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Off-Road Safety & Prep: Complete Guide for Lifted Subaru Drivers

By Ben Boxer

When venturing off the beaten path in your lifted Subaru, ensuring your safety and the safety of your passengers is very important.

Offroading can be an exciting and memorable experience, but it comes with its share of challenges. I’ve had some of the most fun days and some of the most stressful days on the trails. 

Most people are somewhat familiar with basic recovery and offroading techniques. But when going offroad in a Subaru, there are some specific things that I have found to be a bit different than when driving a traditional 4×4.

Table of Contents

Recovery Gear

One of the first items to check off your off-roading safety checklist is a few pieces of essential recovery gear. 

This gear includes items like:

These tools can prove to be lifesavers if your Subaru gets stuck while on the trails.

subaru recovery gear

Recovery Ropes & Shackles

These two items are crucial for vehicle recovery. When used correctly, they allow another vehicle to pull yours out of a tricky situation. I personally prefer using a kinetic recovery rope over tow straps. I also like using soft shackles in most situations as they are quick, safe, non abrasive, and don’t sink in water or mud.

Before performing a recovery, make sure you know which points on the vehicle will be safe for pulling. I prefer to use a trailer hitch receiver as a recovery point. I always avoid the eyelets you may find that screw in behind the bumpers. These are not strong places to pull from and can create a dangerous situation.

Subaru Outback wilderness with a trailer hitch accessory installed for recovery

Winch (Optional)

A winch is particularly handy when there are no other vehicles around to assist. It can help you self-recover in situations where you’re stuck or in a tight spot. However, a winch isn’t necessarily feasible for some people. Mounting a winch on a Subaru is usually challenging and is one of the most expensive pieces of recovery equipment. But if a winch fits in your budget, they are very convenient!

If you’d like to see some of my favorite winches specifically for Subarus, check out my article “Best Subaru Winches.”

Bottle Jack

Having a jack while on the trails provides a way to lift your vehicle’s wheels out of ditches, above the snow, and out of other sticky situations. Many times, a jack can allow you to lift a wheel far enough off the ground to put recovery boards or rocks under your tires. Then when you lower the vehicle back down, you can simply drive out of whatever the car was stuck in.

I personally prefer bottle jacks for Subarus because they’re very small, extremely powerful, and reliable. I use a jack pad to put under it, and a special pinch weld jack pad to allow for a strong lifting point.

Make sure you’re familiar with how to use each piece of recovery gear safely and effectively before heading out on the trail. Additionally, store these items securely in your vehicle, easily accessible in case of an emergency. Do not store them loosely in the car. Heavy items can become dangerous projectiles in the event of an accident or a rollover.

Emergency Kit

Whether you’re going off-roading for a few hours or embarking on a multi-day adventure, having an emergency kit on hand is essential. This kit should include first-aid supplies, basic tools, a flashlight, and extra batteries. You never know when you might need these essentials, especially when you’re far from civilization.

Basic First Aid

Your kit should include bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, adhesive tape, and any personal medications you may need. Admittedly, I need to learn more first-aid techniques. But nevertheless, knowing how to use the items to administer possible life-saving first-aid is essential.

Tools

Carry tools like a multi-tool, pliers, wrenches, and a tire repair kit. These can be invaluable for making quick fixes on the trail. I also carry a set of ratcheting wrenches, and a socket set. Additionally, I bring things that I suspect there’s even a slight chance I may need. For example, if I’m going somewhere with the chance of water crossings being unavoidable, I carry a spark plug socket and extensions in case I have to purge the cylinders. Some people even carry spare axles and tie rods if they’re planning to do difficult trails.

Fire Extinguisher

I think everyone should carry a fire suppression tool of some sort in every vehicle – even if it’s not being used offroad or on the track. I carry an extinguisher in each of my cars. 

Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but it’s so much better to have it on hand. Things like brake line or fuel line failures can send a car up in flames within a matter of seconds.

To learn how to appropriately and effectively use a fire extinguisher on a vehicle, you can visit in2fire.com to go through all the steps. But one important thing to remember is that you should not open the hood in the event of an engine compartment fire. Only release the hood latch. Opening the hood will feed oxygen into the fire causing it to grow exponentially.

