Rental Car Off-Roading Guide (Policies Explained) [2022]

Sometimes it can be very tempting to push the limits in your rental vehicle especially when you’re renting some type of 4X4 SUV such as a Jeep or a Toyota Forerunner.

Yet, trying to push the limits by off-roading can get you into some serious trouble when it comes to what you are liable for.

In this article, I will give you some insight and tips on how to handle rental cars if you want to go off-roading. You’ll know exactly what to expect and some of the challenges that may arise.

Damage to the vehicle

When you rent a vehicle there are different types of damage that you could cause.

Generally, you could cause damage to the rental vehicle, to someone else (their person or property), to yourself, or some terrible combination of all of those.

Liability coverage is what deals with damage or injuries to others and yourself. It’s usually handled through your car insurance company although you can also sign up for that when you rent a car.

Collision damage waiver is the protection that gets you off the hook for damage to your rental vehicle and when off-roading that is typically your concern.

So in this article we are primarily focused on the potential liability you might have for the damage to the rental vehicle.

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Off roading in Sedona, AZ

What actually counts as “off-roading?”

In the simplest sense, someone might say that off-roading is taking your vehicle off the main paved roads.

But that’s not really that helpful.

If you have ever traveled to rural areas you know that there are plenty of unpaved roads that are still decent quality roads that might even require you to drive on them to get to a “non off-roading” destination.

So a more detailed definition may be needed.

Wikipedia states “Off-roading is the activity of driving or riding a vehicle on unsurfaced roads or tracks, made of materials such as sand, gravel, riverbeds, mud, snow, rocks, and other natural terrain.”

The definition is a little bit more helpful because it hits on the road being unsurfaced.  

But an unsurfaced road is any road that does not have surface treatment, which again could include relatively easy to navigate dirt or gravel roads.

The Wiki definition does offer some specifics about roads made of gravel, river beds, mud, and rocks and that gets closer to what most people would consider to be off-roading: uneven or tough terrain.

If you’re dealing with lots of uneven terrain, rocks, dips, mounds, puddles, and big potholes, that’s usually the hallmark of off-roading.

While these definitions on paper do provide some guidance ultimately I think it is up to the “eye test.”

It’s one of those things that you just “know it when you see it.”

You can ask yourself before driving into a certain area, “If I got stuck on this road, would this pass the eye test for a rental car company?”

If you’re unsure, chances are it does not pass that test.

Off roading in Jeep

How does the rental car company know you’ve been off-roading?

The context of when something goes wrong may also dictate if your vehicle is considered to be in the act of off-roading.

For example, if you have to call a rental car tow company to come get your rental car and it is covered in mud then that is probably going to be a strong indicator that you were off-roading when you caused damage to your vehicle.

That’s not to say that you can’t turn in the rental car without some mud on it but if it is damaged and covered in mud, that is where you run into the issue.

Now that you have a little bit more insight into what might be considered off-roading, let’s take a look at the protection that you might be able to get when going off road.

Credit card collision damage waiver

A good travel credit cards to provide you with collision damage waiver protection. This is why I have turned down collision damage protection from rental cars companies over the past few years.

I book pretty much every rental with the Chase Sapphire Reserve which comes with primary rental car coverage up to a high limit.

However, if you take a look at the terms and conditions you will see that off-roading becomes an issue.

First, a lot of times the coverage from the credit card will be invalidated if you violate the terms of your rental agreement.

For example, the Sapphire Reserve states you lose coverage with “Any violation of the auto rental agreement.”

As you’ll see below, several rental agreements state off-roading is a violation.

The Sapphire Reserve terms also specifically mention off-roading and says excluded is “Loss due to off-road operation of the rental vehicle.”

So while I am a big proponent of obtaining rental car coverage with a credit card, damage from off-roading will still likely be excluded.

Crossing water in Jeep

Rental agreements

Below, we’ve rounded up the policies from the major rental car companies in the US. You can see what these rental car say about off-roading verbatim. Hint: it’s not very favorable.

Just note that these policies can change and you should always refer to your specific rental car agreement for the exact policy that applies in your scenario.

Alamo

Alamo states:

“a. Renter agrees to the following limits on use:

(10) Vehicle shall not be driven on an unpaved road or off-road.”

Enterprise

“The following shall invalidate Damage Waiver: if Vehicle is damaged when used or driven: […] to tow or push anything; outside the states authorized; […] in a wanton or reckless manner or if Vehicle is deliberately damaged; on an unpaved road or off road…”

Notice how Enterprise mentions “unpaved roads.”

