Finally! An Affordable Sat Phone

But will it work?

I’ve written how I have a SpotX by Globalstar (internal link) in case of emergencies when I am beyond cellular coverage.

I’m glad I have the device but the keyboard is difficult to use and it is a text based message service, in fact, the texts must be less than 150 characters.

Still, despite those limitations, it can connect with the outside world and I bought into a personal recovery service and a vehicle recovery service.

Globalstar has a new device. It’s called a Sat-Fi2 which is a small satellite terminal that works off your smart phone.

Besides text and regular e-mail, it provides voice! And a tie in to the nearest 911 center in case of an emergency. Voice! I can’t tell you how long I have waited for this.

The last time I priced sat phones was three years ago before my travels through the Southwest. Hardware was from $750 to $1,000 which I could manage. It was the air time that killed the deal.

Just that short time ago, air time was 75 cents to a dollar a minute. And you needed to buy huge blocks of airtime to get that price. And those minutes expired quickly. No rollover, use them up quick. A real racket.

I think Globalstar may have added more capacity by putting up more satellites, don’t know. I can’t explain the price drop.

Will it work? I’m going to find out on my upcoming trip into Utah. Right now, I am awaiting it to arrive, whereupon I will take it on the road. I still have my SpotX paid up until September so I am not going without a backup. And I have my handheld ham radio. And my CB radio.

Globalstar is running a promotion on the device for whatever reasons I do not know. $249 dollars for the hardware, figure $300 or so with tax and shipping, and $50 a month for unlimited voice and data.

Let’s talk about that data. The most Globalstar is promising is 72kbps, realistically, you’ll be getting data transfer at the equivalent of a 56K modem from 1996. You won’t be doing heavy business with this device but you will get e-mails out and back. But voice!

Nothing beats voice communication for relaying real time information. Everybody knows that. Now, I just have to find out if this is a broken or kept promise. I’ll be reporting back soon.

If you want to try this unit, deal with Globalstar directly. Going through a third party means trouble.

Here’s a link to them, and no, I do not get a commission. Nothing on this site is commercial, nothing is meant to sell anything. Ever seen an ad?
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Two Minutes Walking in A Desert Wash

I’m documenting some different things at Wikimedia Commons for anyone to view or use.

Wikmedia Commons uses an odd video file format that may not play on your device. It’s called .webm. These videos open and operate reliably in the Firefox broswer, my iPad, but not my iPhone.

Editing or otherwise working with a Wikimedia Commons hosted video may prove fruitless unless you have a commercial converter. I use Movavi products for all of my video work. They are very cheap compared to anything Adobe and are far simpler to use.
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My New Mexico Chapter is Now Out

The Arizona and New Mexico chapters of my now halted book project is out. Places to go, things to do, stuff to pick off the ground. If anything is open these days, Still, plenty of open USFS and BLM managed ground to run around in.

The first two new chapters are at my SW Travel Page, which also has more abbreviated documents covering the entire Southwest.

I hope to get the Nevada Chapter out next.
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Metsker’s Maps

I’ve been bothered for years that I don’t have the time or patience to develop a course or a series of videos explaining the Public Land Survey System or PLSS.  It is a living antique used everyday.

This country was never laid out by latitude and longitude, something that would make it easy today to tell where a claim or an old townsite is. Instead, we file a claim in 2020 using elements like meridians, townships, ranges, sections, and so on.

Variously called land descriptions, legal descriptions, and a host of others, the PLSS is a survey system used to locate or delineate a piece of real property. Everything about the PLSS is obscure or arcane.

While you are reading up on the subject, my best suggestion is to get a few used Metsker’s Maps. They show all of the PLSS elements at work, often on heavy paper with distinct blue lines. Find them on eBay.

These maps were made for outdoorsmen who camped, hiked, and prospected old school. A compass, a backup compass, and good maps. Topos were and are essential as well, but you also have to know where you are in survey sense, not just a terrain sense.

I do have a lot of materials developed on the PLSS but it is such a burden of time that I simply can’t get to it right now.

Mineral Habit in Tucson (another mineral show)

Mineral Habit is setting up in Tucson right now. It’s a collection of vendors focused primarily on minerals. Address is 1920 North Oracle Road in Tucson. Their billboard website supplies the map below.

Wendi “Ace” Elkins will be there, she of Minerals Unlimited in Ridgecrest, California. (internal link) If you haven’t met her, visited her store, or wasted enormous sums of money at her website buying obscure minerals that leave your family cursing you for flagrant, wanton, and irresponsible spending , then your life has been pathetic and small. Redeem yourself by visiting Mineral Habitat starting on February 4th through the 10th.

As with every show, go with cash in small bills and lots of them. Not all vendors take plastic. If you do use credit cards in Tucson, call your credit card company ahead of time. Dealers come from all over the world so charges may appear from Nairobi, Indonesia, Malaysia, or Murmansk.

