by Chiara Zito | Feb 26, 2016 | Servicing & Maintenance
Driving off-road and having the right vehicle to head bush requires skill and preparation
To make the most of visiting Australia’stop 4WD destinations, you will need a four-wheel drive that’s set up for bush travel and the ability and confidence to drive it in tough off-road situations.
If you’re new to bush travel in a 4WD, then the first thing to do is get a four-wheel drive training course under your belt. Even seasoned off-road travelers cando with a refresher course. Then learn as much as you can about the four-wheel drive and safety gear you’ll need for a remote bush trip. We’ll walk you though some of the basics here.
Just any SUV that has 4WD is not going to cut it for a remote bush trip: think more Toyota LandCruiser than Toyota Kluger. As a bare minimum, your vehicle must have better than road-car ground clearance, sufficient approach, ramp-over and departure angles, solid underbody protection, solid recovery points and decent traction control and hill descent control.
Better still it will have a separate chassis, dual-range transmission, mechanical diff locks and a long-range fuel tank.
Your vehicle should be prepped at the very least with good off-road tyres, a spare tyre — preferably two — and in many cases, uprated suspension.
You might also want to give serious consideration to getting a snorkel for deep water crossings such as at Cape York, a bullbar to reduce damage from wildlife strikes and driving lights for when you have to drive on gloomy bush roads at night.
Loading up a bush-capable 4WD with camping gear and all the other stuff you’ll need for a long trek reduces its suspension’s ability to cope with rough roads and also robs you of precious ground clearance. A 50mm raised heavy-duty suspension is therefore an important modification to consider.
Stuff you should take along at the very least include a puncture repair kit, air compressor, recovery gear, comprehensive first-aid kit and communication gear such as a 5-Watt UHF radio and sat-phone.
Personal safety takes on a whole new perspective when travelling on remote roads out bush. Make sure someone in the city knows your travel itinerary and you keep in regular touch with them.
You need to have plenty of water, skin protection and food supplies, too; a can of soft drink and a chocolate bar isn’t enough even for a 150km transport stage between towns in the remote bush.
Even on a fairly well populated stretch of bush road you may not see traffic for several hours if you are stranded. If you become stuck or experience a break-down, never leave your vehicle — you become a lot harder to find if it comes to that.
Read the road
Even something as basic as a non-paved road can cause serious strife out bush. Dirt roads with their sharp stones and exposed tree roots can kill tyres — so best to drop tyre pressures to about 25psi and keep speed down to about 80km/h.
Reading dirt roads is a skill, because some can vary from good one minute, with smooth sections that you can belt along at 80km/h easily, to bad the next with deep washouts, rough corrugations or steep shelves that need to be taken at walking pace to avoid damage.
Bulldust holes — fine dust particles that sit in often-deep hollows on a dirt road and are particularly hard to spot — are particularly hard on a vehicle if approached with too much speed.
Drop tyre pressures further — to about 16psi — for soft sand, which can include sand-base river crossings. Sand driving is a whole skill-set of its own, but the basics are to keep up momentum, don’t turn the wheel sharp-ly and expect the wheels to respond in kind (with low tyre pressures you risk rolling a tyre off a rim anyway), and don’t approach the crest of a dune at anything but straight on – otherwise you risk a roll-over as you de-scend the lee side of the dune.
Make sure you remember to re-inflate tyres before you head back onto fast dirt or tarmac, because steering response will be dulled and you also risk tyres overheating and blowing out.
When water crossings are more than about tyre-section deep, or much less if the water is flowing, they should be walked first wherever possible so that you can assess the depth, the traction available and look for any deep hollows or large protrusions like rocks.
For steep descents into water like at Cape York, select low-range first and feather the brakes at the most. Try to steer straight down the incline so you don’t side-slope and risk a roll-over.
Remember momentum is your friend during the water crossing and, when there’s a bank on the other side, also when climbing out of it. The key is to have enough speed in the water to not get bogged and to create a gentle bow wave. As you exit onto the slippery bank, keep up the momentum and don’t slow down unless the bank is badly rutted.
Momentum is one of the most important things when driving in slippery off-road conditions. Learning to hold that sweet spot of momentum — so that you don’t lose traction, but also to read the terrain well enough so that you don’t have too much speed on board to do vehicle damage — is one of the marks of a good off-road driver.
Sometimes even the best off-road driver can’t avoid getting stuck. This is when you need recovery gear — and to know how to use it.
To use a snatch strap, you need another vehicle that has not become stuck to retrieve the bogged vehicle. The recovery points should be intended for such use — and not the tie-down points many vehicle have for shipping, or towing hooks not intended for use in recovery situations were immense shock loadings are transferred.
The snatch strap — or recovery strap — is in layman’s terms like a big rubber band. When it is stretched, as it is when a recovery occurs, it stores energy that is expended as it contracts.
To avoid serious injury, the components need to be up to the job. If not, and anything breaks, it can become like a bullet. If it hits soft flesh – or, worse still, your hard head — on its way to expending the massive amount of energy stored, the results can be fatal.
A magazine or thick material like a jumper should be spread across the middle of the strap to reduce its weapons-grade strength if it snaps, an there should be no-one standing anywhere near the vehicles or the strap when a recovery is underway.
There’s a lot more to it, but heed these basic rules of four-wheel driving in the Outback and you’ll be well prepared to enjoy the best untainted beauty Australia has to offer.