Hertz

Here are some terms from Hertz

“You may not use the vehicle:

Off road or on roads unsuitable for the vehicle (including racetracks).

If you do not comply with these Rental Restrictions:

– You will be responsible for any damage, losses and expenses we suffer as a result.

– You may lose the benefit of any insurance or waivers of liability you have taken.

– We may terminate the Rental Agreement and take the vehicle back at any time at your expense.”

The Hertz definition is interesting because it mentions unsuitable roads for the vehicle. So if you rented a 4X4 Jeep, a bumpy, unpaved road would not be unsuitable for a vehicle like that but it might be unsuitable for a smaller vehicle.

Turo

Here are some terms from Turo:

“Guests who engage in any Prohibited Uses with a vehicle booked through Turo, may face a penalty fee, suspension, and/or removal from the platform. If you’re the primary guest, it’ll lower your liability coverage to state minimum limits or nullify coverage where allowable by applicable state law. If the host has encouraged you to engage in a Prohibited Use, we may similarly reduce their coverage. If you engage in any Prohibited Uses, it will also eliminate any coverage for any claims related to physical damage.

  • other than on paved roads (whether “off-roading,” driving on unimproved roads or parking areas,” or otherwise).”

The Turo definition mentions unimproved roads which is another way of describing roads with lots of potholes and bumpy areas.

Avis

Here are some terms from Avis:

“14. Prohibited Use of the Car. Certain uses of the car and other actions you or a driver may take, or fail to take, will violate the Rental Agreement. A VIOLATION OF THIS PARAGRAPH, WILL AUTOMATICALLY TERMINATE YOUR RENTAL AND IS AN EXCLUSION TO AND VOIDS ALL LIABILITY PROTECTION AND ANY OPTIONAL SERVICES THAT YOU HAVE ACCEPTED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO SUPPLEMENTAL LIABILITY INSURANCE, PERSONAL ACCIDENT INSURANCE, PERSONAL EFFECTS INSURANCE, ANY ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE PLAN, EMERGENCY SICKNESS PROTECTION AND LOSS DAMAGE WAIVER (LDW) OR PARTIAL DAMAGE WAIVER. IT ALSO MAKES YOU LIABLE TO US FOR ALL PENALTIES, FINES, FORFEITURES, LIENS AND RECOVERY AND STORAGE COSTS, INCLUDING ALL RELATED ATTORNEYS’ FEES, LEGAL EXPENSES, FEES AND COSTS THAT WE MAY INCUR. It is a violation of this Paragraph if any of the following occurs:

4) to be operated in a test, race or contest or on unpaved roads.”

Once again we see unpaved roads in the definition.

Budget

Here are some terms from Budget:

“14. Prohibited Use of the Car. Certain uses of the car and other actions you or a driver may take, or fail to take, will violate the Rental Agreement. A VIOLATION OF THIS PARAGRAPH, WILL AUTOMATICALLY TERMINATE YOUR RENTAL AND IS AN EXCLUSION TO AND VOIDS ALL LIABILITY PROTECTION AND ANY OPTIONAL SERVICES THAT YOU HAVE ACCEPTED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO SUPPLEMENTAL LIABILITY INSURANCE, PERSONAL ACCIDENT INSURANCE, PERSONAL EFFECTS INSURANCE, ANY ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE PLAN, EMERGENCY SICKNESS PROTECTION AND LOSS DAMAGE WAIVER (LDW) OR PARTIAL DAMAGE WAIVER. IT ALSO MAKES YOU LIABLE TO US FOR ALL PENALTIES, FINES, FORFEITURES, LIENS AND RECOVERY AND STORAGE COSTS, INCLUDING ALL RELATED ATTORNEYS’ FEES, LEGAL EXPENSES, FEES AND COSTS THAT WE MAY INCUR. It is a violation of this Paragraph if any of the following occurs:

4) to be operated in a test, race or contest or on unpaved roads

This is the same definition used for Avis.

Dollar

Here are some terms from Dollar:

“d. ENGAGE IN ANY WILLFUL OR WANTON MISCONDUCT, WHICH, AMONG OTHER THINGS, MAY INCLUDE RECKLESS CONDUCT SUCH AS: THE FAILURE TO USE SEAT BELTS, THE FAILURE TO USE CHILD SEATS OR OTHER CHILD RESTRAINTS WHERE LEGALLY REQUIRED, USE WHEN OVERLOADED, USE OFF PAVED ROADS OR ON ROADS WHICH ARE NOT REGULARLY MAINTAINED, LEAVING THE CAR AND FAILING TO REMOVE THE KEYS, OR FAILING TO CLOSE AND LOCK ALL DOORS, CAR WINDOWS OR THE TRUNK;”

In this definition, there’s a focus on off paved roads and roads which are not regularly maintained.

