30 OFF-ROAD DRIVING TIPS - January 2014
Helpful hints for driving happily off the beaten track.
The OTA team has been driving around this magnificent country for a collective 100 years and we've picked up techniques from experts and from experience.
Whatever the situation, it’s made easier if you’ve looked ahead and envisaged what’s coming. For example, if it’s been raining you can expect creek heights to be up and tracks to be slippery.
That means you need a super-smooth track driving technique to keep things in shape.
If you can avoid driving in water that’s deeper than the centre of your wheels, do so. A 4WD isn’t a boat and can suffer expensive damage in deep water that may get into your engine, transmission or axles.
Dipping your toes
Don’t think you’re being a sissy if you stop to walk through creek crossings. Even apparently shallow crossings can hide tyre-damaging debris, or there could be a deep hole or a large rock hidden by murky water.
Not dipping your toes
In Estuarine Crocodile – ‘salty’ – areas of Northern Australia it isn’t wise to walk across creeks, other than shallow ones with clear water and a good upstream and downstream view.
If any potential water crossing has fast flowing water, not only shouldn’t you walk it: you shouldn’t drive it either.
If you must drive through thigh-deep water, walk the crossing, if safe to do so, then select a low-ratio gear that gives smooth bow-wave speed. Fit a radiator blind if you don’t have snorkel.
Don’t plunge hot axles into freezing cold creek water. If you’ve been driving for a few hours before reaching a water crossing the axles will be very warm. Have a cuppa on the creek bank and let them cool off, or they’ll suck in water around the seals.
If you’re driving on a loose or slippery dirt road that has a high crown it’s not uncommon for the vehicle to slide off the crown, towards the table drain. Steer in the direction of a rear end slide and power smoothly when the vehicle is straight, to get back up on the crown.
On washboard surfaces find the lowest speed that gives a reasonably comfortable ride. Depending on the type of surface, there are zones of relative comfort, usually around 40km/h, 60km/h and 80km/h. Above that is dangerous, with high risk of losing control.
When climbing rocky slopes try to picture the contours of the climb and keep your vehicle on as even a keel as possible, without too much ‘peaks and troughs’ progress.
The lowest possible speed is best for very steep descents, using engine braking if possible. Autos and petrol engines don’t brake as well as manual diesels, so you may have to apply gentle wheel braking. Electronic hill descent control is excellent.
Pick a gear and a speed that allows smooth uphill progress, without bouncing that can disturb traction and upset the passengers. Back off as you drive over crests and track drainage humps.
The best sand driving trick you can use is to drop your tyre pressures. Lower pressure – down as far as 120kPa (16psi) – makes the tyre contact patches much larger, so they tend to float up on top of the surface.
Sand varies in softness from place to place and with the weather. Beach and desert sand ridges can be firm or like powder, as a result of wind direction. If you can see tyre patterns clearly the sand is firm; if the tyre tracks are narrow vees without pattern the sand is soft.
On bush tracks don’t drive into the setting sun , because your vision is greatly diminished at a time when nocturnal wildlife is stirring. When your visors can no longer block out the sun, pull up for a sunset photograph and resume driving afterwards.
After sundown and before darkness your lights aren’t much use for picking out obstacles and animals. The situation is worse if you’re heading west, into the still-bright sky. It’s a good time to camp.
If you must drive at night in the bush keep your speed to no more than 60km/h. At that speed you can avoid ‘roos that you can see in front of you. (There’s not much you can do about the ones that want to run into your doors.)
At sensible night-time driving speeds on narrow bush roads you don’t need your spotties set up for what’s 900 metres ahead. Give them some side angle so they light up the country either side of the track.
When people are doing driver-training courses and they’re told to brake sharply they’re instructed to put both hands on the steering wheel in the quarter to three position, with thumbs outside the wheel rim. Why don’t they do that all the time? One-handed driving is dangerous, especially on Outback roads and tracks.
Don’t fight it
On rocky trails you’ll feel some steering wheel feedback, as the front tyres move up and down and from side to side. Don’t resist minor movements too strongly, but preserve the aim of the vehicle up the slope in a series of slight left and right deviations.
Use your mirrors
Practise backing with your mirrors, not by turning around the in the seat and looking through the back window. A full load blocks your window anyhow. When off-road, angle the mirrors downwards so you can see your back tyres and the track behind them.
Find the ‘sweet spot’
Settle into a speed that suits the conditions. A fully loaded 4WD wagon or ute is best under 100km/h on loose or slippery gravel and a sensible speed may well be only 60km/h or less.
On narrow tracks select a speed that doesn’t throw the vehicle and the occupants around.
Many Outback tracks are two-wheel-rut affairs. Try ‘edging’ these tracks, rather than driving in the wheel ruts. The track is usually less corrugated and stony on the uphill edges of the ruts and you’ll have better ground clearance.
Check mudholes, or an alternative route, before driving into them. Look for debris – tree branches, bits of wood or roof sheeting – left by previous travellers. Drop tyre pressures and keep up momentum without too many revs; just like sand driving.
The right revs
Use only as much engine power and torque as you need for the conditions. Soft sand and mud demand more revs than shale or stony trails. Always select the highest gear ratio that will do the job.
Use your traction aids
Don’t wait until you’re hopelessly bogged before clicking in your centre or across-axle diff locks. If you can see a soft, steep or slippery patch of trail ahead, set the 4WD up before you get there.
You can’t improve your off-roading skills if you’re uncomfortable. You need a driver’s seat that supports your body, from the thighs to the shoulders. If your standard seat can’t do that, buy one that will.
Maintain a gap
The golden rule for on-road driving is to maintain at least a two-second gap between your 4WD and the vehicle in front. On dirt roads and tracks you need a lot more, because stopping distances are greatly increased. In addition, it makes no sense to drive in someone’s dust cloud, dodging flying stones.
Many trips are spoiled by people getting lost or separated from the convoy. Correct convoy procedure is to maintain contact with the vehicle immediately behind - either visual or radio contact - and never to turn off the current track before the following vehicle sees the move. If everyone does that, no-one gets separated and no-one misses turnoffs.
Many people think it’s OK to take off their seatbelts when off-road. Big mistake. The driver should ensure that all occupants are belted in place, because a sudden stop may be necessary without warning. On bumpy tracks it’s easy for passengers to smack their heads into windows or seat backs if they’re not restrained.
It’s common to see arms or even legs poking out the windows of 4WDs that are driving on trails or beaches. In the event of a sudden roll-over or a close brush with a tree there’s no time for these limbs to be withdrawn and serious injuries are certain. Airbags go off with leg-breaking force – don’t put your feet on the dashboard!
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