Please tell Wendi that Thomas Farley sent you. With luck she won’t jump back or call 911. My past purchases mark me as insane but as a madman with a little money, I am tolerated.  Ace has been working in the same shop in Ridgecrest since she was eight and is a delight to talk to. I have rarely stumped her with my requests and all things come neatly labeled.

I’ve built my rare earth mineral collection nearly totally from her inventory. So, if you yearn for  xenotime (Y) with biotite  from Iveland, Setesdal, Norway, then you need to talk to Ace. And if you don’t need that, talk to her anyway. You’ll find something.

Some of my rare earth mineral collection, recently depleted a bit.
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General Correspondence

I don’t share private e-mails but I think this one is anonymous enough to pass. A friend in the field just e-mailed me. That person detailed their recent activities and past experiences, I replied with mine. You can’t tell what the other person has brought up but I am responding to those points. What outdoor people write about at 12:26 in the morning.

Attached is a photo of my shower solution which is really slick. Maybe $35 at the time and totally worth it. Uses a USB chargeable self-contained lithium ion battery. I have a portable lithium battery about the size of a small car battery that can charge it and my other electronics. The pump goes into a five gallon bucket. Tube and shower head connects easily to the pump. Has a hook to hang the shower head. It’s perfect.

Two years ago I went to Great Basin for a bioblitz the NPS was putting on to study lichen. Bunch of volunteers like me running around, helping the real scientists catalog the lichen in the field. (I really like blue lichen.) I learned later that one group identified a species new to science. Cool beans. Anyway, I drove into one of the dry campgrounds which I knew would be less crowded. Which it was. Nearly deserted. I filled up my water containers later at the wet campground (with faucets) a mile down the road and it was a zoo. Kids and dogs all over, arguing families, yuch.

After setting up camp at the dry campground I walked the grounds. A young woman came along who was walking toward the primitive bathroom with a towel around her shoulders. Do you know where the water is? Or the showers? OMG. This woman has driven hundreds of miles with zero research. Who goes past Baker not knowing what is going on? I told her this was a dry campground and she looked crestfallen since her camp was already set up. Okay, I said, I have a new pop up shower enclosure I had bought in case this campground was crowded. We set it up at her site and then I showed her the pump and how to use it. Gave her my extra/emergency/nonused five gallon collapsible water jug and told her to fill it up at the next campground.

There were so few people in camp that I just poured a gallon jug over my head in the morning to shower. As I had done in the past. No big whoop. That might seem like great lengths to help out someone unaware but I have had years and years of helping people out with problems during long distance hikes. Some people simply need help in the beginning, they will in time, I hope, learn. The wilderness needs more friends and I don’t want anyone staying at home after some mistake with preparedness,

My big disappointment was with the vaunted dark sky conditions. Not that long weekend. Just like in the Sierra, the mountains make their own weather. Cloudy every night. Desert floor would have been better. Like back at Baker. Drove to the top of the last parking lot on top of Wheeler, did not hike it. Another insanely crowded campground up there. But, I contributed to the effort of the BioBlitz.

As to gold, I do not mind if I get very little. I need to be out prospecting. When I was prospecting the forks of the American River I often did catch and release gold when sampling with my pan. Wasn’t interested in a few colors, just looking for more colors upstream or on the shoulders of the river. Often swam the river with all of my gear to get to interesting sand bars. Used a kayaker’s waterproof case to keep my first aid kit and other things dry. The big strike I had in 2004 has kept me going through all the thin years of prospecting. It was a find of a lifetime and I knew it at the time. No chance of finding another chunk of quartz the size of a bowling ball laced with gold. Now, I just want to find gold where other people aren’t. That area I was just in has no history of any mining whatsoever. No historical claims. None. Obviously, not paying amounts for a commercial operator. For a small scale miner like me off by themselves, a few flakes is enough. I’ve found many other amazing things beside gold during my hunts. And now that I hunt for UV and U and fossils, well, it’s enough to be out and about.

Sounds like you have a vehicle you can work on. What an amazing concept! I’m not sure I could do much with my vehicle since the engine bay is so cramped. I do have a sat based text messaging device (A SpotX) and I have membership in an off road vehicle recovery service. I can use the SpotX to communicate with them to get help.

Good luck at Tucson, I wish you well. I only went once for one day at the Big Show and left screaming the next day. The parking and congestion got to me really badly and I couldn’t handle it. Lots of interesting things but the shuttle had stopped working before The Big Show and navigating that city was just unmanageable. Took the tour of the ASARCO open pit mine the next day, that was great, and then fled to the Gold Show in Quartzsite the same day. I’ll be in Tuscon in 2021 for the fluorescent mineral theme but that is it. Probably, not again.

The commercials for SUVs like the Subarus make driving on a beach or off road seem amazingly simple and fun. What nonsense. I have seen one Subaru outfitted with LT tires and that was it. The only ones that make sense are their team rally vehicles. That’s what Subaru wants people to think they are getting. Sheesh. I did see a full on Porsche rally car on pavement in Temecula once and I have to admit I kind of liked it. Tom

“Ivation Portable Outdoor Shower, Battery Powered – Compact Handheld Rechargeable Camping Showerhead” Amazon.

