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Safe 4x4 driving in Australia: a quick primer

UNITED KINGDOM | Tuesday, 15 January 2019 | Views [43]

Piloting a 4WD vehicle off-road in Australia is, frankly, pretty awesome - but so is getting back in one piece, right?


Safe off-roading isn’t about spoiling the fun. It’s really just about nailing down the three key attributes that will make you a bit of a 4x4 champ: preparation, knowledge and expertise


The good news is, anybody can arm themselves with those first two if they’re willing to do a little homework before setting out. And, while the third might be a bit trickier to fast-track, even a relative newbie can soon get there with a bit of common sense and practice.



Preparation is step one in making a decent fist of pretty much anything, and off-roading is no different. Doing a bit of research into your planned route, and the sorts of terrain you’re likely to come up against, will always pay off.



Knowledge is partly just the result of decent prep - so if you’ve swotted up a bit, you’re already well on your way.


Again, researching the sorts of landscapes you’ll be driving in is always smart, as is getting to grips with how your ride works. Basically, you’re looking to eliminate as much guesswork as possible for the best chance of getting around without any major hassles.


As well as decent knowledge of general road safety, you’ll need to know a bit about 4x4 layout and handling. You don’t need a PhD in engineering; even just memorising a few stats about your vehicle will help you weigh up challenges with a keener eye, and (hopefully!) avoid coming a cropper at the first obstacle.


  • As a bare minimum, you should know your vehicle’s dimensions at its tallest, lowest and widest points, as well as its wading depth. Keeping its key angles in mind is also handy in various situations.



Finally, expertise only really comes with experience - but everyone has to start somewhere, obviously. You can become a better off-road driver more or less right off the bat by teaching yourself what to do in certain sticky situations, even if you’ve yet to test them out for real.


  • Above all, remember this: smart 4WD driving is about technique, not raw power.

  • When it comes to off-roading, finesse is arguably the #1 tool in your driving skills arsenal.


More often than not, low speeds and gentle control are the best ways to avoid getting stuck.


In fact, brute-forcing a 4x4 is hardly ever the best way out of a tough spot. Your ride is your best mate out there on tough terrain, and it wants to work with you - not against!


Handling and obstacle tips


Take your time

Going along at a sensible lick helps you plan better routes around hazards, gives you time to make adjustments for any sudden changes, and lets you identify risks before you’re knee-deep into them.


It’s amazing how many people forget this in the heat of the moment, but it really is off-road driving lesson one:


  • Make a better approach to pretty much any potential hazard by taking it steady, and being alert to the changing environment ahead.




Hold the steering wheel lightly but firmly at ‘three and nine’, which might be a slightly wider-spaced hand position than the traditional ‘two and ten’ most people were probably taught for road driving.


This reduces risk of damage to your wrists if the wheel is suddenly jerked through your grip. (For the same reason, always keep your thumbs outside the wheel: if you hit a pothole or a big rock, you definitely don’t want your thumbs hooked in there. Ouch.)


  • In general, try not to fight with the steering unless it’s absolutely necessary. For the most part, if you’re driving within your 4x4’s comfort zone, there won’t be much need to wrestle with it.


Good habits to get into

  • Engage 4WD mode before you move onto tricky ground

  • Keep in mind which advantages 4WD doesn’t give you: it’s no guarantee of easy handling on some surfaces, and it won’t generally improve braking or turning stability

  • Remember, 4x4s have a higher centre of gravity than you might be used to

  • Overconfidence often leads to high speed in unsuitable conditions, easily the most common cause of tipping or rolling


  • Leave your headlights on during the day; even big rigs can be hard to spot in dusty environments, or wet/muddy conditions

  • Always wear a seatbelt while moving; if you roll or an airbag goes off, you don’t want to risk being chucked out

  • Keep doors locked and windows closed wherever possible when on the move, and always while you’re out of the vehicle

  • Pack as much of your carry weight as you can inside the car, nice and low down - it’s way better for stability than overloading roof racks

  • Be aware that different wilderness areas can have their own rules, laws and etiquette for drivers (like outback stations): ignorance of them won’t fly an an excuse!

  • Look out for animals wandering into your path outside of urban areas; in warm climates, they tend to be busiest at sunrise, sunset and at night

  • If a random beast does suddenly pop up out of nowhere, it’s usually safer to maintain a steady course than to swerve (most animals can dodge quicker than you anyway!)

  • High speeds over rough ground can quickly bash up even the toughest rigs, especially tyres and suspension; ease off as the terrain worsens, even if it doesn’t look too brutal at first glance
    (EMBED VIDEO Corrugations: why they destroy vehicleshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTE4On69kXQ )


Approaching difficult terrain or hazards



Really, the key message here is to stay within your ability and comfort zone wherever you can: if you don’t know the proper techniques for driving on sand, mud, through water or on steep slopes, then don’t just chuck yourself at them and hope for the best.


