DRIVING/TOWING - 4WD DRIVING SKILLS
We know you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but there are alternatives to learning everything the hard way.
Step one for the 4WD novice is to ignore everything that appears on TV ads for 4WD vehicles: powering through salt water at speed; driving to the edge of a precipice; getting sideways and airborne; and using chain to pull a vehicle out of a bog.
Do any of that and you’re headed for denial of warranty at best and tragedy at worst. These ads are made by agency people who feel the need to inject drama into their ad content and they’re perpetuating the idea that speed and danger are intrinsic parts of off-roading. Sadly, much of the footage on 4WD TV programs also shows bad driving practices.
Proper training should be compulsory for off-roaders, because that knowledge would prevent many of the unhappy, expensive and even tragic events that occur off the bitumen.
For some reason, which cynics reckon is about speeding-fine revenue, Australian road authorities aren’t interested in training. Licence testing around this country is, as we all know, a farce.
Compulsory 4WD driver training is lacking in Australia, but fortunately, there’s ample voluntary training available for people who buy 4WDs and want to know how to use them correctly off the bitumen. The internet bristles with training establishments and 4WD clubs have training courses as well.
Beware the ‘mate’ who ‘knows it all’. Just as most parents shouldn’t be allowed to teach their kids how to drive the family car, so should untrained people be prevented from passing on bad habits: they can’t do it with a motorcycle, so how come they can do it with a car or 4WD?
Correct 4WD instruction is most likely to come from professional or semi-professional sources.
However, if you’re choosing a 4WD club for instruction purposes, make sure that it’s one that focusses on touring, rather than off-road competition. Some ‘clubbies’ get great delight in achieving the almost impossible and that can become expensive!
When choosing a professionally-run course, it’s important that the instructor be qualified and hold a Nationally Recognised Training certificate.
What you need to know
The first item a good 4WD training course should cover is that safety is paramount and should never be compromised for any reason.
Then it’s time to cover the capability of the vehicle. An experienced instructor should be able to tell an off-road novice what the likely limitations of this particular vehicle are.
Limitations are usually the type of tyres fitted, the ground clearance, the gearing, whether the vehicle has to tow a camper trailer or caravan and …the nut behind the steering wheel.
The instructor should be able to advise on legal modifications that can improve the vehicle’s ability in off-road situations, without compromising on-road safety.
The course should then introduce the driver to the type of four wheel drive system fitted to that vehicle and how to operate it safely and without causing mechanical damage. For example, most 4WD utes have a ‘part-time’ system that needs to be operated with care on high-friction surfaces. Nearly all 4WDs cannot be operated in low range on high-friction surfaces, without risk of driveline damage.
Practical instruction should start with selection of the correct tyre pressures for the terrain, because lowered tyre pressures offer better grip in low-speed, off-road situations – particularly on beach sand. Tyre discussion should point out the difference between light-truck-rated off-road tyres and the standard tyres fitted to nearly all new 4WDs.
It’s then time for the off-road novices to assess steep grades, being shown the correct ‘line’ to take and then to put that assessment into practice, driving up and down, learning the importance of low speed, gear ratio selection, engine braking and traction aids, such as differential locks and traction control.
Drivers of manual-transmission vehicles should learn how to do uphill and downhill stall recoveries.
Discussion should follow on the hazards of sand driving: the risk of head-on collision in dune country and the need for a red flag ‘mast’ where visibility is an issue. The instructor should also point out the high risk of roll-over injuries and total vehicle loss when sand driving.
Sand driving practice should involve preserving momentum, the steps to take when bogged and correct use of a snatch strap.
Water crossings claim many vehicles, so the instructor should point out that a 4WD isn’t a boat. Each vehicle should be inspected for points where water can enter, with the most critical being the engine air intake and the instructor should point out the benefits of having a snorkel.
Assessment of a water crossing requires wading, to measure depth (not in croc country!), to check the condition of the bottom and to plan a safe exit path.
This is a basic training course content, but as bush travellers know, that’s just the beginning!
An ideal way to obtain real-world 4WD experience is to join a tag-along tour. Many training companies run them, as do all 4WD clubs.
If you have experienced 4WD-touring friends you might join them on a trip, but we’ve heard of many such outings turning sour. The usual incompatibilities are ignorance of correct convoy procedure (getting lost), road-speed issues (too fast for comfort), driving hours (are we there yet?) and itinerary demands (too much planned for too little time).
Professional tag-alongs should have the above issues sorted out.
Most people who join tag-along tours are doing The Big Trip for the first time and are seeking some guidance in places to visit,
plus the security of numbers and professional know-how.
Tag-alongs take the logistical worry out of doing trip planning, provided you choose a reputable operator. Many 4WD owners are content to spend their travel time with club outings or tag-alongs and never need to plan their own trips.
I’ve joined several tag-along tours over the years and enjoyed them all. There have been dramas, of course, because that’s the nature of Outback travel, but it’s always interesting to see how people team up to support each other.
Kids have a great time doing tag-alongs, because they can escape from the adults during driving breaks and at campsites. Most of the kids felt that the tour highlight was being able to get dirty without being roused on!
There can also be health benefits. I met a great Yank on one tag-along tour and loved his summary of tag-along touring in the Australian Outback. Dick Johnson reckoned you could forget traditional diets: just go seriously bush for a month and the weight will fall off!