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going off-road / 4WD


  • going off-road is very popular in Australia however it does require the right gear, preparation and technical training
  • buying “automatic” electronic features may allow you to get further off-road but unless you also have spent time learning the technical side of off-road driving, they are likely to just leave you getting stuck in more remote places!
  • If you hope to take full advantage of your vehicle’s angles, then you’re going to want to protect the bodywork. Off-road bumpers offer protection from bumps and scrapes while giving you the ability to mount accessories like winches, lights, and tire carriers. Rock sliders mount to the frame under your doors, protecting your vehicle’s body.
  • roof racks need to be a much higher rating if you plan to load them for off-road use
  • if you drive towing a trailer or caravan, your chances of mishaps increase substantially and you may lose everything if this occurs in a remote setting - not to mention delays to medical care
    • 4WD and trailer/caravan roll overs can occur unexpectedly such as a rear tyre blowout, even on relatively flat roads and will likely end your trip!
    • Risk of trailer sway and roll over
      • addressing causes of trailer sway:
        • ensure trailer is not too long - choose the shortest trailer possible
        • ensure optimum mass distribution - mass should be mainly low down over the trailer wheels - not at the front or rear of trailer
        • tandem wheels should have same road grip and hence same load - and thus trailer must be LEVEL
        • avoid long distance from rear wheel of vehicle to hitch point (avoid tow bar extensions) and avoid rear overhang loads over hitch point
        • ensure low centre of gravity for both tow vehicle and trailer
        • ensure correct tow ball mass of 5-10%
          • too heavy and trailer will be too stable and not turn with tow vehicle plus less load and hence grip on the vehicle's front wheels
          • inadequate tow ball mass although making trailer easier to maneuver, makes the trailer unstable
        • ensure correct tyre pressures as determined by load on each wheel
          • too low - increases risk of trailer sway, squirm and float
          • too high - increases trailer bounce and loss of grip
        • SLOW DOWN
          • reduce speed and thus reduce trailer momentum (momentum = mass x velocity) and shorten your braking distance
          • take care downhill as trailer momentum and gravity forces tend to have trailer “overtaking” tow vehicle which increases sway - ensure you reduce speed at start of downhill parts and increase the proportion of braking to the trailer brakes!
          • take extra care in wet weather or with gusty winds (eg. passing a truck)
          • take extra care on bumpy roads that bounce the trailer around
    • ensure your vehicle is appropriate for the towing and braking needs and the tow ball load is appropriate and you learn to drive appropriately towing a van
    • driving after sunset dramatically increases risk of hitting a camel or similar large animal, if you swerve suddenly you may end up with a rollover or into a tree
    • motorhomes and caravans occasionally catch fire due to faulty inverters etc
    • 4WDs can catch fire due to dry grass and spinifex seeds becoming trapped in the hot underbelly of vehicles - oils in the spinifex seeds are highly combustible and they catch fire really quickly 1)
      • mainly an issue driving though Simpson Desert and similar areas after heavy rains with lush vegetation in April and May
      • Diesel Particulate Filters (DPF) may increase risk as they reduce air pollutants by capturing and burning built-up soot at temperatures of up to 600degC - may need manual DPFs or a heat shield
  • the cardinal rule for off-roading is never go alone - you will eventually get stuck and need help from another vehicle
  • it then also means having a two way radio to enable a spotter or a recovery vehicle to communicate with the driver is pretty much a necessity.
  • you are probably NOT insured OFF-ROAD use or REMOTE 4WD for vehicle damage or recovery - check the fine print!
    • non-gazetted roads may not be covered
    • beaches may be covered unless the tide / waves damages car
    • river crossings may be covered by some insurers but they may insist on water less than manufacturer's specifications for the car or perhaps the snorkel, or they may have a very high excess of $6000 or more
    • 4WD training may not be covered or on a 4WD park
    • if you damaged your vehicle while recovering another vehicle you are unlikely to be covered
    • if you had pre-existing damage then this may impact your cover
    • your accessories may not be covered or it may be capped, and once your vehicle gets to the panel beaters under insurance, it becomes property of insurer and you may not be able to access or remove the accessories
    • you may not be covered for remote travel as this is expensive to retrieve the vehicle from the middle of a desert (exception may be if it burnt down in which case that may be a statutory write off) - the onus may be on you to get a 4WD recovery vehicle to retrieve at your cost of $400/hr for 24hrs as they may refuse to assess it until it is in a workshop (you can get special insurance to help cover for off-road recoveries through Club4x4 insurance) - the insurer may have a distance limit as well for recovery. In general, at the least, you may need to get it to where a flat top tow truck can get to - not much help if you are stuck on the beach in water or on a 4WD only track!
  • MORAL of story - don't take excessive risks and when possible, travel in a convoy as you can't rely on strangers or insurers to help you recover your vehicle otherwise

