Anyone can buy a 4WD and take it off road. Unfortunately, this means a lot of people are heading off road without the faintest idea of how to use their 4WD, and what to do when things go wrong. I've witnessed this on countless occasions, where vehicles and people have been put at risk due to a lack of knowledge. Best case scenario; you look like an idiot. Worst case; you do damage to your 4WD, or kill someone.
This post is a summary which links to many of the articles I've written over the last few years. These go into much further detail on each subject. I hope you find it useful, and if you do, please pass it on to your mates!
So, what are the things you must know about 4WDing?
Tyre pressures are critical
The air pressure in your 4WD tyres is not just important, its critical. I'd even go as far as to say it is the most important factor you control when heading off road. It's the difference between sinking to the chassis on a soft beach and idling your way through. It's the difference between getting a puncture and not, or having a back breaking ride compared to a relatively smooth and comfortable one! Tyre pressures should be adjusted based on the terrain you are driving on. I've written 6 reasons tyre pressures are critical when 4WDing, and they are all extremely important.
The Best tyre pressures for beach driving are vastly different to high speed gravel driving, but there are many other factors that determine the right tyre pressure. Things like tyre size, weight and speed all play a role in your tyre pressures.
Did you know as you drive, the air in your tyres warms up, and because of this, the air pressure also goes up? You can read more about this at Tyre pressures; do you check them hot or cold?
If you take just one thing from this post, learn to run the right tyre pressures for your vehicle on the terrain you are driving on. It makes a world of difference.
Having a basic recovery kit is not optional
Those who take their 4WD offroad without so much as a tyre gauge are asking for trouble. There are a few items that should be the Must have 4WD recovery kit. Keep it in the 4WD at all times, and you never have to worry about it.
You need rated recovery points
I only know of one 4WD that comes from the factory floor with Rated recovery points; the Isuzu MUX. That means every single other 4WD does not have points that are suitable for winching, towing or snatching off unless they have been replaced with aftermarket ones. If you haven't got at least one rated recovery point on the front of your 4WD, and one on the rear, you shouldn't be heading off road.
For the rear, you can get a Recovery hitch, but take the time to consider how strong your tow bar is too! Trying to recover a 4WD without rated recovery points is extremely dangerous and can easily result in damage to your 4WD or injury to people.
4WD recoveries involve serious risk
When a 4WD gets bogged, using another vehicle to tow, snatch or winch it out puts an immense amount of force on both the vehicles and the recovery gear. Unfortunately, there have been a number of people killed when 4WD recoveries have not gone to plan. Sometimes this is due to poor quality equipment, but more often than not it comes down to using the wrong equipment, with the wrong techniques in place.
To start with, here are 20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery. Before you get involved with a 4WD recovery, you need to understand the risks, what could go wrong, and have a plan to remove/reduce the risk. Be aware of The weakest link in your 4WD recovery, and take the extra time to do it safely.
Make sure you use equaliser straps and dampeners to reduce the load and chance of something flicking if it breaks.
You will get bogged, eventually
Every single keen 4WDer I know has been bogged at one point or another. There's nothing wrong with it; sometimes a soft beach will catch you out, and other times a big mud hole will grab your 4WD and stop it in its tracks. What matters is how you go about getting the vehicle moving again. Take your time, do it safely and look out for each other.
I wrote a post a while back where I go through 4 of the times I've been badly bogged in a 4WD. In each situation, we got out without anyone getting hurt, and without any damage to our 4WD's. I will admit to doing things incorrectly when I first started 4WDing, and am glad nothing went wrong. What should you do when you get bogged?
If you get bogged, you provide the recovery gear
It's really rude if you get stuck and ask to use someone else's recovery gear. You drove into the sloppy mud hole; your new snatch strap is the one that should get filthy in the recovery. If you do use someone else's gear, make sure you return it in as supplied condition, or at least offer to wash it or pay for their time (beer usually works!).
Low range, high range and locking hubs
I've seen people get bogged because they don't know how to lock their hubs. Every vehicle is different, and you need to know how to make all 4 wheels drive before you head off the bitumen. Sometimes this involves manually locking the front hubs, but most vehicles these days are auto locking.
From there, you should have a basic understanding of the gearing in your transfer case. High range is the choice for majority of your 4WDing done at a reasonable speed. Low range should be used for slow speed 4WDing, where you need maximum traction. You have substantially more torque in low range, and that makes it perfect for hill climbs, mud runs, soft beaches, steep descents and recovering a bogged 4WD.
