As much as we all would love to spend day and night driving, working on, and upgrading our Jeeps, or just plain exploring the great outdoors in general, we’re unfortunately only given seven days each week. And, like many of you, I generally spend five of those sitting behind a desk and in front of a computer screen. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have a job that I love to do each day, but by the time Friday afternoon rolls around, I’m usually ready to hit the road and get out on the trail! I don’t know about you, but nothing says “it’s the weekend!” to me like the prospect of taking the Jeep out with my husband and some friends and enjoying the fresh air. Long winding roads, dusty trails through blankets of forests, awe-inspiring views, and muddy creek beds just waiting for a long line of Jeeps and ATVs to come through and spin their tires…the possibilities are endless!
But, before you make it that far, it can be helpful, even essential, to have a well thought-out plan in place before you leave the house on that quiet Saturday or Sunday morning. I know what some of you guys (or girls!) may be thinking… ”But, wait! All that planning beforehand just takes all the fun right out of the whole trip! I’d rather wing it!” Sure, I’m not going to lie to you, there’s definitely something daring and adventurous about hitting the open road with no real destination in mind and just seeing where the trail takes you. But, that being said, there’s a time and place for everything…and exploring a new Jeep trail in the back country, likely without cell phone service, is neither the time nor the place to explore your thrill-seeking side, even if you are well experienced, but especially so if you’re a beginner.
For some of you, your selected trail may be a short distance from home; for others, it might be a half day’s drive just to access your chosen trailhead. Either way, if you’re hoping for a fun day trip (or even overnight excursion), you’ll need to make the most out of the limited hours of daylight you have. So, if you follow these simple tips, I guarantee that you’ll make better use of your time and be able to better enjoy yourself out on the trail!
- Decide on your trail ahead of time.
The ultimate goal of having a fun day trip is to choose a trail that is close enough to you to be easily accessible but that is also a good length to give you a nice day-long trip (unless, of course, you’re planning to camp overnight). Also essential is selecting a trail that lines up with your experience. That Forest Service road your buddy recommended? It might be a difficult trek with a lot of rutting after heavy rains that your vehicle may not be able to safely handle. Or, on the other hand, a well-established and well known road might be way too tame or crowded for what you had in mind on your day off. Either way could leave you wishing you’d given your trip just a little bit of thought before you grabbed your keys and jumped behind the wheel!
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s definitely an adrenaline rush that comes with getting up on a Saturday morning (especially after a long week at the office) and heading out to the closest off-roading trail that you saw someone mention on Twitter or Instagram last week. At the same time, even the most experienced Jeeper out there is going to tell you to do a little investigating about the trail you’re planning to explore during the upcoming weekend. For some, that might mean consulting the wise and all-knowing Google and browsing a few photos of the trail that others have shared; for those who find comfort in absorbing all that they can about their upcoming journey, checking out multiple books, articles, online forums, and maps might be the way to go. There’s no wrong way to pick out your destination, but it’s definitely wise to at least consider the pros and cons before you walk out the door.
Personally, before we go out, we look for and choose a trail that is rated moderate to difficult and that is within a couple of hours from our house. Living in Colorado, there’s usually many of these to choose from, depending on how far we are interested in driving on any given day. But, of course, you might have to drive a little further to access the type of trail you’re feeling for the weekend. When we’re researching our destination, we’ll look through a few books dedicated to off-roading in Colorado, see what fellow Jeepers have written about the trail online, and scope out a few maps and photos, if they are available, just so we know what we’re in for. In a lot of cases, once you’re on the trail, there’s no going back, so it’s better to be prepared before you get there.
- Make a trip plan.
If you followed my advice, you’ve already chosen the trail you’ll be tackling come Saturday or Sunday morning. Awesome! Now, it’s time to plan out the trip. First things first, make sure you give yourself extra time, just in case the unexpected happens. Consider leaving your house early enough to get on the trail so that you can finish up before dark. That might mean you’ve got to hit the bed early the night before so you can be up and out the door by 5:00 AM (from personal experience, this usually never happens! That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead!).
