Car Advice

Desert Driving Tips – Off-Road Driving Techniques

Australia’s central deserts offer some of the most spectacular and isolated terrain on the planet and everyone should take the time to experience the serenity that this amazing environment has to offer. Here are our desert driving tips.

Desert driving is no walk in the park, so before you point your four-wheel drive at the Red Centre you’ll need to make sure it’s up to the task, and that you’re armed with the appropriate skillset, enough supplies and the right equipment.

Route Planning

There are several things to consider before tackling any desert crossing, so it pays to spend plenty of time doing some thoughtful trip preparation well in advance of your intended departure date.

Firstly, you’ll want to grab a big map and plan your route, looking at where you’ll be able to pick up supplies and refuel your vehicle. Once in the desert you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient, so calculate how far you’ll need to travel and how much fuel you’ll need to cover the distance between fuel stops, remembering that your vehicle will use significantly more fuel in slow off-road driving conditions than it will on the highway. You’ll also need to figure out how long you’ll be in the desert to make sure you’ll have enough water and food.

No matter where you’re going and what route you’ll be taking, chances are plenty of people will have done it before you, so you can look at trip guides, atlases, websites, magazines and blogs to get an idea of how much fuel you’ll need and how long your journey will take. Always figure on the worst-case scenario and carry extra fuel and supplies.

Vehicle & Equipment

You’ll need your vehicle to be in tip-top shape to take on a desert crossing. Make sure it’s been serviced before you leave home because if you live on the coast you’ll rack up several thousand kilometres to get to the centre of the continent and back. Rather than heading into your car dealer, have your vehicle serviced by a four-wheel drive specialist who will have a better idea of the conditions you’ll encounter and will be able to make sure your vehicle is up to the job.

In addition to servicing, you’ll need the right equipment, such as a bull bar, driving lights, upgraded aftermarket suspension and light truck (LT) tyres. You’ll also need an air compressor, shovel and recovery equipment.

Desert country can be particularly hard on vehicles, whether your confronted by hot and dry conditions, resulting in very soft sand, or cold and wet conditions, resulting in sticky, muddy sections of track. If something breaks you’ll need the right spare parts and the tools to fix it. Make sure you pack ‘consumable’ items like air, oil and fuel filters, coolant hoses and accessory (fan) belts. You’ll also need extra coolant and oil, and a decent tyre repair kit.

Consider how you will carry extra fuel, whether in jerry cans or a dedicated long-range replacement or auxiliary fuel tank, and how you’ll carry all of the water you need.

You’ll also need a portable fridge freezer to keep food fresh and drinks chilled, and that will require a back-up power source, which may be in the form of an in-vehicle dual battery system or a power box with a deep-cycle battery. Then you’ll need to think about how that’s going to be managed and charged, either solely through the vehicle’s alternator when driving or also through an external source such as solar panels.

You’ll need appropriate communications equipment, too. A UHF radio is great for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or to scan for other traffic in the area, but you’ll need either a satphone, HF radio or something like text-only satellite communicator to stay in touch with the outside world. At the very least, carry a PLB (personal locator beacon) or EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) to get a signal out in case of an emergency.

You’ll need a comprehensive recovery kit for desert driving, including shovel, recovery tracks, snatch straps, shackles, rated tow points, a winch and associated equipment. If you’re travelling solo, you need to be completely confident you’ll be able to recover your vehicle if you get stuck.

Finally, always carry a first aid kit and make sure you’re up to date with the latest first aid techniques by putting yourself through an accredited course.

Driving Techniques

The first thing to remember when driving in the desert is if you break your vehicle and needs to be towed out and sent home on the back of a truck it’s going to cost you a fortune, as well as ruin your adventure, so drive to survive, not like you stole it.

The key to making life easier on your vehicle when driving in sand is to lower tyre pressures to suit conditions, which will give the tyre a longer footprint and help it to float over the surface of the sand rather than dig into it. Lowering tyre pressures will also minimise track damage.

Driving in sand requires you to find a balance between momentum and engine revs so it’s important to find the right gear, especially if your vehicle has a manual gearbox. On long flat stretches, where the track is hard, your vehicle might feel best cruising along in high-range, but if the sand is soft and you’re travelling quite slowly, selecting low-range will give you more options when it comes to finding the right gear. Start in a low gear and work your way up until you find a comfortable gear, where the engine isn’t labouring but it’s also not revving too high.  

Keep an eye out for obstacles at all times and try to stick to formed tracks, as sharp tree roots and sticks poking out of the sand can easily damage a tyre, especially if pressures are low and the tyres are ‘bagging out’, making the sidewalls more vulnerable. When driving up a dune, you’ll need a fair bit of momentum, so it’s important that your vehicle is equipped with a sand flag to make it easily visible to oncoming traffic before you pop over the crest. Keep an ear out on your UHF for other vehicles nearby and if you hear radio chatter, call out, say hello, and relay information such as your position and direction of travel.

When you see a pristine claypan in the desert, don’t be tempted to drive across it; the surface might be a hard crust but just beneath can be gloopy, vehicle-trapping mud. If you have to cross a wet claypan, stick to pre-existing tyre tracks as the mud will have been previously compressed, giving your tyres the best chance of gaining traction on a relatively-firm base. If the tyre tracks look so deep that you think you’ll run out of ground clearance, drive out of them and keep the power on, see-sawing the steering wheel back and forth if you start to lose momentum. 

When driving through the desert you want to experience and see as much of the environment as possible, and you’ll want plenty of time to set up camp before the sun sets, so try to avoid driving at night.

Make it a habit to perform a thorough vehicle check each morning before you depart camp. Pop the bonnet and check fluid levels, look for any leaks, make sure the battery is secure, examine accessory belts and check the air filter. Also inspect tyres and valve stems for damage, check air pressures and, while you’re down there, have a look underneath the vehicle to make sure everything is where it should be an nothing has come loose.

Once you’re safely out of the desert, give your vehicle another thorough examination before inflating tyres, selecting high-range and hitting the highway.


Dean Mellor

Dean Mellor