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.

there you are, a brand spanking new freedom machine is sitting in your driveway and itís all yours. Yours to command into vast seas of desert sand, along pristine beaches and down bush tracks that lead to that idyllic campsite you had read about in one of those glossy magazines. Thereís only one problem, you donít have a clue how to make use of what that vehicle offers. But donít let lack of knowledge scare you Ė thatís where we come in.

Multi-thousand dollar all-terrain vehicle ( $10 shovel not included). 

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.

The first thing we have to do then is to become familiar with the vehicle.

Walk around it a bit, look under there at the greasy side and the first thing you will see is that thereís an extra bulge in the front axle. That, folks, is where the men are separated from the boys. 

Until now, the other vehicles you have driven would have had just one differential. It may have been at the front, or perhaps the rear, but there was only one. That extra diff is one of the things that will help take you to the places you have read about.

Checking under the bonnet is pretty easy, flipping it over to look at the underside takes a bit of practice...

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 of vehicles.

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 departure.

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 light.

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.

The other place where people run into bother is at water crossings. You would be surprised at the depth of water a well-prepared 4WD can handle. But you should check out the situation first. If the water is flowing, and is above the height of the wheel hubs, then give it a miss. 

Forget the shovel - where's the outboard motor?

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 experience.

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.

While thereís lots to learn in the world of four-wheel-driving, mastering a few basics like those outlined in this article can make our journeys safer, more fun and ultimately help us to get the best from our vehicle.

Learning Curves

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.


Stall Recovery Technique

There is a technique called ďstall recoveryĒ that everyone should know. This refers to a situation where you have been unable to get all the way up the hill due to traction problems. 

You allow the vehicle to stall on the hill and then, with your foot on the brake, engage reverse gear low-range. Then ease your foot off the brake so that the gearbox and drive train are holding the weight of the vehicle. Once that is done, you tuck your feet under the seat, and turn the key. The vehicle will reverse smoothly back down. This technique gives you complete control, which is why you should never attempt to reverse back down a track on the brakes or with your foot on the clutch. 

It just comes down to common sense when you think about it.