Voices

4X4: another example of how quickly it can all go very wrong

Preparation, training, equipment and skills. If you don’t have them, this is what might happen.

COULD THIS this have happened to you?  As told to me by a now rather more experienced 4X4 owner:

“We were staying at a farm with some friends. On Sunday we decided to drive into the State Forest for a little exploring. After a pleasant hour-long bushwalk we got back to the vehicles around 4pm and decided to drive back ‘the other way’, which looked simple on the map. Our vehicles were a Pajero and a Discovery II.

It had been raining quite a bit and the track was muddy but not too bad until we took a left turn where we thought the map indicated. Then it quickly got steep, rutted and really slippery – low range 1st still felt out of control in the gluey mud; frequent bursts of throttle required to keep it straight but of course then you’re going faster than you want to.

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We got to a level bit and stopped but my friend had by this stage gone sideways and was stuck against a log. After half an hour of track building with rocks and sticks the Disco was back on the track so we continued to descend with a few alarming moments.

By this stage it was dark. After dropping about 300m, according to the altimeter in the Paj, we got to a ‘T’ where the right hand track had a sign saying ‘private property’ and the left hand track looked next to non-existent. We tried it with the Discovery in front but after a few hundred metres came to a stop with a large tree across the track.

So we reversed back to the t-junction (no fun in the dark with trees and hidden rocks on both sides of a slippery track) and then tried to get back up the track we came down. But the Disco only got about twenty metres up before sliding to a halt; no traction and hard to see the sides of the track which has rocks and logs in hidden thick vegetation on both sides. I did not bother trying in the Pajero as I assumed it would be the same.

We left tyres at road pressures so they would “cut through” to the firm ground under the mud. I suggested that it would be safer for us and the vehicles to spend the night rather than attempting a bad climb in the dark.

After a walk down the ‘private property’ track with a torch showed even worse conditions we all agreed that we should stay put until morning. Of course mobile phones did not work and we had only had a packet of chips, an apple, some muesli bars, a few litres of water for food. We had no substantial warm things apart from a few picnic rugs, the clothes we were in and a large number of green cloth shopping bags. Attempts to light a fire were thwarted by another shower of rain and a very uncomfortable night was had by all.

The temperature dropped to 5C and we had to start the engines and use the heater for a few minutes every now and again. It did not rain any more in the night and next morning we had another go. After a few attempts and some more track building we got back to the top, and out. Nobody was hurt and there was no damage apart from a lot of mud to clean.”

With the benefit of 20/20 vision, here are the lessons:

Hard stuff first. Experienced 4X4 owners will smile at the mention of the “four o’clock track”. That’s the one that is legendary for landing you in trouble, because there’s no contingency time and people are tired, complacent and focused elsewhere. And often night falls, complicating matters.

Be sure you can return. Never drive down an unknown track if you’re not absolutely sure you can drive back up. If the track deteriorates, get out and check it. Reverse out if necessary, or send one vehicle down first – this is where UHF radios are handy for communication.

Get trained.  In this situation lower tyre pressures, say 20psi, would have been ideal and may well have got them out. But they were relying on the myth of “high pressures cut through”. Lower tyre pressures would have mean less need for “frequent bursts of throttle”, and in any case you should be gentle with the controls in slippery conditions. They knew enough to use low range, but were they revving hard in first low, spinning wheels, when perhaps second or third low would have meant less wheelspin and seen them up the hill? Did the Disco have its centre diff locked?

Prepare. Always have communications gear, some survival blankets, water and a first-aid kit. It’s cheap and doesn’t take up much room. A tyre pressure gauge would have been handy too. You also need to take lights with you as you never know when youll need to operate in darkness.

Know when to quit. One very good call was staying the night. Inexperienced people desperately maneuvering 4WDs at night in slippery conditions can easily lead to injuries. However, the vehicles provide shelter and, with sufficient fuel (more preparation!) warmth. While hungry and thirsty’, they weren’t in any danger when inside the cars. 4WD exploration is a lot of fun, but it is amazing how quickly that fun turns to panic when the vehicle can’t move.

