Getting out on the dirt: our 4x4 tips for beginners
August 21, 2018 • Renee Nathan Helms
9 min read
If you want to travel Australia, escape the crowds and see some of the most amazing places in the world then chances are you’re going to be driving in some pretty remote areas, or at the very least plenty of dirt and gravel roads with some beaches thrown in for good measure.
With that in mind, you are going to want to get yourself a 4x4 of some sort. I will leave that decision up to you (it’s a polarising one) but whatever you drive, most things are the same across the board when it comes to four-wheel driving. Here are just a few things to think about that’ll hopefully get you on your way to your ideal destination.
The list is pretty much endless on this one and can depend on budget, D.I.Y know-how and need. Need (or want) and budget may or may not be mutually exclusive!
But a few things that should be looked at include a good set of All (or Mud) Terrain tyres depending on the most common type of driving you are going to be doing. This really is starting from the ground up and can radically alter the enjoyment you get out of four-wheel driving. You'll have the ability to drive on a surface and know you have maximised your chances of not just getting somewhere, but also getting out of a situation.
A good quality tyre designed for this application will have superior tread, thicker sidewalls (to reduce punctures) and an all-around stronger design.
Aftermarket suspension would be next on the list. You need to look at what your main purpose for the vehicle will be. And you seriously need to think about what will be going into and on it. It's no good just going down to your local chain aftermarket specialist and saying you want a two-inch lift. You might do that then load up the wagon or ute with supplies for two weeks for a family of five, drop a camper on the back then all of a sudden the front of your car is pointing skyward!
Do yourself a favour, before you even look at suspension and get all your camping gear out, pack it (you will probably want storage, maybe a roof rack) and then weigh it. You might just be surprised.
Some tyre and suspension shops offer to weigh your vehicle including separate axles and tow ball weight if you have a camper/caravan. Or just go down the local weighbridge. This will also give you an idea of whether you’re within your weight limits, as well as give you more of an idea of what sort of suspension you need.
Then the list just keeps on going: snorkel, bull bar, winch, driving lights, dual battery systems, fridges, awnings. Just think long and hard about what you actually want from your 4x4, and if you shop around lots of these things can be found cheaply and even built or installed yourself (YouTube and other online resources are great for helping with DIY mods).
And remember, you don’t need to do it all at once, you can add things on as you go. Most 4x4’s are a constant (never-ending) work in progress!
This is kind of similar to the modifications section: lots of possibilities. Again, have a serious look at what you are actually going to need and also think about where it’s all going to go. There are plenty of ready-made sets for sale that will do for most people’s needs.
Some of the items as a minimum that should be looked at are a shovel of some sort, and a reliable air compressor (there’s no point having a tiny one that just will not do a set of four larger off-road tyres without cutting out or even catching fire!).
A snatch strap is a must but definitely do yourself a favour and do a bit of research on just how dangerous these things can be. Rated shackles to put it all together although rope shackles are worth a serious look (google them). If you have a winch it’s no good to you if you don’t have the right equipment to attach it to a tree or even another vehicle.
Of course with all this recovery gear you need to educate yourself on how to use it and ensure that whatever you are using is attached properly like using rated recovery points on your vehicle as an example. The best ways to learn are to chat with other travellers, join a 4x4 group, or watch lots of YouTube videos (from reputable sources!).
Often overlooked but super important. This goes hand in hand with that sweet set of tyres you bought earlier, and this is how you look after them (other than rotating them). Pressures depend on a few things; type of road surface, the condition of the said road surface and loads in/on your vehicle.
The sticker inside your drivers’ side door is a good place to start, as it’ll tell you the recommended pressures on your actual tyre from the manufacturer, your new set may differ. I like to be around 40-45psi for bitumen driving but you can be higher or lower depending on the situation.
For dirt or gravel, anywhere from 18-30psi depending on road conditions like corrugations, the roughness of the road surface and presence of things like large rocks and tree roots. For sand 14-20psi seems to work well for most situations. You can go as low as 8 or 10psi if you’re really stuck but you do risk rolling the tyre off the rim at these pressures.
Lower tyre pressures increase the surface area of the tyre on the road and allow you more traction, giving the car more ground to grip on to in softer conditions. Plus, lower tyres are like a balloon that’s only half inflated – if it hits something sharp it’s less likely to pop than when fully inflated.
Having the right tyre pressures not only saves your car and tyres from the damage, it also stops roads, tracks and beaches from degrading and needing maintenance work sooner than they might otherwise, costing councils money and sometimes forcing closures of tracks for others.
Following on from tyre pressures, sand driving scares a lot of people. For good reason too; getting bogged on the beach with an incoming tide can be a highly stressful and expensive situation if you get it wrong!
As mentioned above, tyre pressures are the most important factor when you are driving on the sand - too high and you will just sink and keep digging yourself a deeper hole, literally. Momentum is the other factor.
It's no good plodding along and stopping on a super soft bit of sand, chances are you won’t get started again. If it is soft and feels yourself being dragged down you need to keep moving and/or probably reduce your pressures further.
Another bit of recovery gear you should always carry is recovery tracks. When you are talking about sand these things are worth their weight in gold. If you get bogged, reduce your tyre pressures if it's safe to do so, dig out in front of the tyre, jam a set of tracks under and you’re good to go.
Don’t just plant the foot either, roll up onto them, then give it a bit and hopefully you’ll have enough momentum to get out of the soft stuff (although this process may need to be repeated a few times!) Quite often you will be surprised at how hard and is on the beach and you have no problems anyway. And remember you can always go back if you have to!
If you aren’t that confident in your driving skills off-road, consider joining a 4x4 club or at least contact one and see if they run any open events you can tag along on. They are full of combined years of knowledge and the vehicles will have a plethora of modifications you can ogle before doing some of your own.
Servicing & Maintenance
Nothing lets a fourby down more than when things go pear-shaped mechanically. At the very least, get it serviced by a qualified mechanic at regular intervals. But if you’re going to be doing some four-wheel driving – and especially if you are going for long trips into remote areas – it’s super important that you have some rudimentary knowledge of the workings of your car.
This is where doing bits and pieces of your own work on the car can help; if you have done something yourself and it goes wrong out in the boonies you have an understanding of how it's all put together. Things like changing oils and filters to checking and changing wheel bearings on a camper are easy enough to do and important to know about.
Having a small tool kit in the boot or drawer is important too. You’re not going to fix anything if you don’t have the means to do so. Even if you don’t know how to fix something, someone else that comes along just might!
Finally, I would say experience is one of the best things you can have, and the only way to get this is to get behind the wheel and give it a go! Get out there and enjoy!
Follow Renee & Nathan's adventures at The Great Escape Australia