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When Trouble Hits Off-Road or Off Trail

Group Travel

The benefits of caravanning or driving with a group fall apart if one is left behind. A trip leader may feel pressure to keep a group going to its destination, even if a member breaks down. That driver must then fix the problem themselves, if they can, and then navigate back to pavement. Or, they must get help from the outside. This leads into a discussion about vehicle recovery, communications, and personal survival.

First Things First

Traveling in a caravan off-road is often a high speed race into the wilderness. The group leader, familiar with the road, may blaze ahead with the group struggling to keep up. In so doing, it is nearly impossible to keep track of every turn and fork in the road, especially if one is driving solo. That’s a problem. A real problem. Because if you have to turn back without the group, you may not be able to find your way back. You are guided in, can you guide yourself out?

At the very least try to set a waypoint when you leave pavement. I take a photo with my Garmin Montana 650 handheld. It assigns a GPS coordinate to each photo it takes, eliminating manual entry of waypoints. I can later call up the photo and the Garmin will ask if I want to navigate back to that point. Taking more photos along the way at each fork and bend is impossible for me while driving but I will at least have one point I can dead reckon back to.


With A Cell Phone

Communicating with a road service is no problem if cell phone coverage exists. Even when connected, however, a traditional group like AAA may refuse to dispatch a tow truck down an unmaintained BLM or USFS road. If you are in the Jeep community, a Jeep club member, you will probably have friends and contacts that will come from incredible distances to help. For the rest of us, an off-road recovery service plan is needed, along with a way to get in touch with that towing company without cell phone coverage. A good solution is a satellite messaging device paired with an off-road vehicle recovery plan.

Without a Cell Phone

— Satellite Text Messaging Devices

The SpotX is a satellite text messaging device (internal link). It requires a subscription along with buying the device. Options are personal recovery services and vehicle recovery services. Spot X competes with Garmin inReach products.

SpotX provides personal recovery through GEOS, a worldwide group that facilitates search and rescue. With the GEOS option subscribed to, a rockhound can summon help through the SpotX by simply pushing the device’s dedicated SOS button. GPS coordinates are automatically sent with any SOS message.

This service is keyed to the subscriber but is unthinkable an emergency team would refuse aid to anyone in a life-threatening situation. That person, though, will probably have to pay the cost of this uncovered rescue. GEOS stand-alone plans are available for individuals, no device needed. Many backpackers use GEOS while wilderness traveling. Garmin’s inReach products also offer GEOS.

A vehicle option is the S.O.V. or Save Our Vehicle service. This summons a company called Nation Safe Drivers to recover or make road worthy any broken down or bogged vehicle. That includes SUVs, ATVs, or motorcycles. Unlike AAA, this service is tied to a particular vehicle. Nation Safe promises that their partners will recover a vehicle on any kind of road regardless of location. That said, towing services are far and few between in the rural southwest and a rockhound should be prepared to wait a very long time for recovery.

Search and Rescue teams are frequently summoned to help people stranded in the wilderness due to vehicle breakdowns. This is a terrible use of trained, needed people. A rockhound or prospector should have a vehicle recovery plan, use that, and only if no assistance is available, then ask SAR for help.

This writer has both SpotX options and has had the good luck not to need them. Yet.

The SpotX is challenging to set up. The device requires a Mac or Windows desktop or laptop machine to first configure the device and then for later updates and changes. You can’t use a mobile OS to set up the SpotX but a phone app provides some features after the device has been configured with a non-mobile OS.

Download the SpotX program, enter the required information, sync the SpotX to a desktop or a laptop over a cable. When updating the device, download the latest updater program first, run that, and then again sync the device over cable. Check for updates before going into the field as the device may not work without the latest software.

The SpotX operates best when stationary and with a clear view of the sky. Run several test messages before going out. Text messages are delivered more quickly and more dependably than e-mail messages. Coordinates can be sent with every message. The keyboard is frustrating to use with its tiny keys. Really frustrating.

–A Satellite Phone

Satellite phones provide direct voice communications. One still needs a personal and vehicle recovery plan, of course, after connecting to the terrestrial telephone network. Sat phones themselves are reasonably priced but air time is phenomenally expensive. They can be rented for short periods but air time will still cost dearly.

–Amateur Radio

Ham radio is excellent for emergencies when other services fail. Coverage is likely over much of the Southwest with what are called repeaters, small radio stations that are on the tops of the most remote and unlikely mountains and even on the roofs of casinos. Emergency traffic is relayed between a ham with a telephone connection and a person in the field seeking help. If a repeater has an accessible autopatch feature then things proceed more smoothly.