When you were deciding on your trail, you may have come across a few maps and photos of the trail you’ll be tackling. We personally bring along hard copies of any maps that we find in case we lose cell coverage. We also try to use the maps (and any online discussions we can find about the trail) to identify some landmarks along the way, just so we can be aware of where we are on the trail. Another important consideration is whether you’ll experience any significant elevation changes while you’re out. As you go up in elevation, the temperature will turn much cooler, and you may even get some rain or snow in the middle of the day. Also, if possible, it is always good to be aware of standing water or rocks on the trail that may make your driving more difficult. Many times (but not always), maps and trail reviews will point these out so that you can be better prepared.
All that said, even the best-laid plans often go south unexpectedly. As one of my favorite teachers once told me, “You’ve got to plan for the divorce before the marriage.” Plan for the worst possible outcome, and you’ll have a lot more fun during the ride knowing that, whatever may go wrong, you’re well prepared to handle it.
- Check the weather a few days before go-time.
Even though the weather may change drastically before you head out the door, it’s always a good idea to take a look at the weather forecast once you’ve chosen your destination. Going up to the high country for the day? Make sure you’ve double checked the rain chances (or snow chances, depending on the time of year). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go if there’s a possibility of rain . . . but it’s definitely something to be prepared for, depending on your vehicle, the difficulty of the trail, and your experience level.
- Check your vehicle.
A few days before hitting the road, you should make sure your vehicle is in good enough shape to navigate the trail. Tires properly inflated? Portable air compressor working? Have enough windshield washer fluid to take care of all that mud you’re going to drive through? Good!
If you’re going solo for the day and you know you might encounter some muddy or wet conditions, make sure you’ve planned for self-recovery. If you have a winch, make sure it’s in good working order. Grab a shovel, jack, extra spare tire or tire repair kit, a flashlight or two, and some extra fuel before heading out the door. If the unexpected happens and you get a flat, or get stuck, you don’t want to have to wait for a Good Samaritan to come along and give you a hand. Plan to be as self-sufficient as possible on the trail!
- Gather the essentials.
No matter where you’re headed for the day, there are some essential goodies that you should always take with you, whether you’re alone for the day or part of a larger group. Depending on the weather, you might need to take extra layers of clothing, especially if you’re heading up in elevation where the temperatures will cool off rapidly. Also, it’s better to plan to be without cell and data service while you’re on the trail. Go ahead and bring along an extra charger for your phone so you can charge it on the road. But, just in case you do lose your signal, bring along a GPS, print out copies of any trail maps you’ve found, and, for good measure, grab a compass so you can orient yourself if you get turned around. Beyond that, don’t forget to pack some sunscreen, a first aid kit, and enough food and water to get you through the day (and perhaps a little extra. Remember, it’s always best to plan for the unexpected.) Personally, I always prepare my food and water the night before I leave on a trip – it’s one less thing to do in the morning.
Depending on your interests, you might also want to bring along a camera, a GoPro, or even some binoculars if you think you’ll have good views. To save time the morning of your trip, go ahead and pack all your essentials (minus your food and water) in your Jeep the night before. That way, you can just get up, grab your snacks, and head out!
- Rise and Shine!
The day has arrived! Since you’ve made your trip plan already and know how long it’s going to take you to get to your trailhead, you know exactly when you’ll need to get up and walk out the door. So, wake up, grab some coffee and breakfast, and get excited for the day ahead!
- Check the weather again.
Before you leave, I’d suggest one last check of the weather forecast. Sure, you’ve been checking it out every day this week to make sure sunny skies are still the plan, but it’s worth the two or three minutes it will take to make sure an unexpected storm hasn’t come in that might derail your fun.
- Tell someone where you’re going.
One final thing before walking out the door: tell your spouse, your roommate, your buddy, or your neighbor where you’re headed. Though it’s always exciting to head out as part of a group, sometimes you may just need some time to yourself to enjoy the great outdoors and unwind. If you’re well experienced and are comfortable with going it alone, don’t forget to let someone know where you’re going and when you’re planning to be back. If you share your plans with someone else, they will be in a better place to let the proper folks know that might need some help out on the trail if you’re not back home when you say you’ll be.
- Have fun!
Most importantly, have a great day! If you properly plan your trip and are prepared for anything you might encounter, then you can just relax, hit the trail, and enjoy your day.