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Bought a 4×4 recently? Here are some basics you need to know before bashing around the bundu…
PART 1: ROCKS AND INCLINES
To 4×4, or to extreme 4×4? That’s the choice we’re faced with at a fork in the road on a mountain section during the Toyota Rust de Winter Jamboree. I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, but after experiencing serious off-road obstacles the day before during the gymkhana event, I now had my doubts. Off-road guru Anthony Clifton makes the decision for us and he steers the Hilux to the left – extreme it is, then.
Although most 4×4 owners will never attempt the extreme terrain we conquered in our Toyota Hilux 2,8 GD-6 4×4 Raider, I came back with my own skills much improved thanks to what turned out to be something of an off-road boot camp. It emphasised the basics that are beneficial to all skill levels of off-road drivers. As ever, the best way to learn is to start at the beginning and gradually work your way up the difficulty scale as your understanding and confidence grows.
Knowing your vehicle
It’s crucial to understand your equipment and the owner’s manual is a good place to start. Is your vehicle fitted with a low-range transfer case and, if so, how do you activate it? Do you have rear, front and/or central differential locks, and what are the benefits of engaging them?
A basic off-road course should help you get acquainted with your vehicle, but for your own confidence levels, try out the various systems at low speeds on an empty, flat field (also do a tyre change). The newbie temptation is to engage all systems as soon as you approach the first obstacle, but the problem with this is that you won’t learn how capable your vehicle is in each setting and neither will you know where its limits are. Avoiding this mistake allows you to keep some of the vehicle’s capabilities in reserve for when the going gets really tough.
Most off-road vehicle modifications are done for styling purposes. Conversely, serious off-roaders look at fitting bigger tyres and long-travel suspension, but these modifications cost serious money and may void your vehicle’s warranty.
The following are cost-effective and practical:
• Improved jacking points under the vehicle.
• A proper off-road jack to simplify tyre changes in the field. The OEM spec item is for emergencies only.
• A good-quality electric compressor to pump the tyres, as well as a tyre-pressure gauge.
• A complete recovery kit that includes straps, shackles and gloves.
• A basic medical kit.
7 driving tips
Seasoned off-roaders always walk an obstacle first to determine the best line that has the least resistance and smallest chance of vehicle damage. Keep the following in mind when negotiating rocky, undulating terrain.
1. Lower tyre pressures to improve traction
We decreased the Hilux’s tyres to 1,1 bar for rocky surfaces. This allows the tyres to mould to the shape of the rocks, yet still have enough pressure to prevent them from rolling off the rim during cornering.
2. Drive as slowly as possible
This minimises the chance of damage and allows the wheels to stay in contact with the terrain. We mostly used the Hilux’s low-range first and second gears to scale the steepest obstacles and, provided there was sufficient traction, we kept the engine at close to idle speed for most of the climb.
3. Aim for the rock
It seems strange to point your wheels at an obvious rock in the path, but there are many benefits in doing so. By driving over a rock, the vehicle’s ground clearance is increased and there is less chance of slicing a side wall than when driving past a rock with sharp edges.
4. Engage diff-lock
only when driving on a slippery surface When scaling a hill over loose rocks, this will improve traction. Remember, though, that the vehicle’s turning circle will suffer. The Hilux has an electronically activated diff-lock that’s easy to engage and disengage on the move.
5. Use more power only when the climb is too slippery to scale with traction alone
And only as much power as needed to build enough momentum. Excessive power can lead to a damaged vehicle.
6. Employ the vehicle’s hill-descent control when going downhill
If your 4×4 has this system, select the lowest gear ratio possible and let the vehicle drive down in-gear with the electronics controlling the wheels. It is still best practice to keep your foot close to the brake in case the vehicle speed increases past what is sensible for the terrain.
7. Never venture into extreme terrain without a back-up vehicle
Without a recovery vehicle to pull you out, you might be in trouble, especially if there isn’t cellphone reception in the area.
PART 2: SAND DRIVING
Here are basic tips before you hit the dunes…
Driving on the beach in South Africa was banned in 2001, but there are still many locations where 4×4 enthusiasts can enjoy their vehicles on one of the trickiest surfaces. One such location is Atlantis Dunes in the Western Cape. We were invited by Toyota to test our skills in a Fortuner 2,8 GD-6 4×4 manual in the annual Toyota Atlantis Fun Day, where more than a 100 teams pitted their skills on eight obstacles … with the blessing of the environmentalists, of course.
The essentials to remember
• If you’re a novice, never attempt sand driving solo. Rather accompany a group that can offer expert advice and help with recovery.
• Lower tyre pressures to improve traction because the tyre footprint lengthens and widens slightly. David van der Merwe, GTtire representative and Continental product marketing manager, suggests 1,2 bars at the front to prevent the tyre departing from the rim during cornering, and 0,9 bar at the rear for traction. During the competition, all the contestants dropped the pressures to 0,8 bar before attempting some of the more extreme sand obstacles, but we never cornered too hard lest we popped a tyre off the rim. Fortunately, all four tyres remained intact.
• Switch traction control off to prevent the electronic control systems from cutting power when it detects wheel spin.
• A diff lock is very useful for the ultimate traction in sand, but does hamper cornering.
• Momentum is a key word during sand driving. Use enough speed to enable the vehicle to float over the sand. Keep the engine speed relatively high (many competitors were bouncing off rev limiters) to ensure there is enough power on tap when the going gets tough. Too much speed when cresting a dune will send the vehicle flying. Always walk up a dune first to inspect the blind side. Remember, though, that reading dunes comes only with experience.
• Try to drive up and down steep dunes at right angles and keep the front wheels straight to prevent a rollover.
• When the vehicle gets stuck and stops moving, cut the power immediately to prevent the wheels from digging in.
• Always park on a downhill section to enable an easy pull away. Never fight the slope when stuck, but use gravity to build momentum to get out of a tricky situation. When you have to park on level sand, remember to reverse slightly before switching off the engine. This will compact the sand for an easier start.
• Sand driving is much easier when the sand is wet or cold. Hot sand during midday can be too challenging for novices.
A quick test is to clamp the sand in your fist. If the sand binds, the going will be easy; when it runs out, be wary. In a worst-case scenario, rather overnight and attempt recovery first thing the next morning.
High or low range?
The general thinking is that high range is usually sufficient for sand driving, as the focus is on momentum. There are a couple of advantages of employing low range in the sand, though:
• Modern off-road vehicles switch only the traction and stability control completely off in low range. Employ third gear and up in low range when momentum is needed.
• The diff lock may be available only in low range.
• First gear high ratio might be too high for technical driving in the sand, or during recoveries.
Petrol or diesel?
If your sole aim is to conquer dunes, a large-capacity petrol engine is your best bet (although you will cry at the pumps). Here’s why:
• The wider rev range of a petrol engine allows the driver to stay in
the power band
• Large petrol engines deliver more power than turbodiesel engines, and this is what is needed to scale dunes.
• The power delivery is smoother and easier to control, and therefore beneficial on sand.
Manual vs. automatic
Skilful drivers mostly opt for a manual gearbox to remain in control of the power delivery. However, you need to be experienced to know which gear to choose for every obstacle. A missed shift can easily result in a stuck vehicle. An automatic can be the novice’s saving grace, allowing focus to remain on lines and momentum rather than thinking about gears and clutch control. This advantage is greater than the slight loss of drive through a conventional torque converter-type auto ‘box.