How to Drive Safely in Any Circumstances
You probably think it won’t happen to you. You are after all, a multitasker extraordinaire. It’s those other people. It’s completely fine for you to be texting the wife, scoffing that donut and latte while doing 30 above the limit in a school zone at 9am in the pouring rain. Right? Wrong.
The importance of safety on our roads can not be underestimated. Sure, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in the driver’s seat of a beastly 4 wheel drive, but be sure to do so safely. Here’s how.
Performing Pre-drive Safety Checks
Before anything, check your headlights and turn signals. This is made easier with the help of another person.
Apart from having to get in and out of your car unnecessarily, this should also ensure you don’t self rationalize with a “good enough” attitude. This is presuming you have honest friends, of course.
Additionally, test your tire pressure is at the recommended amount, or as close to it as possible.
Pop the hood and check the water and oil also. Seems obvious I know, but I am always surprised at how many people neglect to check the levels regularly.
Stop. Before you start that engine, check those mirrors and adjust the seat for maximum function and comfort. This is especially applicable for those people with vehicles shared with their partners.
If the mirrors need to be adjusted, do so. If done correctly, you should not see either end of the vehicle. This will also decrease the risk of not seeing a car in your blind spot.
Four-Wheel Drive Vehicles
A four-wheel drive will usually provide the driver with better traction and handling in hazardous conditions such as rain or snow. The reason for this is right there in the name.
As every wheel is moving the vehicle forward, the vehicle will function in a much more stable manner in wet or slippery conditions. Great tires won’t help you manipulate the elements, however.
So, if you are having trouble seeing from fog, rain, or snow be sure to pull over until conditions improve for driving.
Rear-Wheel Drive Vehicles
Rear-wheel drives aren’t the hassle in Winter they used to be, thanks to increasingly sophisticated traction-control systems as well as electronic stability control systems for all U.S cars from 2012 onwards.
For those with pre-2012 models, there are a few tips to maximize the risk of accidents.
- Avoid accelerating through turns.
- Purchase winter tires.
- Leave plenty of distance between you and the car ahead of you.
- Use your hazard lights to warn other drivers if you run into difficulty or feel you are about to lose control.
Front-Wheel Drive Vehicles
Generally speaking, front-wheel drive vehicles will perform better than their rear-wheel contemporaries. This is mainly due to having improved weight distribution.
Because the engine sits over the front wheels (with very few exceptions), the tires have an improved traction in slippery weather. The front tires do the majority of the brake work and all of the steering.
All that aside, winter cares not for your transport of choice. Always stay diligent and alert.
Driving in Fog
When driving in fog, drive cautiously and slowly. Have your windshield wipers on and your high beams off as the light will reflect off the water droplets making visibility even worse.
When driving through fog you need to be a lot more attentive to incoming hazards. Intermittently check for hazards on the side.
Avoid distractions such as a loud radio or banter with passengers. Do not use your mobile phone at all.
If you are driving through fog for a long time, consider taking frequent breaks, making sure you park somewhere safe and away from flowing traffic.
Driving in Strong Wind or Storms
Strong winds and storms can be a hazard on the road, and not just for smaller vehicles.
Additionally, inform a close friend or family member of your plans. Mobile phones are great, however, some change for a payphone may get you out of a tough situation, although they are a rarity to see these days.
When preparing to embark on an off-road adventure it is important to plan ahead. Sit down, relax and map out your progress.
Admittedly GPS has taken out much of the built-in anxiety and spousal conflict from road adventures. This is great, but it still pays to be aware in case of unexpected tech failure.
You may wish to know things like time between rest stops, gas stations, and food refills.
On longer journeys, you may wish to know of the location of a motel. Trust your tech but bring a map for backup.
Okay, you’re at your off-road destination. Let’s take a look at some potential hazards.
Whether it’s beach driving, in sand dunes, in the desert or in the forest, sand driving comes with its own set of unique challenges and risks.
Let’s start with the most important rule off the bat.
You should never under any circumstances drive across a steep hill, especially in sand dunes. Doing this can cause you to roll your car all the way to the bottom of the hill.
Here are a few safety steps to consider when driving in the sand.
