Off-Road Driving Techniques

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Posted on 17th August 2016 – Driving

As far as roads are concerned, we are pretty lucky in New Zealand as our network is well developed and maintained and you can go almost anywhere with the standard car. You need to be prepared for rapidly changing weather and driving on the right, but apart from that, driving on NZ roads is straightforward.

However, if you want to experience the great outdoors and this magnificent nature we have been blessed with, you may decide to go ‘savage’, hire a 4-wheel drive and venture off road. There is more to it than renting a 4WD and setting off into the sunrise though. You need to master specific techniques, have a thorough understanding of terrain and of the strengths and weaknesses of 4-wheel drives.

Although those skills may take years to master, they will open up a world of possibilities.

Understanding 4WD vehicles and differentials

It is essential that you understand the features of the 4-wheel drive so that you know what to expect from your vehicle. What differentiates them most from standard vehicles is differentials.

As the name suggests, in a 4WD, each wheel is powered. This is achieved by powering both the front and back axles then splitting the drive to the wheels, giving them the ability to move independently from one another. When turning corners, for example, the wheels on the outside have more distance to cover than the wheels on the inside of the bend, and the differential, a mechanical gadget, adjusts the drive to the speed required for each wheel.

Now, there’s a catch: it only takes one of the wheels to be on a slippery surface to completely prevent the vehicle from moving. Obviously, this was a major disadvantage, but this technical drawback was addressed effectively with permanent 4WDs –also known as ‘full-time’ 4WDs.

In addition to front and rear differential, permanent 4WDs also have a locking central differential which prevents the division of drive between the axles when needed. When it is engaged, as long as at least one of the wheels has enough grip, the car will be able to move. However, you could still get in trouble if one of the wheels at the front AND the back are on a slippery surface, and this is why modern 4WDs are normally fitted with an electronic traction control system which applies the brakes to a wheel spinning to cancel its effect on traction.

Manually and automatically-selected 4WD systems work very similarly to permanent 4-wheel drive, except that only one of the axles is powered by default (usually the rear one), the other axle needing to be engaged specifically for use, either by the driver or automatically by the vehicle.

Controlling slides

Sooner or later, your vehicle will lose grip and slide so you need to know how to regain control. The first rule is ‘Don’t panic’! Secondly, you must be counter-intuitive and not do what you would instinctively want to do, i.e. brake. This will lock the wheels and make it impossible for you to steer.

How to control a slide will depend on how it happened. If you are driving uphill, press the brake and clutch simultaneously so that you can engage the reverse gear, then release the brake and clutch. The engine braking will stop your vehicle from picking up speed and will take you back to the bottom of the slope in a controlled way, from which you can try getting up the slope again.

Sliding when going downhill is one of those situations where you absolutely must not brake. Go to as low a gear as possible so that speed is controlled by the engine brake, and avoid obstacles. Eventually, your vehicle will stop.

Climbing hills

Climbing hills can be tricky as you will be dealing with reduced grip as well as fighting gravity. The key to success is to avoid climbing at an angle as you would have little control over your vehicle if it starts sliding.

Choosing the right gear is also crucial. If the terrain is slippery, high gears provide more traction; if it is uneven, low gears will provide better control at low speeds.

Set the throttle and release the clutch gradually and try to climb a few meters to check that the gear you selected is appropriate – if you aren’t able to climb the whole hill in one go, you will have to slide back down completely and start again. If the wheels are spinning a lot, it is time to reassess.

Going down hills

This time, gravity is on your side, but it doesn’t mean going down a hill is easier, as you have to control your descent.

First, stop well before the slope starts and check that there are no obstacles in the route you are planning to take.

If it is clear, engage a low gear so that your speed is controlled by the engine brake. You should note that low gears can cause poor traction if the terrain is slippery.

Make sure that your wheels are lined up straight and release the clutch completely before your reach the slope.

As you know now, whatever happens, do not brake unless your vehicle has come to a stop as it will lock the wheels and you will be unable to steer!

Driving on snow and ice

Driving on snow and ice presents its own set of challenges. Not only will you have to deal with poor grip, but also potentially with hidden obstacles. And if you think that it is easier to follow into someone else’s track, well, it can be as treacherous.

Low gears will give you better traction, especially when pulling away, maneuvering or negotiating very uneven terrain, so select the highest practical gear. If you keep stalling, it means that the gear is too high so try one down.

If you are driving a manual transmission vehicle, make sure that the differential locks are engaged. Once you have managed to pull away, you need to keep your momentum, but don’t be tempted to speed up as terrain and driving conditions can change from one turn of wheel to the next.

You still need to keep your wits about you if you are driving in the ruts left by other vehicles. Steering feel can be greatly affected, so make sure that you know which direction your front wheels are pointing. If the steering lock gets applied inadvertently, your vehicle can jump out of the ruts and off track unexpectedly.

If you are looking into shipping your 4WD vehicle to or from New Zealand, talk to us. We have over 2 decades’ experience and a lot of happy customers! Get a quote online or by calling us on +64 9 303 0075.

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