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Top Tips For Off-Road Driving

The science of terramechanics is all very well (see last week’s post), but when you’re actually behind the wheel of a 4×4 and looking at a rugged bit of off-road track, you aren’t going to get out your calculator… and you probably don’t know all the specs and stats of the soil you’re about to drive over anyway. If you’re in this situation, what you need is some practical information. To help you with this, I’ve talked to one of the best off-road drivers that I know and have got his top tips for off-road driving.

Number 1: If In Doubt, Don’t

Sure, you want to get a thrill from taking your bush-basher off to bash some bush, but every vehicle has its limits. If the terrain looks a bit too gnarly and you’re not sure if your vehicle can handle it, then don’t risk it. It’s no fun getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, trying to use your muscles to free something that weighs at least a ton or more. It’s particularly not fun if you’ve killed your engine by getting water into where it shouldn’t be. Know your limits when it comes to approach angles, descent angles, ground clearance and water depth.

Number 2: Have Some Backup

If you’re heading out into the back of beyond, it’s a good idea to have a friend along, or at least let people know where you’re heading and roughly when you’re likely to be back – and preferably both. If you have another person along in another 4×4, then there’s another vehicle with lots of traction that can pull you out or off or up. Letting people know your plans is also helpful if something dire happens, as they can send out a search party. Locator beacons may be a step too far for some people, but at least make sure that your phone is fully charged (you may be lucky enough to get coverage).

Number 3: Control Your Speed Up And Down Hills

Heading up or down a steep and slippery incline requires some decent skill at controlling your speed.  Descending requires pointing straight down the hill and a gear high enough to utilise the traction of your 4WD system.  Too low a gear and you’ll quickly skate down the slope out of control.  Braking while descending a steep, slippery surface will also cause the wheels to lock, followed by a very quick and bumpy ride to the bottom of the hill – if you haven’t turned A over T in the meantime.  Ascending a steep and slippery slope requires strong acceleration straight up the hill the right gear to give you good momentum.  If you can’t make it up, flick the gears into reverse and back straight back down the line you came up at a speed that won’t cause your vehicle to outrun the wheels, turning so that you get into a slide for a quick descent in record time. Unable to remember all that? Get an experienced driver to act as your offroad driving instructor the first two or three times… or five.

Number 4: When Approaching A Body Of Water, Make Sure You Keep Your Air Intake Out Of It

Can you breathe underwater? No – didn’t think so. You need oxygen to function. So does your engine (oxygen’s like that). If the water’s so deep it gets into your air intake, it will go into your engine and cause all sorts of hassles, which start with messing with the ratio of oxygen to fuel, and then continue from there. The water will make the parts seize up and your engine will die.

Most serious 4x4s have their air intakes in sensible places but it’s a good idea to know where it is exactly and avoid going through anything deeper than that – or even anything almost as deep as that, as waves caused by your wake and by the motion of going through the water can splash up. Test the water with a stick or by walking ahead and checking before you plough ahead (and, depending on where you are in Australia, keep an eye out for crocs).

Snorkels can be fitted to a 4×4. These things, which resemble an elephant’s trunk, put the opening of the air intake a lot higher – above the top of the vehicle itself in some cases. If you want to do a lot of river crossings, then one of these can be worth investing in.

Number 5: When Driving On Sand, Deflate Your Tyres

Let the air out of your tyres as this gives you more traction over sand (terramechanics in action again). This will increase the amount of surface area and spread the applied force and torque (and all the other factors) across it, meaning that your tyres will bite into the sand rather than digging a hole in it.

Number 6: Ensure that the 4×4 Function Is Engaged and Properly Locked In Before Tackling A Gnarly Patch

If your vehicle is a part-time 4×4, then don’t head into the rough stuff, put on the AWD function before you get started, not just before (or just after) you get stuck.

Number 7: Have The Right Tyres

We’re back to the terramechanics, but in this case, someone has already got out the calculator, namely the designer of the tyres. Serious off-roading requires the right tyre design with plenty of good tread. Slicks are no good for you here, and even some road tyres can’t cut the mustard. Naturally, you need to make sure that the tyres are inflated to the right pressure (which will vary) and that they’re in good condition.  Mudgrip tyres are great for (you guessed it) mud!

Number 8: Pack Your Survival Kit

If you’re heading out into the wilderness in your 4×4, it’s time to release your inner Bear Grylls and be prepared for emergency situations – for you and your vehicle.

Your personal survival kit should include food and water (more than you think you will need for a day trip, just in case), clothing for all weather types, an emergency blanket and a sturdy pair of footwear (sports shoes are fine for driving in but are hopeless if you have to get out and walk through bush – swap shoes before you drive if you have to). You should also have a good first aid kit. Check out some more ideas for what should be in a survival kit from a good book or website (condoms for improvised water bottles, fish hooks and water purification tablets spring to mind).

Your vehicle’s survival kit should include a shovel for moving boulders, levelling out ruts and similar jobs. Tow ropes are also a must in case your friend needs to pull you out of somewhere. A chainsaw will often come in handy. Ensure that your spare tyre is where it should be, and pack a pump for the tyres that can be powered by your vehicle’s power outlet (formerly known as the cigarette lighter; my age is showing).

Number 9: Invest In A Winch

There are plenty of types of winch. Some are directly mounted on the vehicle so you can just hook the chain or rope securely round a solid anchor point from the winch on the vehicle. Others are manual winches, where you can anchor the winch from an anchor point beyond the vehicle and use the winch to pull the vehicle out of the stuck position.

Number 10: Make Sure You’ve Got Enough Fuel!