- Reduce your tire pressure. Doing so will increase traction and prevent the amount your tires will sink into the sand. This will make getting bogged a less regular occurrence. That being said, you will get bogged from time to time. Just accept it. You may need deflators to make the job easier, but you will definitely need a good air compressor to air back up once you’re back on a harder surface.
- When on beaches, be aware of steep drop-offs. If you drive too close to one of these they could crumble, forcing you to roll. On beaches also be aware of tide times.
- Maintain momentum. Don’t overdo it, however, be aware that the slower you drive, the more your tires will sink.
Don’t go bush bashing. It’s dangerous and can lead to lockouts for other drivers who are doing the right thing. I know, it’s fun. Instead, stay on established dirt tracks and roadways as much as possible.
It’s also a good idea to carry a tire pressure gauge to adjust tire pressure. This will lessen damage to tracks and sand terrain.
This, in turn, makes it easier to follow traffic, hence it’s safer for everyone.
Always read and obey safety warning signage. They were put there for a reason, tough guy.
On outback roads, adjust your speed to your surroundings. If you see another driver heading your direction, slow down and move to the correct side of the road, with two tires off of the trail if the track is not wide enough.
Besides being a basic part of 4WD etiquette, it can decrease the chance of rocks or debris damaging each other’s vehicles.
Just like on the real roads, use your signals to make clear your intentions.
Driving on gravel can cause some serious damage to your tires, as well as your vehicle in general. Gravel can also be a recipe for accidents.
Gravel is loose, which obviously affects your tire’s stability and control. Additionally, these conditions can result in a less than smooth experience for you and your passengers.
This term is used to describe the ripples that form due to grave and sand. This can also be referred to as “corrugation.”
The causes of “washboarding” are poor driving habits, lack of moisture, poor gravel quality, and lack of crown on the road surface.
Let’s take a look at the one thing the average motorist has control over, driving habits.
Vehicle speed is a large factor in regards to washboarding. The obvious solution is to slow down.
Areas where drivers routinely speed up or break heavily are more prone to washboarding.
Various studies show that most areas with gravel will washboard eventually, however you can slow the process by driving under twenty miles an hour.
Fact. Mud is fun. This is especially true when it comes to off-road driving. That being said, many accidents have been had by a man overemphasizing the fun aspect while completely ignoring the risks involved.
I know I’m guilty. Let’s look at some safety tips for a fun dirty time.
- Don’t ever go mudding alone. Common sense goes a long way. Being mildly inconvenienced is a whole lot better than having to walk home.
- Tire pressure. About 24 psi should do it. Just as with sand driving, decreasing your tire pressure will provide your tires with better traction and surface area. The trade-off is you may find getting out of bogs require a bit more oomph.
- If you feel bogged, try rocking the tires back and forth. If you can move in any direction all is not lost.
- Admit it when you are stuck. If moving your tires back and forth doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, get out and prepare for a recovery situation.
When the fun’s over, maintain your vehicle. Dried mud can cause issues with wheel and driveline balance, as well as brake components. The extra weight can also cause drag affecting fuel economy.
You also run the risk of dried mud causing rust to your vehicle’s metal components. Get your hose out!
Sharp Rocky Trails
Slow is the way to go. When driving upon any rocky surface or terrain, having a heavy foot will almost always cause your vehicle damage.
Before engaging in any rocky trails or surfaces, learn your vehicle. Learn where your fuel tank and other vulnerable areas are.
This will be different from vehicle to vehicle. Over time, you can learn your four-wheel drive’s weak points and the best place to position your wheels in order to avoid damage to a diff or fuel tank.
Remember to look after your tires again with low tire pressures, but most importantly, be careful not to damage the side walls.
Cuts and holes through sidewalls cannot be repaired and you may be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
It’s best if you equip your rig with a winch and never go solo. Slow and steady is the key in recovery situations. This will minimize potential damage to your vehicle. Ensure to use some element of teamwork here.
Driving Through Rivers (Wading)
Gunning it through a river without proper risk assessment is not advised. Before even attempting such a maneuver, you should ask yourself a few questions.
Do I need to cross this water at this point, or do I just like splashy things?
Am I confident and skilled enough to do this? (Confidence without skill isn’t always good.)
Is my vehicle capable enough to handle this action?
Can I come back if need be?
If you answered no to these, perhaps find an alternative route for your journey.