Thrifty

Here are some terms from Thrifty:

“The vehicle is driven in restricted areas, including airport service roads and associated areas, or on a road notified to you as prohibited by Thrifty or off-road (eg. on fire trails, tracks, fields or paddocks) (unless specified in writing by Thrifty).”

National

Here are some terms from National:

“When deciding whether or not to purchase LDW, Renter may wish to check with Renter’s insurance representative or credit card company to determine whether, in the event of damage to, or theft of, Vehicle, Renter has coverage or protection for such damage or theft and the amount of Renter’s deductible or out-of-pocket risk.

(10) on an unpaved road or off road;

a. if Vehicle is damaged when used or driven:

(10) on an unpaved road or off road;

The following shall invalidate LDW:

(9) towing or pushing anything or if operation of the vehicle is off road;

e. the damage or loss arises out of the use of the vehicle to carry persons
or property for hire, to push or tow anything, while engaged in a speed contest,
operating off road, or for driver’s training.”

Sixt

Here are some terms from Sixt

“(e) arises out of the use of the Vehicle to carry persons or property
for hire, to push or tow anything, while engaged in a speed contest, operating
off road

(g) is caused by driving on unpaved roads

(iv) operation of the vehicle on an unpaved road if the damage or loss is
a direct result of the road or driving conditions

(7) is caused by driving on unpaved roads

(iii) use of the Vehicle to push or tow anything, or on an unpaved road if the damage or loss is a direct result of the road or driving conditions.”

Something to be aware of is that a lot of these companies include “towing” in the terms.

Alternatives

As you can tell, the rental agreements from all of the major car rental companies explicitly exclude off-roading or activities that would be considered off-roading.

It’s very clear that if you cause damage while off-roading you pretty much void your liability coverage and could be held personally responsible for the damage to the vehicle.

But there are some alternatives that you might want to think about.

In areas known for off-roading such as Moab, Utah or areas around Death Valley National Park, some places will rent to you knowing that you have the intention to go off-roading.

Some of these places may offer packages that cover you for punctured tires or chipped windshield but you still will likely be responsible for major damage to the vehicle.

For example, CliffHanger Jeep rental states:

While the Jeep is rented to you, it is basically your vehicle.  You will be responsible to pay for any damage that is done to the vehicle while in your possession.  We do offer a tire and glass coverage for $25.00 per day that will cover the repair/replacement of 1 tire, and any glass damage. If you take it slow and are careful there shouldn’t be any problems.

So while you might be responsible for the damage, at least you are not in violation of the rental agreement which might just make your life a little bit easier if things did go wrong.

Tips for avoiding damage

Go slow

The biggest tip I have is to just drive very slow when off-roading. It’s usually much safer to crawl along a rocky road than it is to try to gun it.

It might test your patience if you have to put in several miles but it is definitely going to be the safer route, especially when it comes to rental cars.

Reverse and plan

One of the biggest tips for off-roading is to use reverse as often as you need.

If you are not confident in the line you are taking then simply reverse a few feet, re-plan your move, and then proceed slowly.

Stay away from other cars

If you’re driving on a gravel path with a lot of tiny rocks, one of the worst things you can do is ride someone’s tail.

That’s because their vehicle will be spitting up rocks and you are just begging for your windshield to get cracked or something else to get dinged.

Try to keep as much distance between your vehicle and other vehicles as possible.

Test out water depth

If you’re dealing with spillways, water crossings, creeks, etc., you don’t always know how deep they are. This is especially true if the water is not clear and you just have to guesstimate.

When it comes to a rental car, that is not a good idea because if you did get into water too deep you would have to call the tow company out to that spot which would be a dead giveaway as to what you were up to.

Instead, get out of the vehicle and walk through the water crossing.

I carry a trekking pole with me so that I can poke around for hidden potholes beneath the water as well. It might slow you down a little bit but it will give you some confidence when driving through water.

Final word

Taking your rental vehicle off road is doable but you have to be aware of the consequences. Virtually every company is going to make you personally responsible if you’re caught damaging the vehicle while off-roading.

In some cases, there will be room for interpretation as to what counts as “off-roading” but it is probably best to play it safe when it comes to these rental car companies. They can be extremely difficult to deal with sometimes.

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