It may come as a shock to city dwellers, but according to the Federal Highway Administration, almost 35 percent of the roadways in the U.S. are unpaved. That’s a lot of dirt and gravel, folks. From dealing with dust to managing skids, light-duty, off-road driving can take a toll on your vehicle and your nerves. Here are 4 tips to consider the next time you find yourself taking the road less traveled.

1. Be prepared
Exercising caution and making some fairly simple preparations can make navigating an unpaved road less stressful (and safer). If it’s your first time traveling a route, don’t expect road signs to keep you on course. Refer to your map, directions, and/or GPS to make sure you’re going the right way. Check all your tires (including your spares) as well as your your tire pressure before using an unpaved surface, and always make sure you have enough gas to get you to and from your destination (fill stations may not be available where you’re going). Consider taking extra water, food, and other supplies in case of an unexpected delay. Lastly, don’t count on cell service — for longer drives in less populated areas, always let someone know where you’re going and when they should expect you back.

2. Go slow
It’s hard to know how your vehicle will perform once you leave the relative comforts of a paved surface. Unpaved roads can run the gamut from well maintained and smooth to narrow, steep, and rocky. Accelerate and brake slowly to see how your car handles the shift in terrain and try to maintain a speed that’ll make it easy to stop for passing cars, people, wildlife, equipment, or any other potential hazards.

3. Watch out for curves and dips
Occasionally, you may encounter an unpaved road with some curves and dips that impact visibility, preventing you from seeing approaching cars or other hazards. Unfortunately, road conditions on unpaved surfaces are often at their worst in places where people brake the most (like blind curves and dips), making the task of negotiating them safely even more challenging. As you approach a curve or dip, slow down and stay to the right of the road (as long as you can safely do so). Minimize distractions (like a loud car radio) to make it easier to listen and watch for signs of oncoming traffic (a car’s engine or visible dust), and always maintain a speed that will allow you to stop easily if necessary.

4. Look out for loose surfaces
Loose road surfaces can present a challenge to drivers whether you’re driving on gravel, sand, or dirt. In areas where the road surface is loose, reduce your speed, steer gently, and try to avoid sudden braking or accelerating whenever possible. Be mindful of your car’s clearance (those with a low undercarriage need to take special care negotiating rocky or uneven surfaces) and watch the weather — it doesn’t take much rainfall to turn a dirt road into a muddy swamp.

On unpaved roads, as in life, a little preparation and a lot of good judgment can help keep you safe. Consider road and weather conditions, take steps to ensure your vehicle is up to the task, always drive with care, and make sure you have the right auto insurance coverage in place.

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Rebecca

Rebecca is a freelance copywriter and editor living in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two kids. She enjoys productively channeling her anxiety into safety-minded articles for home and garden, running with her robot trainer, and advocating on behalf of the Oxford comma.