There are several different types of challenging terrain that 4WDers will encounter when navigating Australia off-road. Each type requires different driving techniques and vehicle preparation in some cases. Having the right knowledge, vehicle setup and a reliable offline 4WD navigation system such as the Hema HX-1 Navigator, is the best way to handle different track conditions safely.
Lowering tire pressure is number one when it comes to soft sand driving. Letting air out of your tires makes them bulge on the sides giving a bigger footprint or surface area. This helps keep the tires on the top of the sand. Tires need to be deflated to individual conditions. A rule of thumb is to drop your tires by 50% for soft sand driving. When back on hard surfaces, tires need to be re-inflated with a good quality compressor, an essential accessory for sand driving. In soft sand, momentum is the key to not getting bogged. Don’t, if possible, stop in soft sections.
When driving trails in Australia you will come across many exciting and sometimes scary creek crossings. The key to safely negotiating water crossings comes down to sound decision- making. Make the right one and it’s a thrilling adventure. Make the wrong one and it could be your last. The rule for crossing water is to walk it first. If you can’t walk it do not go. If in doubt, don’t go, especially in fast flowing water where even if shallow, is deceptively dangerous. If water is on the deep side, but safe to go strap a tarp onto the front to stop the engine getting to wet and maintain a steady momentum. Two vehicles are better than one when taking on water crossings just in case things go wrong. If there is a road closure sign due to flooding, don’t go under any circumstances.
Water flowing over unsealed roads during or after heavy rain can erode and form gullies. Edges of roads are particularly vulnerable. They can even be a problem weeks after the rain if the grader hasn’t been through. Hit a gorge in the middle of the road at speed and you will know about it. So will your mechanic. Slowing down and concentrating on the road is the best way to avoid trouble.
Many parts of Australia get plenty of rain on occasions, especially during summer. For some, mud is an invitation to having fun and getting dirty, but for most touring 4WDers, it can stop you dead in your tracks. National park rangers and local shires usually put up closure signs during and after heavy rain to prevent vehicles getting stuck or causing damage to roads. But, you could already be on a track and get caught out by a sudden downpour. One problem in mud is the tire tread fills up and traction is next to nothing. Special mud tires may help. Getting out of mud can be tricky. If it is shallow watery mud, the 4WD may only need some extra traction in the form of branches etc. under the wheels and low range gearing. If really stuck, snatch straps or even winching may be required. These techniques are risky and best learnt doing a course. Again, travelling with another vehicle is a wise move, but allow plenty of distance between vehicles.
Although 2WDs can handle gravel if taken carefully, the 4WD and AWD variety tackle it better and more safely. This general statement should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Four Wheel Drive vehicles by their nature are top heavy or have a high center of gravity. This makes them inherently unstable and prone to roll over if driven recklessly. Bends on loose surfaced gravel need to be taken at slower speeds than on the hardtop. Driving gravel and unsealed roads, no matter how good they are requires the utmost concentration, as you never know when a potentially dangerous pothole, wet surface or bump may suddenly appear.
Unsealed roads, particularly gravel, are prone to forming corrugations when heavily used. In most cases it is more comfortable for all involved to find the optimum speed to drive over corrugations. Driving slowly, you and your passengers feel every bump while picking up the speed may make things smoother, but compromise handling and vehicle wear and tear.
Rocks flung up by front wheels can strike rear tires with considerable force, puncturing them. Driving slowly under these conditions minimizes such events. Rocky terrain require slow careful going so not to damage tires, risk suspension damage or shake up the passengers too much.
Uphill and Downhill
Steep rocky descents and ascents require very slow careful going. It’s best to go in low range first or second gear to slow the vehicle down to a crawl. Manual vehicles are slightly better than automatics because of the gearing. Avoid if possible using the clutch when going down steep rocky or sandy tracks. With clutch engaged the vehicle is suddenly thrown into uncontrolled forward motion that can have disastrous results.
Where legal to do so, when traversing coastal dunes go straight up and down and not on a parallel trajectory. The vehicle in that position becomes unstable due to its high center of gravity and can easily roll over. This is especially dangerous when heading down a steep dune where shifting sand increases instability.