If you do decide wading is for you, here are some safety tips to abide by.
- Find out how deep your vehicle can go. To do this, you will need to know your vehicle’s air intake height and it’s exhaust manifold height.
- It’s advised to get a snorkel (a.k.a. raised air intake) installed to improve the wading capabilities of your truck
- Drive slowly and steadily so you don’t make a bow wave.
- Test your brakes as soon as you can afterward.
- Fast-moving water is beautiful to behold, but nature can be a cruel mistress. Be careful you do not get swept away in flood or moving water. Use the eye test, but if possible walk the river to check the depth and the river bed and what it’s made of to assess traction.
The Importance of Mental Health
I am not suggesting you book in a session to discuss your mother issues with Doctor Steinburg prior to going for a long drive or going off-road. (Although if you want to I won’t object.)
It is, however, paramount you are rested and relatively stress-free before and during driving. Long drives can have an effect on your health, so make sure you follow some good tips on that as well.
Prior to embarking on a long drive, it pays to be rested. Plan your trip in advance prior and not the night before.
Most importantly, get to bed at a decent hour. If you plan to bring the kids, have them in bed at a decent hour also.
Irritable children can make an irritable parent, and that’s dangerous when road safety is paramount.
It is also important to maintain proper rest schedules during your trip. If you are embarking on a long road trip prior to arriving at your offroad destination or campsite, swap halfway with your passenger.
Let them drive and get some rest, sleep even. If you need to pull over, do. If you need to eat, do so. Always bring enough water to stay hydrated.
Bring some books for the kids to minimize their stress and anxiety as well and yours. Leave the Nintendo Switch at home if you value your sanity.
This should be a day to truly appreciate the great outdoors with as little screen distractions for them as possible.
Distractions while Driving
Mobile phones are a gift and a curse. They can be an absolute distraction while driving and cause a great number of accidents.
In offroading, they come with their own set of challenges. Mobile phones are often used for their GPS capabilities but must be used safely. I would recommend your vehicle is equipped with its own GPS system, but not everyone will have this.
Leaving it on the passenger seat, where it can be thrown about or damaged is a hazard. If you must use it, have a device in place that sticks it to your dash. You will need two hands when navigating difficult terrain.
Refrain from choosing your favourite Spotify list mid drive if possible, and stay away from texting and taking calls.
Unless absolutely needed, I recommend switching it off and just enjoying the adventure. Pretend it’s 1987.
There’s a lot of scenery to chew going rural, but it can be distracting. If you see something worth your time, find a safe place to stop and get out and take a breather.
Always keep your eyes on the track ahead and be aware of other drivers.
Of course, your passengers are always free to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings from their own windows.
The same principles apply for roadside events. Pay attention to the signs and park to explore. If you have bought along man’s best friend, you will need to get out of the car from time to time as Rover handles his business.
Ensure your dog is people friendly in the event you have other thrill-seekers in the vicinity.
When choosing a traveling companion, choose wisely. You want at least one to have some kind of knowledge in relation to emergency situations.
It’s also helpful if they have some kind of muscle mass. Don’t get me wrong. The wife may cook a hell of a pot roast, but can she winch? I kid, there’s many an outdoors capable woman out there. Just make sure that you’re sure.
Driving At Dusk
Driving at dusk is more dangerous than usual. This is because our eyes have become adjusted to daytime pedestrians, signage and landscapes.
As it gets darker, our eyes need to readjust. When off-road driving, similar issues apply. You are less likely to notice that incoming wildlife or the pedestrians on the side of the trail.
If you intend to be driving during that time, here are a few safety tips.
- Ensure all your lights are working. You may have started your trip early in the morning and neglected to think about it. Don’t. Check your front, rear, brake lights, turn indicators and high beams. As soon as dusk begins, switch on these lights.
- As your visibility drops, so does your ability to see incoming hazards, as well as other vehicles. Now is the time to drop your speed down.
- Stay extra vigilant. Keep an eye out for any dangerous rocks, debris or obstacles that could cause you an accident.
- Your LED lightbar will already be very useful at this time of the day
Driving At Night
When off-roading at night, light is of the utmost importance. Fog lights and High beams are a good start, but you need more. Here is what you will need.
- A LED lighting bar to help supply a spread of the light.
