Driving off-road requires knowledge, skill and confidence, which can make it intimidating for people who haven’t done it before. Even behind the wheel of a vehicle with 4×4 capabilities, it can be difficult to take the first step and leave the comfort of a well-tarmacked road. Two of the leading off-road engineers for the new Ford Endeavour – Richard Woolley, vehicle integration attributes supervisor, Ford Asia Pacific; and Nick Allen, attribute lead engineer for off-road capability and trailer tow, share tips for tackling challenging terrains and staying safe when driving off-road.
Any off-road driving presents a range of challenges. However, you can help to reduce the risks by thoroughly planning your journey and bringing a few essentials. At the least, you will want a full fuel tank, a tow rope, a shovel, a spare tyre and tyre-changing kit, a portable air compressor, a map and compass (or a GPS unit), and a mobile or satellite phone.
When possible, you should also try to travel in a convoy. This will mean that there are other vehicles available to assist with recovery if it is required.
Know your vehicle
It’s important understand how your vehicle behaves in different scenarios. You should also learn how to engage specific features and technologies that are designed to aid you in off-road environments. As well as understanding the technology in your vehicle is important to be familiar with its dimensions and capabilities. You may have to squeeze through some tight spaces, wade through water, or climb over challenging obstacles. In these cases you will need to know your vehicle’s width, water wading abilities, ground clearance, and approach and departure angles.
Reduce tyre pressure
This is one of the simplest tricks to improve your vehicle’s off-road performance and your comfort level in the cabin. There are a number of advantages to reduce the air pressure in your tyres. It means that more of the tyre is touching the ground so that the weight of the vehicle is more evenly distributed. This helps you to stay on top of softer surfaces like sand or mud. The tyres can absorb more impact pressure, which helps to protect the wheels and the rest of the vehicle in rocky terrains. It will give you a smoother, more comfortable driving experience off-road. Slightly deflated tires will absorb many of the smaller bumps in the road instead of bouncing over them.
How much you reduce the tyre pressure will vary depending on where you are driving. Be sure to check the optimal tyre pressure for the specific terrain. When driving with reduced tyre pressure, keep in mind that you should avoid sharp turns. Turning sharply when your tyres are under-inflated can increase the chance of detaching them from the wheel.
Remember to re-inflate your tyres before you get back on the road. Using under-inflated tyres for regular road driving will reduce vehicle safety, the life-span of tyres and fuel efficiency.
Use low range, or the lowest gear
Keeping your vehicle in low range gives you more control and power at low speeds. Increased control is exactly what you require when you are driving over highly technical or rocky terrain with reduced traction, or when tackling steep descents and ascents. With the new Endeavour, low range can be manually engaged when the vehicle is stationary with the flick of a switch, and also works in conjunction with the Terrain Management System’s (TMS) rock mode, which gives you maximum control when you need it most.
Driving quickly means you will have less time to react if something goes wrong, and it will take longer to stop. High speeds will also increase the damage to your vehicle when driving over obstacles or if you collide with anything. Driving slowly lets your vehicle’s suspension absorb most bumps for a more comfortable ride. It will also give you more time to examine your surroundings, and anticipate and react to situations.
Some obstacles might require more speed to tackle, such as steep ascents, but most obstacles need little more than a walking pace. Try to remember to drive as slowly as possible, while still driving fast enough to overcome the ascent. If you find you are driving too slowly, it’s easy to step on the accelerator – but if you are driving too quickly, you may face more risks and find it difficult to safely correct.
Choose the best line
Look at the terrain ahead of you and try to ascertain the safest route. There are often multiple ways to overcome an obstacle, and it is important to choose the route that poses the least risk. To avoid potentially damaging the underneath of your vehicle, choose a line that ensures all four wheels maintain contact with the ground. If the path ahead is particularly narrow, steep, or has large objects that you can’t see around, it is worth having a “spotter” – a friend who can get out of the vehicle and help to guide you through these sections.
Approach water crossings with caution
Before you take on a major water crossing you should be aware of your vehicle’s water wading ability. The Endeavour, for example, has a class-leading ability to wade through water up to 800mm deep which is achieved travelling a steady speed of no more than 7 kilometers per hour.
When approaching a water crossing, it is a good idea to get out of your vehicle to measure the depth of the water ahead either with a stick or by walking through the section that you plan to cross. Needless to say, if the water is deeper than your vehicle’s water wading ability, you need to find another path. When assessing the water’s depth, you should also be on the lookout for any potential submerged hazards, such as large rocks or holes.
If the water looks safe to cross, enter slowly (walking pace) to prevent an excessive bow wave over the hood of your vehicle. Once moving it is important to maintain your speed: Stopping in deep water can cause components of the vehicle to flood.
Understand different terrains
Different terrains call for different driving techniques. When driving in terrains with deep sand, the key to successful off-roading is to maintain your momentum and keep engine RPMs high. There is a risk of sinking into the sand if you slow down too much or don’t keep the wheels moving. When parking in deep sand, one should always allow the vehicle to roll to a stop. This prevents the wheels from digging into the sand when the brakes are applied so that it is easier to get moving again. Another tip to help drive away with ease is to park on either a flat surface or with the vehicle pointing slightly downhill.
When driving on slippery or loose surfaces, such as mud, gravel, wet grass, snow or ice, your priority should be to keep the vehicle under control to avoid a loss of traction.
For technical, rocky terrain, one should maximise control at very low speed. This will help to climb over large rocks without damaging the vehicle, and will allow the suspension to absorb impacts more effectively.
It’s okay to turn around
Even when using Terrain Management System, the driver remains responsible for assessing suitability of off-road terrain. If you are not confident in your ability to navigate the terrain ahead of you, either find another way around or go back the way you came.
Notify friends/relatives of proposed plan and dates
It is important to make sure your friends and families know your plans and your proposed route when you travel off the beaten track. Make sure you share your proposed plans, especially if you’re heading into inaccessible areas with little or no mobile phone coverage. Also ensure you check with the local authorities the conditions and expected conditions prior to undertaking your trip.
Familiarise yourself with the legal requirements
Before you set off, it is important to make sure you’re familiar with any specific rules or regulations concerning the area you’re travelling through, particularly if it’s through national parks. Some off-road desert driving also requires flags to be fitted to vehicles to ensure there’s plenty of visibility to other off-road users so it’s important to make sure you respect these requirements.
“Off-roading is a life-long passion, and there is always more to learn. But if you follow these eleven tips, you will be safer and more successful on your first foray into the world of off-road driving,” said Woolley.