Register | Log in

Trail Savvy: Gravel Roads


Isn’t it strange that most South African male drivers (yes, that’s us) believe that as soon as they hit a dirt road, their skill level is suddenly on par with a driving genius combination of Sarel van der Merwe and Sebastién Loeb? The hammer goes down, the red mist descends − and before you know it, your vehicle is fishtailing all over the place while the family goes all wide-eyed and grips tightly on any handholds.

Seriously, guys; what’s the rush? You are on holiday. Another 35 minutes on the road will still leave enough time to set up camp and crack a cold one.

So, Rule 1: Slow down. You are going to see more of the surrounding countryside, and be far better prepared to avoid the usual giant potholes, stray cattle, suicidal goats, quart-infused pedestrians and kamikaze drivers coming in the opposite direction.

Rule 2 is pretty simple: if you have a part-time four-wheel drive, now’s the time to twist the dial or shift the lever to high-range 4WD. Driving just the rear wheels (or mostly the fronts if you have a softroader) is never going to be as secure as using all four to maximise grip. It will help to recalibrate your brain too; you are now on a more slippery, changeable surface.

Rule 3 takes more planning and effort. If your route involves a long stretch of varied surface gravel, drop your tyre pressures slightly – by 20-30%. This will improve grip and provide a softer ride, especially over severe corrugations. Also be aware that the tyres will heat up more; to avoid delamination, drive more slowly and check periodically to see if the rubber is getting too hot.

Rule 4: drive smoothly and react in good time. This sounds obvious, but on a less grippy surface, the best way to avoid skidding is to avoid sudden steering inputs and harsh braking moves. The tendency is always to overcorrect when the rear pitches out, which leads to see-sawing at the wheel and could well land you in a ditch. Rather steer gently INTO the skid, back off the throttle a little, and get back in line. If you do need to brake hard for a pothole that can’t be avoided, straighten up, bang on the pedal and release it just before the pothole, which allows the springs to rise up again (particularly if your vehicle has independent front suspension). This will lessen potential damage to the car’s belly.

Rule 5: read the surface and conditions up ahead. Plan your moves, slow down if there are clouds of dust ahead − there could be a slow-moving cattle truck in front, or coming towards you − check where (and how steep) the shoulder is, and choose the smoothest tracks to follow, but also be prepared to move left to make way for oncoming traffic. On gravel, you CAN use the whole road and take advantage of cambering on corners, but be hyper-aware of what all other road users are doing.

Rule 6: Go with the flow. Gravel surfaces change fast, from deep sand ruts, to fresh mud, to hard-baked clay tracks, making the tyres tramline at times. Don’t fight the movement of the vehicle. Pick the best line, avoid those sudden movements that can lead to a rollover, and relax into it.

Rule 7: Pack sensibly. Four-wheel drives have a high centre of gravity. They’re usually loaded to capacity when travelling. Make sure the biggest weights are kept off the roof and set low down between the axles (and not slung way out the back). Too much roof weight will add to the vehicle’s tendency to sway from side to side, and weight that is too far back will lighten the steering, making the vehicle wander about mostly out of your control.


This information is offered in good faith, and is intended as a guideline only. SA4x4 accepts no liability. Use common sense, and engage your brain before touching the gear lever.

This column written by Angus Boswell. Andrew Middleton will be back soon, after an incident in which he ran out of road on his Triumph Tiger. Wish him well on