4WD vehicles have a big advantage over two-wheel drives and are able to go off-road to tackle a variety of tricky terrains that would immediately prove too difficult for conventional vehicles. However, it’s important to build up knowledge and experience to navigate these terrains safely, a 4WD is only as safe as its driver’s ability allows. Knowledge begins with these basic areas: transmission mechanics, the effects of surface dust and water, and the crucial meeting point between car and earth, your tyres.
To keep up a good speed, stay in high range four wheel drive, moving into low range if you bog down. Be aware of the sand conditions – you’ll find it easy going on solid packed-down sand but beaches with loose top-sand can work against vehicle traction. It’s important to keep up a constant momentum to avoid bogging, as well as active throttle control and high power. It might be necessary to partially deflate your tyres in certain soft sand conditions – this increases the area of the tyre that is in contact with the ground (avoid going below 16psi). Always remember to pump up your tyres again when you leave the beach and remember to observe the speed limits (set locally, depending on the beach), buckle up, and stay below alcohol limits (the same rules apply on beaches as regular roads).
Drivers of 4WD vehicles will enjoy not having to be quite as wary of light snow as conventional 2-wheel drives. This is because the weight of the vehicle will ensure the tyres will achieve traction on the surface under the snow as they easily penetrate the snow crust. Chains don’t have to go on in these light conditions.
Go with high range and avoid sudden stops and starts – keep a more constant pace. Avoid engine revving when you’re in deeper snow so the tyres don’t slip, but go into low range and allow the tyres to bite and gain traction. As well as taking it easy with acceleration and braking, also avoid sudden turns which can cause skids and spins.
In deep snow chains will be necessary, you don’t want to push your luck!
Outside of Sporting Trials motorsport events, the closest to proper mugplugging that most 4WD drivers will come will be in a mudhole on a track. The key is to keep your tyres on the highest ground whenever possible to keep your diffs out of the mud. If you find yourself slipping from the high points into the furrows, keep accelerating while steering from left to right in order to gain traction on the sides of the mud ruts with the sides of the tyres (the lugs).
Keep up a constant momentum through high-range full-throttle driving and keep an eye on clogged wheel arches and guards which will reduce the effectiveness of tyre tread.
As with mudplugging, the trick with rock climbing is to keep your tyres on the highest ground whenever possible. You’ll keep the underbelly of the vehicle safe this way and avoid hanging up on, or damage to, the transmission, diffs or bashplates. The second key to 4WD rockclimbing is torque over power – select low range, 1st or 2nd gear and carefully ease your way over obstacles avoiding sudden surges which could cause the tyres to slip.
You shouldn’t alter tyre pressures from ordinary road levels, unless as a last resort if stuck and lowering them is the only tactic left to try. Great care is needed with lowered tyres on rocks, although you’ll enjoy maximum footprint, you run the risk of damage from unforgiving surfaces.
Above all, water crossings are the most intimidating terrains for those just starting out in 4×4 driving. Visions of being swept away spring to mind, but the technique for tackling water is probably the simplest of them all. Start by getting out and walking the intended path before you take it on in your 4WD (making a note of obstacles if needed).
Try to avoid mid-stream gear changes which can let water inside the clutchplate, and always check the air intake is comfortably clear of water at the deep part of your intended path. Using first gear with low range selected, start your crossing at a consistent speed to achieve a constant bow wave in front of you.
Always keep tyre pressure because of poor visibility of the surface and objects they’re connecting with underwater and do a visual check for damage when you’ve finished crossing.