Everyone wants a truck, van or jeep for off-road adventures. But us city types can’t afford to own one, or drive one every day. Don’t worry, the crappy car your mom bought you in college will do just fine—you’ll just have to use a little redneck ingenuity.
This article is inspired by my friend Michael van Vliet, who gave up on the long-term dream of owning a van to settle for the current reality of owning a beat up old economy car. As he figured out, the point is to get out there, not to buy something you can’t afford.
So let’s write this article for someone like him; someone who’s not going to let the lack of a big budget stop them from having adventures. We are going to suggest you make a few changes to your car, but none of them should be too scary. Of course you can apply many of these lessons to a truck, crossover or SUV too, but let’s imagine Michael’s Ford Focus as the proto-beater.
The most important component on any car, your tires are the only things that touch the ground, so every other component — the motor, the transmission, the brakes — can only ever be as good as the tires are.
A decent set of all-terrains aren’t just going to grip loose surfaces better, they’re going to be much more puncture resistant too. And, they’re often much better in the snow than standard all-seasons. You don’t need to spend big bucks to get a decent set of tires and, luckily, most of the options from big name brands (which cost more due to brand tax) aren’t made in sizes that will fit normal, non-SUV cars. Shop brands like Maxxis, Cooper, Yokohama et al; the Maxxis A/Ts for my Subaru run for $110/tire and outperform many of the name brands.
Need to figure out which size tires you can squeeze on your existing wheels and around your suspension, and how badly they’ll affect your speedometer and odometer? I use this online tire size visualizer and calculator. Remember to allow a little extra wiggle room for size differences between brands; they’re all a little bigger or smaller in real life than the size standard dictates.
The smaller the wheels you put on your car, the more sidewall you’ll get—and that nets you improved ride quality and more A/T tire options. Often, you can find an unwanted set of wheels in a junkyard or a set from a lower-spec version of your car on eBay being sold cheap by someone who’s upgrading. That same calculator can help you figure out offset differences, but you’ll need an identical lug pattern. Remember your brake calipers and the need for the wheels to fit them. A test fit at a junkyard works great; if buying on eBay, try and get a set of the same generation and model as the car you want to put them on.
But, you don’t need to upgrade your tires right away, just do it when your current set wears out. Until then, buy and carry an air compressor and puncture kit and know how to use it.
When we posted this video, a lot of you responded with comments like “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SPARE TIRE?!!!!!” or, “BUT I HAVE TRIPLE A L0SER!!!!”
Good for you! In my experience, I’ve waited over 5 hours for roadside recovery to show up, even in the suburbs of a major city. God forbid you travel outside of cell reception or get two flats at once. And believe me, flats are very common off-road.
Instead of relying on a magical genie in your phone to fix your problems, why not spend $50 to $100 on the ability to take care of your own life? An air compressor connects to your cigarette lighter. And a plug kit and a can of Fix-a-Flat are easy to buy, easy to use and easy to keep in your trunk, but are actually capable of saving your life if you get a puncture in the middle of nowhere. Punctures are the most common problem with any car, can affect any vehicle no matter how brand new or expensive it is, and will absolutely stop you in your tracks. This is basic preparedness, people.
Coulda used a bolt cutter this time.
Go off the paved road and you risk getting your car stuck, especially in a FWD Ford Focus on bald all-season tires. Getting a car unstuck is nearly as simple as fixing a flat, you just need to get traction under the driven wheels.
How do you do that? Identify which axle on your car is driven (front, rear or both, it’ll be the one with the spinning wheels) and use a shovel to excavate a hole under its tires. Fill that hole with rocks, your floor mats, kitty litter, branches, or anything similar that will give you traction. Make a little runway in your direction of travel to help you gain a mph or two, and then just drive on out.
Any degree of stuck is solved the same way. If its of epic proportions, you may need to dig multiple times is all.
A full-size garden shovel will reduce your labor immensely, but can be hard to fit easily into a small car. A foldable army excavation tool will get the job done, just with more sweat from you.
If your budget and space runs to it, a set of MaxTrax or similar traction aids are basically miracles. They’re $300, but nothing else comes close to their usefulness; they’ll get you out of mud, snow or sand, and you can even stack two to use as a little bridge or ramp. They’re big (you’ll need to strap them to your roof rack), but they can do the job of a shovel too, so may save you that tool’s space.
