Off-road driving can be really tricky, especially when you have never done it. Believe me that your experience driving a small car does not equal driving a beast-like Nissan Patrol or Toyota Land Cruiser. This guide lists all important information about off-road driving based on our experience that you can use when you hit the road.
Know your car
It is important to know what you can or can’t do while off-road driving your car. Familiarize yourself with your car, check breaking distance and how long it will take to stop, and how to brake safely without losing stability (this is very important if you tow a camper trailer or caravan).
Remember that you have a higher centre of gravity, which means it’s easier to roll your car if you drive faster than conditions allow. Know when to use (and how to use) your 4WD gears.
Read your car manual
Check what is advised by the manufacturer. Some cars are fully automatic, and the computer will turn on off-road mode automatically if more traction is detected. In other cases, 4WD must be engaged manually. If that’s the case, make sure you know when and how you should use it.
Check if your car is all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). These two are not the same. Simplifying, in AWD, power is delivered to wheels that have the most traction, while in 4WD, power is going to each wheel.
Off road driving – when to use 4WD Low Range
- climbing steep track, where extra power is required
- descending steep track, this will add engine brake support
- driving/pulling at low speed
- beach driving on deep and
- crossing deep river crossings
- off the road driving in mud
Off road driving – when to engage 4WD High Range
- Off road driving on dirt roads when more traction is needed
Know your recovery points
Know your recovery points – sooner or later, this could be handy. You really don’t want to look for your car manual while in the middle of a crocodile-infested river to work out that the recovery point is well below water level… Learn how to use a winch if you have it installed.
Have recovery gear and know how to use it
We bought our recovery kit as a ready-to-use set. It contained 2 shackles (minimum), a snatch strap (we don’t have a winch) and a few other straps. We never had to use it yet, but it is there in case we need it.
When we go on a trip, the recovery kit is always packed in a box at the top of the roof rack, so we don’t need to open the car’s back. This could be handy if we are stuck in water or mud. For muddy or deep sand situations, we also carry traction aids (like Maxtrax) and a full-size shovel attached to the roof rack.
Know your car ground clearance
This factor is crucial because you can negotiate rougher terrain with the higher clearance without scraping the bottom and leaving any parts behind. So, what does it really mean? Ground clearance is defined as the minimum distance between the lower end of the vehicle body and the road.
For example, we know that our Nissan Patrol can travel on a challenging track at Ellenbrae Station in Kimberley despite big rocks lying on its path.
What to choose: mud or all terrain tires?
This is personal preference, but mud terrain tires provide better off-road traction in extreme, deep mud, dirt, rock or deep sand terrain. These types of tires will be great for weekend fun in Glass House Mountains with your friends but not necessarily perfect for street driving.
All-terrain tires are great for travelling to work during the week and having some fun on the weekends. Invest in a good brand and take a second spare if you go to a remote area on your own.
Also, f you are lucky to find someone who can fix your tire, be prepared for a hefty bill. Have a tire repair kit and know how to use it.
Off road driving – when do you lower tire pressure?
Generally when more grip is required:
- the track is muddy – for better traction
- beach driving – for better traction
- the surface is rocky – for better traction and to not get a flat tyre
Also, the important thing is not to forget to re-inflate your tires once you are back on the normal road. Low pressure and high speed can cause tyre blow-outs.
Fix things in “bush style” and have a spare parts with you
Corrugations on some Australian roads or tracks are unforgettable and unforgivable. We already know to take all sorts of screws (we lost so many) and duct tape. Duct tape is magical and can fix nearly all the problems. I’m kidding, but it is really a perfect temporary solution for many issues.
We also take a long piece of wire. In our case, it was handy when our light indicator fell off for the third time. In addition, we carry pieces of velcro and finally actual spare parts, filters and basic tools.
We don’t know how to fix a loose or broken belt, but many people do, and there is a big chance that someone on the road will fix it for us. We also have a manual tire repair kit, and we know how to use it. This is an air filter after Gibb River Road.
Do not do remote off road driving alone
Off-road driving solo in an unknown remote location is always a big risk. We do it (not everyone can go with us for a longer adventure), but we always do a risk assessment. We had situations where we were standing in an amazing place, and we only needed to engage 4WD and go… but we didn’t do it and left it for another time (like this river crossing in Gregory National Park).
Check the weather conditions
Australia is an amazing but also hazardous place. Weather can change rapidly, and a beautiful day suddenly turns into one big disaster. What do we do? First, we monitor the condition status of the roads.
Each state has its own website and social media accounts to follow. It’s also good to check the BOM site and confirm that nothing bad is predicted to happen in the next 2-3 days.
Seasons also play an important part when we plan our trips. Winter is perfect for the Simpson Desert journey, but summertime can be disastrous because day temperatures can reach 47 degrees.
