually hit that pothole with your driver's side or passenger's side front tire," he said. "Or if you're making a turn, purposely run your back tire over a bump or a pothole so you can get a feel for where every tire is while you're sitting in the driver's seat."

"You can't see it, so you've got to feel it," he added.

Know the conditions

Keep in mind that your vehicle may react quite differently on different surfaces (like dirt, sand or snow) and in different conditions (like dry, cold or muddy). The type of tires you have make a big difference.

"A change in a set of one tires to a another set of tires can make it handle completely different," said Schroll. "Especially in snow or mud."

Snow, for example, can either be a lot of fun or a giant headache.

"In snow, in particular, I end up using a winch way more because the snow consistency can change so much - from the dry, powdery snow that you can drive through easily to the wet, heavy snow," Schroll said. "Sometimes it's like driving in a lake because you're cruising along and you just start sinking. And there's nothing you can do - you either dig yourself out or winch yourself out."

Schroll recommends checking out a topographical map to find an area that doesn't climb too fast.

"You want to find something that gets up in a good snow level and then is like a plateau so you can get around in a foot or so of snow before it gets too deep," he said.

"If you've got a vehicle that you don't want to scratch up, snow is probably the best," he added. "It's pretty hard to break stuff in the snow."

"The most important thing is knowing how your vehicle is going to behave in the different situations," said Lilienthal. "Much like any other adventure sport - like skiing or rock climbing or anything like that - you've got to be sure that you know your limits. And you really have to know what you're doing or you need to go with people that can teach you."

It's like anything you learn - you start off small and go from there.

"Just like hiking - you're not going to go climb Mount Hood on your first time out," said Lilienthal. "You're going to go do Rowena Falls or something like that. You're going to maybe hike up the paved paths at Multnomah Falls. You're going to cut your teeth. You're going to learn how to do this. And you're going to gradually progress if it's your thing."


Be prepared

Lilienthal advises folks to bring the type of items you would throw in a backpack if you were going on a hike - water, food, a compass, a knife, matches, etc. Schroll said to also bring some tools in case you need to do on-the-fly repairs and make sure you have gear that will get you unstuck - like a winch, a tow rope or a come-along.

Don't go alone

It's best to have at least two vehicles on an off-roading run. That way if something happens to one of them, you've at least got the other one to get back with.

Go with someone who is experienced at off-roading - not only can they teach you the ropes, but they'll come in handy if something goes wrong or you get stuck in a trouble spot.

If you don't have anyone to go with, try getting in touch with an off-road club or organization:

Take it slow

Most of the time in off-roading, going fast isn't necessarily the goal - especially when you're out in the woods traversing trails.

"It's very much like a game of chess," said Lilienthal. "You can't go real fast. You're looking for the right line. You're looking for the best way up to minimize the impact to the vehicle, or the easiest way up. There is a lot of strategy involved."

And of course, you've got to be a little rough and tumble - you will get bounced around a bit (even with your seatbelt on).

Remember to tread lightly

Tread lightly means leaving as little impact as you can on the environment. It's a national effort that began in the mid-1980s and is a creed that off-roaders know well. Here are the principles of tread lightly:

  • Travel responsibly on land by staying on designated roads, trails and area. Go over, not around, obstacles to avoid widening the trails. Cross streams only at designated fords. When possible, avoid wet, muddy trails. On water, stay on designated waterways and launch your watercraft in designated areas.
  • Respect the rights of others, including private property owners, all recreational trail users, campers and others so they can enjoy their recreational activities undisturbed. Leave gates as you found them. Yield right of way to those passing your or going uphill. On water, respect anglers, swimmers, skiers, boaters, divers and those on or near shore.
  • Educate yourself prior to your trip by obtaining travel maps and regulations from public agencies. Plan for your trip, take recreation skills classes and know how to operate your equipment safely.
  • Avoid sensitive areas on land such as meadows, lake shores, wetlands and streams. Stay on designated routes. This protects wildlife habitats and sensitive soils from damage. Don’t disturb historical, archaeological or paleontological sites. On water, avoid operating your watercraft in shallow waters or near shorelines at high speeds.
  • Do your part by modeling appropriate behavior, leaving the area better than you found it, properly disposing of waste, minimizing the use of fire, avoiding the spread of invasive species and repairing degraded areas.