4WDing is a lot more than just driving on dirt roads. From how to adjust your tyre pressure to 4WDing techniques for different kinds of tracks, Eva takes us through the basics that every 4WD beginner needs to know.
4WD Access Only
All over Australia, there are incredible, unique, breathtaking places that a lot of people never see because they encounter a ‘4WD access only’ sign. For some, navigating past that point is too daunting and they’re happy to stick to the bitumen. But if you’re anything like me you see a sign like that and it just makes you want to explore it even more.
I first dipped my toe into the world of 4WDing 18 months ago, just before my boyfriend and I set off on a round Australia trip. We already had the car (our trusty troopy) but I had slim to no idea about how to really use it or what it was capable of. I just knew at some point on our trip, we’d want to get further than your average car could take us to see the real cool stuff that’s only accessible if you’ve got a 4WD.
Before we started the trip, we took the car exploring with some more experienced friends, signed up for a 4WD course and slowly started doing some off-track adventures of our own.
Here’s a 4WD for beginners guide on what we’ve learned along the way so you can feel more at home on the bumpy, sandy, muddy, dusty, off-the-beaten-track roads of Australia. Trust me, it’s worth it!
The Difference Between 2WD and 4WD
There’s a lot of differences between a 4WD vehicle and a standard road vehicle but the key difference is that a 4WD is designed for ‘off-road’ driving as well as bitumen driving.
They have higher clearance off the ground so you can travel over bigger obstacles without damaging the bottom of the car, they have bigger wheels and special tyres with a different grip pattern designed for off-road use. They have more flexible suspension and sit higher off the ground giving better visibility.
The biggest difference is a mechanism in the car that enables the engine to send drive to all four wheels, otherwise known as engaging 4WD.
When you engage 4WD on a car you can either be in high range or low range. In high range 4WD, the only difference is that all four wheels are now being driven by the engine. The gears still work the same and the car still travels at the same speed as 2WD.
Note: Own an AWD? Unfortunately it’s not the same thing. Read up about the differences.
However in low range, the car’s able to move at a much slower pace while the engine still operates efficiently. The low gearing allows the engine to generate more torque (turning force) while remaining at a slower speed.
In low range, second gear, you’re typically able to travel slower than you could in high range, first gear. This function allows you more control over the car in off-road situations.
How to Engage 4WD on Your Car
In a lot of new cars, you can switch to 4WD automatically with the press of a button and others are semi-automatic. Our car is super old so we do it the fully manual way.
First, we ‘lock the hubs’ on the front wheels. Do this by turning the little dial in the centre of the wheel from ‘free’ to ‘lock’. Without doing this, you won’t be able to change to 4WD inside the car.
Second, we shift the ‘4WD’ gear stick (the little one) to whichever position we want it in.
In our car, to go from 2WD to high 4WD, we have to be going slowish (third gear or slower) and can change to and from high 2WD and high 4WD. To put it into low 4WD, we have to bring the car to a complete stop, push in the clutch and then move the stick to low 4WD.
Not all cars engage 4WD in the same way so check your car manual if you’re not sure. Once you’re off the dirt road you need to repeat the process to disengage 4WD. It’s really bad for your car to drive on bitumen at high speeds while still in 4WD mode.
4WD Recovery Gear & How To Use It
Chances are at some point in your 4WD adventures, you’ll need to get yourself out of a sticky situation, which is where your recovery gear comes in. There’s all sorts of fancy 4WD gear out there, but as a 4WD beginner, you can stick to just a few pieces of essential (and high recommended) safety equipment.
Essential 4WD Gear
- Long handled shovel – for digging out sand or mud from under your car if you get bogged
- Jack and spare tyre – to lift your car if you need to change a tyre
- Tyre pressure gauge – to check and lower tyre pressure
- Compressor – to pump tyres back up before you get back on the bitumen
Having these with you and knowing how to use them will stop you from ending up in unnecessary and potentially deadly situations.
Optional but Recommended 4WD Gear
- Recovery boards – to wedge under your tyres and give you a hard surface to get out of a bog. These are particularly useful for mud or sand driving
- Winch – basically a heavy-duty cord wound onto a barrel that you can use to pull yourself or others out of bogs
- UHF radio – to communicate between your convoy or with other cars on the track
- Snatch straps – used to drag other cars out of bogs. These are really dangerous and should only be used as a last resort.
