Essential 4WD Driving Skills
Story and Photography by John Denman
For touring, a 4WD vehicle makes a lot of sense. Learning your vehicleís capabilities makes even more sense.
The four-wheel-drive sales boom shows little sign of abating. Things like
GST, J curves and GDPís are roughly shouldered aside when the idea of
escape from city life is uppermost in people minds. TV has only helped to
promote the image of the self-reliant Aussie heading off into the
wilderness with wanderers like Malcolm Douglas, Les Hiddins and Troy Dan
showing us what we have been missing all this time.
You will notice that there is a drive shaft at the front as well, this is
connected to the transfer case. The transfer case is found on most popular
four-wheel drives although some of the lightweights like Subarus and RAV4s
donít have them. The transfer case, as its name suggests, is there to
transfer drive from the main gearbox to the front drive shaft. Vehicles
fitted with a transfer case will have a lever next to the main gearbox
lever to select high-range two-wheel drive, high-range four-wheel drive
and low-range four-wheel drive. Most 4WD vehicles have a bash plate to
protect those parts because they are expensive to repair, and being belted
by large rocks does them no good at all.
The next thing to check out is also part of the drive train, and if you
look at the outside of the front axles you may see an odd looking turnout
with a small raised section in the centre. This is called a free-wheeling
hub. At one time just about every 4WD had these, but there has been a
trend of late to offer full-time 4WD as standard in an increasing number
So if your vehicle has manual front hubs, these need to be set in the
ďlockĒ position before you can engage 4WD. You can still drive about
with the hubs locked as much as you like, just donít select 4WD at the
transfer lever. Engaging 4WD on hard road surfaces can lead to a condition
known as ďtransmission wind-upĒ that will eventually destroy the
gearbox. On road surfaces that are suitably slippy you can engage 4WD high
range on the move once the hubs are locked by just lifting your foot off
the throttle pedal briefly and shifting the lever. Low range must always
be selected while the vehicle is at a complete halt, and preferably with
the main gearbox in neutral.
If you happen to have one of the new breed of vehicles with full-time 4WD,
you should remember that this will not give you as much
traction as high-range 4WD on a vehicle with locking hubs. To
achieve that you need to lock the centre differential. This is most often
done electrically these days just by pressing a button. Pushing that
button accidentally will have exactly the same effect as engaging
high-range 4WD and should never be done on a paved surface. That centre
diff-lock is a totally different concept to a transaxle diff-lock, but
that can wait until later.
Going bush for the first time can be a little daunting and thatís not a
bad way to be. The Australian wilderness, the Outback part in particular,
can be pretty harsh at times and is worthy of your respect. The key to any
form of bush travel is to be prepared. That means that you should have a
reasonable level of knowledge about the places you intend visiting, the
condition of your vehicle, and its capabilities.
I recall a story told to me by an experienced bushman some years back. He
received a call on his Flying Doctor radio from someone who was bogged in
the desert. After asking a few questions he realised that the hapless
driver was only a couple of hundred kilometres away and decided to set out
and rescue him. When he got there he found that the free-wheeling hubs on
the front wheels were in the "free" position and, once locked,
the vehicle was driven out with hardly a wheelspin.
Itís this sort of thing that gets up the nose of people in the bush.
People going out unprepared. Spare parts are an obvious case in point: You
should always carry basics like fuel filter, fan belts and radiator hoses
and plenty of water. You might last for quite a while without water but
your vehicle will last a
matter of minutes only so it gets first priority. Other things like wheel
bearings, water pumps and coolant levels should be checked properly before
Tackling strange country for the first time is always an adventure. Never
mind how many others may have been there before you, if you are seeing it
for the first time, then it is just as much a new discovery for you as if
it were totally uncharted. New eyes always see things in a different
One of the biggest problems people have to deal with in the bush is not
some gnarly track going up a steep hill but road corrugations. Roads with
a washboard surface are common, particularly Outback, and can be dangerous
to drive on. Creeping along at a snailís pace will not make things
easier. Often it only makes things worse.
The best thing to do is pick a speed, usually around 80kph, that
ďtunesĒ the corrugations to your vehicle and its weight. I promise
you, it works better this way; you will still get a lot of vibration, but
the suspension will be doing most of the work.
If the vehicle has a tendency to come around sideways a little on
corrugations, engaging high-range 4WD will help keep it straight. After a
day driving over rough tracks like this, spend a little time
checking the gear. Equipment like roof racks in particular can
rattle loose during a run over washboard roads.
Ground appreciation is one of the most important skills of a good 4WD
operator. Before you get stuck into the track ahead, where there might be
gullies or washaways, itís a good idea to get out and take a
look. Always try to keep the wheels on the high ground and keep away from
places where the vehicle could slide off the track.
If the track is fairly steep and rough, go into low range. Then you can
just idle the vehicle up, scouting the best possible route ahead. Once you
have done a bit of this you will be able to plot your course up a steep
track with an imaginary dotted line marking the way.
Going downhill is the same. Rely on the gearbox as much as possible, once
again keeping the wheels out of the gullies. Try to keep the use of the
brakes to a minimum because stamping on the brake halfway down a steep
slope can have you sideways in no time at all.
While vehicles can get through water deeper than that it is advanced stuff,
so it can be wise to err on the side of caution. Flowing water can contain
all sorts of things like trees and floating animals, and having those
sorts of things to deal with is not ideal when you donít have the
Still water is a different matter, but be aware of the place your vehicle
takes its air from.
Sucking a load of water in through the air cleaner will pretty much mean
the end of your engine.
Acquiring the skills needed for competent 4WD operation isnít hard. You can join a club and attend their course, and nearly all 4WD clubs have a driver awareness program.
The other option may be to attend one of the many 4WD training course available commercially. Just make sure that the course you pick is accredited and has adequate insurance. If you want to put your new found skills to the test, why not try one of the 4WD parks available. These offer good driving country in a virtually controlled environment, and some like LandCruiser Park in Queensland have a driver training course built in. Then you will be ready to you go out solo.
Do it right and you wonít regret it.
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