Determining factors in choice of vehicle

  • bull bars and rollover bars (ROPS) do NOT make your vehicle safer (except for minor kangaroo impacts) but do make it HEAVIER and LESS SAFE in more serious crashes or for pedestrians
    • at 64kph frontal crashes in a Toyota HiLux, a steel bull bar caused much more cabin intrusion especially at feet - you may not be walking very well for the rest of your life and you may need a new hip joint!
    • internal ROPS demonstrated no real reduction to potential serious head and spinal injuries to front seat occupants in the crash configurations
    • ROPS designed to accommodate deployment of side curtain air bags would potentially represent a significant increase in the risk of serious head or brain injuries to rear seat occupants in a frontal crash
    • The ROPS structure appeared to increase propensity for vehicle rollover by increasing the centre of gravity height;
    • “Fitting aftermarket safety equipment may have adverse consequences”
    • BHP banned these modifications as they made their Toyota HiLux utes more dangerous!2)
  • many 4WD offroad vehicles have VERY POOR visibility which can severely impact your safety and the safety of those around you
    • the wide front windscreen strut of a Ford Ranger can easily hide a car at a round about!
    • rear visibility is critical when reversing - many children are killed in this manner, including at camp grounds!
    • the Subaru Outback is superb in terms of visibility!
    • choose wisely and also ensure they have an ANCAP safety rating of at least 5!

4WD vs AWD

  • AWD vehicles are great on bitumen and gravel roads as an additional safety feature but have very limited off-road utility at slow speeds in terms of:
    • no true 4WD modes of 4H or 4L as no transfer case to achieve these
    • no ability to add diff lockers which can be critical for getting out of situations where a wheel in spinning freely
    • drive trains are not as robust
    • under vehicle protection is not usually as strong
    • clearance may be an issue

ruggedness and power

  • 4WDs with truck chassis are generally built more ruggedly and are better suited to most serious off-road work and towing but do need an engine with higher power specs and will have poorer fuel economy
  • roof rack rating is important off-road
  • the ability to get to and maintain momentum is important
    • momentum = mass x velocity
    • the ability to get to a given velocity is determined by:
      • power of vehicle to overcome the mass of the vehicle as acceleration = force / mass
      • force here is determined by the power from the engine less the effects of gravity (eg. going uphill against gravity)
        • high torque at low RPM is important for such off-road work
        • if you have a heavy vehicle then large tyres, twin lockers and a turbo V8 can get you up very slippery tracks where other vehicles may struggle
      • traction

rated recovery points

  • trying to pull a vehicle out using the vehicle's tie down or tow ball is dangerous, you need to have a rated recovery point at both front and rear before you head out
  • this recovery point on a 4WD should generally be bolted into the chassis with at least two M12 (12mm) bolts and the strength should be sufficient - the hex head should read 8.8 tensile strength and they should be tightened to the correct torque (over-tightening them may strip them)
  • the recovery point should be engraved with a rating such as 10000lb (this equates to 4535kg)
  • the only vehicle that comes from the factory with rated recovery points is the Isuzu MUX, which has two rated recovery points on the front rated at 2000kg each. That is 4000kg when used with an equaliser strap, and no where near the 8,000kg rated snatch straps that most people use.
  • you can generally have rated recovery points installed onto your chassis if there are none
  • in older vehicles, regularly remove and check the bolts to ensure they have not rusted out


