By Debbie Murphy
Off-road maniacs seek it out, we played in it as kids and some may have even eaten it. But on the road, it seems to take on a life of its own as it spreads its maliciousness over asphalt or sits on the side waiting to swallow vehicles in one belch. It's mud.
Urbanites may go an entire lifetime without ever facing the challenge of driving through mud. But for the rest of us, the soothing patter of rain at night means we have to face varying degrees of quagmire the next morning. For some, the first sign of spring is the dirty, gray snowbanks melting away into rivers of mud. We've either learned to deal with it or become entombed by it.
So what do you do? Where do you go for advice if you're about to venture from the dry pavement of the city into the mud-coated countryside and still drive safely? Those off-roaders who go in search of it, like the Holy Grail, are some of the best sources of advice. While their techniques for driving through mud are valid, the major difference between them and us is the equipment. Our tires don't have huge lugs that grip mud with the consistency of peanut butter. And we don't have winches to haul us out if we fail to make it to the dry side. Lastly, our suspension clearance is dwarfed in comparison.
Therefore, the first piece of advice is simple. If the mud you're facing includes debris (think chunky peanut butter), don't even attempt traversing it. Or if the mud virtually camouflages the contour of the road under it, is still moving or is littered with stuck vehicles, simply turn around and try another route.
In relative terms, the easiest mud to survive is shallow, defined as 2 inches deep or less. But don't be deceived – even shallow mud can combine the characteristics of an ice rink and quicksand.
With any luck, you'll be entering this shallow mire at low speed. If you hit mud at speed, your vehicle can take on the characteristics of a luge on an ice chute. The key is to give the tires a chance to bite into the mud and find traction on the hard surface underneath. Keep your line through the sludge as straight as possible; turning the wheels causes more drag and can bog you down. This technique works for mud-covered asphalt or well-traveled dirt roads after normal rainfall. Off-roaders will tell you to drive as slow as you have to and as fast as you can, a riddle only they can answer. The translation: Momentum and torque will get you through.
In the thick of it
When you're in the mud, one of three things will happen.
First, you might get through it without incident. Hurray!
Second, you might skid. Do not hit the brakes. Gently back off on the gas pedal, and be conscious of where the front wheels are pointing. Assuming you were going slowly to begin with, your vehicle will decelerate and regain traction and the wheels will pull the vehicle in the direction they are pointed (explaining why it's important to know what direction that is). Once you're back in control of the vehicle, keep going.
The third possibility is getting stuck. If this happens, keep steady pressure on the gas pedal and pray. The solution for off-roaders requires a little finesse. The tire tread may be clogged with mud, reducing traction. Press the accelerator to create a light wheel spin. The theory is that the centrifugal force will spin the mud from the tread and the tire can grip again.
You can also turn the steering wheel back and forth quickly – about one-eighth of a rotation. The tread pattern on even conventional street tires wraps up onto the tire wall. Moving the wheels, hypothetically, may give this tread a chance to gain enough grip to keep you moving. If none of this works, stop spinning your wheels. You'll just be digging a deeper rut.
Out of the rut
So, now you're stuck. First, try throwing the transmission into reverse and then keeping your wheels straight. You've got a good chance of returning to dry land. If you have floor mats, the rubber type is best as they'll have a chance to survive this ordeal. Slip them as far underneath the stuck tires as possible, on the side you want to travel toward. Slowly ease onto the accelerator and, hopefully, out of the rut. You can either kiss your mats goodbye or retrieve them once you're out of the mud. Also, once you're safely out of the mud, give your tires a chance to kick the muck out of the tread before you resume normal speeds.
Clear as mud
Here are a couple more tips. Flip on your windshield wipers before entering a particularly viscous mud puddle. There's a good chance you'll end up with globs of mud on your windshield; your wipers can deal with small globs as they hit the glass better than they can a windshield totally splattered.
If you arrive at a boggy area with obvious wheel ruts already imprinted, know your vehicle's limitations before you enter the ruts. I once saw a mini-pickup take off in the fresh tracks of a semi. The small truck's track was narrower than the semi’s, and its clearance much lower. The result was not pretty.
Lastly, clean your vehicle! Mud holds moisture against metal and leads to rust and corrosion. Pay particular attention to the wheel wells and undercarriage. If mud dries and cakes on your driveshaft, it can throw it out of alignment and cause damage. Chances are if you've only encountered one or two shallow mud bogs, followed by open road traveled at normal speeds, you'll be in good shape. But it's still a good idea to exorcise all evidence of mud from your vehicle rather than wear it like a badge of courage, as some do.
While your mud adventure may not get you bragging rights among a pack of off-roaders, you can thank them and their experience for these practical safety tips and tricks.