I haven’t had to use it yet, but I also carry a tow strap and D-shackles in my spare wheel well. Just in case I ever can’t get myself out of something and need to ask a passing lifted truck bro for help. Two shackles in case he doesn’t have his own equipment.
Please don’t insist on sleeping in or on your car. Roof top tents look really neat on Instagram, I’ll give you that, but they’re massively expensive and, well, just massive, cutting your fuel economy drastically and overtaxing your suspension and brakes.
Sleeping inside your car, even a big one, is often a case of filling gaps left by seats, covering protruding ridges or bumps, buying a cut-to-shape piece of memory foam that’s difficult to store (and gets gross really fast) and cars either let rain in or steam up immediately.
Just use a tent. With one, you can carry it away from the car to a prettier/quieter/more secluded area, set it up behind the car to use that as a wind break in a storm and, when it wears out in a few years, you can just buy a new one. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money unless you want to backpack with the same tent (dropping weight costs you money), just get something livably large, but which packs small enough to fit easily in your car. Pair that with some good, insulated sleeping pads, good sleeping bags, and you’ll be set not just for car camping, but for all your other adventures too. A nice porch gives you a place to hang out and cook during the rain, and is a great spot for a dog to sleep.
Once you’re out camping, your car becomes a total dump zone for stuff sacks and dirty shoes and stuff you don’t want bears to smell. Don’t let that be your shelter too.
You know what? I never really have figured out how to use handheld GPS navigators. A map and compass have always gotten me where I needed to go. The sat/nav systems that come stock in cars are worthless once you leave pavement and handheld navigators are expensive. A quality map set for the area(s) through which you’re traveling will never run out of batteries, will never break and likely know more about what’s out there than Garmin ever will. People have been using them for hundreds of years, you can learn how too.
Don’t argue, just go put a new battery in your car. And throw a set of jumper cables in the trunk while you’re at it. That’s going to be your most common problem, other than tires, especially if you start experiencing cold weather and want to play your car stereo all night.
You’ll want belts to be in good condition, oil to be relatively fresh and your exhaust system to be connected to the car in a more semi-reliable manner than stock. For that I suggest some extra wire wrapped around it and a piece of the frame.
You’re not a mechanic and modern cars are really hard to work on. So just pack tools for the stuff you actually know how to do, along with general replacement/repair supplies like a few extra fuses, a handful of large zip ties and a fresh pack of JB Weld.
Pretty much any car can get down a forest service or fire road if you take it easy and make smart decisions. But you can boost that ability and reliability a bit with some basic modifications. Many of you will be uncomfortable with the idea of modifying your car, and that’s ok, you can stop reading here and just be careful how you drive in the dirt. But we’re talking about 200,000 mile Ford Focuses here, cars that have essentially zero value except to you and budget transportation needs. You can’t make a car worth less than zero.
Your first priority for any off-roader should always be protection. Your car is low to the ground and was designed to be as cheap as possible, so the stuff underneath it is going to be exposed and prone to damage from rocks and terrain. A basic set of skid plates will keep your oil pan from being holed, your transmission from being stumped and other important parts from being torn off by errant sticks. Protection is not just peace of mind, it’s the ability to go a little further and take that one extra chance. And taking chances is most of the point. Skid plates are available for any car that’s ever been rally raced, some forum guy somewhere will have knocked some together for virtually any model. If you can’t find a pair to buy or don’t want to spend, get your car on a set of ramps or a lift and start measuring. What are the load bearing mounting points? What looks like it needs protection? Where can you buy or steal metal sheet?
See those plastic bumpers on the front and rear of your car? They’re there for fuel economy, to offer some protection for pedestrian’s shins, and to look nice. But, they also restrict your approach and departure angles; the height of stuff you can drive onto and off of. And they bolt right off. You can also cut them down and replace them with nice, tough metal that you angle out of the way. If you’re still worried about resale value at this point, you can find a dinged up old set in a junkyard and play with those instead of your nice ones.
Grant Wilson, of OffroadSubaru.com fame, has some great examples of basic mods that can make a relatively limited car more capable.
The highest value tool in your arsenal though? Giving fewer fucks. Your car is already beat to hell, go bounce it off some stuff and see what it’s capable of. It’ll probably surprise you. Just take a shovel when you do.
How have you modified your car to be more capable and more reliable off-pavement? Have a question about changes to your car? Tell us and ask us and we’ll answer.
Top photo: Thibault le Mer
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.