Perhaps the biggest draw to the Toyota 4runner is its off-road capabilities. The salesperson that sold it to you might have made it sound like it can go anywhere and do anything.
While the 4runner is one of the most robust vehicles you can take off-road, that doesn’t mean that you can go out and smash it into any object without breaking it or getting stuck. You need to know what you’re doing… at least a little bit.
You can take your 4runner offroad straight from the dealership. These vehicles are incredibly capable right out of the box and don’t require modification to go exploring. Ground clearance and traction may be the first areas that need improvement, so a lift and better tires are common upgrades.
Taking your 4runner off-road is not just a matter of buying the fanciest upgrades. That might get you attention at the shopping mall or on Instagram, but what really matters is your knowledge, planning, and technique. As you’re about to see, your adventure begins long before you ever leave your driveway. Here are some tips to help you to get the most out of your off-road trips:
1. Get caught up on maintenance
Yes, Toyota 4runners are some of the most reliable vehicles on the road. Despite that, they still need to be maintained and cared for or they’ll break down.
Driving on the street in your day to day life is nearly effortless for your 4runner. You’re using a fraction of its capabilities. But when you take it off-road, things change. Now you’re actually going to be flexing the suspension, putting torque to the wheels, getting things wet, and climbing over obstacles.
Maintenance might not be a crucial thing with light-duty street driving but if you’re going to be taking your 4runner closer to its limits, it needs to be in prime operating condition.
Make sure you’re up to date on your oil changes, as well as things like differential, transmission, and transfer case fluids. Any clunks or rattles that have been bothering you but haven’t affected the way your 4runner drives on the street need to be dealt with.
Again, a weak ball joint might last another year of street driving but as soon as you hit the first bump on the trail it could be game over. Check your tires for wear – that’s another thing that can ruin an otherwise fun day of 4 wheeling.
2. Learn your 4runner and know it well
Your 4runner will be no good to you if you don’t know how to use it properly. You need to be very familiar with your vehicle before you take it off-road. That requires learning a few things.
Do a walkaround and take a look at your 4runner. Take note of where the low-hanging components are underneath – the front and rear differentials, trailer hitch, rockers, and skid plates are all things that can easily come into contact with obstacles. Memorize where they are so you’ll be able to position yourself on the trail to avoid hitting them.
Understand how all of your 4runner’s features work. Read the owner’s manual to learn the proper way to engage and disengage your 4 wheel drive. You’ll also want to learn how to use features like crawl control or downhill assist control in order to decide if they’re helpful to you or not.
I wrote a separate article all about how to use the 4 wheel drive system in your 4runner – you can check it out here:
It’s important to be so familiar with your vehicle that you can reach and identify all of your controls without having to look. This helps you when you’re in a stressful situation on the trail – you’ll be able to reach for your gear shift, wipers, etc. without even thinking about it. Sometimes your reaction time can be the difference between sliding back down a hill or even rolling over.
You’ll also want to memorize where all the corners of your 4runner are from the driver’s seat. Things can get pretty tight on the trail and you might need to maneuver within inches of obstacles.
You should be confident in knowing where all of your wheels are placed at all times as well as where your rear end is going to track when going around a corner. Have a friend stand at each corner of your 4runner while you sit in the driver’s seat so you have reference points to go by.
One last thing for you to learn is what your 4runner is capable of. Take the time to watch some videos online to see how a 4runner like yours handles steep hills, ruts, and deep mud. This will give you an idea of what’s possible but remember that driving skill plays a big role in what your 4runner can do.
3. Learn the location
Now that you know your 4runner like the back of your hand, it’s a good idea to research the place you’ll be going. Nobody wants to get lost so take a look at a map to get an understanding of your surroundings.
Are there certain trails that are known for damaging vehicles or causing people to get stuck? You might want to avoid those and stick to easier ones. It’s ok to back down from the gnarly stuff, especially if it’s your first time out.
