Written by Tom Severin of Badlands Off-Road Training
Four-wheelers understand that the hobby relies heavily on various technical skills (driving, spotting, recovery and so forth). Often forgotten or overlooked is that all those activities – and more – rely on good communication to be successful. The best laid plans are useless if not shared with and understood by the other participants.
The off-road nature of four-wheeling presents its own challenges when trying to communicate to the group. Whether via the radio or face-to-face, you need the right processes and tools to get your point across well.
The many ways to communicate while four-wheeling
Communication can take many forms, including:
- Face-to-face discussions (driver’s/tailgate meeting, campfire discussion)
- Standardized procedures/written instructions, such as the materials you hand out prior to the trip.
- Hand signals
- Instructions and information provided on the radio
Nearly all communicating involves some speaking, so we’ll provide added emphasis there. The presenter must speak clearly and at a moderate pace. Repeat and emphasize the really important points. Even then query the group to ensure the message got through. A simple, “Make sense?” or “Understand?” will suffice. But also ask if there are any questions. And if you’re met with silence, press further: “Really, there are no questions?”
Have the tail end repeat radio communication and instructions from the Trail leader. Vehicles near the end may not have hear it clearly and sometimes go left (or right) doesn’t “sink in” until the second time it is heard.
Some people, and especially newer four-wheelers, feel intimidated in the presence of seasoned veterans. They are uncomfortable asking what they feel is a basic question. A good Trail Leader emphasizes that it’s OK to ask any question at any time.
Occasionally an issue calls for personalized discussion. Step aside with the individual(s) for one-on-one or small-group review. Ensure they fully grasp the point(s) you’re trying to make here. Patience is a virtue. Often those who need the additional instruction are those with the least knowledge or experience. Assume the role of a mentor, and gently guide the person through the material.
Hold to routines as much as possible
Consistency helps ensure that each phase of the trip goes according to plan. The other participants come to depend on established routines and processes. The more changes you introduce, the higher probability of causing confusion and mistakes.
If, for example, you normally depart at 8:30 each morning, hold to that throughout the trip. Change it only for a really compelling reason, such as an emergency. And then make sure everyone is informed and understands. Don’t rely solely on word of mouth. Approach each person or family and ensure the message got through.
Review emergency procedures as well
Unfortunately, emergencies do occur while off-road. The proper response is critical. Good information, provided succinctly, reduces the conversation with EMS and can shorten time needed to dispatch help. Think in terms of simplicity: Who you are, where you are, what the problem is, and what you need.
Ideally, write out the information before calling. That moment of preparation allows you to compose your thoughts and gives you something to read. Emergencies can be chaotic events. Written text helps ensure a more composed discussion with EMS.
Stay with the call-taker until help has arrived or that person says it’s OK to hang up. The call-taker may ask for details not provided in your script. Plus, that helpful, assuring voice can have a soothing effect on the situation.
Make sure radio gear is operational
Speaking of corner stone, I was leading a group on a trail in Death Valley. Just around a corner was a large boulder lying partially on the trail. I grabbed the radio mic: “Watch for this rock as you come around the corner.”
The driver behind me soon repeats my message. “Watch for this rock as you come around the corner,” he said.
Immediately after him is Larry. Larry’s radio, we would learn, wasn’t operating well. It would often cut out on receive so he would miss radio traffic. As luck would have it, Larry didn’t hear either warning about the rock.
He came around the corner and smacked that boulder. Damage was significant enough that he had to go home.
I like Larry; he is a good guy. But this was a perfect example of how malfunctioning equipment jeopardized a trip. Instead of borrowing a radio after the morning radio check, Larry decided to roll the dice with his radio. And it cost him a four-wheeling experience.
Barriers to successful communication off-road
We could probably spend an entire article on this topic. But we’ll focus on one activity: Playing music instead of listening to the two-way radio. While the vehicles are in motion, it is critical that everyone pay attention to the two-way radio. They could miss a broadcast about a hazard (like the boulder above) or other important information.
Also, never play music over the two-way radio. That distracts everyone else and can interfere with an important broadcast.
Leave the music for lunch time or at the end of the day. Stay as focused as possible while on the trail. I can’t stress that enough.
Every successful four-wheeling experience entails a multitude of actions working in harmony. Proper communication is one such critical component. Regardless of the method used, make sure your message is received and understood each time.