Our first 4x4 overland trip was in 2008 through eastern and southern Africa. Before the trip it was recommended that I take a 4x4 training course from the Four Wheel Drive Club of Southern Africa.
I questioned the $100 fee for a long, hot day of driving. I was under the impression that I knew how to drive and had faith that my 4x4 could go anywhere. I was about to discover how ignorant I was about 4x4 driving and the limitations of my truck.
The course changed the way I look at and use the road. I had no idea that there were so many facets to driving an overland vehicle that could not only save the lives of other drivers, but also everyone in the vehicle.
Prior to the 4x4 training course I had done research on how to drive through soft sand, gravel roads and overcome small obstacles. I watched videos on how to use my recovery gear and thought that I was prepared for the road ahead. It’s true what they say, you cannot learn to drive from a book.
Nothing prepared me more for the roads in Africa than spending a day behind the wheel, learning from 4x4 experts.
Here is a typical course outline, split into two sections, theory (in a class room) and hands-on driving.
What’s covered in theory section:
- How vehicles behave on sand, gravel and mud
- 4x4 transmission operation including engaging low range gears and the differential lock.
- Tires and tire pressure for both normal roads and sand and gravel “roads”
- Recovery tools to use and safety
What’s covered in basic hands-on section:
- Descents – how to drive down steep hills
- Ascents – how to drive up steep hills
- Stall start – how to roll start your vehicle on steep hills
- Cross Axle – How to drive over rough and uneven terrain
- Driving on or through sand, grass, mud, rocks, water, side slope
- Introduction to Recovery – how to use tools like the Hi-Lift jack and its accessories
What did I learn?
The vehicle becomes an extension of yourself
Driving your vehicle in extreme conditions makes you aware of how the vehicle handles the road, its sounds and quirks. Familiarity with your vehicle’s behaviour helps you to know when something is out of place.
It does not take long to discover what your vehicle dimensions are, how tight it can turn and how much space is needed to safely clear obstacles.
Knowing exactly where your tires are is critical for accurate swerving and avoiding obstacles. One of the simplest exercises you can do when driving is to aim your tires for the reflective stripes or cats eyes on the road. When you feel the grooves or bumps pay attention to where your vehicle is in the lane.
Know your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations
If you fully understand your vehicle’s capabilities and limitations, deciding what terrain is passable is easy. If you do not know how your vehicle will respond to crossing a stream or climbing out of a ditch, intelligent and safe decisions are harder to make.
Most novice driver’s initial reaction when crossing streams is to make as big of a splash as possible. Although fun, it could have disastrous consequences. You have no way of knowing what lies below the water. If you can’t see the terrain, you won’t know if your vehicle is capable of handling it.
Communicating with your co-driver
Learn and understand your co-drivers hand signals. This might sound like common sense, but it is remarkable how people use the same hand signals for completely different meanings.
“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” ~ George Carlan
Loosing your temper and rushing to get somewhere is dangerous. All to often we forget this simple rule, we loose our temper and drive angry for something that is trivial and unimportant.
Slow down and leave room for reaction time, anticipate the road. Rest when tired and enjoy the scenery, it’s a sure way to enjoy overlanding.
Three golden rules
Take your time, assess the situation, pick a line and commit to it.
Take your time. Not only will you and your passengers be safer it will also save your vehicle from taking a pounding trying to get you where you want to go.
Assess the situation. If you need to climb out of a ditch or cross a stream with a vehicle, get out and look for logical routes. More often than not there are better crossings than where the road took you. Only get back in the vehicle when you are absolutely sure of your route.
Pick a line and commit to it. Once you have your route stay focused on reaching the goal. Don’t deviate from the original line unless you have no other choice, changing directions mid crossing or climb can leave your vehicle covered by water or tipping over, making for a very bad day.
I would strongly recommend a 4x4 driving course for anyone planning an overland trip. In fact any kind of driving course will make you a safer driver, guaranteed.