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Driving on Difficult Terrain

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So, there you are in your brand new, rented four-wheel drive (also known as an SUV or 4x4) toodling along in the countryside, windows tightly wound up to provide protection from UV rays and pollen and airconditioning on high, filtered and ionised, when suddenly the road just stops. Luckily, you chose the option with the latest ABS technology.

You're only 50 kilometres from the nearest city, and already you've run out of road. And you thought this country was civilised! Maybe you should have gone to Paris this year, after all. Then, with a sound like a pneumonic elephant, a vehicle lumbers past you - it looks white under the thickly encrusted mud. It reaches the edge of the road - and keeps going. An epiphany! Yes, this is what those fast-paced advertisements are all about! At last, some real off-road driving!

The rental vehicle has the Internet-enabled-satellite-connected-laptop option. Feverishly, you punch the search terms into the Guide.

Driving on Difficult Terrain

Like most things in life, off-road driving contains an element of risk. Practice in a safe environment and professional or at least competent tuition is very strongly recommended.

Driving on your own off-road if you haven't done it before is particularly foolish. Especially if you're here.

Please note that recovery techniques, and driving on specific terrain types like sand, mud, snow or ice are not covered in this entry. Each type of terrain requires a different, well-prepared approach, and recovery of vehicles and people is a topic large enough for a separate entry. The motto to remember is - if there's a track, stick to it.

Before Leaving the Road Behind

  • If you're driving through trees and your vehicle has a canopy, remove it. Fold the mirrors in, too.

  • Check that your load is secure. This doesn't mean its credit rating. Loose stuff can fly around quite nastily - what's in the back seat?

  • Adjust the tyre pressure to suit the terrain - generally, the softer the ground, the more you lower the tyre pressure. On some beaches, it is mandatory to let some serious air out of your tyres. Do not drive at road speeds on under-inflated tyres. You'd better have packed a pressure gauge and a pump.

  • If you need to, engage four-wheel drive.


Driving off the beaten track is not usually about speed, particularly if you don't know the area. Take your time, and assess obstacles before attempting them - even if this means getting out of the vehicle and walking ahead. Make sure you select the right gear/range for the terrain.

Your hands should be in the ten-past ten position on the steering wheel, thumbs outside. If you hit something which causes the steering wheel to turn suddenly, your thumbs will thank you for thinking of them. Use the pull-push steering method.

Try to straddle ruts in the terrain rather than driving in them. If your vehicle skids, don't panic, and don't use your brakes - just turn the wheel in the direction of the skid, without overcorrecting, and without letting off the accelerator. Practice this with a qualified instructor.

When negotiating slopes, avoid changing gears. Descend a slope in the same gear you would use to climb it. If your wheels start spinning, ease off the accelerator.


Going up? Climb steadily, without over-revving the engine. If the vehicle isn't making it up, apply the foot and hand brake until it stalls. You should now be nicely stuck. Put the vehicle into reverse gear; depress the clutch pedal slowly and check that reverse gear is engaged; release the hand brake; release the clutch pedal and foot brake simultaneously; start the engine (in reverse gear) and reverse carefully (and directly) back down. Try again, or go around.

Coming down? Don't over-rev that engine! Avoid using your brakes - let the engine do the work - but if you need to brake, make it smooth and gradual. If the wheels lock up or the vehicle slides sideways, release the brakes. Straddle those ruts, but if you get stuck in one, don't try to climb out, just keep going until you reach the bottom.

Going sideways across a slope? A dangerous move, given the alleged tendency of SUVs to roll-over. If you do feel the centre of gravity shifting alarmingly, turn down the slope.

Approach ridges front on - traction is difficult if diagonally opposite wheels are off the ground at the same time... ditches however, require an angled approach, keeping three wheels on the ground at the same time.


Water crossings are best approached carefully and with preparation. This means assessing the depth and rate of flow of the water, including checking for submerged obstacles. If the water is so deep you even think you might have to swim to do this, look for a bridge.

Engage low ratio 4x4 and enter the water slowly, in first or second gear. Do not change gears. Keep the revs up, and if you need to, slip the clutch - you don't want that engine to stall. If it does stall, and the exhaust pipe is under water, don't try starting the engine. You'll need to use your winch (if you have one), so hopefully you've already noted a good recovery point.

After you've crossed, check the vehicle over. When driving off, move slowly and dry the brakes by applying them gently.

On the Road Again

At last, the windscreen wipers flick off the last of the mud, and the creepers slide aside to reveal a slickly gleaming tarmac. You've made it!

Remember to check your vehicle over and inflate your tyres before heading back onto a road.

Important Considerations

In addition to the above advice, you should be aware of the following points:

  • Only go off-road is there is no satisfactory alternative. Not only is it an added risk, but this world has been damaged enough without over-sized, over-thirsty and over-priced behemoths rumbling through delicate ecosystems in the name of entertainment.

  • This entry is not intended to be exhaustive and you should not attempt anything suggested in this entry without adequate training.

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