How to drive on other road surfaces

The clock strikes 5pm on Friday afternoon and you’re out the office door, ready to get away from it all at the weekend. Mid-week you planned to give your new SUV its off-road debut. Maybe you’re taking it to the beach, or perhaps the hinterland is more your style? Off-roading is no doubt a lot of fun and a great escape, but it’s important to know about what kind of roads you will be tackling.

What types of off-road terrain are there?

Many motorists will rarely leave the nicely maintained, sealed, bitumen roads of our towns and cities. You’re different; you’re getting your car a bit dirtier than your neighbour. Here is a guide to driving on unpaved road surfaces:

Gravel and dirt roads

Unsealed roads in rural areas will normally have a firm base, but the top layer is made up of loose gravel or dirt, which can cause some considerable changes when it comes to the handling of your car.

For gravel top surfaces, simply heading around a bend a little too quickly can send any rear-wheel drive vehicles into traction-control frenzy! Luckily, a lot of any half-decent SUVs send power to all four wheels, and the risk of slipping out is lower. There are a few things to remember, though:

  • Drive at no more than 80km/h and only at a speed you’re comfortable with
  • Avoid any sharp changes in momentum. Gravel means your car is a lot more sensitive to any changes, so avoid fast acceleration, braking or swerving
  • Brake before you reach a corner; this helps even out your suspension while in the corner, which allows you to more safely accelerate out of it.

The most important thing to remember is to simply drive carefully. Vehicles of any kind do not handle the same on dirt or gravel as they do on normal roads, particularly at higher speeds. Your car will be far more sensitive to steering and acceleration, so avoid large or jerked movements.

Unsealed roads wear down over time, and you can often see tracks where other vehicles have driven before you. Follow these makes for a smoother ride and better handling as the road surface is a bit more compacted. These are called corrugated roads, and following the tracks of people before you can save you a lot of headache!

Wet roads

If you’re living in the north of Australia, you know well that driving from November through March can be a hairy time on the roads as the wet season hits hard. The wet season can be a trying time for many drivers, but the fact is dangerous wet conditions can strike anywhere. It’s important to know these tips:

  • Never drive in the rain with cruise control on. If you aquaplane across the road, your car will still want to accelerate. So, use your feet and maintain constant vehicle pedal control.
  • High beam headlights can reflect back off the road, so avoid them where possible. Head lights on low beam are a good idea, though, especially on silver cars that can be harder to see when it is raining.
  • Rain increases your braking distance; make sure there’s at least four seconds between you and the car in front in wet weather.
  • And finally, slow down! Avoid sudden movements, and take it easy out there. Often the period just after heavy rain is most dangerous because all the oil and fuel is sitting on top of the road, making the surface very slippery.

And most importantly – if it’s flooded, forget it. While the flow of flood waters might at first look tame, you can’t know if the power of the current underneath. Plus the debris in the water can be fatal – entire trees can be ripped out of their roots – such is the power of water.

Sand

Sand driving can be a lot of fun, especially when you head up those huge sand dunes and back down again! Though there are a few things you need to know before hitting the coast.

Overall, sand driving can make your car handle like a glorified hovercraft, which if you’ve seen on the water is cumbersome to say the least. For sand driving, light four wheel drive SUVs do the best, as they skim atop the sand rather than dig and fight through the constantly-shifting surface.  Here are some top tips for sand driving:

  • Lower your tyre pressure dramatically. Most cars run around the 30+ PSI range on normal roads, but on sand, you’ll need to deflate them dramatically. Depending on how soft the sand is, you may need to deflate them to 10PSI! On wet, hard sand you can get away with about 20PSI. Lowering your PSI simply means you are increasing the tyre contact surface, resulting in more grip.
  • Take it easy out there; any sharp increases or decreases in acceleration can get you bogged as your tyres dig into the sand, rather than calmly glide through it. Take your time and leave a lot of space to turn and navigate around objects. Remember, sand is like a finger trap – the more you squirm, the harder it is to escape!
  • Pack light and be prepared; a lighter car makes it easier to float over the sand. And carry a de-bogging kit should you get stuck. Stick to more well-travelled beaches if you are starting out – if you get stuck, someone should be able to give you a tow.
  • Road courtesy still applies: Stick to the left, take it slow around houses and more populated stretches.

You’ve just had your first exhilarating experience of sand driving! Your weekend is coming to a close and regretfully you’ve got to return home. Make sure to re-inflate your tyres when you hit the normal roads again. You can read a more comprehensive guide on beach driving here.

Creeks and Riverbeds

They range from a weak stream, to an engorged river with run off from the wet season. While a lot may be crossable in a time quicker than you can say “Look Mum, no hands!” we generally say that crossing bodies of water is to be reserved for the most serious SUVs and experienced off-road adventurers. Crossing a creek or river is not something for the beginner, but look at it as something to aspire to! Here’s some top tips should you go creek and river crossing:

  • It’s best to check the water beforehand by getting out of your car and wading around yourself. This gives you a feel for the stream strength and whether the bed is grippable, or reachable.
  • 4WDs with snorkels fare better, because hot engines dunked into cold water is not a good idea. A snorkel enables the air intake to be lifted above the engine bay.
  • Petrol engines have more sensitive in-engine electrics than diesels. It may be worth looking at spraying water repellant on these components.
  • If your car doesn’t have a snorkel, avoid getting water above the air intake.
  • Make sure you have an escape route: When crossing a river bed, wind down your windows, and unbuckle your seat belt; it sounds dangerous but is in fact safer and allows you to escape more easily. Also keep valuables close to you.
  • Get a feel for the surface of the river and how your vehicle is handling it.
  • While driving, keep your cool and make small corrections. A little goes a long way! Also avoid changing gears in the water – doing so opens up the clutch plates and allows water to get in.

So you’ve just survived your first hair-raising river-bed crossing. Your car seems in pretty good shape too. Before soldiering on, park your car on a safe slope to allow water to drain, and check your brakes.

Remember after heavy rain, the little stream that looked easy could now be a fast-flowing river, so reassess whether you need to cross a stream at all, especially after rain. Take it easy out there, and stay safe!

What else should I know before off-roading?

If you’re hitting the trails on your time off, then there are a few bits and bobs that you need to know, aside from surface-specific tips.

Animals can pose a risk when off-roading. Often in rural areas, animals aren’t as accustomed to humans and as such have no road sense. Kangaroos are especially culpable; they like to sit on the side of the road and jump out at the last second, seemingly with a death wish and right into your bullbar. Avoid driving at dusk and dawn, which is when kangaroos love to hang out beside roads and trails.

Cows and sheep on roads can also cause a problem. A hot tip is if you see a cattle grid, then it pays to be more vigilant for these groups of animals.

When doing any serious outback or off-road adventuring it pays to follow these tips:

  • Make sure your car is in tip-top condition. Get a mechanic to check over it before embarking on your adventure.
  • Carry enough fuel and water. It can often be hundreds of kilometres before seeing the next service station!
  • Carry necessary tools and repair kits should you come into any strife.
  • Make sure your tyres are inflated and your spare is in good condition, with the right tools to replace a tyre if necessary.
  • Watch out for road trains and allow them plenty of space. Carry a UHF radio to communicate with truckies. Doing so will deflate any potential flare ups if you pass them too closely or if they are passed without warning.
  • Give way to any other adventurers you will encounter on the trails. Generally, a driver coming down the slope need to give way as it is easier to do so.

We hope you have a great time out on the roads. Australia is a great place for automotive touring and its expansive area means you can easily not do a single off-road trail twice. The environment can be harsh though, and following these tips can help you be prepared. Happy motoring!

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