Updated: May 7, 2020
Driving a 4x4 vehicle on loose surfaces such as Gravel Roads must be taken with the utmost care. Complete concentration is needed to ensure a safe journey.
Gravel roads are easily the most dangerous surface to drive on and paying the slightest inattention can lead to disaster.
The most important aspect of gravel road driving is to SLOW DOWN! Always drive to the conditions of the road and the weather and only within your own limitations as a driver. It is very important that you engage High Range 4x4 (H4) or lock the centre differential of a full-time 4x4 so that you have both front and rear wheel drive guaranteed. Being in 4x4 High Range will aid for a much safer journey as you now have the front wheels pulling you along and the rear wheels pushing you, a much safer alternative than just being in 2WD High Range (H2).
On gravel roads we need to be vigilant and continuously scan the road ahead, to the sides and behind us looking for any change in road conditions, other vehicles coming in either direction and wildlife and cattle on the sides of the roads.
Quick Tip: Remember it is a conscious effort to keep our eyes moving, this continuous scanning of the road will also help avoid the onset of fatigue.
Regarding the road itself, it’s very important to pick your position on the road and avoid harsh steering, acceleration and or braking which could easily see the vehicle lose control.
Stay well clear of the sandy loose edges on the sides of the roads where possible, as the vehicle could easily become unstable if you steer onto the loose and possibly soft sides.
In dusty conditions hold well back from other vehicles in front of you so you can see what is ahead of you and so you can also be seen by other road users.
Use the time-lapse method where possible in dusty terrain, that is, from the back of the dust cloud count 1001, 1002, 1003 and if you enter the dust cloud before 1003 slow down for your safety. Remember we are constantly scanning ahead of us and if we are in dust then we cannot judge the road conditions or other hazards along the road. Always travel with your headlights on main beam to help YOU to be seen.
Quick Tip: If you are in dusty conditions have your air-conditioner set to recycle air to avoid dust ingress but if you are travelling on a gravel road and there is no dust in front of you then have your air-conditioner set on fresh air to help pressurise the cabin and avoid sucking in dust from the rear of the vehicle.
Corrugations are another unfortunate hazard presented to us on gravel roads.
The best cure to help compensate for the discomfort of corrugations is to reduce the amount of air-pressure in all four tyres. This helps act as a
5th shock absorber for not only occupant comfort but to avoid the suspension components working too hard.
Remember though that reducing tyre pressures must equal a lower driving speed to avoid overheating the tyres and causing a potential blowout. A good rule of thumb is to lower your pressures to 1.9 bar but no lower than 1.5 bar depending on your vehicles weight and tyre construction.
A very dangerous technique often used by motorists on gravel roads is to go as fast as possible so that the ride smoothens out, with this technique the reason that the ride is smoother is you would be skipping across the tops of the corrugations resulting in what is called ‘flight mode’ you now only have contact with the road about 15-25% of the time. We DO NOT recommend this. Do not travel at an unsafe speed ever.
Potholes are another common hazard and you should be making sure where you can to avoid them. If not possible then try to straddle your vehicle over them. If you must drive over them then remember to release off the accelerator so the suspension can do its job.
Quick Tip: We recommend stopping at least every hour so that your suspension components have a good chance to cool down, because if they are worked overtime they can become very vague resulting in poor handling and possible failure. It’s a good idea to stop every hour for fatigue management anyhow and while doing so check the tightness of your wheel nuts.
With cornering it is crucial that all of your braking whether by the conventional foot brake or by engine compression braking through the gears be done before you enter any bend and well ahead of time. If you enter a bend under heavy braking it may cause the vehicle to under-steer and head straight off the road. On exiting bends, for countries that drive on the left hand side of the road, it is critical you remain on the left hand side of the road to avoid potential head on collisions with other motorists. For countries that drive on the right hand side of the road, it is critical on exiting bends that you remain on the right hand side of the road to avoid potential head on collisions with other motorists.
There is no excuse to exit on the wrong side of the road after a corner or turn, as this simply means that you have misjudged the apex of the corner.
Another important reason to enter a gravel road corner at a safe speed is to prevent your vehicle from potentially over-steering and becoming sideways. Over-steering on gravel roads is most always speed induced so SLOW DOWN. Once again being in 4x4 high range will have the front wheels pulling your vehicle around the bend and make it much safer.
Always work on a worse case scenario, that is, if you cannot judge the bend or are unfamiliar with the area treat each situation as if there is always oncoming traffic and slow down before entering.
Quick Tip: Use small bites of the steering wheel when cornering to assist with traction rather than a sudden turn.
Wildlife and other animals can be a major hazard. Slow down around areas where there is either plenty of water or shade as this is most commonly where wildlife and cattle will be hiding. If presented with an animal ahead of you obviously try to slow down to avoid hitting it but remember NEVER swerve to avoid a collision with them, doing so results in an extremely high chance of
losing control of your vehicle and rolling over. What you need to do is reduce your speed as much as possible and keep the vehicle in a straight line.
If a collision is inevitable, just before impact gently release the brake pedal so that the front suspension rises up. In doing this, the animal has a lesser chance of being thrown over the bonnet and potentially through the windscreen.
Prevention is much better than cure here though so always keep a safe speed and keep a keen eye ahead and to the sides of the road.
Quick Tip: Pumping the brake pedal (Cadence Braking) will help assist in stopping the vehicle in a controlled manner. Always remember to keep both hands on the steering wheel for better control and we cannot recommend highly enough the importance of SLOWING DOWN AND DRIVING TO THE CONDITIONS!
Hope you enjoyed reading the article. I would love to hear your views and listen to any stories you have about driving your 4x4 on gravel roads, so please leave a comment below!