Jeep spinning tires
| Tom Severin | Feature Stories

Deadly Mistakes: Spinning Tires

Getting stuck is a common occurrence among four wheelers. After all, we intentionally drive in difficult areas. Every situation is different, but one common trait I see is the inappropriate use of power to get through. It seems logical enough: I’m stuck or losing momentum; why not just hit the gas? In reality, you want to throttle back or back out in most situations.

Hitting the gas (throttle) often just causes the wheels to spin. Without traction, you begin to drift or slide. Because the ground is never level, you’ll slide in whatever direction is off camber. You could slide into a pile of rocks or worse—go off the edge of a cliff.

You could go from being merely stuck to a life-threatening situation.

It’s easy to lose traction while going uphill. As they near the top, some drivers goose the engine to propel themselves over. More often than not, the wheels start spinning and the vehicle stops. In some cases the front end jumps up and down. This can cause serious damage. When the wheels touch the ground and--therefore, stop suddenly--it sends a shockwave through the drive train. Drive shafts get twisted. The strap that holds the drive shaft to the pinion gets torn off. Axles, lockers, and free-wheeling hubs can break.

In a situation like this, it’s better to back down and rethink your strategy.

Another possibility is that the driver is able to maintain traction as he nears the top. Along the way, the vehicle picks up momentum. At the top of the hill, an automatic transmission may want to gear down. Doing so causes a sudden transfer of power to the wheels resulting in the wheels breaking free and spinning. It’s actually better to ease up on the throttle to gain traction and try "walking" the front wheels before you lose all forward momentum.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: Traction improves at slower speeds. Some situations require you to crawl along at idle speed. Throw the vehicle in Low or first gear, and let it creep by itself. I have been able to make progress up a slope with a thin covering of snow using this method. (You may need to air down, as well.)

Spinning wheels also dig holes in the ground, making it difficult for you (or anyone else) to proceed. This is especially true going uphill. As you’re sitting there spinning your wheels, you’re creating divots in the dirt.

As you back up and try again, your wheels hit those divots, and you lose traction and momentum.

The other thing I see is frequently is the process of turning a small step into a large step. When the front wheels make it up but the back wheels don’t, the application of power most often results in just spinning the wheels. That spinning moves material away from the step digging it deeper and deeper. The obstacle becomes significantly changed making it harder for everyone.

To review, spinning wheels can cause you to:

  1. Drift into a bad situation.
  2. Damage the drive train or other parts.
  3. Modify the trail so it’s more difficult for others to use.

Unhappily, every once in a while it works - a driver is able to get out of the jam (or over the hill) with power, dust flying and tires spinning. That, unfortunately, just reinforces a bad technique. Four wheeling is all about implementing the correct techniques at the proper time. Train yourself to ease up on the accelerator the second you feel your wheels spinning. You’ll regain control of your vehicle, allowing you to “walk” out of a tough situation.

Tom Severin, 4x4 Coach, teaches 4WD owners how to confidently and safely use their vehicles to the fullest extent in difficult terrain and adverse driving conditions. Visit to develop or improve your driving skill.

Copyright 2015, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.


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Tahoe National Forest, Truckee, CA

Join us for the 55th annual Sierra Trek, held at Meadow Lake in the Tahoe National Forest near Truckee, CA. Runs, activities, entertainment and delicious meals are planned for vehicles and drivers and of all skill levels. More information is available at this link

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