Offroad Driving Tips and Techniques – from “gun-shy” to gung-ho”

Offroad driving is a lot of fun but there are a few things to keep in mind to keep the experience safe and enjoyable. Below are some offroad driving tips and techniques to help prevent damage to yourself as well as your vehicle.

  1. Don’t be a fool that rushes in …

Image Credit: Newbie error … oops!

So you have just bought yourself a spiffy new Toyota Hilux, Jeep Wrangler, Pajero or {insert choice of offroad 4×4 machine here} and you are eager to stretch its legs. You venture off the tar and dive in to see what your new pride and joy can do in the field.

The rookie mistake that you are making is to think that your skills on tar will directly transfer into offroad driving skills. This is not true … seriously. The vehicle may be very capable but you might not be. Offroad driving technique is very different from road driving. 

Offroad or trail driving has a steep learning curve and many factors are not intuitive like picking the correct line over an obstacle or knowing when and when not to apply brakes. How to get yourself unstuck is a whole field of study in itself and the forces present is often unseen but very real (we are talking tonnes of force involved in a snatch recovery, for example). It is invaluable to have a more experienced driver or a certified instructor teach you the offroad driving technique basics before you test your new vehicle.

There is a real danger in offroad driving – damage to the car if you are lucky and injury or death if you are less lucky.

2) Don’t drink or be hungover on a trail

Image Credit: Hold my drink and watch this move…

Nothing is more enjoyable than a cold brewsky when you are enjoying nature, right? Especially if you hit the trail early the Saturday morning and last night’s social gathering is still painfully present in your head.

Offroad trail driving involves technique, judgement, reflexes and quick reaction times. It also requires you to be humble and know your limitations as well as the limitations of the vehicle. Alcohol tends to impair all of the above.

Many a tragic tale have started with the words:” Hold my drink and watch this move”.

3) Don’t Panic

Image Credit: Dune days: namibia

Trail driving is an activity where you get your kicks in slow motion. Of course, there are exemptions to this rule e.g. when you tackle a steep dune, you want to maintain speed and momentum.

But most of the time you want to crawl a bit slower than necessary so that you don’t get nasty surprises. You are not a rally driver – you want to avoid doing damage to the trail, your vehicle, yourself and others.

Panic happens when you are suddenly presented with challenging circumstances and you do not yet have the experience or muscle memory to safely handle the situation. As I have mentioned before, offroad driving technique is a skill that takes time to develop. Chances are that this will happen to you the first time that you attempt an obstacle with a steep incline. When the tyres start slipping, panic will make you step on the petrol or brake. Both situations can be rather … ahem … interesting.

Giving beans can produce a magnitude of unwanted results such as the vehicle overturning, breaking a half-shaft if the tyres suddenly start gripping or you can even veer off the side of the obstacle.

Stepping on the brake with a manual gearbox while depressing the clutch can make the vehicle suddenly roll back and if your front wheels are even slightly turned, you can take a tumble down the obstacle.

If you are slipping badly, the safest bet is to keep the wheels straight and calmly step on the brake without depressing the clutch. If you come to a standstill and the engine stalls, pull up the handbrake and assess the situation. Gently release the handbrake and roll back on the clutch (in a controlled fashion) while maintaining grip with the brakes until you are on more level terrain and then rethink your driving line over (or around) the obstacle.

If the wheels keep slipping and you are sliding back uncontrollably, use gentle braking and engine braking while focussing on keeping the wheels straight. Eventually, you will come to a standstill when the terrain levels out.

4) Snatch Recoveries can be Fatal

Image Credit: 4wd Recovery Strap

I really don’t want to say too much about the correct procedure on snatch recoveries. If you don’t know what you are doing, then don’t snatch. If you do know what you are doing, snatch only as a last resort. Recovery techniques vary and not all experts agree on each and every point but the one thing that all knowledgeable people agree on is that extreme caution need to be exercised. 

Let me share an experience that happened to me on a trail. I leisurely set out to a local trail on a Sunday morning, I desperately needed to get out of the house for a bit. It was a lovely day and I enjoyed the trail, which I knew fairly well, thoroughly.

As I approached the final obstacle – a steep hill – I noticed a commotion and big dust clouds being kicked up. On closer inspection, I saw an older man with a Defender 110, trying to recover a younger man with a brand new Ford pickup. The Ford was close to being on its way down the side of the mountain and the older man tried in vain to pull him back onto the trail with a normal tow strap. In between the two vehicles, right next to the strap, a young lady and her daughter of around five years of age were spectating.

The Defender was kicking like a wild mule and the tyres were spinning up dust and rocks in all directions. I stopped and asked if I could assist. The younger man told me that he had just bought the Ford two weeks ago and he then got retrenched a week later. His thinking was that if he was going to lose the vehicle in any case, he would at least take it offroad once so that he could experience trail driving for the first and only time.

He didn’t know that a 4×2 truck was insufficient for the trail and his father-in-law with the Defender turned out to be a bit of a cowboy.

My first order of business was to get the young man’s wife and daughter to a safe distance. I was seriously peeved that the father-in-law, who seemed to have a bit of experience, did not have the common sense to keep them out of potential harm’s way.

I then asked them about their tyre pressures. The older man got highly antagonized with me and stated bluntly that he doesn’t believe in deflating tyres. I calmly replied that if they want my help they will follow my instructions or else they were free to struggle on without me. The young man was close to tears and he begged me to keep on helping them.

After we had deflated the tyres, I asked him if he had engaged the diff-lock on his truck. He replied that he did but for some reason, the truck kept going skew like a crab and that was why he got into trouble. At this point in time, I found out that the Ford was only 4×2. Cold sweat rolled down my neck as I realized the seriousness of the situation.

I decided to remove the older man from the equation and I offered to snatch the younger man’s truck lightly back onto the track. I attached the strap and secured it on both sides with safety bridles. An arrestor bag went over the strap, halfway between the vehicles.

Fortunately, only a light pull was needed to get the truck off the side of the mountain and back onto the track. The bridles were not really necessary but I decided to err on the side of caution.

When the young man saw how easily I had recovered his truck, he asked me to drive it all the way up the obstacle. I flat-out refused. I was not keen to be held responsible in case I damaged his truck. He assured me that he would not worry, he just wanted to get his wife and daughter off the trail and back home. Evidently, he had lost all faith in his father-in-law.

Well, I made it to the top of the mountain. Let me rather not elaborate on how I did it and how close I came to the cliff myself. When I exited the vehicle at the top, my hands were shaking as much as the younger man’s.

Many things could have gone wrong that day. I guess I had earned a pocketful of karma points to assist the young family in need. But I hope that I am never in a similar situation like that again.

Same spot with a different Landy

Image Credit: Groenkloof Nature Trail with Defender 2.8i

How to get started?

If you think that trail driving is a hobby that you might enjoy, I have written a short blog post on how to check a used vehicle before buying. The post is specific to Land Rover Defenders because I refurbish them for a living, but much of the information is applicable to any prospective truck or SUV. If you only learn about the importance of compression and leak-down tests, you are head and shoulders above other buyers. I wish I had known about it before I bought my Defender …

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