Ideally, the caller initiating the emergency call must have an amateur radio license, obtained by passing an FCC test. In reality, anyone in a life or death situation will be listened to, in fact, most of the nearby ham community will likely tune in when another ham declares an emergency. All other traffic will then get voluntarilly suspended from the particular channel being used. A Technician class license takes 15 to 20 hours of study to prepare. All manner of people and resources will assist a future ham with passing. I hold a General Class license, my call sign is KD6NSP.


The Family Radio Service or FRS is normally used to communicate between vehicles or between people on a hike. A walled garden system, FRS cannot be depended on to communicate with the outside world. GMRS or General Mobile Radio Service transmits further and, in some areas, employs a network of repeaters to get messages through. GMRS requires an FCC license but no testing. Of the two, GMRS offers the best chance for getting help.

–Citizen’s Band Radio

C.B. is still with us although less so. On a hill or in open country, a five-watt C.B. radio signal can travel a fair distance. Channel 9 is supposed to be used in emergencies, although Channel 19 has the most traffic. C.B. allows a chance of communicating with the outside world. Find a C.B. shop near truck stops or travel plazas to professionally install a unit. Installers can tweak a radio for better performance if asked discretely. Handhelds are nearly worthless. A vehicle mounted C.B. radio is not that expensive, except for so called SSB units which are very desireable. As with everything radio, the magic is in the antenna.

First aid

Pre-made first aid kits come in many styles which all need modifying. Every kit lacks an inadequate number and variety of bandages. Bring more, big ones. Cuts in the field are much worse than those in the city. A bigger bandage can be cut to size by sharp, sturdy scissors that must be in every kit. Canvas backed bandages stick, plastic doesn’t. Secure plastic bandages with tape if nothing else is available.

Mandatory bandages are knuckle bandages and wound closure strips. Knuckle bandages look like an “H”, with four finger-like strips extending from a central square. They conform to nearly every cut and can be bought at all well stocked pharmacies. Purchase knuckle bandages for home, the truck, the field. Buy bandages in quantity as they need frequent changing. Consider partially unwrapping bandages before a trip. Especially with a finger cut, opening a bandage package and removing the backing is extremely difficult while bleeding.

Wound closure strips are essential. These are called butterfly closures or steri-strips. These bandages, a series of fabric tabs, attempt to bring the two sides of a shallow wound together. Normal bandages, by comparison, simply cover a wound. Any injury requiring butterfly closures should be looked at as soon as possible by a medical professional.

Bandage tape is essential, the better to keep a big bandage secure after applying it over a wound. Such tape can wrap toes prone to blistering before hiking. Bring nail clippers or scissors to trim toe nails which can bother or go bloody on a long downhill.

Sore or blistering feet must be addressed immediately, even when a large group wants to move on. A sock change may eliminate a hot spot, in other cases baby powder may help. If a hot spot does develop, cover it with a bandage or mole skin, even duct tape if nothing else. Too often a newcomer lets a foot problem get serious, not wanting to slow their fellow travelers. The result, further injury, bloody socks, discouragement and perhaps impairment.

Antiseptic swabs are good as well as a hemostat, a lightweight surgical plier. These or conventional needle-nose pliers help pull out thorns. A snakebite kit is of dubious merit, especially the old-fashioned ones that require self-surgery. Noted herpetologist W.C. Fields advised people to always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite. And to always carry a small snake.

Most importantly, carry all items in a waterproof case or at the very least in double wrapped Zip-Lock bags. Water always finds a first aid kit. Always. Kayakers and rafters use waterproof cases and these are good. Throw a few matchbooks in any first aid kit. Someone will need them.

Some of my kit

Survival at a vehicle is usually assured provided adequate water and food exists. As they should since the rockhound went out for the day or overnight to collect. Less assured is the situation when the rockhound is away from the vehicle and disoriented. Desert washes confuse easily as they meander back and forth, don’t look the same going as they did coming, and provide no elevation to get one’s bearings. Heavily wooded areas confuse with a lack of landmarks and spotty GPS coverage.

Let’s discuss being lost.

Self-Recovery And Survival

Summoning aid over radio was discussed under Communications Section. Navigating with GPS devices and by hardcopy maps were discussed under the Map and GPS Essentials Chapter.

We assume here that the rockhound is unable find a way back to the vehicle. A GPS device has failed, a hardcopy map has gone missing, water is running low, night is approaching. If separated from a group, use a whistle to blow three times in a row. Do this often.

If there is a group, a fellow member will be known as lost rather quickly. People will often wait at their vehicles overnight for a hiker to appear before calling in search and rescue. They will repeatedly honk every vehicle’s horn. Listen for that. Know that people are waiting and that more are coming.

If there is no group, at least a vehicle is on a road. Correct? Unless no one was notified of the prospectors’ trip, a bad thing indeed, search and rescue will be gathering soon. Within a full day, certainly two, probably assembling at the vehicle. A vehicle is far easier to find than a person and that is what they will locate first.

