Into the unknown: The story of an off-roading rookie
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As someone who hasn’t strayed from the tarmac for the six years that I have held my licence, the prospect of driving off-road for the first time was just as exciting as it was intimidating.
We’ve all seen our fair share of off-roading fails, where the vehicle ends up stranded in the mud, or on its roof, or both.
Considering that Land Rover had given me a brand new Discovery HSE to take on the rough stuff with, I knew that both of those outcomes weren’t an option if I wanted to keep my job longer than my off-roading adventure.
Thankfully, the extremely capable Discovery stayed rubber side down and reasonably dry for the majority of the journey. And thanks to the knowledgeable Downforce team, I learnt a lot about staying in control off the tarmac.
While most forms of enthusiast driving involve speed, the first thing that I learnt about off-roading is the importance of going slow.
“Bouncing over obstacles and going fast is what advertising agencies like, but it’s just Hollywood stuff,” we are told over a two-way radio as we climb our first gravel embankment.
Considering that the majority of the track that we were driving would be labeled as “soft-roading”, chances of damaging the vehicles weren’t very high, but I wasn’t about to try my luck.
Before we set out, one of the instructors explained that the Discovery I was using did the majority of the hard work, which I wasn’t too surprised to hear, but was intrigued to see how it worked.
One click of a button switched the SUV into low range, another activated the air suspension and lifted the SUV into off-road mode, and a switched it into gravel and snow mode.
As I approached the first obstacle of the track, an extremely steep but short descent, I was told to leave the pedals alone, and just keep it inside the track. As I apprehensively crept over the crest, hill descent control kicked in, and kept the SUV at a steady 5km/h.
Next up was a set of concrete blocks arranged in a diagonal pattern, designed to showcase the vehicle’s torque vectoring systems under load.
While bouncing over the blocks at speed might’ve been the most adrenaline-filled method of attacking this obstacle, the slow approach proved to be just as effective.
Whether it’s down to instinct, or the lack of willingness I had to push the vehicle, but when the SUV started to shudder and spin the wheels while attempting to climb, pushing the accelerator harder wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.
After a bit of encouragement, I slowly increased the RPMs, and the power was thrown around each wheel in search of traction, before it hooked up and propelled itself over the blocks.
Overall, my first off-roading experience was far from extreme, but it seems that the principles are the same no matter what you’re doing.
Knowing your vehicle’s capabilities, knowing the terrain you’re driving on, and maintaining a slow speed were the three main lessons learned.
Top 10 Off-road Driving Tips
1. Assess the terrain – if you’re not sure, don’t drive further into potential trouble. Respect the environment you’re driving in.
2. Maintain your vehicle – good quality and condition of your tyres, brakes and general condition of your vehicle are critical… be prepared. Take plenty of food, water and suitable clothing and recovery and survival equipment
3. Tyres – consider reducing your tyre pressure for ‘soft’ terrain – mud, sand. Always re-inflate your tyres before you return to a public road
4. Know your vehicle, its systems and controls.
5. If significant wheel spin occurs, back off the throttle completely before the vehicle stops.
6. Avoid sudden steering inputs. Steering response will be less effective on sand/mud, so avoid sudden inputs and plan ahead
7. Take a diagonal approach to ridges. Climb and descend hills vertically
8. When recovering a vehicle, use only rated recovery equipment and recovery points on the vehicles. Stand back at least 50% more distance than the length of the recovery strap you’re using. NEVER recover using a tow ball.
9. Make sure someone is aware of your planned route, return time. Even better, carry a personal locator beacon or other emergency device
10. Drive with caution - As slow as possible, as fast as necessary