When it comes to safety it’s more about using your common sense (and not being an idiot) but there are a few main points to keep in mind.
– Keep well clear and to the side of anyone using a winch or snatch straps. They’re under a huge amount of pressure when in use and people have died from winch and snatch strap accidents.
– Always use your recovery gear properly and read the manual. Don’t get lazy.
– Tell people where you’re going before you head out bush, check if you need permits or to inform local police, and take enough food and water in case you get stuck.
– Check the weather and whether roads are even open, they often close
– Take a fully stocked first aid kit and a PLB, especially if there’s no phone service where you’re going.
– Watch out for other cars on the track. Chances are you’re not going to be the only car out there and it’s safest to presume other people aren’t driving as safely as you.
– Travel in convoy. Having another car is not only more fun, but it’s also handy having someone to discuss routes and obstacles or to pull you out if you get bogged.
– Research where you want to go and know your limits. Slowly take on more difficult tracks as you gain experience.
– Take it slow! Driving fast down loose and bumpy tracks is a recipe for disaster.
– Never have your windows halfway down. As your bumping along, you’ll get thrown about a lot from side to side and no one wants to be scalped by their own car window. Windows should be completely closed, cracked a bit at the top or all the way down.
– For god’s sake keep your limbs inside the car.
– Take a 4WD recovery course if you can. It will give you skills, confidence, and a good idea of how to keep yourself and others safe.
– Don’t overestimate your abilities. If you’re really unsure about something, don’t do it.
– If you come across a section of the track you’re unsure about, stop the car somewhere safe, get out, and walk through the obstacle first. You’re always better doing a walkthrough on foot than driving right into the unknown.
Adjusting Your Tyre Pressure
Having your tyres at the right pressure can be the difference between being stuck in sand and cruising through with ease, between a VERY bumpy ride and a nice smooth one or between a punctured tyre and, well, not a punctured tyre.
When you’re driving on the highway your tyres are fully pumped up, but off-road, it’s good to let some pressure out depending on what kind of road you’re driving on.
Having a little less air in your tyres allows them to mould around things like sharp rocks making them less likely to puncture (imagine pressing something sharp into a half-blown up balloon compared to a full one).
It also helps your tyres spread out on the track providing more surface area for the car to sit on to help you get over soft stuff like sand rather than sinking into it (imagine pressing a thin stick into sand compared to something wide and flat).
Tyre pressure is measured in PSI or Pounds per Square Inch. There are recommended guidelines on what percentage of pressure you should release for what type of driving you’re doing, but over time you’ll start to instinctively know what works for your car.
To take the edge off corrugations you might only let tyres down to 35 PSI, for a rocky riverbed you might go down to 25 PSI and for a really soft sand dune it might be all the way down to 15 PSI. These numbers are just a guide, the weight, tyre size and more can affect the best PSI for your car.
To let the air out you’ll need your tyre pressure gauge. Take the cap off your tyre valve, check the pressure by pressing the gauge to the valve, then use the pin to release the air. Check the PSI every so often until you reach the pressure you want. Replace the valve cap and repeat this until all tyres are the same PSI.
Before you get back on the bitumen you’ll need to use your compressor to pump air back into the tyres. Driving on sealed roads with low tyres damages them and wears them out faster.
The Different Types of 4WD Tracks
There are all different kinds of 4WD tracks you might find yourself on that require different techniques so here’s a brief overview and some tips for the most common obstacles you’ll find out there.
Fun fact, a lot of corrugations are actually just tiny baby sand dunes (seriously you can flatten them out with your hand, it’s wild), while others are super hard and it’s a wonder how they got that way. People disagree about how they’re created (vibrations, accelerating and braking, aliens??) but what everyone does know, is that they suck. How can something so small make driving on the road such torture?!
To lessen the suffering, let 10-15 PSI out of your tyres to help absorb more of the bumps in the road. Often with corrugated roads there’s a ‘sweet spot’ speed that helps you kind of float over the bumps. Sometimes 40km/h is bone shatteringly horrible and 60 or 70km/h feels somewhat smooth. Adjust your speed up and down (within reason) to see what’s more comfortable.
