Words & Photos: via PracticalMotoring.com.au
In Australia, we are blessed with a variety of terrain that offers infinite challenges to 4x4 owners and enthusiasts. Driving in steep terrain requires common-sense, traction and the ability to drive as slow as possible, but as fast as necessary.
If you’re attempting a section of steep terrain that you and your travelling buddies are unfamiliar with, then you need to pay attention to a few things before trying to drive up that hill.
Make sure you look at what you’ll be driving up…
It’s important to park your vehicle, get out and have a good look at the track before attempting to drive up it. Walk up the track to get an idea of the ideal line to drive; considering things like ground clearance and obstacles in the path that you might need to build up to improve both traction and your 4x4’s approach and departure angles.
Sometimes, when walking a track, you’ll discover that while it looked incredibly gnarly from the bottom, there’s actually an easy way up that avoids the worst of the terrain. There’s no point stressing either you or your vehicle unnecessarily, so take the time to observe.
If you’re finding it hard to even walk the track, then it’s probably going to be hard to drive, too. Ultimately, you need to make a call if your 4x4 is capable of success. Be honest with yourself; if it seems like the climb will be a struggle for both you and your machine, then find an alternative route. In most cases, there will be a side track somewhere close by that others have found that will offer an easier way up.
Traction is key…
So, you’ve walked the track and determined the best path up. This is where the adage of ‘drive as slow as possible but as fast as necessary’ comes into play. You’ll want to be in low-range, but the gear and driving mode (if your vehicle has them) will be dependent on the slope and the amount of traction.
Using the Ford Everest as an example, the prep would be to select low-range, then select Rock Mode via the Terrain Management System, depending on the make-up of the hill.
If the surface you’re driving on is loose, you might want to reduce your tyre pressures to lengthen out the tyre, creating a longer contact patch with the ground. The additional bonus with this is that aired down tyres will shape around a sharp rock and roll across it, reducing the risk of a puncture. Creating a longer footprint with your tyres and their ability to deform to suit the terrain will improve your 4x4’s traction no end…
However, it’s worth noting that some off-road tyres have a stiff sidewall, so they won’t bulge out to the same level. Tyres with a softer sidewall will balloon out sooner when aired down.
The aim of airing down is to keep your tyre gripping at its maximum when travelling at slow speeds in reduced traction conditions. But you need to be aware that airing down does increase the risk of popping a tyre off the rim. And obviously, only air down if you’ve got a compressor onboard and can re-inflate your tyres.
Good momentum and driving carefully will get you to the top… most of the time
When you’re approaching an obstacle on a hill, make sure you drive up to it very slowly, then inch your way over it very slowly. Listen for any scraping or graunching noises that indicate you might need to build up the obstacle to reduce the pressure and strain on your 4x4’s undersides.
If your 4x4 has driving modes, choose the one that’s most appropriate for the terrain type. These modes and electronic assists usually include some sort of Hill Descent Control, but nothing for ascents, so play around with the settings your vehicle has to find the ideal combination.
Using the Ford Everest as an example, select low-range and Rock Mode from the Terrain Management Setting if the hill is rocky.
If your vehicle has a locking rear differential (electronic or otherwise), you can also engage that, but never use it when running on the bitumen or other high traction, hard-packed surfaces, as this can cause increased tyre wear and damage to the axles.
Low-range is usually the solution to successful ascents, along with consistent throttle input. Again, if your 4x4 has electronic aids like the Everest’s Idle Control, actual modulation of the go pedal will sometimes not be required at all. Feathering the throttle is usually required only when taking on extreme rock climbs – and if you’re doing that, you should be an experienced off-road driver.
Drive straight up
While you should never drive across the face of a hill, there are times when climbing a hill or descending that you’ll come across a ditch. Rather than attacking this straight on and hit the base of the obstacle with your front bumper and then scrape it with the rear bumper, angle your vehicle. Don’t angel too much, though – turn the steering wheel just enough so that each wheel is able to independently cross the obstacle.
While raising a wheel looks impressive when off-roading, your aim should be to keep all four wheels on the ground at all times.
Driving down a steep hill…
Make sure you manually select a low gear and engage the aforementioned Hill Descent Control, if your 4x4 has this option. If modulation of your speed is required, use your vehicle’s cruise control buttons, rather than the accelerator pedal.
With Hill Descent Control active and a target speed set, you shouldn’t touch the pedals at all; just concentrate on the steering and let the electronics do the work.
On advanced 4x4s like the Ford Ranger, Hill Descent Control also works in reverse, which can be a godsend on ascents. If you’ve discovered you can’t proceed any further and need to go back down the hill the way you came. The Everest’s Hill Descent Control can be used in reverse for a controlled descent. Be mindful that you keep the steering straight as you reverse down the hill. Swerving and swaying could cause you to roll your vehicle.