That said, if certain obstacles are unavoidable, these basic rules of thumb might help you tackle specific challenges a bit more safely:


Steep ground

  • Belt up!

  • Once everyone’s properly secured, aim straight at the slope: diagonal approaches massively increase your chance of rolling

  • Know your approach and departure angles, as well as the bumper to tyre distance, to help you avoid getting scuppered on sharp inclines

  • Pick a high gear for ascending, and a low gear for descending

  • Stay at low speeds, keeping the tyres on any available tracks, and avoid large rocks, stumps or divots

  • In a slide, steer into it if your path is wide and clear; if not, try to bring the vehicle to a gentle stop without leaving the path

  • If you do begin to roll, you’ll ideally want to switch off the engine and grip the base of your seat


Ditches, crevices, logs and other obstacles


  • Approach logs and other larger obstacles at an angle, aiming to climb over them one wheel at a time; that way, you’ve got the traction from the other three helping you push forward

  • If a crevice or rock is very deep/tall, you can end up with a wheel off the ground; take it slow and be careful to avoid overly hard landings; you don’t want anything slamming back into the undercarriage as you come down

  • Stay on an angle, and don’t let both a front and a rear tyre rise/fall to the same level at the same time

  • Keep the lowest ground-clearance point of your vehicle in mind (usually the front and rear differentials, but sometimes it’ll be your exhaust or spare tyre), and avoid dragging these directly over any obstacles if you can


Gravel and rocky terrain

  • Excessive speed is the number one cause of accidents and vehicle damage on gravel roads

  • Unpaved or gravelly surfaces can often look a pretty easy ride at first glance, but they’ll often chuck a huge pothole or sudden bend at you out of nowhere

  • If the conditions are really dusty, wet or muddy, always be ready to pull over and wait for visibility to clear

  • For craggy or rocky routes, low range first gear at low speed is usually a smart choice



  • Getting decent traction is usually the biggest headache on sandy surfaces

  • Deflating tyres to around 15-20psi is usually a good bet: this puts more surface area in contact with the ground by allowing them to sag slightly, increasing their footprint and grip

  • Momentum is key, so try to avoid stopping or changing gear once you’re moving across sand

  • Keep it slow and steady, using a low range medium gear

  • If your wheels start to spin, ease off the accelerator but don’t stop completely, and try to dig in with a couple of sharpish turns if there’s room



  • One issue with mud (aside from the fact that it sucks your wheels in, packs out your tyre treads, and is slippery as hell both in and out of the vehicle) is that it can pop up almost anywhere

  • It’s not always visible at first glance: dry, crusty surfaces can conceal deep mud pretty effectively

  • Like on sand, momentum is key to not getting bogged down in heavier areas

  • Use a low range medium gear, and try to avoid gear-shifting or stopping

  • Turning the wheel quickly left and right can help you find a better grip

  • Don’t overestimate the ability of 4x4 vehicles to power through mud; it’s generally best avoided if you can

  • If in doubt - and only if you’re not alone, and it’s definitely safe to do so - you might want to test out shallow mud on foot before sending a heavy vehicle through

  • Remember that if you find it tricky on foot, chances are your 4WD will struggle too!


Water and wading

  • Again, the best advice is generally to avoid water where you can, especially anything deeper than six inches

  • If there’s an alternate route around, it’s usually worth the detour - as anyone who’s come a cropper in water will tell you!

  • If you’ve no choice but to wade, using low range second gear is generally a good choice

  • Stay in a low gear and progress very steadily


  • Remember that the ground beneath flowing water tends to be much firmer than the ground beneath standing water, so it can be easier for vehicles to cross where it’s moving

  • Keep a key rule of thumb in mind, though: if it’s flowing fast enough to make standing upright difficult, it’s flowing fast enough to sweep a vehicle away

  • Always check out the general environment around a water crossing before going in

  • If it’s rocky on the shore, it’ll be similar under the surface; if there are trees nearby, you’ll probably find submerged trunks, branches or roots

  • Always try to keep your vehicle’s intakes and moving parts as dry as you can

  • Enter water very slowly, before speeding up a tiny bit - this helps push a bow wave out ahead of you, which can keep air intakes drier

  • Slipping the clutch slightly for higher revs at low speed should help clear the exhaust


(VIDEO EMBED: 4x4 Bow wave techniquehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYnoWvtqfac )


  • Always exit water just as slowly as you entered it, to avoid sloshing any back into the engine as you climb the bank

  • A single mid-size truck can easily shed 200 litres of water on exit, so bear that in mind if you’re three cars back in a convoy!

  • Dry out brakes by using them gently once clear of water, but don’t stop until you’re well clear of muddy banks

  • Keep moving until you’re on level ground, then check all grilles and radiators for clogged-up junk as soon as it’s safe to hop out



For more info and tips on safe 4x4 driving - including putting together a first aid kit, avoiding common outback mistakes, and maintaining your vehicle on long treks - check out the rest of our blog here.

Tags: australia, driving

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