By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Burden’s Creek ATV Park and Adventure Offroad Park
Off-roading offers many options for those looking to travel off the beaten path.
Some of my earliest automotive memories are riding around the West Virginia hills near Peach Creek in Aunt Sheila and Uncle David’s Jeep Wrangler or taking a six-wheeled amphibious dune buggy monstrosity that my grandfather owned straight off a wide footpath and into the Guyandotte River. Where I grew up, off-roading was a thing folks did in hunting season, berry picking season, hunting scouting season, and whenever they pleased.
Off-roading is not unique to Mountaineers. The South is full of off-roaders who want see the world from a perspective they just can’t get from the asphalt.
So, what’s makes off-roading so popular?
A lot of things. First, off-roading is roughly divided into two camps: 4x4s (Jeeps, Broncos, 4Runners, trucks and the like) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles like ATVs, motorcycles, side-by-sides and such). I say “roughly” because there’s a lot of room on the spectrum and you’ll find off-road riding areas catering to either group, but with trails and sections devoted to just one group.
Then, there is the kind of off-roading. Are we riding on the beach? Daytona’s racing history is tied to speeding cars on the hard-packed sand and that’s very different from driving in the fluffy sand at the south end of Carolina Beach near North Carolina’s Fort Fisher Recreation Area. And that’s much different from rock crawling, where drivers take their vehicles up impossibly steep, craggy and boulder-strewn routes. That, in turn, is much different from muddin’ – racing side by side, against a clock, or for distance through a mud- and submerged obstacle-filled trench. However, the way many of us picture “off-roading” is driving along rugged mountain and forest roads.
Each kind of terrain presents its own problems and challenges and, as the man in a 4×4 shop in Wilmington told me, “makes it difficult to build a ‘good-for-everything’ off-road ride.”
There’s much discussion over the most desirable elements a 4×4 should possess. Is it wheelbase (the distance between axles) or locking differentials (the ability to force the wheels to turn at the same rate, helping you get out of mud, snow and sand)? Would you rather have these tires or that lift kit? This suspension system versus that one. And on and on. But there’s a consensus – or near enough – that says one of the most critical things to pay attention to is your vehicle’s weight. Since weight and weight distribution will impact how well you can handle sand, mud, scree and stones, and could help you coax a little more power out of your engine, it’s a big deal.
Given all that discussion, what’s a great beginner off-road vehicle? A Jeep Wrangler. It’s light, has a wheelbase short enough for narrow turns but long enough for most hill climbs; there are plenty of aftermarket parts and accessories to customize one quickly and on-budget; loads of shops and garages that do specialty work; and there’s no shortage of fellow Jeep-lovers who will send (unsolicited) advice your way.
The needed accessories, additions, and gears are task specific. After all, you don’t need a snorkel (an extension of your motor’s air intake that’s positioned well above your expected high-water mark) if all you do is ride on the sand, and you don’t need the same giant jack you would for rock crawling if all you do is muddin’.
What you do need is a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, seatbelt cutter and window breaker, a warm change of clothes, extra fuel and a cache of food and water. You’ll also want some tough off-road tires, a lift kit (to raise your vehicle and give you a higher ground clearance) and off-road-suited suspension to help smooth out your ride. Other things – a winch, tow straps, jacks, portable air compressors, light bars, roof rack – make off-roading that much easier.
Several websites serve as indexes of off-road trails, providing maps, descriptions, photos and difficulty ratings. Visit Riderplanet-USA.com, TrailsOffroad.com, AllTrails.com, and Find-Off-Road-Trails.com to see what’s near you.
But if all of that sounds intimidating and expensive (it can be both), maybe something like an ATV, side-by-side or golf cart may be more your speed. ATVs are cheaper than a fully-kitted 4×4 and are familiar to many of us; side-by-sides, which are becoming the ride of choice for hunters, are rugged off-road and farm use vehicles with roll cages, windshields and cargo space; and gas-powered golf carts with off-road tires and higher ground clearance. Across the South, shops like Big Muddy Outdoors in Olive Branch, Mississippi, sell, upfit and outfit golf carts and more.
That leaves me with one final question for you: where will I see you riding this weekend?
WHERE TO GO OFF-ROADING
The South has thousands of miles of off-road trails. Here are a few of our favorites:
Burden’s Creek ATV Park, Mt. Olive. 600 acres of creeks, mud pits and trails to explore on your ATV, dirtbike, side by side or 4×4.
Red Creek Off Road, Perkinson. Mud, gators, lodes, cabins and camping. Drive almost anything with wheels here.
Rock’s Bottom Offroad Park, Forest. 550 acres with 30 miles of trails through swamps and mud.
Adventure Offroad Park, South Pittsburg. Open weekends. This spot has a motocross track, steep and technical hill climbs, rock gardens and on-site camping facilities.
Hawk Pride Mountain Offroad, Tuscumbia. 1,000 acres with
novice-friendly trails, mud bogs, rock crawling gardens and a motocross track. Plus camping and RV hookups.
Catahoula Recreation Club, Sicily Island. Make a reservation for this 320-acre off road area with 10 miles of trails that include hill climbs and a sand dragway.