With the proper preparation and skills incidents like this can be recovered from, or avoided entirely.

And the title photo? That was me on my last 4WD trip, after under-estimating the depth of a boghole. The recovery was easy because I had another car behind, and had decided if I didn’t get through it would be an easy winch or pull backwards. But without the equipment and pre-planning I might been stuck there for days, and writing a different column some time after deadline! Does anyone else have stories they wish to share so others can learn?


9 Comments

  1. trackdaze
    October 10, 2016 at 10:34 am — Reply

    Words that strike fear into me on trips are.
    “But we have,must or need” to These are hard to manage when it’s an acquaintance, friend of a friend or worse the minister of war and finance in the seat to my left ;).

    Recent trip had spiders crawling over me whilst relocating a trailer axle on a remote track because we “had” to get to a particular spot.

    4 o’clock is beer o clock if not a little late in my book.

  2. Steve-O
    October 11, 2016 at 9:42 pm — Reply

    Great article

  3. SgtCarlMc
    October 12, 2016 at 8:13 pm — Reply

    Beats me why manufacturers still think, drab grey, tarnish silver, hearse black, some muddy brown are WOW colours. When travelling to Dungog on a cloudy/rainy day, I pulled over before the T-intersection, my father asked what I was doing, I said see that silver car coming towards us, the car on our right coming up to the tee, can’t. Sure enough, two cars pranged, my father asked, How did you know? I said coming up from below the silver car blended into the clouds, making visibility impossible.
    Which is why I won’t buy a silver, grey car, so many DRAB colours, none with the WOW factor.

    • October 12, 2016 at 8:31 pm — Reply

      Orange rules!!!

    • Brad Dickens
      October 14, 2016 at 8:43 pm — Reply

      That’s why when my daughters both bought new cars one was white and the other a copper colour. No silver, platinum, black, or ironbark brown

  4. Andrew Riles
    October 15, 2016 at 7:39 am — Reply

    How about the old ‘we’ll just take this track, it will only take five minutes’??

    Had one of those experiences last winter, at about 430pm, in snowy/muddy conditions I’d driven the track previously, so knew where it came out, and that there were some decent ruts I had to be careful of….I hadn’t appreciated the slipperiness of the mud, or that some of the ruts were too deep for my vehicle to slide through…..so when i fell into them, I made the choice to keep driving as in the direction i was going, the big ruts were only on the downhill section of the track….

    We had mobile service, and I had a tirfor style hand winch and associated gear on board, so we called a friend to assist with the winching, and were home by 10pm….

    I hadn’t aired down, and I was running highway biased all terrains that were about 70% worn…..I’ve since switched to BFG ATs, and am now more vigilant about airing down….

    I’m also seriously considering an electric winch and thinking that my current tyres will end up as trailer tyres or small garden beds once they get to the same point….

    • October 15, 2016 at 7:44 am — Reply

      Ah, the infamous 4pm track! An electric winch is not to be relied on…

      • Andrew Riles
        October 15, 2016 at 8:31 am — Reply

        I agree, I’ve heard stories of bullbar mounted electric winches playing up when you need them most, and where the winch doesn’t have enough grunt to pull the vehicle out so also looking at other options (like wheel winches as well as different techniques like jacking and packing)….and realise that often a combination of techniques are at the very least useful (and sometimes essential) for getting out of a bog…..

        Of course, not driving the ‘4pm tracks’ would save us all a lot of drama, but that would just be boring (though in some cases quite prudent)….

  5. Chris
    February 13, 2017 at 2:40 am — Reply

    Even being prepared, recovery gear got to be easily accessible. Once slided into a ravine with my back on the slope and bogged. Hi-lift were mounted @ the rear wheel carrier; recovery kit were at the back and the rear door were unable to open as there wasn’t enough space to do so. Thanks to drawer and cargo barrier, unable to get any straps, shackles from the cabin either and I was alone.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!