One of the main advantages to owning a 4WD is having the ability to access destinations out of reach from the average family car. You don’t even have to think twice about driving on gravel roads, dirt is easy, and sand…. well I didn’t even see any sand.
While 4WD manufacturers would have you believe that a 4WD is capable of dealing with just about anything the bush can throw up, the reality is, it doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype. A 4WD will handle rough and slippery tracks with more ability than a car, and has a higher ground clearance, but it’s far from unstoppable.
Mud and sand are two of the most common obstacles to deal with when driving in the bush. Strategies you should consider and implement when confronted with these obstacles are terrain specific, and also more broadly applied to general 4WDing.
Looking at the bigger picture first, I mentally run through a “checklist” of considerations before tackling any obstacle. Do I really need to go here or through this terrain? The answer will depend upon how determined you are to continue: Is it the only way to your destination? Is there a great fishing spot just the other side of that dune? Is it 5 o’clock, you’re low on fuel and the kids are feeling hungry?
Recent use of the track by others is reassuring when sussing out a route. If somebody has been through recently, then the obstacle is probably passable, although you will not necessarily know whether the preceding vehicle had dedicated mud tyres, diff locks and a winch to assist. Look for any signs that the people before had a struggle to pass through the section (rocks or dead vegetation in wheel ruts are a giveaway that you may be here for a while if you proceed).
Call on your previous experiences to help determine the likelihood of success. Have you driven through similar terrain before, and what was the outcome? Is the sand softer this time, or is the dune steeper? Are the ruts deeper, or criss-crossed, or peppered with rocks? Will your vehicle have the clearance and traction to deal with what is ahead, and perhaps more importantly, will it be able to return if the track ahead deteriorates further?
Beach drivers usually have fewer variables to consider than those confronted with mud, but the possible complications can be significant. Vehicles are lost to the ocean every year by 4WDers that miscalculate their journey along beaches close to the waters edge. Pay particular attention to incoming tides, especially along narrow stretches of beach where rocks or debris can restrict your movement. Try to align your journey with a receding tide so that any mishaps can be dealt with before the inevitable incoming tide threatens to swamp your vehicle. Spinning wheels and an incoming tide will quickly suck your vehicle down to the floor-pan where it’s most likely to remain!
Those caught by an incoming tide usually have two options for recovery. A swift snatch strap pull by a nearby vehicle (having dug sand from beneath the chassis and drive train first) can make the difference between an exciting campside fire story in years to come, or a tale of woe recounted to an insurance company. The other option is to lower tyre pressures to very low levels (perhaps 10 psi), and gun the vehicle parallel to the beach until momentum is regained and then gradually pointing the front wheels toward the dunes.
Of course, prevention is always preferable to any cure, and all sand travel requires a substantial reduction in tyre pressure regardless of tidal activity. Tyre pressures around 15 – 20 psi for most beaches are suggested, and keep cornering activity to a minimum. Where possible, swing high on a turn before using the downhill gradient to change direction. Always keep the engine revving in soft sand, and in a manual vehicle, change down gears early.
Mud driving demands a more sensitive approach in the sense that throttle control and your chosen driving line are far more important than that required for sand. Use a higher gear to negotiate slippery sections with throttle restraint on low lying flat bogs, and more determined progress on slimy climbs. Spinning wheels will reach a particular speed in the higher gears where loose mud is thrown from the treads to expose fresh tyre lugs to the loose soil. Rocking the steering wheel from side to side as you progress can also provide additional grip by bringing the sharper tyre edge into contact with firmer underlying dirt.
Look for shallow ruts to follow on slippery descents in particular, as the edges will keep you tracking straight rather than heading on an unwanted detour into the scrub. All mud and slippery roads should be traversed with consideration given to the teachings of your secondary school physics teacher.
Gravity will always win, and spinning wheels provide next to no grip, as your vehicle heads down to where the mud is deeper and the water has nowhere else to go… Try to straddle the crest of a slippery track with one set of wheels balancing the other set, and use the steering wheel to keep the vehicle level rather than just pointing it in the direction you wish to travel. It’s always easy to get to a lowest point on the road, but often next to impossible to reach the highest point!
Probably the most important point to remember with any 4WDing, be it on sand, mud or rocks, is to know your limitations and drive to your ability.
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