  • shorter wheel base offers better angles but less passenger and cargo capacity
  • tare weight = weight of an empty standard vehicle with all of its fluids (oils, coolants) but with only 10 litres of fuel in the tank
  • kerb weight = same as Tare Mass, but with a full tank of fuel and without any accessories fitted (bull bars, tow bars, roof racks etc).
  • Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) or Weight (GVW) = maximum your vehicle can weigh when fully loaded as specified by the manufacturer
  • Payload = maximum load (including accessories, passengers, etc) your vehicle can carry as specified by the manufacturer = GVW - Kerb weight
    • a Toyota Landcruiser 200 has a payload of only 600kg!
  • Gross Vehicle Axle Mass or Weight = maximum load that your vehicle's front and rear axles can carry as specified by the manufacturer
  • Gross Combination Mass (GCM) or Weight (GCW) = maximum weight allowed for your vehicle and trailer combined, as specified by the tow vehicle's manufacturer

adequate traction

  • inadequate traction is the cause of perhaps 90% of failures off-road
  • vehicle drive chain design can be critical to gaining traction
    • ability to lock both front and rear diffs
    • “AWD” vehicles generally are not able to lock both front and rear diffs and may send most of the engine's torque to the spinning wheel that has lost traction instead of sending it to the other wheel which has traction
  • the 1st upgrade you need to do is get a good set of all-terrain tires
  • appropriately adjusting tire pressure for the surface is critical
    • Lowering the air pressure of your tires increases traction because it allows more of your tire surface to grab onto whatever you're driving over and will also reduce risk of punctures
  • the heavier the vehicle, the greater the traction is needed

adequate clearance

  • a vehicle with very short front and rear overhangs will inherently have superior approach and departure angles to one with longer overhangs
  • a short wheelbase, will inherently achieve a better breakover angle than a vehicle with a longer wheelbase but you will have a less comfortable ride over poor road conditions
  • lifting a vehicle up to gain improved clearance or angles by increasing the size of the tire will increase the height of obstacles it can roll over, but will reduce your effective gear ratio while adding unsprung weight which generally will just result in a poorer ride, worse handling, poorer braking, higher centre of gravity and rollover risk, and worse fuel economy without much benefit.
    • If you fit larger tires, you will need to change your differential gears in order to return performance, fuel economy, and control and you’ll need to fit taller suspension in order to clear them.
  • parameters to consider:
    • ground clearance
      • perhaps the least important of these parameters as you can usually drive your wheel over the highest point, but it still may be a factor
      • AWDs can sometimes have higher ground clearance than 4WD trucks with solid axles
      • clearance is important when driving through deep wheel ruts and it is here that the centre diffs of 4WDs may be the limiting factor
    • approach angle
      • the angle between your front tires and the lowest point on your vehicle in front of them
    • breakover angle or rampover angle
      • the angle from the bottom of either your front or rear tires to where the opposite tire meets the lowest point on your vehicle
      • this is related to the wheelbase - the shorter the wheelbase the better the angle
      • If you don't understand the break-over angle of your car, you can wind up balancing on a rock with all your wheels off the ground.
    • departure angle
      • the angle from the bottom of your rear tire to the lowest point behind it

low gear for steep obstacles

  • the ability to switch to a very low gearing is critical in delivering control to safely ascend and descend steep tracks


  • this is the ability for one wheel to be at a much different height distance from the vehicle body compared to the other wheel when one wheel is at a different height ground
  • in reality, this is only important for extreme 4WDers as most 4WDs usage can be performed if the driver is careful and controlled in their approaches.

ease of repairs while on the tracks

  • this also requires spare parts to be carried, tools, jacks, and knowledge of how to detect damage and repair it
  • a CV joint cage is likely to be damaged due to the shock loading when a spinning wheel lifts off the ground and then lands hard (eg. bouncing or hopping up a rocky incline) as this puts massive amounts of pressure on the driveline, and CV joints are usually the weakest link.
  • The CV joint (Constant Velocity joint) is more vulnerable:
    • if the car has been lifted as the angle is greater
    • on full steering lock under power
    • wheels are spinning for more than 3 seconds and not moving forward
  • the boot of the CV joint may also get punctured by a stick which allows the grease to escape and the CV joint will run dry and self-destruct
  • fortunately the CV joint can generally be replaced on the track with the right know-how and tools (and a spare!)
  • water or mud in your engine bay can cause a lot of issues
    • electrical contacts may need cleaning
    • alternator may need removing, taking apart and cleaning out as it is very vulnerable to water and mud
    • if water gets into the air intake then you are in lots of trouble - water inside the engine may destroy it!

extras you may need to buy

is it a purpose built off-road only vehicle or a work vehicle as well?

