Pi­lot­ing Off-Road Ve­hi­cles Looks Easy, But Without Proper Train­ing You’re a Fatal­ity Wait­ing to Hap­pen. Two Ex­perts Weigh in on Safe Driv­ing Prac­tices With UTVs

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Front Page - Story by Tom Mar­shall Pho­tos cour­tesy of Joey Nick­ischer and Team TORN

Else­where in this is­sue we dis­cuss us­ing a Util­ity Ter­rain Ve­hi­cle (UTV) as a po­ten­tial bug-out ve­hi­cle. UTVs are quick, ag­ile, and de­signed to han­dle all but the tough­est ground con­di­tions. They of­fer all the off-road ben­e­fits of their ATV sib­lings, but un­like ATVs, UTVs can ac­com­mo­date be­tween two and four pas­sen­gers and most mod­els fea­ture a pickup-style bed for ad­di­tional cargo. All but the most bulked-up UTVs can fit in­side a two-car garage and be hauled on a trailer.

While they of­fer many ben­e­fits, some peo­ple are eas­ily mis­led to be­lieve the only pre­req­ui­site to driv­ing a UTV is hav­ing a li­cense. Wrong an­swer. Just like novices who pi­lot a boat or per­sonal wa­ter­craft for the first time, thou­sands of peo­ple are in­jured ev­ery year who mis­tak­enly as­sume that driv­ing a UTV is just like driv­ing a car on a dirt road. Be­fore you go down the prover­bial road of pur­chas­ing one, we’d like to give you some ad­vice. Like any­thing with an en­gine, UTVs re­quire skill, ex­pe­ri­ence, and more than a lit­tle re­spect to be used safely and ef­fec­tively.

We spoke to two off-road ex­perts spe­cial­iz­ing in the se­lec­tion, fit­ment, and use of UTVs in aus­tere en­vi­ron­ments. They gave us some point­ers on the perils of driv­ing UTVs un­der var­i­ous con­di­tions as well as what to look for in a UTV you may have to stake your fam­ily’s sur­vival on.

RE­COIL OFFGRID: What are the big­gest dif­fer­ences be­tween driv­ing a UTV and driv­ing a car?

Joey Nick­ischer: The big­gest dif­fer­ence is that a UTV does not han­dle like a car. Ag­gres­sive off-road tires, high ground clear­ance, and a nar­row wheel­base, while as­sets in the off-road en­vi­ron­ment, give the UTV a higher cen­ter of grav­ity com­pared to the av­er­age road ve­hi­cle.

“Muggs” McCoy: For starters, the char­ac­ter­is­tics that make a ve­hi­cle suit­able for off-road and rough ter­rain often de­tract from on-road per­for­mance. Flex­i­ble sus­pen­sions with long travel, high ground clear­ance, and heav­ier driv­e­line com­po­nents can cause a UTV to re­spond to driver in­put in ways that the unini­ti­ated may be un­pre­pared for. The UTV’s higher cen­ter of grav­ity and nar­rower width means less sta­bil­ity. This, in ad­di­tion to their in­creased sus­pen­sion travel, causes the UTV to have more body roll when swerv­ing or cor­ner­ing than a typ­i­cal car.

If the UTV driver isn’t ac­cus­tomed to this feel­ing they may not know how to cor­rectly man­age it. This can cause them to ei­ther over-cor­rect, which causes the UTV to sway and swerve back and forth, mak­ing the ve­hi­cle hard to man­age, or, they in­ter­pret the body roll as im­pend­ing rollover and in­stinc­tively ap­ply the brakes, un­in­ten­tion­ally in­creas­ing the chance of the back tires catch­ing on rocks or dirt buildup. As a UTV driver, you need to start out slowly, get a feel for the sus­pen­sion, and un­der­stand what your ve­hi­cle is do­ing un­der­neath you.