Light Source

It’s very important to have a light source available to you. Opt for a durable, high-powered flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries.

I prefer a headlamp so that I have both hands free to work on things. A magnet light or a light with a hook is also useful when working under the hood. A good light is your lifeline when darkness falls, and you need to handle a situation or make repairs.

Tire Prep

Proper tire maintenance is crucial for off-roading safety. Your tires are your connection to the trails and they play a significant role in your Subaru’s off-road capability. Here’s what you should consider:

Tire Pressure

federal couragia mud terrain tires

Adjust your tire pressure according to the terrain. Lowering the tire pressure provides better traction on soft surfaces like sand or mud. However, be sure to re-inflate your tires to the recommended pressure when returning to paved roads. I always carry a Viair portable compressor with me to quickly air up.

You’ll want to experiment with different amounts of psi. But I like to run 15psi when I’m on trails with lots of sand or rocks. Sometimes I run more and sometimes I run less – especially if I’m in deep snow.

Tread Depth

Check your tire tread depth regularly as they age. Deep treads offer better grip and prevent slipping on uneven terrain. Replace your tires if the tread is worn down beyond safe levels. Typically, I find that a good set of all-terrain tires provide enough grip to be effective on trails for 40-50k miles. I usually replace them a little early so that I have as much grip as possible.

Tire Selection

Invest in a quality set of all-terrain or mud-terrain tires. These specialized off-road tires are designed to handle rough terrain and provide superior traction even in slippery conditions. Most people can use a set of all-terrains but if you go off-road regularly or if the trails you do are advanced, a mud terrain is a good option.

Additionally, a full size spare is also a great thing to carry with you. Most people carry their full size spare on their roof basket.

If you’re not sure what the best tire options are for you, this article will help get you started in the tire shopping process!

subaru forester wilderness edition offroad tires

Plan Your Route

Planning your off-roading routes in advance is a must for a safe and enjoyable adventure. Here are some steps to consider before heading out:

Research

Use maps, GPS devices, or off-road apps to research the trails and routes you intend to explore. Look for trail difficulty ratings, trail conditions, and any recent reports from other off-roaders. I personally enjoy the onX Off-Road premium app. It works really well and has tons of information. Gaia is another app that I use and they have a free version that still allows you to record your path. 

Share Your Route

Always share your planned itinerary with someone who won’t be joining the trip. Provide them with details about your route, expected return time, and emergency contact information. This ensures that someone knows your whereabouts and can contact help if necessary.

I’ve personally been in situations where I was alone and my car was stuck. Fortunately I was able to hike out to cell service. But it opened my eyes to how important this could be in cases where you may become incapacitated by an injury.

Check Regulations

Confirm that the trails you plan to visit are open and accessible. Some off-road areas may have seasonal closures, and it’s essential to respect all posted rules and regulations.

Certain areas may also require a pass in order to access trails without receiving a citation. These passes also help fund patrols and maintenance of the areas. As easy as it is to feel annoyed with a law enforcement presence in these areas, it’s much better than dealing with illegal activity taking place in the woods that can eventually lead to restriction in public access.

Vehicle Inspection

Before embarking on any off-roading adventure, conduct a thorough inspection of your lifted Subaru. Check for loose bolts, leaks, or any signs of wear and tear that may present an issue while on the trails. Here’s a basic checklist to follow:

adf outback wilderness undercarriage

Suspension

Inspect your lift kit components and suspension for signs of damage or wear. Ensure that all bolts and connections are tight and secure. If anything is loose, snug it up to the correct torque spec.

Fluids

Check your vehicle’s fluids, including engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and coolant. Top off any fluids that are low. Don’t forget wiper fluid. It can be frustrating to not be able to easily clear mud or dust off your windshield easily.

I also routinely check my front and rear differential fluids. I do this at every oil change to make sure they’re full and that the gear oil is still good (I always change dark fluid or overly metallic fluid.)

Brakes

Ensure that your brakes are in good working condition. If you hear any unusual noises or experience brake fade, address the issue before heading out. A loss of brakes while on a steep trail is not safe for obvious reasons.