This can be vehicle specific though; my old Hilux could barely take off on a beach in high range!
Don't engage 4WD on a bitumen road, or you are asking for something to break (unless your vehicle has a centre differential).
You aren't welcome everywhere
Just because your 4WD increases your accessibility doesn't mean you are allowed to be there. National parks, private property, water catchment areas and even beaches have restrictions as to where you can drive.
If you come across a locked gate (so long as it isn't a gazetted road), that means you aren't welcome. It doesn't mean you get to drive around it, or tear it open. Respect the rules, look after the bush and keep the 4WD tracks open. Ignorance is not an excuse; do your research prior to heading out.
Walk the line before you drive it
If you get to a section of a 4WD track that you are a bit unsure about, stop your 4WD, get out and have a look. Think about what might cause a problem, and what is likely to damage to the vehicle. You should know what line you are going to take before you hit a technical section! Winging it easily results in things going wrong!
Look for side angles, think about where your wheels are going to be, and what is likely to get you hung up.
It's ok to use the chicken track
I know how it is when you are out with mates; its a competition to see who can get through something. However, don't be afraid to take the chicken track. I can tell you from personal experience nothing puts more of a damper on your day out in the 4WD than a drowned 4WD, or a big dent in one of your panels! Know where your limits are, and stick to them.
You can learn a lot from other people
The best way to learn 4WDing is to head out with a good mate who knows what they are doing. They can answer all your questions, and give you the confidence to safely drive your 4WD. If something goes wrong, you have someone to rely on.
The more you talk to people, the more you will pick up about 4WDing. There are plenty of forums online that provide a myriad of information. If you need model specific information, you can easily find it online. The more time you spend out on the tracks the more skills you will pick up. Get out there, and talk to people!
Stop spinning your tyres
One of the most common mistakes people make when their vehicle begins to sink or stops moving is to put their foot flat on the accelerator, spinning the wheels as the RPM flies through the roof. This results in a 4WD that has now sunken twice as much as it would have if you'd just backed off the throttle and stopped!
If you aren't moving forward (or backwards!), spinning your wheels is a bad idea. It's not good for the tracks, your 4WD, and those involved in the recovery. A 5 minute recovery will turn into an hour long ordeal through a few seconds of carelessness on the throttle!
I'm not suggesting you never spin your wheels; its inevitable, and a bit of a stab now and then can get you through some situations. Mud especially is a terrain where you do need to spin your tyres a bit to clear the tyres, but if you aren't moving forward you are wasting your time!
Snatch straps are not suitable for every single 4WD recovery
Snatch straps are a fantastic bit of recovery gear, when used correctly and for the correct application. These days though, when someone gets bogged, the first thing that comes out is a snatch strap, and its not good practice. There are a heap of other options that should be considered before the use of snatch straps, and they should never be used in situations where high levels of force are required. When should you use a snatch strap?
The shovel is your friend
Yep, I get it; using a shovel might be hard work and take some time, but it is one of the best and safest ways to get a bogged 4WD moving again. A few minutes on the end of a shovel will make a 4WD recovery much safer.
At the very least, get your mates to dig; you have to drive the 4WD after all!
Know where you are going
Australia is a big place. A really, really big place. If you head out without the right maps or GPS and lose your way, you can be put at serious risk trying to find civilisation again. Paper maps are essential, and you need to know how to use them. Above and beyond that, an offroad GPS is cheap as chips these days, and will make your life much easier and safer.
What are your communication options?
If you are heading into an area where you are unlikely to have mobile phone reception, how would you communicate with someone if you needed to? UHF radio's are cheap, and extremely useful. They are also found in almost every well used 4WD. From there though, you have a heap of other options; satellite phones, SPOT GPS, HF radio's and your basic Epirb.
Your communication options should be reflected in how remote the trip is, who you are travelling with, your experience and the probability of something going wrong. Stay safe!
Avoid going alone
It's always better to travel with at least one other vehicle. I can tell you from personal experience that you will always feel more comfortable travelling with another car. Obviously, this is not always possible, and if you have a reliable 4WD coupled with the right gear and understanding you are on the right track.
