How To Ascend a Steep Hill While Off-Roading

Climbing a steep hill doesn’t have to be as dangerous as it looks

Two Ford F-150 Raptors in the Utah wilderness with mountains in the back.
Tony Markovich

Whether you’re exploring through Moab or your local off-road park, climbing absurdly steep hills is part of the fun. Depending on the driver and the vehicle, the process can look quite simple, but there are a number of things to keep in mind before you go tearing up an incline.

How many drive wheels you have is part of the equation, but understanding how speed, power, and traction relates to the surface you’re driving on is even more important. You’ll want to take the time to get your ducks in a row before hitting the trail.

Two Ford F-150 Raptors get dirty in the Utah mountains.
Tony Markovich

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The Drive’s editors have climbed enough sketchy hills to tell you that there’s more to it than stomping on the throttle, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make your way up most obstacles with the right preparation and the right vehicle. Let’s dive in and take a look at what’s involved.

How Steep Are We Talking?

For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about climbing a hill with a 15 percent incline or greater. In other words, a hill that climbs 15 feet or more in elevation for every 100 feet of horizontal travel. These inclines are frequently encountered during off-roading, so you’ll need to be prepared and know what you’re doing.

Hill Climbing and Off-Roading Safety

Off-roading can be extremely dangerous and should be taken seriously. Use these pointers to make sure you’re ready.

  • Make sure that your tires are in good condition and properly inflated. This includes considerations for terrain, such as rocks and sand, that you may encounter along the way.
  • If your vehicle has a manual transmission and you are in any way uncomfortable or unsure about driving it in some scenarios, it’s best to get practice in a less demanding situation than climbing a hill. If you plan to drive a manual vehicle off-road, try practicing on pavement first.
  • Pay attention to other vehicles around you and always keep adequate space between vehicles. You might even want to let the person ahead make it up the hill entirely before you begin.
  • Walk the hill first to make sure there are no roots or loose spots that could surprise you on the way up. This also applies to the top of the hill. There’s nothing worse than getting to the top of the hill and realizing there’s an insanely steep drop on the other side.
A blue Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro crawls over some rocky terrain in Texas.
Tony Markovich

When off-roading, skid plates are great for protecting the underside of your vehicle from rocks and boulders.

Get Climbing Like a Pro

For this guide, we’re going to assume that you’re off-roading and climbing hills for fun. Some of the same steps will apply if you happen to find yourself on a surprisingly steep hill during your daily commute.

Let’s do this! 

Check Your Vehicle 

  1. Your day on the trails should start with a thorough inspection of tires, brakes, lighting, and more
  2. Check your fluids. Off-roading of any sort strains your vehicle’s mechanical components, but climbing hills, especially repeatedly, will tax the system much more. This includes differentials, brake fluid, and engine and transmission oils.
  3. Check your battery to make sure that it is properly connected, secured, and in good shape (no corrosion).
  4. Test your rig’s brakes for proper function and visually inspect for damage.
  5. If you’re able, slide underneath the vehicle to inspect for frame damage, such as cracks or corrosion. This also includes your suspension system, especially if there are aftermarket components, such as a lift kit or off-road shocks/dampers.
  6. Your exhaust system should be intact, which means that the hangers and components should be in good shape and not damaged or missing.
  7. Make sure your tires are inflated properly. This may mean that you need to let some air out of the tire for proper off-road traction. Check for punctures, uneven tread wear, and other damage. While doing so, also make sure that your lug nuts are properly torqued and that you’re not missing any.
  8. Your wiper blades should be in good shape and able to clean light mud and debris from your windshield.
  9. If you have a winch, auxiliary lighting, or other aftermarket components, ensure that they are installed and secured properly and that they work as you expect.
  10. If you have to travel through off-road terrain to get to the spot of ascension, double-check the vehicle again before you go tearing up the hill. Even gentle off-roading can damage or loosen parts of your rig’s suspension, wheels, or other components.
  11. It’s best to turn off anything you don’t need. If your vehicle has air conditioning or other electrical systems, such as an aftermarket stereo, turn them off. Using those systems can put a strain on your battery and may cause overheating if the climb is challenging enough. 
A white Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro gets muddy on a dirt trail.
Tony Markovich

Make sure you know what's at the top of the hill before you get there.

Start the Climb

  1.  If your vehicle is equipped with an automatic transmission, you should have the ability to select a lower gear. Depending on the type of gear shift lever your car has, you may be able to slide the shifter over or press a button to manually select a gear. Select D1, which is the lowest available gear, and shift it upward as the vehicle increases speed.
  2. If your vehicle is equipped with a manual gearbox, the process is slightly more complicated. It’s better to get at least a small running start here, if possible, rather than starting dead at the bottom of the hill. The goal is to maintain enough momentum to ascend most of the hill before a downshift is needed. 

