Moab, Utah comes up in every conversation about America's off-road destinations. The region's unique "slickrock" makes for a driving experience unlike anything else, set to breathtaking views and some of the strongest off-road culture anywhere. Here are a few things to think about as you plan your first pilgrimage.
(Disclosure: Nissan flew me out to Denver, Colorado and gave me a Frontier PRO-4X, a bunch of recovery gear, and a gas card to see how it'd hold up against the place often considered "America's Off-Road Capital." More on the truck later, here's what we learned about the place.)
1. Believe The Hype
The entire American Southwest is breathtakingly beautiful, and Moab affords a unique opportunity to drive right throughthe incredible wind-form shapes you've undoubtedly admired in National Geographic. After starring in millions of photos and hundreds of forum threads, I still don't think it can be called "overrated."
If driving adventures are up your alley at all, you bet your ass Moab is worth seeing. Don't worry about haters who claim "it's not as good as it used to be." I can't tell you if it was ever "better" than it is now, but make no mistake– off-roading Moab is unlike anything you're going to do anywhere else in the country, and for that reason alone it should be on your list.
2. The Moab You're Picturing Is Really Small
The terrain Moab is known for; precarious climbs over the hard-crusty surface known as "slickrock," is basically all concentrated into a 25ish-square-mile area run by the BLM called the Sand Flats Recreational Area. It gets very busy, more on that later.
If you want some more variety, there are boundless trails running across the entire state and region. The area surrounding Moab has some of the most scenic driving our country has to offer in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. But nothing outside Sand Flats is quite like the Moab you're probably imagining.
3. "It's Like Driving On Sandpaper," But That Can Change Quickly
Slickrock has been accurately likened to driving on "coarse sandpaper." It provides heaps of traction, further supplemented by rubber residue left behind by hundreds of 4x4s that blazed the area's trails before you. When you can see a dark track embossed on the rocks– take that line. If it's not the only way to go, it will be the safest.
Another issue worth mentioning is the occasionally jarring transition from soft sand to slickrock. While all the sand I could find on my last trip was pretty hard packed; there are places you can be deep in the throttle skating through some soft stuff only to come hard up on solid rock and ruin your driveline. Approach terrain changes with caution.
Don't be too spooked by YouTube videos of trucks tipping over like turtles or ending up hopeless stuck at the bottom of some death pit though. There are bypasses to the most harrowing obstacles, and as long as you take it slow and watch where your wheels are the easiest line will present itself to you.
When in doubt,
throttle out! Walk the obstacle. Better yet, ask wheelers who look like they know what they're doing what they reckon of your truck. (Look for folks with beat-up rigs, well-used winches, and goggle tans.)
4. You Don't Need "That Much Truck" To Have Fun
Modified or stock, the Jeep Wrangler is generally considered the Moab-mobile of choice. A Troller would be better; the challenge of Moab begins and ends with approach and departure angles. That's probably why trucks in general are starting to concede popularity to Polaris RZR type-SxS ATVs; those things can climb anything, and you'll do a lot of climbing here.
But good tires, low range, and a little bit of clearance will go a long way.
For a benchmark; I max'ed out a 2014 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X on a trail called "Fins 'N Things," rated a "4 out of 10" from lowest to highest difficulty. That truck has about 9" of ground clearance, an approach angle of 33º and an exit around 23º. With the tires aired up to 40 PSI, we got over and down most of the course without scraping... until it didn't.
The Frontier tore it's trailer-wiring harness off just before I reckoned the little truck was in over its head, getting into a little more trouble with aired-down tires (causing a slight clearance drop). At least we were able to get out of every mess we got into. You will too if you take it slow.
You're gonna want to make sure your ride is running right before attacking the slickrock. There will be a lot of high-revving, high-load levels on your engine in high heat at low speed. If your trail rig isn't ready, you might need another winter of wrenching before you take a shot at Moab.
This isn't the place you're going to want to boil over; parts of the trails provide no opportunity to pull off and you're gonna look like a real dick causing an off-road traffic jam. Luckily if you do fry your hardware, there's pretty much no danger of getting stuck out in the sun... you won't have the trails to yourself too often.
5. You Don't Need A Winch
Winches are recommended for a few of Moab's more challenging trails; but after ignoring that warning on a few runs in a stock Tacoma I have no problem recommending you do the same.