  • you need to decide if you need the rear for your work or whether you can afford to always have that vehicle kitted out for off-road use and camping
  • try to keep it simple and avoid over purchasing accessories which will only empty your pocket and weight your car down and cost you in fuel
    • do you really need all that cooking ware?
    • are you really going to go to extreme tracks or just going on easy gravel tracks camping?
      • maybe you don't need mud tyres, bull bars, winches, roof racks, suspension mods, etc

tyres and suspension upgrades

  • all-terrain tyres (although mud tyres are fine on sand)
  • improved suspension to manage the weight of bull bar, winches, etc
    • balancing weight distribution from front to back and left to right is an important consideration

tools and repair kits

  • air pump for tyres
  • spare tyre
  • general repair tools
  • if you are going to extreme tracks or remote places then:
    • engine oil
    • diff oil
    • transmission oil
    • coolant
    • brake fluid
    • spare parts such as fan belts, CV joint or whatever the weakness is for your vehicle

towing gear

  • brake system such as Redarc electronic control

vehicle protection if going to extreme tracks

  • Off-road bumpers
  • Rock sliders mount to the frame under your doors, protecting your vehicle’s body.

river crossing options

  • air intake snorkel

auxiliary battery system

recovery gear

camping gear

  • car fridge
  • cooking
  • awning eg. ARB
  • swag or roof tent
  • off-road rated roof rack
  • camp fire gear
  • chairs
  • drinking water
  • etc

taking spares

when you are relatively close to towns

  • repair manual for your vehicle
  • torque wrench and torque the wheel nut before and after hitting the dirt road
  • spare tyre same size and condition as the others
  • 4 spare tyre valve cores, stems
  • tyre repair kit
  • 6 wheel studs and 6 wheel nuts
  • snorkel sock if you have a snorkel for gravel roads or dusty conditions to reduce air filter issues
  • one cup spare nuts and bolts
    • NB. many of those which mount to the chassis have thread pitch 125 rather than the most common 150 you find at ironmongers
  • duct tape
  • cable ties
  • selection of fuses
  • circuit breaker
  • electrical repair gear - heat shrink, connectors, conduit, wires, Anderson plugs, crimper
  • Self vulcanising tape for repairing pressure hoses

more remote driving

  • as above plus
  • front and rear brake pads
  • can of brake cleaner
  • whole wheel bearings kits with every component needed, including front and rear kits and a kit for a trailer as these tend to go first
  • wheel bearing removal tool
  • wheel bearing grease for the hub
  • spare air filter
  • diesel filters
  • two cups spare nuts and bolts
  • Metal Epoxy, in case of fuel tank damage/leak
  • +/- serpentine belt
  • +/- Universal joints, silicon tape and metal putty for filling holes

very remote driving

  • most of Western Australia, Northern Territory, Central Australia (at a distance from Alice Springs)
  • requires careful planning
    • have wheel hubs re-done before the trip
  • as above plus:
  • at least two spare tyres (or perhaps a carcass)
  • G-clamps to clamp a broken brake line
  • brake fluid (must be a sealed bottle else absorbs moisture)
  • 3-4 cups spare nuts and bolts
  • spare coolant hoses
  • concentrated coolant
  • engine oil
  • +/- diff oil but you could temporarily use 10w 30 engine oil which is the similar to 75-weight gear oil,just without the additives
  • serpentine belt
  • most disasters can be welded back together - take the few bits required - shield, holder, rods, jumper leads - for battery welding.
  • consider based on known problems with vehicle model:
    • alternator eg. 70s series are prone to problems
    • CV
    • rear axle
    • pulley bearings
    • water pump
    • starter motor
    • carry your old factory shocks as spares

technical aspects

load balancing your vehicle

  • most vehicles have a payload of 500-1000kg including driver, passenger, accessories
  • it it important to balance the weight distribution on each axle
  • keep heavy gear as low as possible to lower centre of gravity
  • roof racks need to be managed with care to avoid exceeding weight limits for off-road use
  • consider permanent heavy gear such as auxiliary battery and fridge in the rear passenger side to counterbalance the weight of the driver
  • if possible place spare tyres and extra water between the axles rather than to the rear to reduce risk of front wheels lifting up in ascents