A. Depending on your speed when approaching the hill, you should be in second or third gear and using as little throttle as possible to climb. Going too heavy with your right foot can cause loss of traction, especially if the hill has a loose surface, such as gravel.

B. You should be listening to your engine while ascending the hill. You’ll start dropping speed almost immediately and may hear the engine start to bog down. When this happens, it’s time to downshift.

During the Climb

  1. During the climb, it’s important to pay attention to your speed and gearing. If your engine starts to sputter or can’t maintain revs, it’s time to downshift. Don’t hesitate to move into low range if your rig has it.
  2. As you’re climbing, watch your speed. Maintain a constant but slow pace as you climb. This will help prevent wheel slippage and keep you climbing.
  3. If you stall or lose traction, don’t freak out. Set the hand brake and assess the situation. If possible, back down the hill as gently as possible. Don’t get out of the vehicle unless you’re absolutely confident that it is stationary and that it won’t move once you’re out.
The stunning view of the valley and distant snow-capped mountains from an off-road mountain trail.
Tony Markovich

Utah is a great place to test out your off-road skills.

What if I Get Stuck? 

If you get stuck or find your tires spinning, congratulations, you’ve entered the world of off-roading. Don’t start panicking and hammering the throttle until you’ve dug a giant rut in the dirt. Pause, take a deep breath, and assess the situation.

With the foot brake and parking brakes engaged, look at your surroundings to figure out the next steps. First, you’ll want to make sure there’s nobody else around you or behind you, and if there is, you’ll want to alert them that you need some time to work through the situation. 

If you are near the bottom of the hill and the ground is stable, you can slowly reverse out of your position and back down the hill, but that’s not always possible. You might need to reverse slightly to regain traction and attempt to continue crawling up the hill. Just use slow, deliberate movements and inputs and try going around the soft ground where there might be something more firm. If that still doesn’t work, this would be the time to use traction boards, if you have them. 

If nothing works, and you don’t think you can make it up the rest of the hill, you’ll need to figure out an exit strategy. That might mean allowing others to pass you until the hill is free to descend, or you might needto use a tow rope or winch to help get you to a spot where you can safely continue under your own power.

Pro Tips to Ascend a Steep Hill

These extra bits of advice will help you on the trail.

  • If you’re able to gain enough speed, upshift whenever possible to help save fuel.
  • Give yourself time and space to react to obstacles. This also includes not getting too close to other vehicles in front or behind yours. 
  • Make sure you’re buckled up. Beyond the obvious safety reasons, your buckle can help support you if the hill is bumpy on the way up.
  • If you need to stop on a steep hill and you’re driving a manual-transmission vehicle, you might need to use the hand brake to get started again. Engage the hand brake, put the car in gear, slowly depress the gas pedal and start to release the clutch until you feel the vehicle pulling forward, then slowly release the hand brake until the vehicle is moving forward.
A Ford F-150 Raptor off-roads in the mountains of Utah.
Tony Markovich

Tires designed for off-roading will make climbing hills much easier.

FAQs About Ascending a Steep Hill

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.

Q: Is it harmful to my vehicle if I park on a hill for extended periods of time?

A: If you’re parking for a short time or stop on hills infrequently and exercise great care while doing so, you’ll likely be fine. If you need to park on a steep surface often, your vehicle may need maintenance and replacement of components such as the transmission, brake system, and handbrake, but that’s only if it’s done repeatedly and carelessly for a long time. Use your hand brake/emergency brake/parking brake before you release the foot brake and shift into gear to help alleviate pressure on the transmission. 

Q: Can cars with automatic transmissions roll backward on hills?

A: Absolutely, though it’s not as quick to roll as vehicles with a manual gearbox. Today, many vehicles are equipped with a brake-hold system, which prevents movement until the driver begins to accelerate. 

Q: Does four-wheel drive help climb steep hills?

A: Yes, it does. When engaged, four-wheel drive holds all four wheels at the same speed. This isn’t great for on-road driving, since your vehicle’s wheels need to turn at different speeds when you’re driving around a corner. Off-road, however, four synchronized wheels turning together provide traction over slippery or loose terrain.

Q: Do I need a manual transmission to go off-roading?

A: Not at all, although some purists will tell you the opposite. Some new four-wheel-drive vehicles are available only with an automatic transmission, such as the Land Rover Defender, and nobody’s doubting its off-road prowess.

Video

For some, it might be easier and more helpful to watch somebody climb a hill. Learn more about the process from this video below.

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