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The map simply shows it's not paved. But does that mean it's a decent dirt road that an ordinary car can handle, or is high clearance and/or 4x4 need? How would I go about finding out?

(Yes, this about the outdoors--I'm interested in the trailhead down the road.)

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    Which road, exactly? Nov 1 '20 at 21:17
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    @GregHewgill I don't have a name for it, just a line on the map. Nov 1 '20 at 22:17
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    I have found the same "poor" quality road indication can mean very different things in different parts of the US. Nov 2 '20 at 1:13
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    You don't need to know it's name to tell us where it is. Find it on google maps and right-click to get the latitude and longitude.
    – csk
    Nov 2 '20 at 1:17
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    It should be noted that Google maps and other aerial views can often be useful to assess road state, but they aren't that useful to assess if the road whether open of there is a barrier closing it to all vehicles except park services, residents or especially authorised vehicles. That's often the biggest problem in some parts of the world.
    – Pere
    Nov 3 '20 at 18:15
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But does that mean it's a decent dirt road that an ordinary car can handle, or is high clearance and/or 4x4 need? How would I go about finding out?

You ask locals. It's the only way.

No map will tell you how frequently a road is maintained. Even maps that tell you whether you need 4WD or 2WD, as some road maps do, can at best tell you to what level it is maintained, but depending on conditions a rarely maintained road may still be 2WD-accessible. A road in RU-KO on which I took a mountain taxi to Europe's largest national park (Yugyd Va) is accessible by ultra-high-clearance 6WD only (averaging less than 20 km/h), but Google Maps and Openstreetmap will happily navigate people into getting stuck there (4 hours into our way back my driver tried to convince the driver of a SUV we met to turn around, as he wouldn't stand a chance). In US-AZ, after research online and emails to park rangers, we rented a high-clearance 4WD to get to the Whitmore Overlook but I still walked the last 10 km (we did make it to the Tuweap Overlook by car).

If you find a forum post describing the conditions 5 years ago, that's great, if you had been going there 5 years ago. Any weather event can change a 2WD-accessible road to a 4WD-only road or block the road completely. On rarely used roads, you may not find frequently updated information online. So you ask a local. In the United States you are lucky, as public areas are very well managed and there are always park rangers you can call or email (but even there I expect that for some roads the answer may be "we haven't been there since 3 years ago, so we're not sure"), and you'll have an adventure (take wilderness precautions). In Russia it may be harder. I didn't even consider doing my own driving to Yugyd Va, I booked transportation, and it was the right decision.

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    I hadn't though about the issue of the situation changing--it doesn't change much here but storms sometimes take out roads. I accepted this answer because I actually solved it this way indirectly. I found another trail from the road that had a review that recommended 4wd. Nov 2 '20 at 15:44
  • @LorenPechtel - I just watched a YouTube video last night of someone on the Madano Pass road in Great Sand Dunes park. The 11 mile drive up to the pass was fun. Then it started to rain (big Rocky Mountain thunderstorm). The road deteriorated rapidly, and they eventually encountered a 5 meter deep washout across the road that, of course, had not been there an hour before. No driving home that way. Eventually they took the long detour back up and over the pass and 150km around to their campsite without further issues.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 5 '20 at 15:43
  • @JonCuster They were lucky to make it home at all..
    – gerrit
    Nov 5 '20 at 17:52
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The easiest way is to just drive it. You need a "certain tolerance" for minor wear and tear and bumps to your car and some cars are better suited than others, but with a bit of patience and by taking your time you can pass by a lot of roads with a 2WD. For example I have a stick shift Civic, I'm quite happy going on lots of really bad roads here in BC.

Then again, if I had a brand new Tesla, I wouldn't be doing this.

Most of the time, our unpaved forestry service roads are somewhat OK to drive on with 2WD. Because we have a lot of recreational hikers, fishermen and hunters, we also have a local publisher that sells printed maps covering the whole province with a lot more info about road conditions than you would ever find in a normal road map. Could be you have something similar in your area.

