Gone are the days of utes being rugged workhorses used only by tradies from Monday to Friday.
Today’s utes are lifestyle vehicles that aim to be all things to all people, attempting to blend their traditional practicality and toughness with the comfort and refinement of passenger cars and the pulling-power and off-road prowess of SUVs.
Electronic assistance systems such as ABS and Hill Descent Control – as well as the general capability of modern utes – mean those with no experience off the beaten track can tackle seemingly demanding terrain minus the stress – and largely minus the skill.
Before heading off-road, it’s worth making sure that both you and your car are prepared.
With that in mind, here are 10 basics for four-wheel-drive beginners:
Know your car
Before heading off road it’s vital to know your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations.
It’s important to look under your car to identify its lowest point (often the rear differential), while also being mindful of the tow bar, if fitted. Depending on the variant, your four-wheel drive will have an approach and departure angle, along with a ground clearance figure and wading depth.
The approach and departure angles refer to the angle of the hill face you can attack front-on without impacting the front/rear edges of your vehicle.
Many four-wheel drives – and most utes – allow drivers to switch between 2WD, high-range 4WD and low-range 4WD modes. Low-range is designed for the kind of low-speed and low-grip conditions commonly encountered when driving off-road.
Low-range acts as a gear multiplier to give the driver extra control over dicey road conditions.
You can load your car up with all sorts of gear to help get you out of sticky situations, but following a few simple tips can help prevent getting into them in the first place.
Check the weather – not just for while you’re away, but for the time beforehand – because heavy rain can drastically change the surface conditions.
It’s also worth taking a spare pair of shoes to walk through water to test its depth before driving headfirst into the unknown.
It’s important to have some rescue equipment on board if you do get yourself into trouble, a winch and/or snatch straps are essentials. Shovels, recovery tracks and a little elbow grease will also help you out of sandy spots.
Slow is the go
The experts suggest that it’s important to pace yourself and plan your route. James Stewart from Driving Solutions spoke to CarAdvice about making the most of your journey.
Before you even reach an obstacle, James’ message is simple when it comes to speed: “The slower you go, the easier it is.”
“A lot of things go wrong when you drive too fast over obstacles you’re not used to. That goes for before you even engage four-wheel drive, like knowing what speed to travel on a dirt road, and probably whatever speed you think you could do, wipe off 20km/h. It’s always fine until there’s something in front of you, but once there’s something in front of you then that’s where the issues come in.”
Keep calm and… think first
“Slow is the go – and so is breathing every now and again,” James says.
“It’s amazing how long you can hold your breath for in a panic situation, so the big thing is relax. As you start to get nervous, just wriggle your fingers. It’s amazing how it frees you up.
“I’m a big believer, especially with off-road driving, if you think about it for a second before you do it, you’ll always make the right decision. It’s amazing when you go after the fact, ‘I knew that was going to happen’, but you still go and do it.
Braking off-road couldn’t be simpler: “Just push the brakes as hard as you can and keep your foot on the brake until it stops,” James says. “There’s no need with a modern ABS system for pulsing or locking or cadencing or any of these other old terms.”
For those unfamiliar with ABS, the technology is designed to maximise steering control under braking, not to make the car stop sooner.
“As ABS generations have gotten better and better, your ability to change directions on the dirt while braking is incredible.
“Dirt roads are the ones that catch people out – driving too fast for the conditions in any car. So you’ve always got to be mindful and you’ve got to take care because you can’t see what’s around the corner and what animals are around.”
Understand Hill Descent Control
Hill Descent Control (HDC) allows smooth and controlled hill descents on rough terrain without requiring the driver to touch the brake pedal. HDC uses the ABS system to brake each wheel individually, giving it more control than a driver using the brake pedal, as manual braking only works across the axles.
Once engaged, most four-wheel drives allow the driver to can change the crawl speed of the descending vehicle by using the cruise control plus and minus buttons on the steering wheel, or adjusting the throttle during descent.
Trust the tech
James says the biggest limiting factor when off-roading is not the car but the person behind the wheel.
He says the technology built into some of today’s off-road vehicles means they can do a better job than we can, though many drivers still approach them as if they’re driving a 40-year-old car.
“It always comes back to: ‘My dad did and his dad did…’”
“Technology has changed and evolved so much with off-road driving, but it’s amazing some of the things we still do due to a 1972 vehicle. The technology has come a long way.”
Placing your thumbs and all other parts of you hands outside the steering wheel is a discipline worth getting in the habit of early, James insists.
“If you’ve got any part of your hand inside the wheel and you hit a rut or a tree root or something like that it’s going to snap back.
“At some points you’re going to want to hang on for grim death, but you don’t need to, especially when you’re going down really steep ruts, just go with it.”
Another useful posture tip is winding down the window and feeding the seatbelt under rather than over your right shoulder to give you greater mobility to see out the driver’s side.
Be aware of water
James says it’s important to walk through water before driving through it if you’re unsure of its depth, and also observing how fast it’s flowing.
“The number of times people drive into rivers thinking it’s just good fun… And doesn’t it go wrong quick!
“You can look like a real hero for about 30 seconds – and then you’ll learn to swim.
Once ensuring it’s safe to enter, James recommends approaching slowly and maintaining a constant speed in water.
An aftermarket snorkel will help in situations where the depth of the water exceeds the vehicle’s wading depth. The snorkel then acts as the vehicle’s actual wading depth.
Don’t go it alone
It’s wise to have a support car, particularly if you’re new to four-wheel-driving or unfamiliar with the area.
It’s also important to let others know where you’re travelling to and give them a rough itinerary of your trip so they have an idea of where you expect to be at any given time and when you should return home.
While not a complete and definitive list, the above gives four-wheel-drive beginners the basics required to head off the beaten track with enough theoretical knowledge, practical know-how and confidence to do it safely.
As James says: “Driving off-road is fun, but the best part is just having to wash the car at the end of the day.”
This article was built on Tim Beissmann’s experience off-road with Driving Solutions.