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4x4 Driving Tips: Rock climbing

Who said you need to be going fast to get the heart pumping? Welcome to the world of rock crawling.

Driving on rocks is one of the most exhilarating off-roading experiences. The challenge comes with great rewards, but also carries the greatest risks. Put simply, rocks are hard and if you don’t pick your line correctly, you can cause significant damage to your vehicle.

Cars are tough, but not as tough as rocks. While a panel can be bashed back into shape, the softer, less protected underbelly of any off-roader can succumb to an ill-placed wheel or too much throttle.

The aim is, to get the car from point A to point B safely. This requires awareness of your vehicle's protruding mechanicals and its traction control systems and abilities. This knowledge comes with experience, so while your knowledge is building, first thing we recommend is a little underbody protection work for safety.

What’s The Correct Tyre Pressure?

Correct tyre pressure for climbing rocks is crucial. Deflating your tyres, even just a little, can make the difference between sweet success or frustrating failure.

There are different suggested pressures, but experience again will be your best guide. I usually start at around 18psi and work down from there. Recently, we conquered a very tough rocky climb west of Sydney with pressure down around 16psi. A more experienced driver might be confident to go even lower, when needed.

Lower tyre pressures spread the footprint, providing more traction. It also allows the tyre to soften and mould to the rock, providing grip. Reduced risk of punctures is also a bonus and softening the ride so that the vehicle isn’t bouncing over obstacles is imperative.

The type of tyres you have on your off-roader will determine your starting limitations. Attempting to conquer a rocky trail in a road orientated vehicle, fitted with low profile tyres, will be difficult at best. The tyres will dictate that you can only lose a couple of psi before they flatten out and your rim is touching the ground and prone to damage.

Before You Try

If you are tackling a rocky track for the first time, the number one item on the to do list is to take a look underneath the vehicle and assess the approach and departure angles. Low points under the car are places you are likely to bottom out and a low hanging diff smashed into a rock is something to avoid. They are an expensive repair. Additional points to consider are the location of the fuel tank and where the suspension and steering components sit.

If possible, consider some underbody protection as this will give you peace of mind in the event that you do bottom out. If you have side steps, consider removing them. If you decide not to, the rocks might well decide for you. Side steps often hang low and are no replacement for rock sliders which are affixed to the vehicle in a manner that would be a challenge to rip off, and do a far better job of protecting the underneath of the vehicle.

Approach and departure angles are important. Low hanging fairings can and will be ripped off the minute you decide to tackle any steep rocks. Some part-time off-roaders will have a way of temporarily removing some of the offending plastic bits that companies love to add to make a car look great. Beauty, however, isn’t always everything.

It’s All About Control

Crazy drivers need not apply. Rock climbs are not the place to display any lack of self-control. A careful methodical approach will deliver the best results every single time. Many first-timers look at a hill and decide the best way is to charge at it and crash over it. Often they will get stuck or severely damage their car.

Before attempting any hill, get out and walk it. If you can’t walk it, chances are, you will not be able to drive it either. As you go, make a note of any serious rocks that may stick up more than the rest. Visualise your vehicle going up the hill and where you’ll need to put your wheels and which sections to avoid.

Try to identify a line where all four wheels will be in touch with the ground most of the time. Ultimately, you are aiming to avoid bottoming out. Look for areas where a little manual labour may make the going easier, i.e. putting additional rocks down to increase clearance or soften deep holes.

Use this opportunity to remove any rocks you feel might cause a problem as you go along. Sharp branches can also be removed to minimise damage to the vehicle.

Read The Terrain

Once you have identified the areas that need most attention, pick your line and stick to it. This does take practice, so if you can, go out with other people who can assist you. One person out of the vehicle acting as spotter who can point out the route can make all the difference in particularly tricky areas.

Now that you are ready, select low range. You can do this in either first or second gear, depending on the vehicle's gear ratios. Trial and error is the only way. As you move forward, pay attention to what is coming up and try to visualise where your tyres are touching. You want to put them where the ground is highest to avoid bottoming out. Vehicle awareness is key.

You want to avoid getting stuck at the top of any high points with wheels on either side. Both sets of wheels will be high and dry if you go straight at a high section, so work the angles to your advantage. Allowing each wheel to enter and depart any obstacles will improve your chances of making it over the obstacle.

Side angles are sometimes unavoidable, but can be very dangerous. Know the limits of yourself and your vehicle, and drive according to them. As wheels lift and climb over rocks, side angles might cause your vehicle to slip on rocks.

For your front and rear bumpers, deep drops and steep rises are the enemy. Again, use any angles you can to get an approach and departure route that doesn’t see the car approaching dead straight.

As you crawl along, scan well ahead of the vehicle to ensure you are in the right place and aware of what is coming up. Make any adjustments you feel necessary to your path but usually the one you choose walking will be the best one.

Never slam your foot on the gas. This is all about measured forward movements. Light throttle pressure is key to just get the vehicle moving forward. Sometimes, you may encounter a steep rock where more throttle is required. Use what your engine can give you, but only enough to get over the obstacle and then settle back into a steady, slow rhythm.

Pick Your Battles

Damage isn’t restricted to the panels. The drivetrain can also undergo quite a lot of strain while crawling over large rocks. Trying to put too much force through an inadequate driveline can cause severe damage to its components.

For this reason, it is important to choose your battles. 'Choose the path of least resistance' is a line used often, when off-road. It means simply that if there is an easier way, use it.

Importantly, know when to quit.

Etiquette

Common sense establishes that you would be unwise to charge over a rocky track side by side, or in a manner that redistributes rocks all over the place. By going slow and steady, you maintain the track for others behind you.

It is also important to leave a decent gap between vehicles. This reduces the risks of a collision. If not, you’ll end up like the bash 'em up twins. I came across these guys not long ago. Vehicle A is going along nicely until he comes to a stop on a tricky part of the track. Vehicle B is right on his tail and clearly looking at the bush either side of the track and drives straight into Vehicle A as he ponders his next move. Brilliant, and avoidable.

If You Get Stuck

Getting stuck isn’t ideal but perhaps not the disaster you might imagine. Simply allowing more air out of your tyres can set you free. Before you attempt this mid-hurdle though, do make sure that your vehicle is secure and is not going to roll backwards over someone. This same rule applies for track building.

Sometimes, you may have to rebuild a track. This can be done several times, and involves recognising where there is a large rise or hole that the car may get stuck in. It could also be a large rock that is simply too high to traverse without adding some extra rocks to stop the vehicle from bottoming out or getting stuck on it. Read the track, and try to envisage where the car might have troubles.

Make sure you do this carefully and with awareness. Cars can move suddenly so try to minimise your time too close to the vehicle.

Improve Your Chances

While stock standard off-roaders will make it quite a lot further than most people imagine, some extra assistance can help. Diff locks will lock the power to both wheels on an axle, stopping the one with the least resistance spinning uselessly on, or against, a rock.

A suspension kit can also add more suppleness to the drivetrain and wheels allowing more articulation so that traction is maintained for longer and in more extreme circumstances. And don't forget some stout protection, in the form of bash plates and sliders. No, not mini-burgers.

Whatever you have at your disposal, make sure you stay within the limits of the car and your own abilities. Also ensure you have the appropriate safety gear on you for the journey. At a minimum, I would carry a compressor, a hand winch, spare winch, or high lift jack, and always carry a radio or PLIRB just in case of an emergency.

MORE: 4×4 Driving Tips

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