Typically what will happen is that a road starts out OK and then gets worse as you go on. If it starts out bad, then it will almost never get better.

Hills or mountains are also an indication of possibly bad conditions. If your road crosses a lot of contour lines, not a good sign. With hindsight too: I've gone up roads where the Civic, being a 2WD, literally was sliding backwards from it being too steep. Obviously, that can be dangerous on icy terrain or near ditches. But another risk is if you do manage to go down, going forward, but that extreme slope traps when you try to make it back.

Err on the side of caution. And that, includes, as Chris has said, paying close attention to how difficult turning around would be. If you had to reverse, how long would that be? If it looks like it would be difficult to abandon and head back, head back sooner rather than later.

When you find that you are consistently going over your tolerance, punishing your suspension, finding unavoidable pot holes or snagging on stuff underneath, best to back off. Also, don't do this at night, you can't see potholes.

Still "4WD-needed" is a relative term, esp in individuals' feedback. Most of our $$$ 4WD hereabouts have seen much less unpaved road than my Civic and I've had people warn me off driving an unchallenging 30m to a camping spot because I wasn't in a 4x4. Someone who does a lot of backcountry told me modern SUVs can be crap too: often meant for trips to the mall, too many have insufficient ground clearance.

Alternatively, you could drive up a while and then proceed on a bicycle. Road bikes are totally out but a solid hybrid or mountainbike can easily handle much rougher roads than a car can. That might require you to split up your hike into 2 trips: 1 road recon, 1 actual hike.

But often trail reviews will include everyone's complaints about the access road. Trail reviews without them hint at a tolerable road.

Last, but not least. Depending on your location, winter may not be the best of time to navigate too much in the backcountry. Consider taking along a 406MHz band sat rescue beacon and stocking your car with some emergency supplies.

In fact, since you've mentioned Covid already: our local Search and Rescue group strongly recommends people not venture in difficult terrain right now. Rescue ops necessarily involve bringing a lot of people together.

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    An implicit assumption prevents me upvoting: some of these roads can be too narrow to turn around and deteriorate very suddenly. That could mean a lot of reversing to get back out. Sooner or later you have to try it, but only once you've got a level of confidence from prior sources. Another bad sign to look out for is roads crossing water without an explicit bridge. Fords and the approaches to them are often the worst bits
    – Chris H
    Nov 2 '20 at 12:14
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    @ChrisH I'd recommend getting good at reversing either way before attempting to drive on dirt roads.
    – Mast
    Nov 2 '20 at 15:04
  • I carry an inReach and winter hasn't closed in yet--at that elevation it's still shorts weather. Nov 2 '20 at 15:42
  • @Mast I drive a campervan and often down narrow lanes - if I meet something bigger or towing coming the other way it's me that's backing up, so I'm not too bad using mirrors and camera (even if I meet a car driver who can't or won't). But you can't see so clearly where you're putting your wheels going backwards, even with a rear window so if you're dodging potholes it's going to be hard work. And if you're towing a trailer of toys...
    – Chris H
    Nov 2 '20 at 16:06
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    Re your point about winter, I used to work on engine controls at Ford. Ford's company-wide safety case if key software or sensors went wrong was to stop the engine and wait for roadside assistance, because if the car kept going and ran into someone then Ford would be sued. After Ford bought Volvo, we found that Volvo had exactly the opposite safety case - if things went wrong, the car drove more slowly, but it had to keep going. The reason was that if your car cuts out in a Swedish winter, you've got about 2 hours max before you freeze to death, and they'd be sued for killing the driver.
    – Graham
    Nov 2 '20 at 20:29
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Has the road been mapped by Street-view? If not does Street-view go along an intersecting road? If so you might be able to get some pictures of the start or all of the road respectively.