Settle in for an uncomfortable night of little sleep. Fight panic. The situation is not out of control. A rockhound is still within walking distance of a vehicle, perhaps not too far, as most of us carry heavy tools or rocks. Night travel needs thought. One misstep may produce a twisted ankle, pain, incapacity. Cactus are everywhere in the desert, as well as mesquite, which will savagely wound on a brush-by. Save energy for the next day. Hang on.

With dawn, try to get oriented again. Look at the sun and the mountains; try to picture where the vehicle is. If totally confused, it may be best to stay in place, rather than flounder through brush and cactus or go further down a wash or canyon. If one decides to move, leave a litter trail behind and start breaking branches now and then, giving the SAR team clues.

If in the mountains, never loose elevation unnecessarily. In theory, a mountain stream will eventually lead one back to more level ground and then recovery. In reality, many streams are absolutely choked with vegetation, making even walking downhill difficult as one thrashes through brush and over large, uneven boulders.

It is a new, unsettling and distressing experience to be lost and without water. More effort creates a desire for water one doesn’t have. Another argument for staying in place. People will be coming. Some SAR groups have aircraft support. Make a signal for them. Seek any shade. Sit. Think on better times.

Not Getting Lost

1. Carry a good map and know how to use it. An old-fashioned compass is lightweight, takes up little room in a pack and almost always works. They are best used with a hardcopy map to get oriented to one’s surroundings. Navigating by compass alone means taking a bearing at the trailhead and that takes instruction and practice. Without setting a bearing, the compass may turn useless when trying to return.

2. Take a GPS device when walking a good distance from a vehicle. Record way points from leaving the vehicle on. Handhelds like the Garmin Montana enable breadcrumbing, allowing the retracing of a path. For GPS units with cameras, a set of photographs will provide a set of effortlessly recorded waypoints. These devices create actionable photographs, assigning coordinates to each image, allowing navigating to any photographed location by simply pressing “Go.”

3. Note prominent landmarks while prospecting, especially power lines, fences, and other man-made objects. A trail never looks the same going in as coming back. Look backwards from time to time. If you get uneasy about navigating back, claw an arrow in the dirt with your boot at trail junctions. Or set a group of rocks at a fork to indicate the way back. In densely wooded areas of the California foothills, I have tied yellow survey tape from Home Depot to trees and shrubs every few hundred yards to lead back to a trailhead. It is easily removed upon return.

4. Carry more water. Food is important but water more so. Lack of water directly impacts strength. More water.

5. Think about a survival plan before any upcoming trip.

6. Remember that whistle. Blow three times in a row each time. A good whistle is heard from a decent distance.

6. As common sense dictates, always tell someone about any off-pavement plans. Provide a trip leader’s telephone number to your friend as well.


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Traveling Off-Road In The Southwest

Vehicle Tips

An Introduction

None of this post involves rock crawling. That is for well modified vehicles and their drivers who anticipate and plan for equipment and body damage. Think Moab or the Rubicon Trail. Also, perhaps confusingly, horsepower isn’t usually as important as gearing.

A Rockhounding Vehicle

Most rockhounds end up with a purpose-built four-wheel drive vehicle. They may start with a passenger car for rock shop trips or for paved roads to some collecting sites, but as the hobby takes hold they wind up with 4WD. Some drive crossovers and SUVs to remote off-pavement collecting sites but they risk their tires, their vehicles, and sometimes themselves. What follows is not a criticism of any vehicle a rockhound may have now, but a review of practicalities.

Four-wheel drive means differently applied power to all four wheels at the same time. Think about a vehicle making a complete circle or a turn on dry pavement. The inside wheels travel a shorter distance than the outside ones. 4WD vehicles adjust for this difference, operating all wheels with the correct power and play. Without this adjustment, a vehicle would stagger around the circle, perhaps leaving chunks of tire behind. That’s because all tires would be locked together, all turning the same rate over the different distance of the circle. Many vehicles, though, have locking differentials which force the wheels to turn together. They’re used when a vehicle threatens to bog under extremely loose or slippery conditions. More on lockers later.

What to Choose?

Every vehicle is a compromise. A stock jeep offers great maneuverability but carries fewer people and less gear than a full-size pickup. A pickup holds more gear but needs a tonneau cover, a tool box, or a camper shell to protect bed items. A camper shell in turn reduces visibility to the rear and sides. Work arounds are possible. Jeep accessories allow more gear by hanging items off the rear bumper or on top of the rig. A truck with a camper shell can have better side mirrors fitted to reduce blinds spots and a rearview camera to help with reversing.

A short wheelbase Jeep takes turns other vehicles can’t or with effort. Imagine a hard-left turn at the bottom of a steep hill. The Jeep may make that turn without backing up. A truck, on the other hand, may be forced to back up the hill to make the turn with another try. As mentioned before, larger trucks offer greater carrying capacity and a driver may wish to sacrifice some nimbleness for that virtue. Every vehicle is a compromise.

