It should go without saying that when you’re out on the Jeep trails, safety is the number one priority, especially when you’ve got kids along. And one of the most critical skills to safe wheeling is communication. When the trail gets rough, having clear communications and a few simple rules will go a long way to help make a great outing in the back-country.
When traveling in a group larger than a couple vehicles, establish a dedicated trail leader and a group tail gunner. The leader should be an experienced wheeler as well as someone who knows the trail well. The tailguner doesn’t necessarily have to know the trail as well but should be experienced. He has the critical job of making sure nobody gets left behind. While it’s highly recommended that everyone have a CB or FRS radio, it is critical that the leader and gunner are able to communicate with each other. If a member of the group is having mechanical issues or trouble negotiating a difficult spot, it’s easy for the group in front not to notice and for the whole group to get separated.
Another reason it’s a good idea to establish a committed trail leader is that, as in all groups, there needs to be someone ultimately in charge. Someone needs to be responsible to make the decisions if something goes wrong. It’s a fact of wheeling that things happen; vehicles break or get stuck, and unforeseen trail changes like downed trees or washouts are possibilities. Decisions will have to be made and having a seasoned trail leader can make the difference between a delay and a completely ruined trip.
Effective spotting is one of the most important skills when trails start to get more difficult, and communication is the heart of correct spotting. No matter how good a driver is, there’s sometimes a need to have eyes outside the vehicle, giving guidance back to the driver on the best line to make it through. Miscommunication between driver and spotter can result in breakage, stuck rigs, or worse. Below are some guidelines for spotting and hand signals.
- Ask if the driver wants a spot, it is the driver’s ultimate decision whether he needs help or not
- It is the driver’s decision on who he wants to spot him (trip leader is the default for no specified request)
- There should be only one spotter at a time
- The spotter should rely mainly on hand signals (verbal commands can be missed and confusing)
- The driver must trust the spotter, the spotter can see what the driver cannot
Spotting Hand Signals
- STOP Both hands closed in fists
- DRIVE FORWARD Palms toward the spotter, move fingers toward spotter
- FORWARD SLOWLY Palms down, move fingers toward spotter
- TURN Both arms pointing in the desired direction of travel
- BACKUP Fists with index fingers pointing away from spotter
- TIRE LIFTING Palms up, lift hand of side lifting tire
- DISTANCE TO DRIVE Palms facing together indicating distance
By establishing a clear chain of command and responsibility, and applying these spotting guidelines, you dramatically reduce the potential for trouble out on the 4 wheel drive trails. It also helps people stretch themselves and tackle obstacles they may lack the confidence to do otherwise. For me, while I love a good hard-core adventure, what makes an off-road trip great is that all had a good time and make it home safely. It’s often the little things that help facilitate a great, safe wheeling trip, and effective communication is one of those.