Trail Tips: Why Sunsets Can Be Dangerous Off-Road

Mar. 27, 2017 By Tom Severin

It was a beautiful day in the San Bernardino Mountains. Clear blue sky, light breeze, warm temperature. A perfect day for four-wheeling on the 2N17X trail. This is a tough oneóitís rated black diamond. We were nearing the end of a long day of four-wheeling. We had encountered a lot of obstacles on this trail, and we were tired.

At about 4 p.m., we were climbing the final hill. Beyond that was an easy route to the highway, and a relaxing evening at home. This was no run-of-the-mill hill, though.

We were met with deep ruts and torn-up soil. Struggling to hold traction on the soft soil, we slowly crawled the long, very steep hill one at a time. At the bottom of the hill Ė bam! The setting sun blasted through our windshields like a blow torch. It took all the driving skills we had to remain on the line that ensured success. Unfortunately, one driver lost it half way up. Sliding sideways in soft soil on the trail edge, his Jeep JKUR ended up at right angles to the hill. Thankfully, the driver managed to stop his vehicle as it balanced sideways on the hill.

Encountering a blinding sunset off-road is just as jarring as it is in the city. Compounding that are the hazards we face: steep cliffs, large boulders, ditches, ruts, slopes, and blind curves, among others. Quick but proper reaction can mean the difference between a controlled stop and potential disaster.

What would you do?

Simple Steps
There are some simple steps. But forge them into your mind now:
-If you canít see, stop. If other vehicles are behind you, warn them you are stopping. Get on the radio and let people behind you know whatís happening. At this point their vision is impaired as well. This is one reason why itís handy to have two-way radios in all vehicles.
-Pull down the visor.
-Put on your sunglasses.
-Put your hat on (the right way with the brim in front).
-Turn on your windshield washer. But be careful. This action actually cuts visibility for a short period, especially with exceptionally dirty windows.

100% Effort
If these simple actions do not improve your visibility get out andÖ
-Scrub the windshield even more if it needs it.
-Walk the trail to determine the difficulty and risk factor as well as familiarizing yourself with it. Make sure to recon the area well. Does the trail continue straight, or is there a turn? What about obstacles?
-If you have another person with you, have him get out and spot. Ideally, have your spotter stand so he blocks the sun from your eyes.
-Using hand signal from your spotter, inch your way along until you see for yourself again. Eventually you will have moved such that the sun is no longer directly in your eyes.
-As an alternative, if you canít see your spotter well, give him a radio. The instructions may not be as precise, but at least you are getting directions from some who can see the trail.

Finally, in the worst case, wait for the sun to set. You still have the period of civil twilight (20-30 minutes) to get off the trails. Or perhaps you get to experience the bonus night run!

(Incidentally, if you catch a bright sunrise one morning, the steps are similar. Oftentimes just waiting for the sun to rise higher does the trick.)

Final Thoughts
Youíll note that two-way radios play a part in these situations. I recommend that all 4WD vehicles are equipped with two-way radios when off road. Whether you use CB, FRS or ham radio, itís important to stay in touch throughout the drive. Donít rely on cell phones, as coverage is usually nonexistent.

Do some vehicle maintenance when you get home. Buy new windshield wipers, if needed. If your windshield is all pitted from years of trail blasting, buy a new one. On Jeeps in particular they are relatively cheap.

The setting sun, which is beautiful out in the country, can be hazardous if it catches you at the wrong time. Learn how to react, and youíll be back on your journey.

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Badlands Off-Road Adventure
Off-road trainer Tom Severin shares insight and tips on a variety of topics related to preparing you for that next off-road adventure. With over 40 years of off-road experience, Severin operates under his business Badlands Off-Road Adventures. He is a certified professional 4WD Trainer by the International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers Association and a Wilderness First Responder (WFR). He is a member of the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), United Four Wheel Drive Associations and the BlueRibbon Coalition. He also is a certified UFWDA and a CA4WDC 4WD instructor.

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