How To Ascend a Steep Hill While Off-Roading

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.

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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.

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 

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

Start the Climb

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

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.

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.


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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