Driven's off-road guide for summer
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THERE’S MORE TO OFF-ROAD THAN A FLICK OF A GEAR LEVER
Summer’s just around a couple of corners and that means, if you’re an SUV owner, it’ll be tempting — really, really, tempting — to give the wagon a good run off-road.
You know. That interesting track into a valley; the shimmering beach that looks like it’s just made for the wide track and all-terrain tyres of your seven-seater.
True, you haven’t really done anything like that before, but don’t these SUVs pretty much drive themselves these days?
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Despite their ability to drive all four wheels, many SUVs and 4WD utes aren’t that good off-road. They lack ground clearance, their overhangs are too long, many won’t have stump-pulling low gearing, their street tyres will clog with mud and become no-traction slicks.
And driving off the road requires special techniques, knowledge and practice. It’s not something that most drivers can just do, and get away with, when the going suddenly gets tough.
Don’t worry. Driven’s here to suggest ways to scratch that summer off-roading itch and get everyone home safely.
If this is all uncharted territory, take some training from a specialist off-road instructor before heading out.
Then go on some of the many organised off-road safaris held over summer, usually as community fundraisers. These range from one-day trips to the best part of a week and are a great way to get supervised experience while seeing what lies far beyond the tarseal.
Don’t set off on a solo trip, even when you think you know everything. There’s safety in numbers: if you get stuck, another member of the group can help pull you out or lend other help.
Enjoying the view on a fundraising day trip south of the Waikato River mouth.
Here’s a checklist for when you want to head along tougher tracks, miles from anywhere:
1 If where you’re going is out of cellphone range, carry a locator beacon or a sat-phone. Seriously.
2 Don’t panic. If you get stuck, step back and think through how best to get out. Rushing into something may make the predicament worse.
3 Get a decent scissor or hydraulic jack with a long arm or handle, or carry something that can be used as an extension. Carry a decent hunk of wood to put the jack on so it won’t sink into the ground or sand, and will help distribute the load.
4 Carry a spade and maybe also a shovel. It’s surprising how often you can get the SUV unstuck with judicious digging.
5 Carry a tyre gauge because deflating the tyres, perhaps to around 18psi, can help in some situations, such as stuck in mud or sand. Carry a good tyre inflater to pump them up later. Be conservative with the amount of deflation if the SUV has low-profile tyres; the rubber might come off the rim.
6 Carry strips of old carpet, mats or anything that can work as a friction surface under tyres. A better but costly alternative is a set of tough plastic vehicle recovery gear. Wriggled under stuck wheels, they provide traction of “thank heavens” proportions.
7 Get a winch. You don’t need a bolted-on winch for occasional use; get a good hand winch, often known as a Tirfor. That’s the company that invented it but now it’s a generic term for a portable puller. It takes a lot of muscle power to work — the heavier and more stuck the vehicle the harder — but it will get you out.
8 Don’t get stuck in the first place. There’s more to off-roading than just aiming and hoping. The driving course you’ve taken will have taught that. Stop and read the terrain: what are the options? Is there another way? Would a bit of precautionary digging make an obstacle passable? Have someone outside guiding you through tight spots.
Here’s a safety tip many drivers don’t even think about these days: is the 4WD actually in four-wheel drive? It’s all done automatically on newer models. The vehicle will either be full-time 4WD or must have its front wheels engaged by moving the 4WD lever or twisting a dashboard dial. Most utes are like that. However, just moving the lever into 4WD doesn’t do it on
Have someone outside the vehicle guiding you through the tricky bits.
many older vehicles and the current Land Cruiser 70 series. It may be in 4WD but the front wheels won’t be doing any driving until you get out and lock their hubs. Do this before going on the track or beach.
You’ll soon know if the vehicle isn’t in 4WD. It’ll probably bog down in the first few hundred metres of rutted track or the first bit of soft beach sand.
There’s no point in going into low-range, if the SUV has it, when the surface is reasonably firm, but it will be critical in softer sand, mud and on rutted tracks. If the vehicle is finding it really heavy going, or doesn’t seem to be under full control, it’s time for low range.
Soft off-roaders and crossovers lack low-range gearing but Driven has discovered that their electronic traction controls generally do a good job coping with many off-road conditions.
On the other hand, their drivetrain may be working hard in tougher spots and the electronics may shut down components that are getting too hot or exceeding other design parameters. The fix is to brew a cup of tea and wait.
Your insurance company may have in its small print an exclusion for off-road driving. If it is covered, ask about liability cover in case you, say, start a forest fire.
A catalytic converter in the exhaust gets hot enough to ignite dry summer grass; it’s the same with sparks from the exhaust of diesels.
Other ways to spoil the fun
Getting stuck on a beach drive might be the least of your problems. Also consider:
■Vehicles might be banned from the beach you’re on. You need a permit, which is available online from Auckland Council, to drive on Muriwai or Karioitahi beaches.
■Police with radar may be patrolling popular drive-on beaches.
■Going near dunes could destroy marram grass and crash birds’ eggs — such as the endangered dotterel
■A decent splash of water could kill the electrics, and salt is even worse.
■Look for sudden, potentially dangeorus, soft spots in the sand.
■Crossing a river is potentially hazardous; there may be deep holes or a current you’re not aware of.
■Off-roading can offer lots of opportunities to roll, especially in a tall SUV with a high centre of gravity. Have fun, but do take care.