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How to drive in mud… off-road driving techniques

Jumping in muddy puddles can be a lot of fun – just ask Peppa Pig – but driving though muddy puddles can be fraught with danger. Here’s how to drive in mud.

Avoid it if you can

Don’t drive in mud unless it’s absolutely necessary. Sure, it might look like a bit of fun but it will likely cause track damage, potentially cause vehicle damage and, worst-case scenario, you could get stuck.

So, if there’s another way around, avoid dunking your shiny four-wheel drive into that enticing muddy puddle.

Of course, sometimes there is no other way, so you’ll simply have to take the plunge. If this is the case, make sure you and your vehicle are prepared for what lays ahead.

A few years ago I travelled to the UK to learn some mud-driving techniques from the Land Rover Experience team; after all, if anyone knows how to drive in mud it’s got to be those who reside in Old Blighty. Here are a few of the things I learnt… along with some stuff I’ve picked up driving in mud in Australia.

How to drive in mud

Inspecting the mud

The thing about mud is it’s generally murky, brown and sometimes stinky, and you can’t see through it, so you’ll have no way of knowing exactly how deep it is unless you get out of your vehicle and poke a stick at it or, if you’re game, walk through it.

Look at the tracks left behind by previous vehicles. If the ruts don’t look too deep they are probably the best option when planning your route. If the ruts are so deep you’re going to run out of ground clearance, you’ll have to straddle them, trying not to slide into them.

How to drive in mud

When poking at the mud or walking through it, keep a look out for any obstacles such as submerged rocks and logs, or anything that could snag on your vehicle and cause damage.

If you’re caught out in the desert and you have to cross a sodden saltpan, you might be tempted to try and drive across the unbroken surface, but the top layer will be thin and your tyres will soon break through it and drop into the silty mud beneath. You’re better off following tracks that have been made by previous vehicles, as the surface at the bottom of these ruts will have already been compacted, giving you the best opportunity to make your way across.

Preparation

Before you proceed, make sure you have a plan in case you get stuck. If you’re travelling with other vehicles have your snatch strap ready to go. If you’re on your own make sure your shovel and recovery tracks are easy to access and that you have something to winch off if necessary.

How to drive in mud

Lowering your tyre pressures will give your tyres a better chance of gaining purchase in mud if it has a soft base. You won’t want to drop them as low as you would when driving in sand, because mud can work its way between the tyres and the wheels, which can result in rapid deflation. Nevertheless, lower tyre pressures (around 22-28psi) will provide a longer footprint, which will give you a better chance of making it through. If the mud has a solid base, however, you can maintain higher pressures.

Driving through mud

Once you’re ready to proceed make sure you select the appropriate gear that will give you enough momentum to drive through the mud but not so much that you’ll damage your vehicle. Low range second or third gear will often be ideal.

If your vehicle is equipped with a rear diff lock, engage it prior to entering the mud. A front diff lock can also be helpful, but bear in mind its use will make it harder to steer the vehicle.

How to drive in mud

Don’t forget to engage four-wheel drive in part-time 4x4s and lock free-wheeling hubs on vehicles that have them fitted, and make sure the centre diff is locked in full-time 4x4s. If your vehicle has a terrain management system, select the most appropriate mode, such as ‘mud and ruts’, as this will tailor the vehicle systems to best cope with the conditions, such as sharpening up throttle response and making the automatic transmission more responsive.

Once in the mud, try to keep revs up and avoid gear changes in manual-transmission vehicles; as soon as you disengage the clutch your vehicle will be sucked down into the mud and you’ll become stuck.

If you feel your wheels start to spin in the mud, that’s okay; in fact the rotational forces will help to clear the tread blocks giving the tyres a better chance of gaining purchase. If you begin to lose momentum but the wheels are still spinning, start see-sawing the steering wheel back and forth, which will give the front tyres a chance to bite into the sides of the ruts, hopefully helping to drag your vehicle through the mud.

Stuck in mud

If you get stuck in the mud, try to reverse out of your predicament. Chances are you’re stuck because mud has built up in front of your tyres, so if you can back up a few metres you can then have another go at driving forwards, this time with a little more momentum.