Carry a first aid kit
You can pick up a really good first aid kit for under $100. Considering it could save your life (or someone elses!) one day, they are a cheap investment. We also carry a St Johns first aid book; despite having first aid training I wouldn't remember the correct way to treat every single injury.
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Keep your thumbs outside of the steering wheel
When you are driving along a 4WD track the wheels of your 4WD get knocked one way and the other, which in turn moves the steering wheel. Make sure you don't keep your thumbs wrapped around the steering wheel on the inside. If the wheels bite, it will flick your steering wheel around and likely break one of your thumbs. Not something you want to happen; keep your thumbs outside of the steering wheel!
Wear decent footwear in slippery terrain
The good old pluggers (thongs/flip flops) are an extremely popular bit of footwear for 4WDing in Australia. It's almost an Aussie standard. The thing is though, if you slip on a steep hill in your thongs, you've got a pretty good chance of hurting yourself. Wear some decent shoes or boots, so you have more grip, and if you do slip over you reduce the chance of a rolled or broken ankle!
The reverse hill start (for manual vehicles)
With the number of automatic 4WD's on the market this is becoming less and less used, but for manual 4WD's, you should know how to do the reverse hill start. Lets say you are making your way up a muddy, slippery and steep hill and you manage to stall your vehicle. You instinctively jump on the brakes, and hope that the vehicle doesn't slide backwards. What you should do next is pop the car into reverse gear, and let the clutch out. This means the gearbox on your 4WD is stopping all 4 wheels from turning.
From there, to reverse in a controlled manner downhill, all you need to do is turn the car on with the clutch out and the vehicle in reverse (low range). It will start, and reverse down the hill with zero wheel slip and you can control it perfectly. The danger of not doing this is that in between letting the clutch out and taking your foot off the brake your 4WD can begin to slip. Once it starts to slip, you are in serious danger.
You don't need every accessory on the market
With the huge number of 4WD accessories on the market today, its seems like people modify their 4WD without any real purpose! The irony of it is often those who have less modifications have seen more of Australia than those with high accessorised 4WDs. The truth is, reliability is far more important than suspension lifts, bigger tyres and Lockers. Of course, that's not to say they don't have their place, but don't let it put you off enjoying yourself in a stock, or mildly modified 4WD. Do you really need all those 4WD accessories?
You are responsible for looking after the bush
We've got a beautiful country in Australia. There are so many pristine places you can take your 4WD to, and its a privilege that some people don't deserve. It's all common sense and general respect; what you take in, you should take out. Don't leave your rubbish behind, rip up camp sites, destroy public property or leave your toilet paper blowing in the wind. Don't wreck Australia. Look after our bush; abuse it and lose it.
4WD's are not boats
Possibly the worst decision you could make in a 4WD is to drive through water that you can't see the bottom of, or that is deeper than your 4WD is designed to drive through. If you use your 4WD as a boat, you will be up for extremely expensive repairs when things go wrong. 4WD's without snorkels should not be driving through more than about 500mm of water (and less for some modern vehicles). If you suck water into the engine (which is extremely easy to do), you will destroy your engine. If you get bogged in a decent puddle, its pretty easy to write your vehicle off purely from water damage to the computers and interior.
You should always walk the puddle or crossing, or at least use a stick to feel the bottom and check the depth. In the northern parts of Australia where salt water crocodiles live in the water, you shouldn't walk the crossing. Instead, only cross if you know how deep the water is, the current is not excessive, you are confident and you've come up with a way to recover your vehicle should something go wrong. Take the required precautions!
Power is not everything
Ever since the invention of cars, there's been an obsession with power. As technology continues to progress, 4WD's are becoming more and more powerful. The thing is though, power is not everything. Sure, its important, but not having a V8 twin turbo diesel is not going to make your vehicle unsuitable for 4WDing. Traction, clearance, wheel placement and common sense go a lot further than power will ever get you!
Coming from a 2.4 litre carby Hilux I can tell you that even without bucket loads of power you can still drive a very capable 4WD. Power is helpful, but its not a requirement for getting out there and enjoying our 4WD tracks.
Check the weather forecast
We never head out without knowing roughly what the weather is doing. This is most important for rainfall as a bit of rain can turn a simple track into a day long slog through slippery mud. However, knowing the temperature forecast allows for you to take the right camping gear and clothes too. It takes 2 minutes before you head off, and ensures you have the right gear with you.