  • on dry highways, ensure you are not in 4WD mode (and particularly with locked diffs!) as this will create stress on your drive chain and bind it up
    • if you accidentally find you have forgotten to disengage 4WD mode, then slow down and drive for a bit with at least one side of the car on softer roadside to release some of the bound up state, then disengage 4WD mode
  • ensure your tires are pumped up again to highway pressures

gravel roads

  • lower tire psi a little (perhaps 30-35psi) to give more control and a nicer ride over corrugations
  • travel at the best speed for the conditions and no more than 80kph
    • going faster may cause damage due to vibrations causing screws to fall out or stress to vehicle not to mention risk of accidents at unexpected curves or animals
  • use AWD or 4WD (and lock your wheel hubs) to give the safest drive especially around bends where rollovers are a high risk if only in 2WD

green laning

  • relatively low risk driving on off-road tracks but may risk damaging the environment or the tracks if they are used mainly for horse riding
  • approach ditches or obstacles to cross at an angle not front on to avoid more than one tire losing traction at a time

rock crawling

  • driving slowly (less than 5kph) over rocky usually mountainous tracks
  • lower your psi to give more traction, better control and less bouncing which is likely to cause loss of control, rollovers or damage to CV joints
  • pick your line and plan your path out
  • consider using a spotter on difficult areas
  • sidewalls of your tires are the weakest part, so you need to be careful where they come into contact with rocks to avoid puncturing them
  • when ruts are dry, it's usually best to stay out of them and to straddle them instead and wider tires help give more purchase
  • avoid straddling large rocks because there's always a chance they could damage the underside of your vehicle - the best option is usually to drive over the rock with your tire or you may need to build a ramp of some sort on each side to get you over it and the departure angle managed
  • if you're moving too fast:
    • the side-to-side rocking motion of your car as the tires move over rocks can build up and cause your vehicle to tip, particularly if it has a high centre of gravity
    • you won't have time to assess the size of obstacles and your angles
  • if you plan on doing more extreme tracks, you will run the risk of damage to CV joints, axles, panels and more, so using your 4WDs as toys could be a costly venture


  • driving through deep mud is tricky as:
    • there may be hidden objects including deep bog holes which may result in CV joint damage or sinking into water
    • each type of mud consistency requires different approach speeds for a given vehicle
    • going too slow will end up with you being stuck and trying to gain traction may just result in spinning the wheels and making a deeper hole and thus you almost certainly need to be winched or towed out
    • going too fast will risk losing ability to negotiate objects and maintain control - hitting something hard not only may damage your vehicle but may set off your airbags!
    • specially designed mud terrain tires are the best, these have extra large lugs which keeps mud from getting stuck in between the lugs, allowing you to maintain traction
    • longer distances in deep thick mud or wet salt pans will slow the engine down as friction from the accumulated mud increases and is a major risk for getting too slow then bogged as above or tyres coming off their rims or both
  • driving up very slippery clay tracks
    • big mud tyres with aggressive side wall grooves and at low air pressure help
    • twin diff lockers can be really useful
    • adequate speed for momentum

sand dunes and beaches

  • dropping tire psi increases the length of tire in contact with sand and improves forward traction and this outweighs the effect of widening the tire
  • wider tires may actually be worse in sand as they create more resistance as sand is pushed in front but in reality wide mud tires will work just find if they are deflated to around 14psi
  • knowing your off-roading angles is important
  • like any hill, you have to gain enough momentum to reach the top without stopping
    • if you start too slow, you'll have to either back down the dune or make a wide arc to turn around
    • turning around on any hill is extremely dangerous because you're at greater risk of rolling your car over and ending up upside down.
  • the wider the tire (eg. as on dune buggies), the less you will sink into whatever you're driving through - lower your tire pressures for sand driving
  • heavier vehicles especially towing vans are more likely to get stuck in soft sand and an option for recovery is for another vehicle to use a snatch strap which will allow the towing vehicle to get some speed up without itself getting bogged
  • risk of catastrophic low ball joint (LBJ) failure which will need tow truck if you are on the beach - if the tide doesn't get you first
    • often occurs at low - mod speed on full steering lock, particularly with certain vehicles such as Toyota 4Runner, Prado, Jeep Cherokee
    • can take out the cv shaft, UBJ, LBJ, steering rack, inner tie rod and brake line