How to drive in mud

If you get to the point where you can no longer move in either direction, it’s probably because too much mud has built up under your vehicle. At this point, you’ll need to forget about keeping your clothes clean and start clearing under your vehicle with a shovel; clear the mud away from the bash plate, from under the diffs, under the sidesteps and anywhere else you can see it contacting with the underside of the vehicle. If there’s a lot of mud built up in front of the tyres, shovel it away.

How to drive in mud

Once you’ve cleared away the mud, try to gradually build up momentum; don’t try to accelerate too hard or your wheels will just spin and you’ll sink further into the quagmire. If you can’t drive out of the mud, your next action will depend on whether you’re travelling alone or with other vehicles.

If you’re on your own and you have a set of recovery tracks now is the time to use them. If trying to continue forwards, wedge the tracks in front of the front tyres or, if reversing, wedge them behind the rear tyres. Engage low-range first (or reverse) and try to drive on to the recovery tracks without spinning the wheels. Once you’ve got some momentum, gradually build on it until you’ve driven on to firmer ground. This may take several attempts with recovery tracks and while it can be hard work it’s sometimes the only option.

How to drive in mud

If there are other vehicles in the convoy, they’re within reach of the stranded vehicle and they’re not stuck too, one of the fastest ways to extract a 4×4 from the mud is by using a snatch strap or tow strap. Make sure you follow proper usage and safety procedures at all times.

How to drive in mud

If you don’t have any luck with the above methods, you’ll have to winch yourself out of the mud. You’ll need a solid anchor point such as tree, another vehicle or a ground anchor. If you’re well and truly stuck, clear away as much mud as possible around and under the vehicle before you begin winching, and consider a double line pull to give the winch the best chance at extracting your vehicle. Again, always follow correct procedures and safety protocols when using recovery equipment such as a winch. 

Mud damage

While a mud bath might be good for your skin, it isn’t any good for your vehicle. As mentioned, mud can work its way between tyres and rims, which can result in tyre deflation. It can also build up on your vehicle’s wheels and put them out of balance.

Mud can also work its way past oil seals and the like, and its abrasive nature can wreak havoc on components such as wheel bearings, CV joints and clutches.

While you might wear the mud on your vehicle like a badge of honour after a long trip away, you should clean it off as soon as possible. Again, the fine grit in mud can be abrasive and it can damage your vehicle’s painted surfaces.

How to drive in mud

Mud is no good for the interior of your vehicle, especially the stinky, stagnant mud you’ll often find along tracks in the scrub. If you drive in mud chances are you’re going to get muddy yourself, so make sure you’ve fitted quality water-resistant seat covers and decent rubber floor mats. And have spot set aside to stow wet and muddy recovery gear, such as a bag on the outside of your vehicle or a sealed space case.

As well as cleaning your vehicle as soon as you get the chance, make sure you clean your recovery gear. Soak snatch straps, tow ropes and winch recovery straps in water then give them a hose to get all of that abrasive muddy silt out of them.

Setting up your vehicle

There are a few vehicle modifications that will help the cause if mud driving is on the agenda.

The more ground clearance you have the further you will be able to drive through mud before your vehicle bottoms out. In most states a 75mm height increase is permissible by way of a 50mm suspension lift and a 25mm increase from fitting larger tyres.

Mud-terrain tyres have open tread blocks and side-biters so they can more easily clear away mud and gain purchase in the sloppy stuff. On the downside they are noisier on the road and tread life is compromised compared to all-terrain or highway-terrain tyres.

Locking differentials will give your vehicle the best chance of maintaining traction on muddy tracks, particularly if there are undulations where lots of wheel travel will be used.

If you’re driving in deep mud, you’ll need a snorkel and extensions for diff and transmission breathers.

Make sure your vehicle is equipped with rated recovery points and that they’re easy to access, and a decent-size rated shackle will fit through them.

Finally, fit water-resistant seat covers and decent rubber floor mats.


Dean Mellor

Dean Mellor