What Should a 4WD Vehicle Include?

Two-speed transfer case

All four wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles are not created equal. At a minimum, a rockhounding vehicle needs a two-speed transfer case providing what’s called high range four-wheel drive (4H) and low range four-wheel drive (4L). This drivetrain component operates off the vehicle’s transmission. The 4L setting increases torque or pulling power tremendously, keeping a vehicle going through thick mud or sand that would bog a rig operating in normal four-wheel drive or 4H.

Engage four-wheel drive only when needed, preferably, just before needed. That includes steep hills, snowy roads, deep sand, or mud. Anytime a road surface is loose or slippery. Which is often off pavement. Don’t underestimate the need for 4WD. A slight hill with wet grass defeats most 2WD vehicles. Engaging 4L means conditions have deteriorated substantially. Reduce speed to no more than fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour and let gearing do the work. A reminder. Ice defeats everything including 4WD. And some silt hills like those above Bakersfield, CA, will fill the treads of any tire, making even 4WD useless. Still, get a 4WD, exceptions or not.

Vehicles lacking a two-speed transfer case

Many crossovers and SUVs feature all-wheel drive (AWD) but lack a two-speed transfer case, the defining element of 4WD. The Honda Ridgeline, the Ford Escape, the Hyundai Tucson, the Subaru Forester and others send power to all four wheels but they cannot gear down the same way as 4WD.

Skid Plates

Skid plates cover some or all of a vehicle’s underbody. Especially important is a skid plate protecting the oil pan. These must be metal. Some vehicles have plastic plates underneath their frames for better air flow. These are not skid plates. Factory skid plates are better than none. Aftermarket companies like Hefty Fabworks manufacture 3/16” thick steel skid plates, which can armor a vehicle’s entire underbody. They are heavy, expensive, and require a lift to install. Most rockhounds can happily do with factory plates.

Tow Hooks

A vehicle needs frame mounted tow hook at front and back. These hooks permit a cable or tow strap to recover the vehicle once bogged. Without a hook there must be some other point on the frame to pull from. Consult the vehicle’s owner’s manual. A bumper or its facia will be torn off if used instead of a frame mounted hook. Lacking a tow hook at the back, a recovery point can be had using a D-ring shackle attached to a frame mounted hitch receiver. Never put a tow strap around a hitch ball. The ball may break loose and fly like a cannon ball into the window of the pulling vehicle. Never use chains. Never.


Picture above shows a D-ring shackle which fits into the truck’s frame mounted receiver tube. Also shown by the red arrow is a lockable hitch pin which deters would be accessory and trailer thieves. The pin goes through the hole in the receiver tube to secure the accessory. The yellow arrow marks this hole location.

Picture above shows a standard trailer ball which for most trucks is 2″ in diameter. Avoid non-standard hitches and accessories. Shown again is the locking hitch pin along with a standard pin.

A Locking Differential (or two)

Many 4WD vehicles have a locking differential on the rear axle. Some have a locker on the front axle as well. As the name suggests, a locking differential forces both tires on an axle to move at the same speed. The lockers are engaged only when 4L no longer helps and the vehicle is at risk of getting bogged. Locked up, the vehicle will want to travel straight ahead, as there is no longer play between tires. Only the most treacherous, slippery conditions warrant engaging lockers and they must be disengaged as soon as firmer ground is reached.

Fire Extinguisher

Every vehicle needs a fire extinguisher fixed to a secure mounting bracket. Every vehicle.

Towing Package

A factory installed tow package is worth the cost, even with no towing is contemplated. A truck so fitted gets a greater capacity engine radiator and a larger transmission radiator. Possibly an oil radiator. The battery, suspension, alternator and charging system are all upgraded to handle towing’s greater demands. A truck with a tow package should run cooler under all conditions.


Batteries die quickly from heat and off-roading, expect no more than two years from a conventional battery.

Before going off-pavement with a conventional battery, make sure the battery top shows no undue discharge. Remove any discharge with diluted baking soda and a stiff brush.

Positive and negative cable terminals must be corrosion free and secure. If not, brush and clean the inside of a wire’s terminal lug and the post. A vehicle may not start simply due to corrosion buildup. Start by removing the negative terminal. Use a proper wrench and not a pliers. Once rounded over by a bad tool, the nut securing the lug will continue to break down when taken off again.

Go slowly if the lug resists removal. Pry if necessary but do not break the battery’s plastic top. Use a thin piece of wood on top of the battery to pry down on rather than the top of the battery itself. After cleaning the inside of the lug, clean or scrape the entire battery post. Make bright and shiny. Do not scrape so much that you distort the shape of the post, making the connection to the lug forever less certain.

Add distilled water to low battery cells. A turkey baster helps as well as a small flashlight.

Replace a battery cable if corrosion extends well into the wire, a job for a mechanic.

A battery must fit its battery tray exactly and be extremely secure. Check it. Never buy a battery that cannot be mounted correctly. A battery mustn’t thrash about the engine compartment.