river crossings

  • these are potentially very dangerous
    • vehicles can easily get swept down the river
    • the lighter the vehicle, the shallower the water needs to be to float the vehicle and sweep it down the river
    • this is further compounded if the river if infested with crocodiles as they often are in the tropics of Australia
    • hidden obstacles or deep holes are a major risk
  • where possible, walk the path first and assess current, depth, obstacles, presence of deep holes, exit route accessibility and a recovery strategy in case of failure
  • crossing rivers you need to be ready with a recovery strategy such as a snatch strap to apply as soon as possible as getting stuck in a river with soft sand will rapidly result in the water eroding around the wheels and digging the wheels in deeper
  • salt water crossings:
    • cross at low tide which may differ to the beach low tide
    • drive slowly to minimise water splash which will risk corrosion
    • when home, thoroughly wash under carriage with fresh water

understand why you are bogged

  • bottomed out
    • wheel rut channels are deeper than your clearance, or a branch or tree stump pokes up
    • check your tire inflation is correct for that surface
    • try to shovel dirt/sand to reduce centre height
    • use MaxTracks as this will elevate the vehicle
    • consider a recovery vehicle winch or as last resort a snap strap
  • not enough traction
    • wheels spin and no movement - STOP as your wheels will only get deeper making it harder to recover and may also result in you bottoming out!
    • check your tire inflation is correct for that surface, in sand lower them to 6psi then when out put them back to 15psi
    • check your 4WD mode
    • use a shovel and MaxTrack
    • consider a recovery vehicle winch or as last resort a snap strap
  • something has broken
    • broken axle or CV - usually there is a noise before you get stuck and you were doing serious 4WD with a lot of stress on the axle

example vehicles

vehicle power torque kerb mass max. payload approach departure breakover clearance turn circle
Suzuki Jimny 3 door 1.5L petrol 4WD $41K 75kW @6000rpm 130Nm @4000rpm 1100kg 300kg 37deg 49deg 28deg 210mm 4.9m
Suzuki Jimny 5 door 1.5L petrol 4WD 77kW @6000rpm 134Nm @4000rpm kg kg 36deg 50deg 24deg 210mm m
Subaru Outback 6cyl 3.6L petrol 2016 AWD 191kW @6000rpm 350Nm @4400rpm 1626kg 430kg 18.5deg 22.7deg 20deg 213mm 11m
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 2 door 3.6L petrol 8sp auto 4WD $87K 209kW @6400rpm 347Nm @4100rpm 1917kg 500kg? 41.9deg w steel bumper 31.5deg 26.6deg 225mm 10.5m
Ford Ranger 4×4 XLT Double Cab PickUp 5cyl 3.2L diesel 20213) 147kW @3000rpm 500Nm @1750-2000rpm 2135kg 1065kg 29deg 21deg 25deg 237mm 12.7m
Isuzu D-Max 4×4 3L 4cyl turbo diesel4) 140kW @3600 rpm 450Nm @1600→2600rpm 2030kg 1070kg 30deg 24-28.9deg 23.9deg 235mm 12.5m
Toyota Prado 2.8L Turbo diesel5) 150kW @3400rpm 500Nm @1600-2800rpm 2285kg 700kg 30.4deg 23.5deg 21.1deg 219mm 11.6m
Toyota Landcruiser 4.5L Twin Turbo V8 diesel 200kW @3600rpm 650Nm @1600-2600rpm 2740kg 600kg 32deg 24deg 230mm 11.8m
australia/offroad.txt · Last modified: 2023/05/29 08:41 by gary1

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