Do the rules change when the en­vi­ron­ment changes? JN: Ab­so­lutely. Speed can be your friend in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, such as when driv­ing through mud. That same speed can lead to un­con­trol­lable driv­ing in wet/icy ar­eas. MM: The ter­rain dic­tates how you must drive. In a sandy en­vi­ron­ment, the ve­hi­cle is go­ing to re­act a lit­tle slower and fol­low any grooved path in the sand (the path of least re­sis­tance). If that “line” is good, stick with it, but if not, it can be dif­fi­cult to drive out of. Driv­ing out of grooved or rut­ted ter­rain in the sand, mud, or hard packed dirt re­quires cau­tion. The best ap­proach is to keep your eyes up and look ahead for the best place to exit; com­mit to your de­ci­sion and don’t sec­ond-guess your­self (hes­i­ta­tion can lead to its own is­sues).

Be pre­pared to man­age abrupt steer­ing jerks and try to keep the wheels as straight as pos­si­ble. In rocky ter­rain, you need to slow down. Go­ing fast over rocks can quickly over­whelm and even dam­age your sus­pen­sion. The size of the rocks dic­tates how much you must de­crease your speed. Slow­ing your speed down en­ables you to suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­ate ob­sta­cles and in­crease your ve­hi­cle’s sur­viv­abil­ity.

Your ve­hi­cle’s elec­tri­cal com­po­nents are ex­posed and can eas­ily get wet and short out. Ad­di­tion­ally, you could get wa­ter in the air in­take and sucked into the en­gine, cre­at­ing a very bad day. The best ap­proach for a wa­ter cross­ing, if the sit­u­a­tion dic­tates, is to get out of the ve­hi­cle prior and test the depth and bot­tom com­po­si­tion of the wa­ter. De­ter­min­ing the wa­ter is at a safe depth en­sures it will not reach the elec­tri­cal com­po­nents and, more dra­mat­i­cally, en­sures you won’t drive into a huge hole. Once you’ve check the wa­ter''s depth and bot­tom com­po­si­tion, drive through slowly and at­tempt to keep the wa­ter as low and still as pos­si­ble. Too many peo­ple worry about get­ting stuck dur­ing a wa­ter cross­ing and try to “gun it” to get across. That’s the worst thing you can do.

When you teach UTV driv­ing, what are the most com­mon mis­takes you see stu­dents make?

JN: The av­er­age per­son isn’t ac­cus­tomed to driv­ing on steep slopes, boul­der fields, and other low-trac­tion ter­rain. It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. When sur­mount­ing ob­sta­cles, it’s com­mon to have one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. You want to climb your ob­sta­cle with con­trol and en­sure you don’t start to slip backward.

The steer­ing wheel can also kick back vi­o­lently and un­ex­pect­edly when the front tires en­counter cer­tain ob­sta­cles. As such, it’s im­per­a­tive that you keep your thumbs out­side of the steer­ing wheel. The com­mon 10 and 2 or 9 and 3 hand po­si­tion­ing is fine, but make sure your thumbs are out if you don’t want a very painful thumb in­jury.

Another thing that takes get­ting used to is not be­ing able to see the ter­rain and hav­ing to rely on the spot­ter. The spot­ter can see a lot bet­ter than you can, and it’s im­per­a­tive that you trust him or her. If your spot­ter says turn the wheel left and move for­ward 12 inches, then you need to turn the wheel left and move for­ward 12 inches. When the spot­ter says stop, then stop! One of the drills I have my stu­dents do is driv­ing through a typ­i­cal traf­fic cone driv­ing course while blind­folded. This way, they learn to trust the spot­ter and to only do ex­actly what the spot­ter says, lest they “crash” into a cone.

MM: The great­est and most dan­ger­ous mis­take stu­dents make is be­ing over­con­fi­dent in their abil­i­ties. The sim­i­lar­i­ties with a car (the side-by-side seats, seat­belts, steer­ing wheel, etc.) give first-time driv­ers the im­pres­sion the UTV will han­dle like a car, and pro­vide the same level of pro­tec­tion. Stu­dents end up driv­ing too fast which gives them lit­tle to no time to re­act to the ter­rain in or­der to cor­rect mis­takes be­fore they lose con­trol.