In most of the places it'd be safe to winch from another vehicle (or where you'd be able to find a tree) the sand is so shallow that you could get a Subaru Forester through it. On the most extreme angles of the slickrock; you're going to have to winch off another vehicle.
Let me tell you; tugging a few inches off those precipices is hairy for experienced expedition driver. You're going to go full Code Brown as a first timer. If you can't make it up-and-over under your own power anyway, your truck is too low and you need to take the difficulty down a notch. Come back with a lift kit next year.
6. Be Prepared To Get Up Early, Or Wait In Line
In case you haven't picked up on the thesis here yet; Moab is Disney Land for 4WDers. That means there are great hordes of people between you and the fun, and sometimes they go a lot slower than you want to.
Some of the routes are closed "when the sun is down," others are not. Make your own judgement call, but your lights will trail off into nothingness and exacerbate the danger level if you hit the trail under the stars... so I wouldn't leave too long before sunrise.
On a busy weekend, waking up before the sun is the best way to ensure you won't be waiting while some other joey scratches his ass poking around an obstacle. If you do get held up behind somebody, at least you'll almost always have a great view while you wait for them to pick lines; and you might learn what (not) to do by watching them.
7. You're Going To Be Driving Real Slow
If your kind of off-roading involves big, satisfying splashes through puddles and stepping the truck's tail out around a sandy corner, Moab may not be your scene. The trails are just too tight and technical to do quickly on four wheels; there's a lot of creeping around corners with your tires poking out over 1000' vertical drops.
Thankfully any speed frustration you build up on the slickrock can be expelled from your system on the many fast-blast fire roads surrounding downtown Moab.
The Sand Flats Recreation Area managers reckon "Hell's Revenge," one of the spots better-known runs, should take "2-3 hours" and is a 6 out of 10 on the difficulty scale. That's with 33" tires and a winch are recommended. For your reference, with a co-driver and spotter I got a stock Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro through in around four hours. Granted we made copious photo stops, but I'm no amateur in a 4x4 and by the last few turns we were about ready to pull our hair out. Give yourself more time than you think you need.
8. Don't Go It Alone
Many of Moab's slickrock trails are simply too tight to afford a reasonable view from the driver's seat of a truck, even something as small as a Nissan Frontier. This is why having a spotter is invaluable; getting out and walking involves a lot of time and tedium. Save the "self-discovery" solo adventures for another weekend; you're just going to be stewing in BO and boredom if you do Moab alone.
Besides, you need somebody to take action shots and talk shit with around the campfire after the day's done!
9. There's Always Camping Somewhere
If you didn't just land here as you power-scroll toward the comment section, you already know Moab is small (#2.) and crowded (#6.). That means it won't be long before you roll up on the dreaded "Campground Full" sign at the main entrance to Sand Flats.
That leaves you with a few options. You can turn around and head back into town; find a fleabag motel or post up in the bush to the north or less-populated south. You can be a dick and camp someplace you're not supposed to. You could also try making friends with somebody who's already claimed a campsite.
Or you can press on all the way down Sand Flats road, come out the other side, and claim a scrubby patch of no man's land as your evening's accommodations. The ranger is going to make you pay for camping when you leave even though you didn't use the park's facilities, but giving $10 to the BLM isn't the worst thing you can do after using their trails all weekend.
10. ...But There Isn't Firewood, Or Much Anything Else
Gathering wood is illegal, don't do it and make us off-roaders look like a bunch of assholes. You can buy firewood at plenty of gas stations, or off random dudes in parking lots.
Sand Flats is technically an organized campground, but facilities are spread out a lot further than they are at your usual KOA-type spot. Plan on pooping when you head back to town to get gas and coffee, the slickrock is hard to dig holes in.
You should also plan on bringing your own breakfast rig, because the ride back to the Diner downtown is long on an empty stomach.
Bonus Tip: Dogs Don't Seem To Love It
Wes and I had Wiley the giant puppy onboard while traversed Hell's Revenge. That pooch is adorable, but he whined and stank and painted the rear window with his nose the whole time... you might want to leave your beasts back home if they're not crazy about car rides.
Have fun, be safe, and experience an off-road adventure unlike any other in Moab, Utah!