Register | Log in



The go-to guide for safe driving off the tar

By Jacqui Ikin

The subject of off-road driving skills has been the basis of numerous books and endless debates the world over. Everyone has an opinion – some more valid than others. I don’t believe it’s possible to train off-road driving skills from the pages of a magazine alone. As with any practical skill, only experience creates ‘unconscious competence’. For this reason, a hands-on training course through a professional service provider is a highly recommended foundation for the extended journey of becoming a competent off-road driver. That said, it is possible to learn and apply certain basic theoretical concepts which, when combined with experience, will assist in improving your skill. Great off-road ability is a combination of a variety of learned proficiencies.

The first is to understand your vehicle, and the various technological systems on-board. Often, understanding which systems and functions should be ‘off’ is as relevant as deciding what should be ‘on’!

These systems interact with the terrain on which you find yourself. The concepts of reading terrain, choosing the correct line, and using a guide are all important. Bear in mind that when weather interacts with the landscape, terrain essentially changes. So, a dune that may have been easy to drive in the early morning when the sand is cool, moist, and compact, becomes a challenge at midday when it is hot, dry, and loose. A camber with relatively good grip that would have been possible to traverse with comparative ease in dry conditions becomes treacherous when slick with moisture from dew or rain.

Lastly, fundamental scientific principles such as those of gravity, physics, and motion also come into play. Off-roading competently, in a manner that is safe and respectful to the environment, requires deliberation, skill and finesse. A little forethought before entering an obstacle often saves much needless effort and could even mitigate damage (to the vehicle, the environment – or even people). Remember that nothing destroys fun as quickly as a disaster!

In this article we will explore various preparatory aspects of off-road driving – a little preparation prior to hitting the trail goes a long way in achieving off-road…

Inside the vehicle

Whilst there is often great focus on what happens outside the vehicle, these simple tips can make an incredible difference to your comfort, safety, and ability whilst driving off-road (and on the road too, for that matter).
Wear shoes that are comfortable and fit securely. Bare feet, slippers, high heels, ‘slops’, or large boots that do not fit onto the pedals all hamper your control of the vehicle.
Adjust the rake of the seat into a more upright position than would be used for everyday driving. At the same time, alter the seat height to ensure an elevated view over the bonnet, which facilitates scanning the terrain.

Keep both hands on the steering wheel, in the ‘ten and two’ position; in the heat of the moment, this hand position also assists recall of the position in which the tyres are ‘straight’. Ensure that your thumbs are not hooked into the steering wheel – if there is ‘kickback’ from the terrain, bruising, dislocation, or even a break could result. The potential for this type of injury has diminished with the advent of power steering – but the danger has not been entirely eliminated.

Leg position should be such that your feet are comfortably able to depress the pedals whilst the knee remains slightly bent. In a collision, a straight knee would fracture, whilst a bent knee would simply fold up. Furthermore, with a straight knee, the shock of impact would be transmitted into your pelvis, hip, and lower spine, rather than dissipating through the bent knee.

Wear a seatbelt. Beyond the safety factor, it will prevent sliding forward during steep descents, and when things get a little rough, the driver is held firmly in position, enabling better focus on control of the vehicle. Exception: when crossing a fast-flowing river, remove the seatbelt to facilitate rapid escape should it become necessary.

The side window should be no more than one-third open. The glass protects against thorny branches or mud flying into the vehicle’s interior and, if a rollover occurs, it prevents the common instinct of putting an arm out to brace against the impact – which would result in severe injury. Exception: when crossing a fast-flowing river, the window should be completely open to assist with escape should the need arise.

Ensure that any cargo inside the vehicle is well secured – loose objects become projectiles in off-road situations.

When attempting a tricky manoeuvre or a challenging obstacle, turn the radio down/off so you can hear what is happening around you and in the engine bay.

Outside the vehicle

If your vehicle has a detachable air dam (the streamlining device below the front bumper/spoiler), or a standard tow hitch that compromises your departure angle, be sure to remove before venturing off-road (refer to your owner’s manual if uncertain).
Ensure your tyres are at the correct pressures for the terrain you are about to enter (more on this later).

We will explore actually getting onto the trail in the next column….