- Spotlights will offer good space. This will give early warning in the event of incoming hazards.
- Rear Lights are very useful in the event you need to get out and dig your back wheels out of sand.
- Adjustable lights mounted to the roof rack.
Driving on Mountain Roads
Before driving on mountain roads it is recommended your vehicle has had a recent service. Your car should be in optimal condition, as changes to the weather, unexpected hazards and the terrain can cause stress upon your vehicle.
When ascending up mountain roads, watch your vehicle’s temperature. If your temperature rises to a potentially problematic level, there are a few things you can do. You can pull over and wait for the car to cool down. Another tip is to turn down the air conditioner, actually turn on the heating at full steam, and to go a bit easier on the accelerator.
When going down a steep hill, keep in first gear, and use the vehicle’s engine braking to deliver a smooth, controlled ride downwards.
Avoid going too hard on the brakes. A gentle tap here and there will do the trick.
Avoid sharply turning direction. The more controlled and smooth your descent, the safer you will be.
Driving in a Convoy
It’s all about safety in numbers when it comes to off-road driving. Driving in traffic in a convoy it’s a bit different as it comes with additional responsibilities to look out for other vehicles in the traffic who are not driving in the convoy.
Off-road driving in a group or a “convoy” is a means to maximize the safety of our fellow drivers as well as having more heads in case of an emergency.
Of course, just as on our roads, congestion can be a cause of accidents. In the case of off-road driving, there is also the possibility of rocks and debris being flung at your vehicle by the vehicle in front.
Because of this, always ensure you are a safe distance behind the vehicle in front. Always allow the vehicle in front to navigate through difficult terrain before you attempt to follow.
It’s advisable that you equip your car with a raised air intake (snorkel) in order to make sure the engine is using cleaner and cooler air. The vehicle(s) in front of you likely create a cloud of dust that’s bad for your engine in the long run.
To minimize confusion, there should be only one lead vehicle. Do not attempt to overtake this vehicle unless absolutely necessary.
Keep an ear out for any warnings or instructions given by the driver in lead.
Before driving downhill, it helps to get out and walk the track by foot. If you can’t get down by foot, then you will likely be unable to by vehicle.
How much traction your vehicle can maintain will determine the difficulty factor. It may be easiest to stick to pre-established tracks made by former 4WD enthusiasts.
Always use a low gear ratio and select first gear. Remember to not overdo it on the brakes as too much friction on the pads can create what is known as brake fade. This friction can cause too much heat causing the pads and rotor to stop working.
When driving down loose or slippery surfaces, remember to increase traction by decreasing wheel pressure. There may be times in slippery or loose descents that you will need to accelerate to keep control of your vehicle. Remain composed and do not panic.
Make sure you are well aware of your vehicle’s capabilities before you take the plunge.
Driving in general, but especially off-road driving can be a fun, rewarding experience if done safely and with caution. Respect the terrain, maintain your vehicle and always be prepared for the unexpected.
If we all show these principles there is more than enough space for all of us out there.
These tips can apply off and on road, but if you are new or a novice to four wheel driving, do your research.
There are countless advice columns and information available online. There are also a number of four-wheel-drive clubs to join and exchange tips and information. Nothing quite motivates a person like finding like-minded individuals to share their passion, experience, and what not to do tips.
Ferenc Elekes has been a devout Overlanding enthusiast for many years. During that time, Ferenc has explored 75 countries on six continents, with overland travel involved in 40 countries on three continents. From his trusty 2006 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado with a roof-top tent, he’s blogged about experiences that can only be found in the remotest regions on Earth. Along the way, he's gained in-depth knowledge of the novel challenges overlanders encounter and practical ways to meet them. On his website, he shares informed opinions about everything from the best overland gear to how to get a vehicle unstuck. Ferenc has also written for Ih8mud, the Expedition Portal, the Overland Journal, and he is often invited as a guest to outdoors-related podcasts.
Popular articles on OverlandSite
Follow Us on Instagram
Sign Up To Receive FREE Guides
hello, we are Evelin and Ferenc,
Sign up to learn more about overlanding!
We will occasionally email you with new stories, overlanding guides and product recommendations. Nothing spammy, don't worry!
YOUR PRIVACY IS PROTECTED