Land & Conservation

Mud Hole Etiquette

How to properly navigate a dirt road’s muck-filled abysses while not making them worse for the next driver

Photo: Adobe Stock

Southerners know a thing or two about manners. And mud holes. So it only makes sense there exists a crossroads—albeit a bumpy, mucky crossroads—where the twain shall meet.

Mud hole etiquette? Beg pardon for shouting—but yes! As with bridal showers and elevators, there are rules for negotiating the slick craters ubiquitous to our rural and field routes. (And just like at bridal showers, there is a strong possibility of mud being slung.)

To get the literal lowdown on dirt-road decorum, we turn to the Emily Post of mud holes, Travis Folk, a wildlife biologist and mapmaker who ponders these customs while logging endless miles across the rural environs of South Carolina. (So he knows of what he regularly power-washes off his intrepid 2005 Toyota Highlander.)

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“I live in the Lowcountry, so by definition I encounter mud holes every day,” Folk says. “We’ve had wet summers here for five of the last six years, so some holes just never dry up.”

Even before Folk was old enough to see over the steering wheel, he was drilled on mud hole protocol by his father. “He’s a former Marine, so you can imagine the ferocity with which he’d blast us on the subject,” Folk says.

As with most matters of manners, the end goal is to be considerate of others. When you approach a boggy trough in your path and feel the urge to floor the accelerator until you reach the dry ground on the other side, resist! “The general theory is that if enough vehicles have gone through, there is already a hard bottom, so you want to drive through the middle of the mud hole slowly so that most of that water stays in the hole,” Folk says. “If you plow through it fast and hard, you splash water out, plus suspended sediment that’s in that water, which only makes the hole deeper and wider for the next driver.”

Folk admits there is a subtle balance between propriety and self-preservation. “If you go too slow, you might not have enough momentum,” he says. “If you start getting stuck, increase your speed while you have any friction left at all. That’s the gentle play—there’s a real art to driving through these holes. It gets like life sometimes, where you’re picking the least worst option.”

That’s sound science and philosophy. But can’t you just navigate around the abyss? 

“Going around compacts the soils at the edges, which makes them lower and more susceptible for taking in and holding water. It’s like trying to build a sand castle with wet sand,” Folk says. “You’re just going to create a mucky mess that’s going to last the whole season and make the next person, or property owner, deal with an even bigger hole. Plus, you can have significant impact on the ecology of the understory, such as delicate grasses.”

If the depth of a mud hole is a mystery, Folk advises simply poking it with a tree limb. “If it’s really deep, I just park and walk,” he says. “There are worse things than taking a walk in the woods.”