Undercarriage

Give the undercarriage of your Subaru a general “once-over” for any damage or loose parts that seem out of place. Off-roading can result in all sorts of damage to various items under the vehicle so it’s essential to keep an eye on it.

Lights and Signals

Test all your lights, including headlights, taillights, turn signals, aftermarket light bars, and brake lights. Functional lights are crucial for safety, especially when off-roading in low-light conditions. One way to do this if you don’t have an assistant is to set your phone up near your vehicle and record yourself testing the lights. You can then watch the video and see if anything failed to function correctly.

By conducting a thorough vehicle inspection, you can catch and address any issues before they become bigger problems on the trail. This not only enhances your safety but also prolongs the life of your Subaru.

Travel In Groups

lifted-subarus-offroad-on-a-trail

Whenever possible, consider going off-roading with a group of fellow enthusiasts. There are several benefits to traveling in a group:

Safety In Numbers

Group travel provides a safety net. If one vehicle encounters difficulties, the group can work together to overcome challenges, such as winching or towing a stuck vehicle. Larger groups of fellow off-roaders also means that your chances of having access to a specific tool are greater.

One of the local groups I do trail runs with regularly invites newcomers to join our adventures. It’s not uncommon for someone who is newer to off-roading to not know how to patch a tire or properly winch out of a ditch. We always have a great time helping people learn new skills.

Community

Off-roading with friends or fellow enthusiasts enhances the experience a lot. It’s an opportunity to share stories, learn from each other, and enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. Some of the people I know from running trails together have become great friends outside of the car community.

Navigation

Having multiple vehicles means the group is more likely to navigate correctly to the destination. Even if one vehicle is equipped with GPS or has off-roading apps, they can guide the rest of the group through challenging terrain and provide support on challenging sections of the trail. There will also likely be a greater knowledge base regarding the area if there’s more people present.

There is of course a limit to the number of vehicles that makes an off-road excursion fun. But I prefer driving trails in a group of 5-10 cars. Anything more than that usually presents logistics issues.

Recognize Your Limits

As you gain experience with off-roading, it’s crucial to understand both your own limitations and the capabilities of your lifted Subaru. Here are some considerations:

Be Realistic With Your Off-Roading Ability

lifted subaru forester with primitive racing skid plate offroad

Be honest about your off-roading skills. If you’re a beginner, start with easier trails and gradually work your way up to more challenging terrain as your confidence and experience grow. 

Do you understand strategic line choice in Subarus? Are you familiar with how to operate and use all of your recovery equipment? 

Always be looking for chances to drive trails with more experienced off-roaders as you progress into a well-rounded wheeler.

How Capable Is Your Car?

While lifted Subarus can handle a variety of off-road conditions, they may not be suitable for extremely rugged or overly steep terrain. Know your vehicle’s limitations and avoid tackling trails or obstacles that exceed its capabilities.

If a trail that I’m researching has unavoidable objects that require big tires and a low gear, I typically take my Jeep instead. As much as I love driving my Subie on trails, I don’t want to damage it or get completely stuck on the trails. Since Subarus don’t have a 4LO, I try to avoid anything that requires slow crawling up or over steep objects.

Assess The Trail

Before attempting a challenging section of the trail, take the time to assess the terrain and plan your approach. Look for potential obstacles, mud pits, rocks, or steep inclines, and decide if your vehicle and skills are up to the task. I always check the depth of any water or mud that I can’t see the bottom of and I make sure there’s always an backup plan if I can’t make it up a certain line.

In conclusion, off-roading in a lifted Subaru can be a thrilling adventure, but it comes with its share of challenges. Prioritizing safety is essential and ensuring you have the right recovery gear and an emergency kit at hand is a must. Pay close attention to your tires and maintain your vehicle. Plan your routes wisely, share your itinerary, and respect regulations. Remember, traveling with a group enhances safety and camaraderie. Finally, always acknowledge your own and your vehicle’s limitations. By following these guidelines, you can enjoy the excitement of off-roading while keeping yourself and your Subaru safe on the rugged trails. See you on the trails!