Off-Roading: Beginners Tips

A while ago, I was driving behind a kitted out Landy with the bumper sticker reading: “Don’t follow me – you won’t make it.” Looking at this vehicle and driver, I could see he – like me and so many of my friends – loves the outdoors and can probably drive over or through whatever obstacle gets in his way… Yes, as a beginner, I would probably not be able to make it where he ventures.

But he was also a beginner at some stage who did not know how to off-road. He had to learn and build up his off-roading and 4×4 skills, be it through doing an off-road course or simply learning on the go through trial and error. With today’s advanced vehicles, everybody can indeed look like an expert out there on an obstacle, but off-road driving is not an easy skill to learn. And, when you are a novice, it can be quite daunting. However, with the right skill and information, it doesn’t have to be.

Know your vehicle

If you are looking to go off-roading, it is crucial to read up about your vehicle. You need to know what your car can do and what it can’t. You will then know what its limits are and what additional vehicle functions it has, such as downhill ascend control and crawl control, to name a few. These features are designed to help you on your trips and trails. Before even thinking about going off-road, look underneath your vehicle to find the lowest point – this would generally, when driving a bakkie such as a Hilux or Ranger, be the rear differential housing. This lowest point of the vehicle is what would get damaged easily and create some problems out there.

Other critical elements to consider on your vehicle includes:

Brakes: Look into the condition of your brake lines. Usually, these rubber or steel lines where brake fluid passes through are tucked away from harm’s way, but as you trail bashing, the clips or tie-downs keeping them in place could get broken. The lines may snag on rocks, resulting in a slow leak – make sure you know how to check for any leaks to avoid trouble when in the bush.

Tyres: Check the condition of your tyres, including the spare. Be sure they are all inflated to the proper highway speed pressures and deflate when conditions require. Take note of your tread and think about the terrain you will be travelling on – are you ready for a deep mud hole with that tread? Will you have enough grip? Usually, manufacturer fitted tyres are designed with more highway driving in mind. As such, it’s a good idea to consider an all-terrain set of rubber if you’re planning to venture off-road regularly. Chat to your local tyre fitment centre about what you’re planning to do before making your decision.

Shocks: Going through the bumps and turns on any off-road route or trail, your shocks will be critical. Check them for signs of leakage or damage and make sure they are not worn out.

Be prepared

Before going to the trail or on your trip, it is essential to be prepared. You need to have the correct recovery gear as things can go wrong out there in the bundus. Our go-to recovery kit is the SecureTech 8 tonne kit. The bag is fully kitted for most recovery situations and includes various ropes, snatch straps and other tools required for a successful recovery. You must know how to use the equipment safely – it’s a good idea to watch some recovery videos before venturing out so that you know what to do in case of getting stuck. Recoveries gone wrong can be fatal, so be safe out there.

Getting out there

So, your vehicle is ready… but are you? When driving off-road for the first time, you will feel overwhelmed and rightfully so. When this does occur, just take a breather and get out of your vehicle. Go and scout your obstacle, talk to the other people on the trip to discuss your best course of action and ask for help. However, most important – regardless if you are an old hand at this or a newbie – scout the terrain. My dad always says: “If you’re not willing to walk it, you should not attempt to drive it!” And I could not agree more. 

One of the most important things to consider is where to place your wheels to ensure that you can keep your vehicle’s lowest points (hence me saying earlier you need to get underneath your vehicle and know where this is) as high as possible. Watch out for obstacles that can damage your vehicle – find a lane that looks manageable and ask your co-driver to guide you through. Make sure you understand each other’s hand signals, though!

When in doubt, engage low range – there is a reason that most off-road vehicles sport this critical feature. Unfortunately, many so-called “experts” would insist on only using low range and diff lock as a last resort due to the many misconceptions in this industry. As a novice myself, I’m afraid I have to disagree. The main benefit of these tools is the immense power and traction it offers your vehicle. As a result, you as a driver can take things slowly, which allows you to make the correct decisions while off-roading.

Safety in numbers

Finally, when venturing out, be sure to drag a more experienced driver along. Never venture into the wild on your own, and make sure you inform someone at home where you’re heading to and what time you expect to be back or arrive at your destination. Make sure your cell phone is charged – remember that when your are out of signal range, your phone will be hunting for a signal which can deplete your battery quicker than normal. Be sure to pack a charging cable too!

When you doubt what you are doing, ask that more experienced co-traveller to help you. Check your ego at the door when going off-road – you will learn much more from listening and observing than trying to do it all on your own.

In closing: be prepared, be confident in your vehicle and trust your instructor. Most of all, enjoy this experience – when done right, it can be great fun!

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