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Backcountry Road Etiquette

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Eva shares some tips for driving the backcountry roads around Julian, CA.
This photo is copyright of Jennifer Gutierrez. © 2019 - 2022 by Jennifer Gutierrez.

Some of the greatest adventures are down two-lane roads in the middle of nowhere. For some, driving along a back road within a larger network of routes constitutes a road trip. For others, our lives are lived at both ends of country roads. It’s common knowledge that geographic areas have their own set of road rules. In the city, driving is pretty standard, and traffic is well organized. Backroad driving is a different skill set that requires some street smarts. (Pun intended.) The good news is, for the most part, the unwritten rules for driving on rural roads is customary across the board. Buckle up! I’m sharing my seasoned expertise with you. Who’s ready? Country roads take us to where we need to be.

Don’t litter.

I hate that this is where we have to start, but it’s gotta be said. Driving down a scenic road lined with litter really sucks. Don’t litter. It’s that simple. Leaving burnout marks isn't cool either. Out in the “boondocks,” there is no government entity to clean up after lazy people. Additionally, there’s no way to dispose of the trash you leave behind. Please help us maintain a clean environment for the animals and the generations to come. Anyone who litters can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to perform community service (see the law here).

Communicate your intentions when driving.

Driver communication is essential and expected. No, I’m not talking about texting while driving. That’s not safe. Your car's built-in equipment (turn signals, brake lights, hazard lights, headlights, and horn) are effective channels of communication between drivers. Drivers can easily zone out when cruising down a two-lane route. Snap out of it! Always alert other drivers way in advance of what you intend to do next. Hindsight is 20/20, so pass that along to oncoming traffic. When driving at faster speeds, a longer reaction time is required.

Flashing headlights - When oncoming traffic flashes their headlights, it means caution, slow down. It may mean there’s wildlife, an accident, a cop, a bicycle, or something ahead of you that you need to watch out for. On the contrary, when coming from a vehicle behind you, it means speed up.

Caution lights - Alert drivers that you are driving slowly for some particular reason.

Tailgating - The driver behind you is telling you to speed up.

Arm waving up and down - Slow down.

Hitchhiker - Someone extends their arm towards the road with the thumb of the closed hand pointing upward, indicating they’d like a lift.

Drive the posted speed limit.

One of the most notable variations between country and city roads is speed limits. As you make your way out of the city, the speed limits tend to increase. Vehicles are expected to keep up or pull over. This keeps traffic moving (and keeps the locals happy). If you prefer to drive under the speed limit, please pull over at the next available turnout. In California, a vehicle with at least five cars behind it is legally required to pull over. The backcountry’s unwritten rule is for slower traffic to always pull over so y’all don’t hold up traffic. When a vehicle is passing yours, slow down to allow them to pass safely. Impatience is often a key factor in car crashes that occur near my hometown. It’s best to just let these drivers pass you.

Don't tailgate.

Drivers often tailgate to tell slow drivers ahead to let those behind them pass. I completely understand the frustration of being stuck behind a car driving 25 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. When driving backcountry roads, it is vital to keep extra distance between you and the car in front of you. Traffic might come to a complete stop on a dime. Give yourself plenty of space to allow for reaction time. You really need more than the recommended one car’s distance for every 10 MPH you are traveling.

Passing usually doesn’t save time.

I can not tell you how many times someone has passed me and I end up right behind them at the nearest intersection. Use common sense when deciding on whether or not to pass a car. Can you see cars/trucks ahead of you? If so, it’s probably not worth passing one car to get stuck behind three more.

Use your headlight high beams sensibly.

Another major difference between city and country roads is viability at night. Rural communities are famous for having good stargazing. With no urban light pollution, the stars shine bright. Rural areas get dark at night... too dark for comfort. The extra light from your high beams can be helpful for driving dark roads, allowing you to see wildlife better. On the other hand, they blind oncoming drivers. Make sure to turn your brights off a few hundred feet in advance of oncoming traffic.

Be prepared for snow.

Driving in snowy conditions is another whole topic you can learn about here.

Cattle Country

Depending on your region you may be driving through cattle country. Watch out for cattle along the road.

Carry supplies.

When driving a rural route, even a small issue can turn into a big deal in the middle of nowhere. Cell phone service, auto parts stores, and fire responders are limited. This is exactly why being prepared for anything is one of my driving tips. It is important that drivers know how to do basic car repairs like changing a flat tire. By simply carrying some supplies with you, you may be able to help yourself. It is also important to carry supplies you might need while you wait for help. Here are a few things to keep in your car at all times:

  • Jumper cables

  • First aid kit

  • Kitty litter for gaining traction on slippery surfaces

  • Spare tire

  • Jack and lug wrench

  • Air pump

  • Tire pressure gauge

  • Durable multitool

  • Hazard triangles and flares

  • Safety vest

  • Blanket

  • Fire extinguisher

  • Tow straps

  • Duct tape

  • Non-perishable food and water


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