I can’t stress this next one enough – make sure you’re allowed to be on the land! Do you need a trail pass or permission to go wheeling here? Is it private property? If so, remember that while 4runners are extremely tough, they aren’t bulletproof – and Billy the farmer might not take too kindly to you chewing up his fields.
Off-roading illegally ruins it for everyone. 4×4 owners are already getting a bad name with environmentalists so don’t make it even easier for people to hate us. We all want to have fun and explore but stick to the rules.
4. Go prepared with the right gear
The dealership that sold your 4runner to you was responsible for giving you the off-road vehicle itself – everything else you need to go on an adventure is up to you!
How do you prepare your 4runner for off-roading?
At a minimum, you’ll need to bring the typical staples for off-roading. A tow strap (and ways to mount it to your 4runner), a first aid kit, a cell phone, proper clothing, drinking water, and something to eat if you end up getting stranded.
It doesn’t hurt to bring some tools and spare parts (things that are more likely to fail, of course). A full-size spare tire is a must and make sure you have a proper jack to be able to lift it.
Always plan for the worst case scenario but also keep in mind that it’s important to pack light. The heavier your 4runner is, the more likely it is to get stuck, rollover, or be underpowered during climbs. So keep it simple, but make sure you have everything you need.
Check out this article for a checklist of 50+ items you might want to pack in your 4runner before an off-road trip.
5. Empty out your interior – what not to bring off-roading
If it ain’t payin’ rent, get out! Seriously, any loose items in your 4runner can easily become flying objects when things get aggressive. Things like water bottles and boots are seemingly innocent – until one gets jammed under your brake pedal or thumps you in the back of the head.
The idea is to keep your driving slow and smooth so none of this is relevant but sometimes you don’t have a choice. It can be a real safety concern too – hitting a huge bump can turn dangerous if you have flying objects inside. Again, we want to avoid those situations but in the event that they do happen, it’s best to be as safe as possible.
6. Don’t go off-roading alone
You’ve probably already heard this and it’s for good reason. Heading out into remote areas with challenging terrain by yourself is a bad idea.
If you get stuck in the mud with a buddy nearby, you’ll need a few minutes with a tow strap to be able to continue enjoying your day. If the same thing happens when you’re by yourself, you’ll be taking a crash course in how to survive in the woods. Think establishing a poop hole in the forest is uncomfortable? Wait ’till you see your towing bill!
If you absolutely have to go out exploring alone (and I’m guilty of this myself), make sure to take it easy. Don’t tackle the most difficult obstacles even if you know you’re able to. Drive slower than you normally would and take it extra easy on your 4runner. Drive in a way that reduces your chances of getting stuck or causing damage.
Having other people with you also helps to keep you safe in other ways. In the event of a medical emergency, it’s always good to have an extra set of hands. They can also call for help or potentially save your life if needed. There’s also strength in numbers – whether it’s wildlife or a crazy local, you’re much better off with a friend.
7. Air your tires down
This isn’t a hard and fast rule because it only works if you have the ability to fill your tires back up with air before getting back on the pavement. That means either carrying an air compressor with you or having a gas station nearby that you can fill back up at.
There are some real advantages to airing your tires down on your 4runner: it gives you more grip on obstacles, lets you float on top of deep snow and sand, and provides a softer ride.
Climbing a hill with your tires at street driving pressure can cause a loss of traction but simply lowering the pressure can give you the grip you need to make it to the top. A portable air compressor like this one will hook up to your battery and help you fill your tires up anywhere.
Want to learn more about airing down your 4runner’s tires? Check out this article for more:
8. Get your speed right
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times: “Go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary”. Those are indeed very wise words. As long as you have enough momentum to get you through or over an obstacle, the slower you go the easier it is on your 4runner.
Smashing into things and jumping into the air might look like fun but it’s a guaranteed way to break your 4runner. As tough as it is, it’s not made for that type of abuse. So try not to be too aggressive.
Take it easy and crawl your way through the trail when things start getting rough. It won’t just make your rig last much longer, it’ll also keep you safer. You have much less chance of losing control and sliding off the trail at slower speeds.