For peo­ple who are con­sid­er­ing buy­ing a UTV as a po­ten­tial sur­vival tool or bug-out ve­hi­cle, what would you recommend they look for?

JN: You want a ve­hi­cle that has known dura­bil­ity, easy-to-find spare parts, and is easy to ser­vice/re­pair. The best-sell­ing UTV is the Po­laris Ranger and they even make a spe­cial line of ve­hi­cles strictly for the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Those ve­hi­cles are built around com­mer­cial off-the-shelf (COTS) com­po­nents.

Some­thing else that could be men­tioned is drive sys­tems. Many of the com­mon UTVs fea­ture a belt-drive CVT drive sys­tem. These trans­mis­sions re­quire a cer­tain amount of en­gine rpm be­fore the belt en­gages be­tween the sheaves of the trans­mis­sion. Hav­ing in­ad­e­quate en­gine speed cou­pled with a dif­fi­cult to turn tire can lead to belt dam­age or failure, a term known as “smok­ing the belt.” CVTs are found on the Po­laris Ranger, Can-Am De­fender, John Deere Ga­tor, and oth­ers.

Few UTVs uti­lize a hy­draulic drive sys­tem, like those found on hy­dro­static trac­tors. With these, the en­gine runs a hy­draulic pump, which fun­nels fluid to the drive sys­tem. They tend to be very torquey in the low end. The Kub­ota RTV uses this sys­tem. As an added bonus, the hy­draulics can also be used to power other com­po­nents.

Some UTVs use a gear drive, which is a lit­tle more fa­mil­iar to the av­er­age driver. How­ever, un­like modern ve­hi­cles where you can switch be­tween 2x4 and 4x4 on the fly, you usu-

ally can­not do so on gear-drive UTVs. The Honda Pioneer uses this type of drive sys­tem. As usual, safety should be dis­cussed. Al­ways, al­ways, al­ways wear your seat­belt. You should also con­sider up­grad­ing the three-point seat­belt to a four-point harness style.

The harness-style seat­belt will hold you in po­si­tion a lot bet­ter in the event of a rollover. In UTVs with a full rollcage, you should still wear a hel­met, even if it’s only a half hel­met. And never, never, never hold onto the rollcage. Only hold onto man­u­fac­turer-spec­i­fied grab bars. If the ve­hi­cle rolls over while you have a death grip on the cage, there’s a very good chance your hand will be crushed and am­pu­tated.

And to go along with that thought, don’t try to stop a rollover by stick­ing your hand or leg out­side of the ve­hi­cle. You’re not go­ing to hold up, or even slow down, a 1-ton (or heav­ier) ve­hi­cle that is rolling over. You will most likely lose that limb in the rollover.

MM: The No. 1 thing I ad­vise peo­ple to look for in a UTV is dura­bil­ity. If SHTF, you won’t have the lux­ury of tak­ing the UTV in to get ser­viced or parts re­placed. There­fore, look for a brand with high dura­bil­ity rat­ings. Don’t sim­ply look at pop­u­lar opin­ion on the “cool fac­tor” or the lat­est gad­gets and fea­tures. Get un­der the ve­hi­cles, look at their com­po­nents and how well they are made. Re­search the en­gine — how does it per­form? What are the top ser­vice is­sues? Even for new UTVs, most of their en­gines are the same or sim­i­lar ones that have been used in snow­mo­biles for years.

In­ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers often feel the temp­ta­tion to take un­nec­es­sary chances with a UTV to test its ca­pa­bil­i­ties. In an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, get­tingin­jured and stranded is the last thing youwant.

Team TORN pro­vides UTV as well as mo­tor­cy­cle train­ing in var­i­ous sce­nar­ios as part of their cur­ricu­lum.

Be­fore at­tempt­ing any wa­ter cross­ings, get out and checkthe depth of the wa­ter first to avoid draw­ing wa­ter intothe UTV’s com­po­nents.

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