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4x4 Driving Tips: How to climb steep hills... safely

Steep hills hold promises of spectacular views and secluded corners of the country. However, one must be ready to meet the mountain and face the challenge, either up or down a steep section of track. Remember to pack your bravado and a focused mind. Steep hills can be muddy, rocky, or a combination of both. Sand too, provides plenty of challenges.

Every steep hill presents a common theme of danger. Losing control and rolling your vehicle is a real possibility and a risk to carefully assess before setting off on that climb. Rolling any vehicle is not something you ever want to come close to, especially in a situation where you could find yourself at the bottom of a ravine, resting against a tree, or on your roof.

Traction is Key

Losing traction results in sliding. Once upon a time, I attempted a very steep, muddy climb in an old Jeep Wrangler without first assessing the risks. Ascending higher and higher, my tyres filled up with mud and I inevitably lost traction. The Wrangler started to slide backwards at a rapid and alarming rate. Jumping on the clutch and jamming on the brakes merely seemed to accelerate the slide. This is a lesson in what not to do. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to execute a manual start in reverse and regain partial control of the car and steer it down the hill. A lucky escape.

In any off-road situation, tyre pressures are critical to your success. Knowing what tyre pressure to use is certainly aided by on-track experience, but steep hills climbs should be assessed before you put a wheel forward. You need to assess the traction on offer and choose your pressure accordingly. As a guide, I would drop down to around 18psi and possibly even lower, depending on the strata I am travelling over.

After walking the hill, you can assess the difficulty and this will assist you in achieving the right momentum. You don’t want so much momentum that you are bouncing over the track uncontrollably. This is not only dangerous, but will result in a loss of traction, bringing your momentum to a halt.

The surface you are driving on will also affect your ability to carry momentum. Sand, for example, saps the power of the vehicle quickly. In this case, you will require more momentum to make it up a hill. Sometimes it will take you several attempts to make it. Don’t be afraid to try multiple times.

Gear selection is something to assess and agree on before attempting a hill. The less gear changes performed mid-climb or descent, the better. Thankfully, many 4X4s have hill descent control for the downhill sections and most do a good job of controlling vehicle speed.

When going up a hill, the factors vary greatly, so there are no hard and fast rules on high or low range and gear changes. I have had instances on sand where low range is too low and wouldn’t allow the vehicle to carry enough speed to get up a dune. Be prepared to mix it up if necessary.

Your line up a hill is critical to your success. Choose a line where there is less chance of bottoming out or damaging the underneath of the vehicle on rocky tracks. While you are walking the track before your ascent or decent, imagine the line you will take and make note of any difficult sections of track. On the sand, it can sometimes be useful to stay in the ruts of preceding vehicles.

Use a spotter if you can. They can help you see the best places to place the vehicle for success.

If You Get Stuck

Rule number one, don’t panic. Your first reaction when you start sliding backwards will be to jump on the brakes. If you’re in a manual vehicle, your automatic reaction will be to depress the clutch to stop yourself from stalling. This is a big no no. Depending on the surface, this is unlikely to stop you. In fact, it is likely to accelerate the backward slide, with no control over where you are going.

The safest way I have been shown to handle this situation in a manual vehicle, is to allow it to stall in the first place. Do not push the clutch in. As you stall, put your foot on the brake and engage the handbrake. Now you are in gear and have both brakes on. Select low range if you aren’t already.

Next, put your foot on the clutch and select reverse. Remove the handbrake and slowly release the footbrake. You should stay in place on the hill. You can now start the car, while in reverse, without putting the clutch in. The car should start, and you can steer back down the hill with control. It is wise to have an emergency plan in place if events don’t unfold as planned.

Automatic vehicles are a different approach entirely, they are much less likely to stall. If you can’t go any further, put your foot on the brake and engage the handbrake. Shift to low range if you haven’t already done so. Shift the vehicle into Park and restart it if it has stalled. Move the shifter to reverse, being careful that the vehicle doesn’t move as this can start a slide. Release the handbrake and slowly remove your foot from the brake. The vehicle will start moving backwards and you can steer back down in reverse.

Once you are down, take a good look at the options, lower tyre pressure perhaps and engage diff locks if you have them.

Driving down steep hills is a much simpler affair. Use hill descent control if you have it. If not, low range and first gear will offer you most control on any descent. The theory is the same. Go through the same process you would if you were going uphill. Walk it first, pick your line, select the right gear, and maintain traction at all times.

Never move the vehicle across a steep hill. This is simply dangerous. Your vehicle could slide sideways, or at worst, you may roll your vehicle entirely. And once you do, it won’t stop till you reach the bottom.

While attempting steep hills may sound dangerous, my aim is to scare you into careful consideration and thorough planning. It's certainly not to dissuade you. Steep hills can lead to some of the most breathtaking views and secret camping grounds imaginable. If you always use caution, you will be pleasantly surprised. Start small and go from there.

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