Many off-roader’s favor spiral wound absorbed glass mat batteries or AGMs. Optima makes them as well as others. AGMS are made in a radically different way than a conventional battery. AGMs are sealed and require no maintenance. No filling, no leaking, no corrosion build-up. Upgrade to an AGM once an old battery fails.

Learn to jump start a vehicle and bring heavy duty jumper cables. Black goes to ground on the vehicle being jumped. Locate a good grounding point on the frame or find the vehicle’s approved connecting point. A vehicle won’t start without a solid connection for black.

Some vehicles go into an anti-theft mode when their battery dies, this may prevent jump starting without following a certain procedure. Check the owner’s manual. Replacing the battery or removing the cables will impact a vehicle’s electronics.

A spare battery or a handheld portable car jumper is mandatory when traveling solo. Or bring a lithium-ion smart battery like the kinds Goal Zero, Midland, or Suaoki produces. These can charge a dead battery as well as a rockhound’s electronics. Those smart batteries charge, not jump.

Automatic Transmission or Manual?

Most off-roaders favor manual shifting. Manual shifting offers better flexibility over changing conditions than an automatic. Stick shift vehicles get better mileage. It’s easier for recovery services to tow manual transmission vehicles. Automatics, though, are easier to drive. If a driver becomes incapacitated, it’s important that any person in the party can drive back to pavement. Every driver can manage an automatic. But many people don’t know how to drive a stick.

What is High Clearance?

Rock clubs will advise or require a high clearance vehicle on certain field trips. But what does high clearance mean?

A vehicle’s lowest point is usually measured at the rear differential or what off-roaders call the pumpkin. The distance from the bottom of the rear diff to the ground is the clearance. A base Jeep, the Wrangler Sport edition, has 8.4” of ground clearance. A Subaru Outback has 8.7” and a base Ford 150 has 8.8”. These are minimums for rockhounding vehicles.

Larger tires and a lift kit increase clearance and void any vehicle warranty unless modifications are factory approved. They pose other problems as well. Unless fording creeks, increasing a vehicle’s height with a lift kit or tires does little if the rear differential remains at or about the same height.

Tough Talk on Tires

The National Park Service, in discussing Death Valley driving, puts the problem well, “Flat tires are a common problem for backcountry visitors due to rough road conditions or from having unsuitable tires. Make sure your vehicle is equipped with ‘off-road’ tires rather than highway or street tires. Carry at least one inflated spare tire (preferably two), a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lug wrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand. Know how to use your equipment before you head out.”

The only useful off-road tires are light truck tires, designated on the sidewall as “LT.” These tires are much thicker than passenger tires and have stronger sidewall construction. Using obsolete but familiar terminology, a passenger tire may have four plies, an LT tire six to ten. It doesn’t matter what the rugged sounding name a tire may have, only the designation LT counts. Within the world of LT tires is a huge selection. But, first, recognize “P” tires and avoid them.

Mark of The Beast

Some new 4WD pickups come with passenger tires. Reject them when buying a vehicle or get credit for LT tires. Most Crossovers or SUVs cannot be fitted with LT tires. Reconsider the vehicle purchase. No vehicle with passenger tires should leave pavement unless driving well graded, rock-free roads. Subaru rally vehicles on TV do not represent how their passenger cars are built.

Any driver using passenger tires on sketchy roads should anticipate flats and have a plan to recover from them. Do not count on assistance, even on a club outing. Members coming a long distance for a special outing may be unwilling to cancel their day ahead by helping you out. Don’t blame them, blame you.

A donut spare or a temporary tire must be substituted for a full-size spare before going off-road. Many rockhounds carry two full size spares.

If a small leak is discovered, take the easiest approach to recovery first.

A can of Fix-a-Flat for large tires should be carried in any vehicle. Once Fix-a-Flat has been used, a decent size air compressor should fill the tire back to its normal operating pressure after a few miles of travel. (A compressor also helps with airing down and airing up tires in extremely sandy conditions.) In case of a flat, any rockhound with only one spare or those making a Fix-a-Flat repair must immediately return to pavement. Tire shops don’t like Fix-a-Flat but that is their problem.

Quick Note on Air Compressors

VIAIR and others make excellent air compressors for off-road use. Any compressor must run off the vehicle’s battery. Air compressors using a cigarette lighter adaptor are totally unacceptable. They are painfully slow and will burn out or overheat long before they can air up four off-road tires. Even when filling a single tire, small compressors will overheat and shut down, refusing to start again until cool.

Power must be drawn from the battery with the cables provided and the vehicle must be running the entire time of airing up. If not, the battery will drain immediately and die. The sliding hose couplers VIAIR uses demands great hand strength, look at other options if you have any disability. Or get a teenager in your group to connect the hoses for you. Expect to pay at least $200. Someone owning a quality air compressor and good LT tires won’t often need their expensive purchase. But someone in their group will. Count on it.

