28th January, 2015
  • If in doubt, get out and check the track ahead
  • Choose the right gear before attempting a challenge – if unsure, use a lower gear
  • Keep your thumbs outside the steering wheel – obstacles can cause the steering to move unpredictably
  • Lower tyre pressures to aid traction and resist punctures – reinflate tyres to manufacturer’s specs before returning to the bitumen

Note: Correct tyre pressures for off roading vary between different vehicles and types of terrain. Consult the tyre manufacturer or the ANFWDC for advice.


Sand covers vast areas of our country. Whether it be arid deserts or coastal beaches, for the most part travelling in the more remote deserts and northern coastal areas should only be considered in the cooler months of the year. Unnecessary travelling during the summer months or ‘the wet season’ is not recommended due to excessive heat and flooding.

In the desert as a general rule:

  • Stay on the main tracks
  • Carry six litres of water per person per day and enough to fill the radiator
  • Carry a second spare tyre
  • Reduce tyre pressures (and speed) for travelling on sand or loose surfaces to increase traction and reduce tyre damage
  • Do not cross salt pans unless dry – drive around if possible
  • Walk and check the crest of a sand dune before driving as prevailing winds can erode the surface and leave large drop-offs
  • Fit a sand flag to warn oncoming traffic of your approach
  • Avoid sudden braking and changing direction – coast to a stop where possible

On the coast:

  • Keep to marked tracks and respect native habitat
  • Lower tyre pressures when travelling on sand
  • Keep to the firm sand below the high tide mark
  • Do not drive in salt water
  • Cross fresh water creeks and rivers closest to the tidal zone where the sand is firmer
  • Whenever possible travel with another vehicle
  • Know the tides for the return route
  • Fit a sand flag when driving in dunes
  • Beware of oncoming traffic
  • Wash the vehicle thoroughly afterwards to remove traces of salt

The High Country

The high country is known for its sudden and dramatic changes in weather. Snow can fall in the middle of summer and torrential rain can change a dusty track into an impassable bog in minutes. Rivers can rise and fall overnight and what may have been a shallow river crossing in the morning can be bonnet depth in the afternoon. Be prepared by carrying warm clothing and emergency food.

Water crossings

If possible, walk a crossing before driving it. As a general rule, if the water is higher than knee deep and flowing too fast to walk it then the crossing should not be attempted.

For deeper, slow flowing water, it is recommended to:

  • Fit a snorkel to prevent water ingestion to the air intake of the engine
  • Spray the electrical system with water repellent (WD40) and loosen fan belts to prevent spraying of water onto the electrical system and damage to the fan assembly
  • Fit a wading blanket to the front of the vehicle to help create a bow wave and keep the engine dry
  1. Water crossings are best attempted in low range 2nd gear. Keep the throttle steady to create a bow wave and avoid changing gears as water entering the clutch assembly may cause it to slip.
  2. Have your recovery gear ready in case the vehicle becomes stuck. Keep the engine running.
  3. If the engine stops, do not restart it as damage may occur from water ingestion. Recover the vehicle with a winch or snatch strap.
  4. After fording deep water, check engine, gearbox and differential oils for water contamination.

Ascents and descents

  • Vehicles travelling uphill have right of way
  • When ascending, try to keep out of the ruts
  • 2nd or 3rd gear low range are best for torque and speed when climbing, however 1st gear may be required for very steep, rocky terrain
  • If the track is too steep, rocky or slippery, use the winch to prevent vehicle damage
  • 1st gear low range is best for steep descents
  • Use differential locks (if fitted) for extra traction
  • Use the foot brake only when necessary. If the vehicle starts to slide sideways, accelerate gently to straighten the vehicle
  • Don’t touch the clutch or engage neutral whilst descending
  • Avoid crossing steep tracks at an angle as this can result in a rollover
  • Always leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front


Although mud driving can be a lot of fun, careless driving can do a lot of damage to the environment as well as to vehicle oil seals and steering components. Traction is the most important aspect of getting you through safely.

  • Where possible, drive around, rather than through a bog hole
  • Fit good tyres with aggressive tread
  • Choose a gear that will give plenty of power and keep up momentum
  • Stay out of ruts if possible
  • When in ruts, turn the steering from side to side to improve traction
  • If you become stuck, rock the vehicle back and forward by quickly changing between first and reverse gears
  • Remember to lower tyre pressures to improve traction
  • If traction is totally lost, use the winch or a snatch strap to recover the vehicle


Although most alpine areas have restricted access during the winter months, cold snaps can produce snow in lower lying areas that are open to public traffic.

  • Engage 4WD on ice or snow covered surfaces
  • Always carry snow chains and fit them when required
  • Fit snow chains to the front wheels where possible to help with steering (consult your vehicle handbook)
  • Carry ‘wet weather’ clothing and a ground tarp for fitting chains
  • Drive at an appropriate pace and beware of ‘black ice’
  • Use low gearing to help braking effort. Applying the brakes can result in a loss of traction
  • Park as far off the road as permissible to allow room for snow clearing equipment
  • Ensure the vehicle radiator is filled with anti-freeze. If unsure, cover the engine and radiator with a tarp to help prevent freezing when left for long periods
  • Ensure that diesel vehicles are filled with alpine diesel to prevent waxing of the fuel system and hard starting

Key start or stall start technique

If the vehicle stops on a steep hill, using the stall or key start technique to reverse slowly back down the hill can prevent a dangerous situation:

  1. Apply both the handbrake and footbrake
  2. Switch off the engine if is not already stalled
  3. Check that the transfer case is in low range and select reverse gear (Check note below for automatic vehicles)
  4. Release the clutch slowly
  5. Release the foot brake carefully and the vehicle will hold on the handbrake and engine compression
  6. Keeping feet clear of the accelerator, clutch and brake, slowly release the handbrake whilst turning the ignition key to start the engine
  7. The vehicle will now reverse slowly off downhill

Note: Automatic vehicles should be started in neutral before engaging reverse gear.

4WD code of ethics

  • Observe all laws and regulations whilst travelling on public land
  • Respect another’s right to peace and solitude
  • Keep to constructed vehicle tracks
  • Avoid damaging alpine areas, swamps and vegetated dunes
  • Respect our wildlife
  • Keep the environment clean – carry out what you carried in
  • Observe all fire restrictions
  • Respect national parks and conservation land
  • Obtain permission before travelling on private or pastoral land
  • Leave gates as you found them

Further information

Most 4WD clubs and many private companies run advanced courses on four wheel driving and recovery techniques so contact the Australian National Four Wheel Drive Council (ANFWDC) for more details.