Travelling north in November – February can bring cyclones and torrential rain. No one wants to be in the eye of a cyclone. And finally – some roads or tracks are closed periodically because of seasonal weather conditions.
That’s why a trip to Cape York has a concise window of opportunity, and people travel in packs… Lonely wolf experience in the middle of summer is impossible.
What if you are already there and the weather starts to change for the worse – we talk to locals. They know their area best.
A UHF radio is vital equipment if you go offroad. It can help you call emergency services when things go wrong, and it also makes your life easier if you travel in a convoy.
We carry a handheld UHF as well as an in-car UHF. I don’t remember when we used a handheld one, but we had a situation in Simpson desert where in-car radio gave up, and we had to borrow a handheld to travel safely through the dunes. A few rules to know about:
- channels 5 and 35 are emergency channels and shouldn’t be used except for emergency
- channel 10 is used by 4WD clubs
- channel 11 is a “Call channel”, it is used to start conversion and then move quickly to another channel
- channel 18 is used by caravans and campers convoys
- channel 40 is for truck drivers and people who want to talk to truck drivers (useful when a big house being relocate shows out of nowhere right behind you, and you are asked to move out of the way)
- for general conversation channels 9, 12-17, 19-21 24-28, 30, 39, 49-60, 64-70, 79 and 80 can be used
- channels 22,23,29,61-63 shouldn’t be used
Please remember that conversations on every UHF channel are public. We heard a few conversations that I would really like to forget about during our trips. Another useful (but not cheap) option would be a satellite phone.
Maps and GPS navigation
We keep our Hema maps up to date and replace them every few years. We also have an on and off-road Hema HX-1 GPS navigator. Never trust your mobile phone navigation, and don’t be surprised if remote areas will not have mobile coverage!
Plan before you go
We are flexible, but we always have a plan of what way to take and then a backup route if we cannot drive through it. We always check spots where we can camp for free, and we also research caravan parks in the area.
Moreover, we check people’s opinions and choose the best for us. If you travel with kids, don’t plan to drive 900 km/day because that’s very optimistic but probably not possible.
Don’t overweight your car
Travel light, move fast. To master it, it takes some time and experience. For us, this was the biggest challenge for years. We just needed to take everything with us (especially when you have small kids). Did we really need it? No, not really.
My current system for packing? I get everything that I would like to take and then move aside everything I really need. The rest stays at home. Yes, it requires some practice, but it’s worth it. This extreme case of a camping hoarder was spotted at a caravan park in Mt Isa a few years ago.
Take 4WD off road driving course
It’s optional but highly recommended. We have completed it, and in my opinion, it was really beneficial. You may think off-road driving is easy, and what can be difficult about it. You probably imagine a flat gravel road.
What about the steep incline, or river crossing, or muddy washout on the road? Still confident you can do it? We weren’t, and training proved it. We knew the theory, but we had no practice. The car ended up bogged, and we had a chance to learn how to use recovery gear safely. Every time we have a chance to participate in recovery workshops, we do it.
Do not travel at night
That’s our golden rule – we do not drive at night (except if it’s a short distance return to our camp). Many Australian animals are nocturnal, and they are active at night, especially around dusk and dawn. The car is heavy. Our reaction is slow. We don’t do it.
Have your car checked by a mechanic
Before you go on another exciting adventure, you always visit our mechanic. It’s important to have a professional who knows what needs to be checked and specialises in 4WD cars. It took us some time to find such a person, but now we are delighted, and we completely rely on his expertise.
Make sure you know where fuel stations are located. There could be a considerable distance between them when you get to more remote areas. A good option is to take extra fuel cans. We usually have two canisters mounted on the roof for a longer trip.
A potential issue could also be contaminated fuel. That’s why we always use a funnel. Funnels could be messy to use as fuel can spill, but after we paid a few thousand of dollars to clean two tanks, injectors and pumps, we are happy to oblige. We also invested in additional fuel filters, and so far… all seems to be fine.
Food and water
We always take a minimum of one week of food and 20L fresh, ready to drink water. If we have an opportunity to buy lunch in the roadhouse, we do it, but we never count on it, and I’m always ready to “work my magic” and prepare a fast lunch or dinner from what we carry with us.
There are no McDonalds in the outback. Let’s not count that one in Daly Waters.
And the most important thing – have fun!
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4WD Equipment Checklist
Tire Repair Kit – to fix the tire by yourself when you don’t have access to the tire shop (we use Oztrail)
UHF Radio – for communication with your mates and in emergency
Full Recovery Kit (with Dampener Blanket) – must-have if you are going on real off-road
High Lift Jack – useful if you do serious 4WD tracks
Shovel – useful if you get bogged, also good for campfire cooking
Fuel funnel with water filter – additional protection when fueling up in dodgy places