Picture above shows a VIAR air compressor that runs off of a vehicle’s battery. Note the arrows pointing to the sliding hose couplers. A more elegant and expensive solution is to have onboard air, in which an air compressor is fitted into the engine bay. It is then switched on by a switch mounted to the dash or by a remote control.

Back to Tires

Off-road tires and wheels are big and heavy. A complete tire and rim may be a yard wide and weigh 40 pounds. No rockhound should drive off-pavement by themselves without being able to change a tire on their own.

Sidewall flats are the worst. Tire dealers never fix a sidewall flat. Instead, they replace the entire tire. Tire repair kits exist for field repairs but not for sidewall flats. Repair as best as one can. Driving on a flat gets one further down the road but risks damage to the wheel. Driving on a flat is warranted, though, when getting a vehicle to a level spot for changing a tire.  Drive slow. Better to do this than attempt a tire change on badly uneven ground that might cause the vehicle to slide off a jack. And on to you.

Avoid hazards one controls. Keep from cactus, of course, but creosote branches broken at the right angle can puncture quality off-road tires. Stay fully on the route being driven. Avoid camping spots with fire rings where scrap wood may have been burned. Scrap wood leaves nails that are never picked up. A ten year old camp site like that will have nails everywhere. And stay on road in old mining districts, with hidden iron trash over every foot of ground.

Reduce speed. A rocky road at 15 MPH may not puncture tires but it may easily do so at 30 MPH. Some roads are so rocky the driver may not realize a flat has occurred for some time. Unfortunately, too many trip leaders drive too fast, leading group members racing to keep up with break downs resulting. Other than getting the leader to slow down, be prepared with a vehicle that can take an extra pounding from time to time.

AWD vehicles like Subarus have a special tire problem. All four tires must have equal tread wear or the AWD system will not work correctly or will break down. If a non-repairable flat is suffered when the vehicle is under warranty, it may be necessary to replace all four tires. If out of warranty, a used tire might be bought or a new tire shaved down to the right depth. Any of these steps means delaying or cancelling an adventure. Especially when broken down in a rural community without a tire store.

Many vehicles carry spares underneath their rigs, especially SUVs. A driver must know how to release them while on their back in mud or rain. A better solution is a swing-out carrier above the back bumper. Or a spare stowed inside the vehicle. This writer’s truck came with a spare mounted underneath. That is now the second spare. The first spare is carried in the truck bed, easily rolled out.

Take advice from a tire dealer familiar with off-roading. Develop a relation with this expert and their store. They will advise on tread depth and design, mileage expected, road noise, and a dozen other details.


–The Hi Lift Jack

The Hi Lift Jack is everywhere in the Jeep Community but of limited use for most vehicles. It’s mainly used to get a rig going that has high centered, one stuck on a rock or a ledge that puts a wheel or two off the ground. This jack utilizes lifting points close to the frame which most rigs do not have. It needs a base plate when in sand or mud. A Hi Lift can injure if used improperly. Before practicing, ask someone who knows the jack for one- on-one instructions. The Hi Lift isn’t meant for changing tires but if one does, chock the wheels and use jack stands.

–Off Highway Vehicle Jack

Pro Eagle sells off-pavement jacks that operate like conventional floor jacks. These are for high clearance vehicles, though not necessarily lifted. Check underbody height for compatibility before buying. These jacks may weigh fifty pounds. Despite weight, bulk, and cost, they make a good investment because they work in sand and can go under a vehicle to hit a variety of lifting points. There is a joy in using a jack that is dead simple, needs little instruction, and can be counted to work on every time. Again, chock at least one opposite wheel.

–The Bushranger X-Jack

Far lighter than any jack is this Bushranger product. It is a balloon like device that lifts a vehicle for chores like changing a tire. Jack stands must be placed before a spare is installed but that’s good practice with any repair. The X-Jack weighs less than twenty pounds and is inflated by the vehicle’s exhaust pipe or by the air compressor every rockhound must have in their rig. Many inexpensive copies exist. Avoid them.

Self-recovery Techniques

Solo drivers must have self-recovery plans. A long-handled shovel is mandatory as well as a tow strap should another vehicle come along. Maxtrax recovery boards are excellent. They permit a 4WD vehicle with off-road tires to get moving by first driving onto the boards, enabling momentum which is the key to getting unstuck. You’ll have to shovel first, however, when in sand or mud to place the boards. Recovery boards are far better than sticks or rocks shoved under a tire to give it traction.

A Last Note

A liberating force of a 4WD with heavy duty tires is to splash into pullouts one would never attempt with a passenger car. Every rockhound sees fascinating things on paved roads at 50 MPH, the question is, where can one pull over? Too many things are passed by because there is no where to turn out. After having a passenger car, it is a delight to bounce into pullouts that are within walking distance of a find. The world opens up as you confidently go off the road despite a drop a good drop in grade or surface. Try it.

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