Tell someone about your plans
Try to let a neighbour or good mate know where you are going, and when you expect to return. Should something happen when you are out in the bush, you want someone to know as soon as possible that you are overdue, and get people looking for you!
If you overload and abuse your 4WD, it will break
4WD's cannot be loaded up with everything under the sun and then bounced along 4WD tracks all day long without something breaking. If you haven't taken the time to work out How much your 4WD weighs, its something you should do. Consider where the weight is sitting too; lots of weight on the roof, or behind the rear wheels is asking for trouble.
What is your payload and GVM? What about your GCM and maximum towball weight? Land Rover seem to be the only 4WD manufacturer that drops the maximum towing and payload of their 4WD's when used off road. Why would they do that? Because its the logical thing to do! 4WD tracks apply more stress to your 4WD, and the heavier they are the more likely something is to fail.
Obviously, there is only so much you can do with the weight. However, if your vehicle is heavy, you can adjust the way you drive; take it slower, look after your 4WD and it will handle the drive much better. The last thing you want is to break down in the middle of know where. Chassis damage is not something you want to know about!
From an abuse perspective, if you think you can bounce your 4WD up rocky hills all day long without something going wrong, you are in for a shock. Even the toughest 4WD's have their limitations, and if you don't drive with a bit of mechanical sympathy you will find them very quickly!
A good driver makes all the difference
4WDing is a skill. I've seen people drive fairly standard Pajero's through places I'd have to think twice about driving in my well modified 80 series. The line that you pick makes all the difference when it comes to serious, offroad driving. There's nothing better than seeing someone in a mildly modified 4WD out drive a heap of decked out 4WD's, purely because of driver skill. Everyone starts somewhere, and you will pick up the skills as you head out more.
It's all about wheel placement
All the power in the world makes zero difference if your wheels can't get any traction. When you are 4WDing, you should always be thinking about where your wheels are in relation to the high and low parts of the track. Consider where it is slippery, what sort of angle the line you are taking is going to put on your vehicle, and how your suspension is going to flex. You should know where the low points are on your 4WD (like the differential pumkins) and drive accordingly.
Take your tow hitch out
A lot of people head off road without removing their tow hitch. On the beach its less important, but for rocky and muddy tracks, a tow hitch will often get knocked as it reduces your departure angle. In some cases, you can end up with a huge amount of the 4WD's weight sitting on the tow hitch, which makes it easy to get bogged. A rear recovery hitch is the best thing to have in your hitch receiver, as they barely stick out at all and are there for when you need them.
Excess momentum often results in something breaking
Almost every time we head out 4WDing, you see someone trying to use momentum to get through an obstacle. Whether its flying full pelt into a huge mud run, or bouncing their way up a muddy hill, momentum has to be used very carefully. It has its place, but its when you are flogging your 4WD that things most often go wrong.
We saw a brand new Jeep do an insane amount of damage up one of the hills in Mundaring, purely because it was the 'lock, stomp and steer' attitude. You need to find the right amount of momentum for each situation. Too much though, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
If your 4WD is not road legal, your insurance company can leave you high and dry
4WD insurance is a complicated beast. However, I can make it really simple. If your vehicle does not comply with the local road regulations, your insurance company can decline any claim you make. In WA, you can't raise the roof of your vehicle more than 50mm in tyres, body lift or suspension lift without getting it engineered. That doesn't stop a huge number of 4WD's that are over the 50mm from driving on the road, but it does mean their insurance companies can weasel out of any claims.
This is a grey area; some people believe that the modification must contribute to the accident for the insurance company to deny a claim. In many cases, illegal 4WD's are covered, purely because the insurance assessor has no idea. However, do you really want to be in that position and have to risk your pride and joy? You can find out more about this at Is your 4WD Legal?
4WD insurance will not cover you everywhere in Australia
Hypothetically, lets say you got bogged in your 4WD at the local beach, and the tide came up, filled it with salt water and silt. Would your 4WD insurance company cover you? Are you sure? Some insurance companies in Australia will not cover you for beach driving, and have a range of other little clauses to catch you out.
What about the local 4WD tracks? Are you allowed there? Whilst reading the fine print is a right pain in the behind, asking questions and getting written documentation from your insurance provider is a good place to start.