You can also look for commentary about the trail online or find local (to the area of the trail) hiking groups and/or 4WD groups that might have better knowledge.

In my experience there are no guarantees that any given road will be maintained to a standard that any car can pass, unless that road is a sealed and/or moderately trafficked road - ones with houses along them tend to be better maintained than ones in forested/wilderness areas.

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  • It's not a popular trail--which is my objective, these days I want as few people around as possible. The only information I can find on the trail says nothing about the road. Wilderness (near a city, though), but reasonably flat and it's desert. Nov 1 '20 at 22:19
  • Is one end of that road on a more significant road? If so, streetview will probably have a reasonable view of it. Nov 3 '20 at 22:38
  • @user3482749 I've been caught out many times by the few tens of metres StreetView captures at one or both ends being much better than the rest of the track. Usually on the touring bike, leading to some hiking, never any drama.
    – Chris H
    Jan 11 at 16:15
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In OpenStreetMap many roads have the key "surface". Its value should give a good idea of the road conditions.

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    I was going to say something similar, with a couple of notes: (i) the easiest way to inspect this is with an editor account (free and I believe fairly anonymous); (ii) the tag isn't always set (correctly) - I checked a couple of gravel roads; one is tagged but the one meeting it is untagged. And then of course "gravel" for a road/track surface covers a wide range and things can change fairly quickly
    – Chris H
    Nov 2 '20 at 10:48
  • It sounds like that wouldn't tell me more than I already know--it's not paved. Nov 2 '20 at 15:37
  • Please flesh out this answer with some more details.
    – Martin F
    Nov 2 '20 at 19:07
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    More useful is the smoothness key (displayed in OSMAnd as blue, pink, or red highlighting). Anything worse than "bad" (light pink) is probably not suitable for an ordinary car.
    – Mark
    Nov 3 '20 at 2:16
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    Another tool on openstreetmap.com is the "inspect" icon (mouse pointer with question mark). Have a play before getting too far. An example I've just checked has smoothness=horrible and tracktype=grade2 - there's a degree of subjectivity, partly caused by assessments from people travelling by different means
    – Chris H
    Jan 11 at 16:18
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Remember, any vehicle is an off-road vehicle if you don't care about it.

All kidding aside, OnX Offroad is a great app you can download that usually has trail conditions, accessibility, and closure info for a surprising number of trails and roads. Ranger stations are also a great resource, just pop in and ask, they're usually very friendly.

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  • If the problem is getting high centered it's not an off-road vehicle. Dec 30 '20 at 19:18
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Just by looking at your average map there's really no way to know for sure. For a particular example you can look on google maps at Sedona, Arizona. If you zoom to the 1 mi scale you'll see Schnebly Hill Road going east, which looks like a reasonable way to get to the highway. In reality, even in good conditions you would want a 4x4 designed for trails to drive it. It's quite possible to slide off the road into a ditch in many areas. On the other hand, there's many dirt roads in Arizona which look identical to that road on the map and can be handled by basically any car.

You may be able to come to a determination based on satellite images of the road. In the case of schnebly hill road, it's popular enough that there are many videos on youtube of people driving it.

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    Google Maps is generally useless for outdoor recreation purposes.
    – gerrit
    Nov 2 '20 at 9:43
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    @gerrit's right, but the canonical outdoor maps in the UK (Ordnance Survey) use the same "other road, drive or track" marking for forest fire roads I'd take any car down (cautiously) and stuff that dirt bikers ride if they like a challenge - compare 25s and 40s in this YouTube timelpase I took. It got rather challenging on a touring bike.
    – Chris H
    Nov 2 '20 at 10:52
  • ... or they mark the access not the surface - a UK "byway open to all traffic" is legal to drive, but some I cycled recently would need very high ground clearance and a lot of grip. I couldn't get my mountain bike up some of the slopes for wheelspin. Others would be fine in a 2WD
    – Chris H
    Nov 2 '20 at 11:33
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    @ChrisH Yes — even the best topographic map isn't good enough to know what a road will be like, in particularly not what it will be like today.
    – gerrit
    Nov 2 '20 at 11:35
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With a combination of Google earth satellite views, calTopo, and local govt aerial surveillance, I can get to a very high degree of certainty of the road condition. If you want to post the location, I can take a look at it and let you know what to expect.