When you’re driving through soft sand, you want your tyre pressure low (around 18 PSI) and your revs high. If you feel your car start to slow keep your foot on the accelerator and have a little faith in your car – don’t lift off the throttle or brake unless the car has come to a complete stop. Our car’s been so close to bogged yet has somehow crawled its way over the biggest, softest sand dunes when I truly thought we’d never make it.
And if your car does get stuck? First of all, don’t panic. Second of all don’t spin your wheels in the one spot because you’ll just dig yourself a deeper hole. Instead, take your foot off the accelerator and gently reverse out of the spot you’re stuck in. Most of the time you should be able to reverse out of a sand bog.
If you can’t reverse out, you might need to let more pressure out of your tyres and try again. In the very worst-case scenario, you’ll need to dig out the sand around your wheels and use recovery boards or have a mate winch you out. But most of the time, tyre pressure and the right speed and gear should be all you need to make your way around sandy tracks and dunes!
If you’re driving on the beach keep a close eye on the tides. In some places, there are huge differences between high and low and they come up really fast. When you’re turning around on a beach it’s always safer to turn towards the sand dunes rather than towards the water lest you get stuck and the tide comes in to claim your car!
When you’re driving through sand that already has defined ruts for the wheels to go in, don’t try too hard to keep the wheel straight, just hold it loosely and the wheels will naturally follow the pre-made trenches. Don’t fight it, just roll with it!
Do a walkthrough of any water crossings first to check how deep the water is, how fast it’s flowing, whether the bottom is rocky or sandy or full of tree roots (unless there are potential crocs, then don’t go near the water).
At the very least, watch someone else do the crossing first. If the crossing is really deep and is likely to reach the top of the bonnet of your car, you shouldn’t attempt the crossing without a snorkel (the car kind not the face kind lol).
When you’re driving through the water keep a steady, slow pace, just enough to create a small wave at the front of the car that travels at the same speed as the car.
Sometimes even if a crossing is shallow it can still be dodgy. We watched a guy trying to cross a creek bed with 2cm of water on the Gibb River Road and get completely stuck. Although the water was shallow the water-logged sand just turned to quicksand under his heavy car. It took about 10 people, multiple winches, and recovery boards to get him out.
This is the area we have the least experience in but I do know it’s slippery as hell and a real pain to get bogged in. If you get bogged, expect to get really, really dirty getting yourself out! Recovery boards, another car in convoy and either a winch or snatch straps are essential for proper mud driving.
The best technique for mud driving is to know when to call it. Check the forecast before you go and don’t drive into mud puddles, or down slippery boggy roads until it’s too late. It’s not as fun or easy as you might think! Not only is it risky, driving in the mud really tears up the road, ruining it for other drivers and sometimes leading to long closures while it’s repaired.
Driving on rocky, rutted out tracks can feel really intimidating but if you’re slow and steady it can actually be quite fun!
When you reach an obstacle the standard advice is to ‘pick your line’. This means rather than just driving headfirst in and hoping for the best, plan exactly where you want your wheels to go and how you want the car to move along the track and around the obstacles. It’s a good time to walk through the obstacles first and even have your passenger outside the car to help guide you through.
As you’re attempting rocky sections, the best mantra is ‘slow is fast, fast is broken’. Take your time, set in a really low gear and let the car crawl its way through – this is the best way to make it through unscathed!
It’s really helpful to have some awareness of exactly where your wheels are from the perspective of the driver’s seat so you can correctly aim for or miss certain bits of the track. You should also learn a bit more about what’s underneath your car and what hangs lowest to the ground so you can avoid damaging the important stuff.
If you’re a beginner 4WDer these tips are a starting point but far from everything there is to know about 4WDing. YouTube has some great tutorials to inspire and teach you a bit more from the ‘experts’. Better yet, enrol in a 4WD course to hone your skills.
Ultimately the best way to get experience is to get out there amongst nature and explore your backyard! You’ll be stoked with the epic gems you can get to with a bit of extra oompf behind your car.