9. Keep your thumbs outside of the steering wheel
The old white knuckle death grip at 10 and 2 o’clock might be tempting, especially if you’re nervous or stressed out. But hooking your thumbs around the steering wheel can lead to injury.
All it takes is a rock causing the wheel to jar violently and you’ll be sitting in the ER with a broken thumb. This might sound dramatic, but it’s something that does happen to novice drivers.
10. G.O.A.L: Get Out And Look
Taking your 4runner out into the wild can put you in situations where visibility is impossible. Tight corners, blind spots, and steep hills can force you to move forward without being able to see where you’re going.
When in doubt, get out and look. It’ll take you an extra 30 seconds and might be a bit embarrassing around other drivers, but that’s nothing compared to the shame of causing damage to your 4runner or even crashing.
There’s nothing wrong with getting a second view of the situation. Take a walk up the trail ahead if you have to. It might get a lot more difficult and this could be your last chance to turn around.
11. Plan to get unstuck before you go in
Now I know you’re already well-equipped with a tow strap after reading the earlier tip so let’s assume you have all the gear you need. If you’re debating diving into a deep mud section or water crossing, have a game plan in your mind for if things don’t go well.
You might even want to hook your tow strap up to your recovery point ahead of time to avoid having to go for a swim. Make sure you already know where all of your recovery points are instead of trying to find them while you’re stuck.
If there’s a chance you might get high centered on a rock, are there other rocks or logs nearby that you can put under your tire to help climb your way over? Where will you position the other vehicle if they have to give you a pull? If you have a winch, do you know how to use it?
If you don’t already know how you’ll get yourself unstuck, don’t bother attempting the obstacle in the first place. It’ll avoid a ton of headaches and potential damage to your 4runner.
12. Trust your gut
Speaking of avoiding obstacles, one thing I’ve learned over the years is to trust my gut. Even if you think you can make it through or over something, listen to that little voice that’s telling you it might be a bad idea.
At a bare minimum, take the time to rethink or 2nd guess your strategy. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of off-roading. You might be riding a high after conquering an obstacle that you were intimidated by. Don’t let that cloud your judgment. Use your head and listen to your gut!
13. Use your gearing
4×4 vehicles like the 4runner come with different gearing for a reason. The lower the gear you’re in, the more control you have (and less strain on the drivetrain). Even in 4lo, descending a steep hill in 4th gear can allow you to build up a lot of speed.
On the other hand, keeping the shifter in 1st or 2nd gear can allow the engine to slow you down so much that you don’t even need your foot on the brake pedal. Yes, it can make that much of a difference.
Driving around in 4hi is fine when the trail is smooth and flat. If you need to crawl or climb though, it’s better to use 4lo. All 4×4 4runners come with a 2-speed transfer case specifically for off-roading. Use it!
14. Use your left foot
This might not feel natural, but using your left foot on the brake pedal can help you out in some scenarios. For instance, if you stop completely on a steep uphill, the time it takes to move your foot from the brake to the gas will allow the 4runner to roll backward down the hill a bit.
Some modern 4runners actually have an electronic system that keeps it in place on a steep uphill by controlling the brakes on its own. This is helpful but if you don’t have it, don’t worry – almost all of us have a left foot!
15. Pay attention to the weather/daylight
Time flies when you’re having fun. That can become a real problem if you’re in a remote area. It’s much easier to get lost and lose your bearings in the dark. On top of that, trails look a lot different depending on the light source.
Even if you have high powered off-road lights, they change where the shadows are. That can make boulders, ruts, and hills seem bigger or smaller than they actually are.
16. Don’t forget to stop to take in the view
Your 4runner will take you to some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Make sure to take a moment to process the views you’re rewarded with. It’s a great feeling to stop and relax after driving your vehicle up a mountain or somewhere most people can’t go.
Off-roading in your 4runner is a unique opportunity to get out and really enjoy nature. Go for a little walk, grab a cold drink, or snap a few scenic pictures (and of course tag me in them on Instagram – I want to see them!). Your 4runner is an awesome vehicle so enjoy it!
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: