Here’s Why There Is A Burning Smell After Off-Roading

Off-roading will often take its toll on a vehicle. The rough terrain pushes the vehicle to its limits and it’s not uncommon to have a breakdown. An indicator of a pending or current breakdown is an abnormal smell coming from the vehicle. You may notice it in the moment or once you have gotten back to the main road. Either way, it’s imperative to find the source of the smell and fix it.

Why is there a burning smell after off-roading? A burning smell from your vehicle after off-roading occurs because of fluid leaks, burning rubber from tires, or burning plastic. Off-roading will quickly heat up most components within your vehicle and exacerbates pre existing issues. It is important to search for the origins of the burning smells and fix the problem relatively quickly.

This article will get into the various causes of burning smells and what they indicate as well as why they may have occurred while off-roading. In addition, we will look into how to fix the causes of various smells and how to prevent those issues from happening.

Different Kinds Of Burning Smell After Off-Roading

Oil leak – An oil leak has a foul smell, almost like exhaust. It will also likely be accompanied by a bit of smoke, depending on the size of the leak. 

Coolant leak – Coolant has a sweet smell to it due to the ethylene glycol content. Burning coolant will have a strong sweet smell and will also be accompanied by a bit of smoke or steam.

Transmission fluid leak – One of the most distinct and awful smells is the smell of automatic transmission fluid. It is much worse if it has been burning. It can be identified by a slightly tart or sweet smell.

Burning rubber – This smell can come from a couple different sources. First, and perhaps most obvious, is burning tires. However, this could also potentially come from a belt which is slipping and burning up. 

Burning brakes/clutch – This is sometimes described as being similar to burning hair, but once you associate the smell of hot or burning brakes, it’s extremely recognizable.

Burning plastic – Another smell that can have multiple sources is the smell of burning plastic. There are plenty of plastic parts throughout a modern vehicle and none of them should be burning. 

“Rotten egg” smell – This is an odd smell to come from a machine, but this rotten egg smell is actually the smell of exhaust before it has gone through the catalytic converter. This smell comes from the sulfuric gasses found in the exhaust stream.

How Did The Smells Start After Off-Roading?

There are plenty of reasons a vehicle can have issues with burning smells. Sometimes, it just comes down to the quality of the vehicle or its age. The reason why an odd smell comes on after off-roading may purely be a coincidence.

However, there are reasons specific to off-roading that can cause these issues, but they may not always happen the same way. This arrticle will generally cover what might happen.

First, a burning oil smell after going off road is a serious issue. Oil is critical to engine operation and any loss could result in severe engine damage. The smell could be coming from a seal that finally let go. A common one is the valve cover gasket. Otherwise, the engine oil pan is the only component exposed to being damaged. However, if it is damaged, the oil will probably leak out.

Coolant can spill for a few different reasons. Off-roading can cause the engine to run hot since there isn’t as much air flow compared to normal road driving. A common issue is the coolant reservoir blowing off excess coolant out of the overflow line. This is actually built in to control the spill if the engine happens to overheat. Other issues could be a failed radiator hose which is leaking coolant or spraying it onto the hot exhaust. This loss of coolant is almost as bad as losing oil.

When it comes to a transmission fluid leak, there are a few places it can come from. The most common is probably going to be the lines that connect the cooler to the transmission. These aren’t necessarily exposed, but they do see a bit of wear and tear. Likewise, the cooler is just behind the grill and can be exposed to damage. 

Burning rubber smell is probably coming from the tires, but most likely due to something bending and rubbing against the tire as it spins. It could be a suspension component or something like a mud flap. This could happen from hitting an obstacle too hard. 

Smelling hot brakes or clutch is probably going to be common on climbs and during tricky driving. The real concern should happen when the smell starts suddenly and continues for a long period of time. This could indicate a stuck brake caliper or damaged brake pad or clutch disc. 

Similar to the hot brake smell, if you suddenly smell burning plastic, there is a real concern. Sometimes, if the smell is gradual or minimal, it can be difficult to pinpoint. But a sudden onset is concerning. This could indicate melting wiring, which is a serious issue. Likewise, if there is a piece of plastic getting hot enough to melt, it could turn into a fire, which is a concern for your safety, the safety of your passengers, and the safety of your vehicle.

Finally, the rotten egg smell is due to a failing catalytic converter. The exhaust gasses get treated in the catalytic converter into CO2 and H2O, which are virtually odorless. However, the untreated exhaust stream has sulfuric gasses and hydrocarbons that smell bad. A catalytic converter could plausibly get damaged while off-roading, but most likely it would have failed due to other reasons. 

How To Fix The Burning Smells After Off-Roading

If you are doing any off-roading, you should be able to perform repairs as needed. Things like changing wheels, swapping drivelines, and so on. This takes a good amount of preparation and knowledge. It also requires bringing enough tools and supplies to get the job done. 

As far as each of the situations mentioned above, each case is going to be different and each repair will be fitted to what needs to be done. In the most severe cases, the vehicle will need to be hauled out to a qualified repair shop for proper diagnosing and repairing. Sometimes the repair is too big to be done out in the wilderness. 

However, a certain amount of diagnosing skill can go a long way. First, knowing what the smells are can narrow down the search. Likewise, a visual inspection of the vehicle will often reveal the problem. For the trickier cases, it takes a bit of trial and error to pinpoint the issue. Once a repair is made, verify it will keep before proceeding. Otherwise, the issue will perpetuate and possibly lead to other issues.

What To Do To Prevent These Problems

There is no way to prevent all accidents. However, there are a few precautions to take that can mitigate a lot of those accidents. The first is to do a pre-trip inspection on your rig before embarking. Doing a walk around and looking under the hood for any issues can go a long way. Also, checking all fluids, including engine oil, coolant, gear oil, etc., can make the difference between a good day and a bad day. A pre trip inspection also includes noting any driveability issues, such as alignment, check engine codes, strange noises, etc.

Aside from knowing the vehicle, there are a couple of modifications that can help protect the vehicle. The two most common ones are skid plates and bumpers. Skid plates (link to Amazon) are made out of steady steel designed to protect the undercarriage. Likewise, upgrading the bumper can protect the vehicle in addition to serving as a winch mounting point(If you visit the hyperlink, make sure to search for skid plates specifically tailored to your type of car.)

Finally, another strategy to prevent accidents is to use caution and to not drive beyond your skill and ability. While it can be fun and exciting to attack the unknown, making poor decisions can lead to a rough day. Skill and experience go hand in hand, so traveling with an experienced group will help the trip be a success.

Should You Stop If You Smell Something Burning While Off-Roading?

Knowing whether to stop or not can be a tough call. For one, it signals the end of what would otherwise be a fun day. On the other hand, if something breaks down, it’s not going to get better by pushing your vehicle to its limits. Use good judgment when something goes down and err on the side of caution. There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer, but it is important to be logical while off-roading.


Vehicles can make a lot of different smells, some of them are more serious than others. It also isn’t always obvious, so take some time to know your vehicle and look for any potential issues. Fitting skid plates or upgraded bumpers can help protect important components from damage. Be prepared for when something does break down and practice good judgment about whether or not to stop before things get worse.

Related Questions

Does off-roading damage your car? Off-roading will damage your vehicle as it will exert more force and torsion on every system, wearing out parts a lot faster than normal use. The most common damage done to vehicles when offroading is scratched paint, dented rocker panels, damaged lower control arms, and scratched oil pans. Larger damages can include a broken driveline or transmission. Click here to see the full article.

Why might a car shake after off-roading? Some common reasons a car shakes after off-roading may include the wheels getting out of balance, the driveshaft being bent and/or the U joints coming apart, and the wheels getting out of alignment from the rough terrain. Some less common culprits may include problems with the engine, transmission, transfer case, or differentials. To view the full article, click here.

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