How to drive on steep hills

Hills can kill. Here’s how to drive on steep hills safely in your 4×4.

IN AUSTRALIA, we are blessed with a variety of terrain, and those living close to the coastal fringe have countless mountain ranges that offer infinite challenges to 4×4 owners who like to tackle hills.  Steep climbs can vary from mild to wild but they all require some basic skills and knowledge to ensure that they’re managed successfully. Confidence and safety awareness are the two major traits required.

When confronting any steep hill, especially one that is not familiar to you or your travelling buddies, you need to think before you leap. So here are some hints in conquering any steep topography:

  1. Park your 4WD in a safe area that leaves it clear of any other approaching vehicles or where is could be exposed to any runaway vehicles or misadventures. Nothing worse than suffering panel damage from one of your lesser skilled members in the convoy;
  2. Get into the habit of switching off your vehicle after engaging the park brake and leave it in park for automatics or 1st low range in manuals. There are numerous examples of drivers being blasé exiting and forgetting they’ve left it in gear or worse in neutral with disastrous results;
  3. Walk the track. Study the approach as far as physically possible to decide the ideal line suited to your vehicle. Take note of obstructions and undulations and highlighting those obstacles that may actually help and those that may hinder.
    Of course, in a very rocky environment, it can be especially difficult to remember it in its entirety once you’ve returned and clambered back into your 4WD.  So a trick I learnt when a spotter is unavailable, is to position markers along your route to help guide your way.  Place a significant stone (or pile of stones) where you wish to aim your 4WD.  I prefer setting these markers where I want the driver’s side tyres to be, rather than dead centre.  It then allows you to easily peek out of your window confirming your strategy.  Remember that the front/rear tyres can easily follow a different line as you turn, and just because the front wheels got over doesn’t mean to say the back wheels will too – or maybe vice-versa.  During your recce, take note of the track surface and traction or lack of, which can vary in a matter of meters, especially when moisture or leaf matter is present.
    If you’re finding hard to walk it, then judge if your 4WD is capable of success or to look for an alternative route.
    Before embarking on your climb, think of an escape plan at various points along the track, if things go awry. Ensure you have the means to recover if progress is unexpectedly halted or the 4WD is placed at an awkward angle due to misjudgement.  Having straps, shackles and winch rope ready BEFOREHAND saves time and stress;
  4. Without doubt if you ask any 4×4, what’s their biggest fear when it comes to climbing steep terrain, it would be losing traction and skidding uncontrollably backwards. In recent times, 4WD manufacturers have equipped their vehicles with many features including a very handy device called Hill Descent Control (HDC).  While the name conveys the idea it’s solely used for forward descents, it has benefits when climbing too (or failure to do so) as it also works in reverse.  HDC can be engaged before attempting a steep hill as it will quickly interlock with the ABS system, helping to maintain any necessary controllable retreat while you concentrate on steering your 4WD back down;
  5. If you feel confident to proceed, use the highest gear possible that still allows the torque of the engine to push you up the hill. For most 4x4s, it would be low range and dependant on slope and traction, 2nd low then 1st low but it’s very dependent on type of 4×4 but avoid changing gears midway. Some modern 4x4s with 6 or more gears may use third or fourth low, whereas older machines could be 2nd  If your 4×4 is fortunate to be fitted with a rear differential locker or better still two, consider engaging the locker as it may improve traction over a variety of terrain during ascents and descents.  I suggest that in the case of very rocky steep climbs to use the front locker wisely as it can hindered steering and is susceptible to damaging the driveline if abused. If you reverse downhill then often you want the locker out to improve steering control; and
  6. Like all off-road driving, maintaining the smoothest momentum and traction in as straight a line as practical is the goal. Fairly easily accomplished on even surfaces be it muddy or gravel or dirt by keeping to the ruts if clearance in good.  But where variances occur on a steep track, like on a rock strewn slope, many people seem to habitually ease off the accelerator along the way.  They concentrate so intensely on getting their front wheels through that they often forget that the rears need to climb that same hurdle, thus leaving the 4WD faltering and scraping for traction.  This is a skill that comes with practice, knowing your 4WD’s characteristics and overcoming your trepidation.  Slipping tyres results in loss of traction, so I find using (if clear to do so) different parts of a track to get all four tyres gripping will help achieve this but never turn on a slope as a chance of roll over is possible.

A few final points that may assist when ascending a steep hill (or any terrain for that matter).

  • If in a convoy, a steep hill should be attempted one at a time with the most experienced driver going first and if their 4×4 is better equipped so they can report back any unforeseen issues.
  • Ensure that all cargo and ancillary equipment is well secured using appropriate straps and tie down points.  Don’t forget your roof rack;
  • While momentum is necessary, use just enough to propel the 4×4 up the slope but monitor the speed to avoid bouncing your 4×4 as it can result in loss of traction or placing your 4×4 at awkward scary angles.  Remember to ease off once close to the top, to avoid launching your 4×4 airborne;
  • Many automatic 4x4s offer manual selection of gears. My preference for steep hills is to select second-gear for all climbs. Doing this prevents the transmission dancing through gears as the hill pitches, thus hindering smooth momentum;
  • If navigating a muddy slope and to some extent gravel tracks, unlike rocky terrain, keep to ruts if clearance allows (especially useful on descents) and rapidly turn the steering wheel a 1/8th left to right to maximise traction as tyres bite the rut’s walls; and
  • A valuable lesson I learnt only recently on a solo run to the local state forest, is in regards to fuel.  I knew or at least thought I had about ¼ tank of fuel remaining.  Then midway along a very long steep descent, the fuel light came on indicating I had zero kilometres left to empty.  Initial panic turned to relief once I remembered that the fuel pickup is at the rear of the tank and I would level out soon. Avoid running with low fuel levels, especially in areas like the high country with their longer steep geography.
    Many older 4WDs fitted with standard carburetor engines can also suffer fuel starvation due to extreme inclines compromising the internal floats function.  There are simple fixes which you could investigate to resolve this issue.
Descents require just as much Care and keeping to the Ruts will Enhance Control.

As mentioned, this article relates to muddy, gravel and rocky tracks only; we’ll cover sand in another article. There’s way more to steep hills than just ascending – there’s the inevitable descent and a lot to say about recovering from a failed hill climb. We’ll cover those topics in the future.

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Steve Cassano

Steve Cassano