Off Roading Basics Part 1: Off Roading Vocabulary

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So, you’ve bought yourself a good, solid 4x4 truck and you want to do more with it than just cruise the highways, but you don’t know where to start. Do you use 4 high or 4 low? What about the different type of terrain? There’s a lot to figure out before you go on your first off-road trip, even if it’s only down easy trails where you live. Part 1 of this post series will give you some basic off-road vocabulary you need to know before heading off-road. This vocab lesson is more for you to understand the basics than to sound smart when talking to other off-roaders, but it’ll work for that, too.

4x4 High

There are two major types of 4wd modes your truck can be in. The first of these is High. This is your standard all-around mode that’s most commonly used. High refers to the gear ratio, which means it’s the same as when you’re using 2wd, only with 4 wheels.

4x4 Low

The other type of 4wd is Low. This puts your truck into a lower gearset, meaning you get far more torque than in high, but you lose quite a bit of speed in the process. This is how you get your truck un-stuck and what you use for rock climbing.

Locking Differential

Most vehicles allow for wheels to turn at different speeds to allow for smooth travel around corners and to compensate for loose terrain. This is great for highway driving but can get you stuck pretty quickly on the trail. Locking your differential means you lock both wheels on an axle to one another so they are forced to spin at the same speed. off roading basics differential This means if one gets stuck in mud, the other can work to get you free. Otherwise, power will take the path of least resistance and the stuck tire will spin and you’ll stay stuck.   SEE ALSO: 5 Tips for Off-Road Glory  

Approach Angle

This refers to the angle at which you can successfully go up an incline without grounding yourself. Think of it this way, the higher the approach angle, the higher the bumper and the rest of the front of the truck has to be to go up it. A very steep hill would have a high approach angle because the angle between it and the flat ground you’re coming from is high. A small, gradual hill would have a low angle of approach because the angle between road and hill is lower. This is one of the reasons a suspension lift on your truck is a good idea.


The wheelbase of a truck is the distance from the center of a truck’s front wheel to the center of the real wheel on the same side. In other words, measuring from the center hub on your front driver-side wheel to the center hub on your rear driver-side wheel. off-road-basics-vocabulary-wheelbase This number is important because it tells you how long your truck is. The longer it is, the more easily it can go over hills while staying steady, but with this comes the higher risk of high-siding on top of a hill and hurting your undercarriage. Higher wheelbase trucks generally require a higher suspension lift to fix this issue.

Wheel Travel

This refers to the amount of travel up and down your wheels have. Wheel travel has less to do with the wheels and everything to do with your suspension. Basically, the more travel your trucks capable of, the better your suspension is and the better it’ll do off-road. This doesn’t mean it needs to be super bouncy, but it does mean that it can handle bigger hits and harsher terrain.   RELATED: History Lesson: The Best Classic 4x4s  


The last piece of vocabulary we’ll cover is also about suspension. Articulation refers to how flexible your truck is. In other words, this speaks to the quality and flexibility of your suspension and how well it can bend and twist independent of each wheel. off roading basics articulation So why does that matter? Well, the more articulation your truck has, the bigger rocks, ruts, and inclines it can manage on only part of its suspension while keeping the cab as level as possible. If there’s a large bump in the trail, you don’t want the cab thrown off as soon as it gets hit. Instead, you want the truck to handle the blow and keep going. This is articulation.


Of course there are al lot more vocabulary terms to know when it comes to safely off-roading, but these are some basics that speak to general usage and safety. By understanding these you’re off to a great start off-roading and with a full tank of gas and a safety check, you should be ready to hit your first simple trail. Go out, have fun, and check back here for part 2 of this series where we look into terrain-specific tips and tricks.

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