Bigger tyres and lift kits are not always better
There's a common misconception that the bigger your suspension lift and tyres, the more capable your 4WD is. The reality is nothing could be further from the truth. Fitting bigger tyres and suspension may give you more clearance, but it has a heap of downsides that everyone seems to forget. Fitting Bigger Tyres to your 4WD comes at a fairly serious price. There are plenty of Downsides of 4WD accessories and modifications.
I believe in modifying with intent. If you understand and need the suspension lift and tyres, go for it (within the legal boundaries), but really consider as to what you are achieving (and losing out on!).
Use a spotter where possible
There are plenty of times when you aren't able to see enough of the 4WD track to steer in the right direction. The most common place for this to happen is on steep hill climbs; as the driver, you are left seeing the bonnet of your 4WD and that's about it.
Get a mate who knows what they are doing to stand outside the vehicle, and direct you. They can make sure you aren't going to drive into a huge hole, or smash your sills on a big rock!
Modify your 4WD to suit you
People are very quick to judge the 4WD you drive around in. The thing is though, it is your 4WD, and it should be built to suit you. Ignore the haters, and modify your 4WD to suit your requirements. The best advice I can give is to really consider what you want the 4WD for, and where you want it to be in the future. Far too many people purchase a 4WD, spend a fortune modifying it and then come to the conclusion that it doesn't actually do what they want it to.
You are in a difficult situation then, with limited options. You can sell it and upgrade (and lose a lot of money in the process), continue modifying it in the direction you want to go, or just put up with the vehicle. None of the options are very attractive, so you want to get it right at the start! So, how do you Build and Buy the perfect 4WD?
Use the engine when going downhill
Your engine should be used to do as much braking as possible. This is especially important on slippery descents. If you use the brakes, they can easily overheat and fade away. Worse still, you can end up slipping down the hill with all 4 wheels locked up.
Use your engine to control your speed; 1st gear in low range will have your vehicle idling down slippery hills with minimal wheel spin, and a much greater control. Even though its not intuitive, avoid using the brakes unless you absolutely must use them, as they quickly lock the wheels up. If your wheels begin to slip, you are actually better off giving the throttle a bit of a push to get the wheels turning at the same speed as you are moving. Your engine will control your 4WD down a steep hill much better than you can by feathering the brakes!
Don't be a tool
We don't need tools when it comes to 4WDing. I'm talking about those who speed past families on the beach, or drive around with people on the roof racks and in the back of utes. Those who throw their bottles and cans out the window, drink drive on 4WD tracks and don't clean up after themselves. Those who disrupt family camp grounds, or intentionally damage the environment and 4WD tracks.
4WDing in Australia is a privilege, and you wreck it for everyone. Show a bit of respect to your fellow 4WDer's, and this great country.
Look after your 4WD and it will return the favour
If you treat your 4WD with care, it will look after you for many years. Neglect it though, and it will be the biggest money pit you've ever owned. I'm talking about regular (and quality) mechanical servicing, quality modifications, driving the vehicle carefully and not bouncing your way up rocky hill climbs. Wash the salt off your vehicle after you've been to the beach, inspect it regularly on trips away for things that are wrong and it will reward you with years of reliability.
Things like Driving your 4WD through salt water are avoidable, and do serious, long term damage to a 4WD. I'll never understand it. Mud is another thing that causes huge damage to your 4WD, and despite the repercussions its hard to avoid it! Have a read of Mud; your 4WD's worst enemy.
Driver training never goes astray
Nothing beats proper 4WD training, from a certified 4WD trainer. Hands on experience will ensure you learn the right way to use your 4WD, the first time. Don't get into bad habits! There are a heap of 4WD clubs and businesses that offer a variety of 4WD training. I'm not suggesting its a requirement, but if you haven't got someone to show you the ropes (the right way) its a great alternative.
4WD's are not cheap
I'm not going to sugar coat it. Owning a 4WD is not cheap, in any way you want to look at it. You've got fuel, repairs, rego, insurance, modifications and the list goes on. They will cost you quite a bit of money; just Look at how much I've spent on our 80 series! However, the benefits of owning a 4WD outweigh the costs by far. Have a read of Why I own a 4WD.
There are a heap of things you need to know about 4WDing. Hopefully I have covered a large majority of them. However, know that there is real danger when people head off road without the skills, gear or understanding of how to safely use their 4WD.
What have a missed on this list? Stay safe and enjoy the 4WDing in Australia!