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Komoot may have the answer, if they know about that area and it's been classified well.

Here's an example (https://www.komoot.com/plan/tour/d09_WbV2ApJ0d8=FwgABLDx09EA/@-43.6021797,172.6347828,14z):

  • Road/paved is drivable by any car.
  • Road/gravel is probably drivable.
  • Cycleway paved or gravel is probably not for driving, because of the width.
  • Doubletrack might be drivable, but it depends a lot on the condition. This is essentially two wheel tracks, so one rock in the middle can ruin your underpinnings.
  • Singletrack is absolutely not wide enough for a vehicle larger than a motorcycle.

Enter image description here

You should also take the posted gradient into account. 10% feels steep in a car, 30% is about as much as any average car can take on dry paved surface, and decreases when wet.

I have driven the route noted above years ago, and it absolutely required a 4WD in the upper sections. But the first section was just a hillside road, which deteriorated as you got higher.

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    Isn’t Komoot just using OSM data, so your answer overlaps with lejonet’s?
    – Michael
    Nov 3 '20 at 11:15
  • @Michael I thought it also used submissions and corrections from users,
    – Criggie
    Nov 3 '20 at 12:13
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    @Criggie I believe for surface type it's almost exclusively interpreting OSM's data (with quite a lag, there are bits I've fixed in OSM that are still wrong in Komoot). User submissions seem to be overlays or bug reports more related to routing than data (I can mark a bit as unsuitable or impassable, to correct "unpaved" to "paved" means selecting "report problem", "other" and free text.
    – Chris H
    Nov 5 '20 at 11:31
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    ... Also much of what's described as singletrack round here isn't really. It would seem like it on an MTB, but there's another parallel rut for the other wheels of a serious 4WD
    – Chris H
    Nov 5 '20 at 11:34
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Comparing satelite google view with a road you know and the road in question is the only way other than talking to someone who has been there, or going yourself. In the two roads you gave in a comment above, both to me look fine for a vehicle with reasonable clearance.

Signs that a road is out of use:

  • grass growing on centre strip.
  • grassed shoulders, showing that it hasn't been graded recently.
  • "Parallel sheep trail" when you have 2 two foot wide trails with about 3-4 feet of green between them shows a road that gets very infrequent use.
  • Windfall right on edge of road. (Casual use will only move it enough to get by)
  • Shadows of erosion gulches, particularly on steep sections and on/near hairpin turns.
  • Shadows of rock fall where the road passes talus slopes.

The resolution of these pix looks good enough that anything larger than 6" vertically should cast some kind of shadow.

Where there is a pic of a vehicle (at trail head) it's clear that the road is wide enough for two way traffic.

Consider this: 53.459683, -118.292208 This is the Rock Lake trail head at Willmore wilderness.

At one point there was coal mining in the park.

You can see the old road. It has numerous sections that are muddy for weeks after a hard rain. It crosses the creek about here: 53.471791, -118.342911. At that point you need a vehicle that can handle 12-18" of water.

So the trailhead road is easily handled by most cars. I've parked there several times in my Subaru.

The road beyond may get used once or twice a year by rangers, probably either coming with a 4WD pickup or a quad, or possibly pack horses. (It's nominally a horse park.)

But different terrain will make for different patterns. The Basin & Range country in the American southwest holds vehicle tracks for decades. Your best bet is to look at places on google satellite view and compare roads that you know are passible and roads you know aren't. You will occasionally get into a situation where you have to back up or 5 miles, but it will be an adventure.

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