Off-Roading Know-how – In the Rough

In this part we get down to it by taking you safely over rough tracks and up and down hills.

When driving rough tracks, as with any route, always read the ground ahead. Look as far into the distance as you can, as well as scrutinising the ground immediately in front of you. You will have better vision without the spare wheel on the bonnet.

Choose the right gear at all times, driving on the throttle and using the vehicle’s engine braking to slow you down instead of the footbrake.

In most dry season conditions, rough tracks can be negotiated in two-wheel drive. But if the way is rutted or undulating, four wheel drive is advisable. Don’t forget to lock the free wheel hubs if fitted. Having the front axle driving as well reduces the strain on the transmission. Too much suspension movement on a permanent four-wheel drive vehicle could induce wheel spin. Engage the centre diff lock to ensure that equal drive goes to both front and rear axles via the propshafts.

If the track becomes even rougher, stop the vehicle and engage low ratio. Remember the off road rule: ‘drive as slowly as possible and as fast as necessary’.
Aim to keep up a steady speed without too much bouncing about. Drive sensibly and thoughtfully. Concentrate on the ground ahead. Steer out of trouble, rather than straight into it.

If your accelerator foot is accidentally varying the revs as you bounce about, wedge the side of your foot against the side of the bulkhead. This makes it easier to control the amount of throttle required.

Adapt to differing ground conditions. When driving a manual or automatic vehicle in low ratio, engage the centre diff lock if fitted. Use first gear for crossing rocky areas, second or third for most other situations. You also have a ‘D’ option on a four-speed box for most level situations. Straddle ruts if they are too deep to drive in and watch out for potholes. Advise your passengers if you are about to lurch. Drive even more slowly if you have a rock-strewn area ahead.

If the route becomes very difficult, consider any alternative route which might be less damaging to the vehicle and the track, taking care to stay off private ground.

Try to keep the vehicle level across the axles so you get better stability. Pretend you have a spirit level mounted across the dash. Try also to drive in such a fashion as not to get cross-axled. Getting into a position where you have diagonal wheels dangling into holes or hung up on humps does nothing for traction and forward movement.

Your propshafts may well be linked solid together with drive through the transfer case or locked centre diff, but unless you have Electronic Traction Control (rear only) or ARB Air Locking Diffs fitted front and rear, don’t think that all four wheels are driven simultaneously.

Steer and drive so as not to allow any of the four wheels to spin out. If you do become stranded with one or more wheels spinning away hopelessly, don’t risk breaking the transmission. Back off and find an alternative way out, either backwards or by having the vehicle recovered.

Be careful not to straddle large rocks or boulders. The damage they can cause will make you drive even more carefully! Land Rover products have live axles front and rear. The differential casings are offset to the right and are approximately in line with your handbrake (right hand drive vehicles). Newer Range Rover’s have their diffs on the other side.

Watch out for deep ruts or rocks lying in the centre of the track. If in doubt, get someone to beckon you through, or take an alternative route.

Diff casings are the lowest point under the vehicle. Drive to ensure the front diff doesn’t hit a rock. The front cover is only formed sheet metal and easily dented. Hit hard and this cover could be impaled on the wheel and the revolving crownwheel could soon wear a hole through the cover. If you lose oil and take in mud and water, your diff will very soon be destroyed.

When driving muddy tracks and through ruts, keep up a steady forward momentum. If you find you get crossaxled in the ruts, but you are still moving ahead, don’t hesitate. Keep working at it. He or she who hesitates and dips the clutch will become stuck!

Never try and steer out of the ruts unless it is safe to do so. Don’t fight wet, muddy ruts, simply let the steering wheel find its way straight ahead and hold it there. By accidentally turning out the front wheels in the ruts, extra drag will be caused and slow you down.

The real problem is if the ruts suddenly become shallower and your front wheels are accidentally trying to steer out of them. You could be changing direction without warning, heading for a tree, hedge or over the side!

All this leads us to one basic rule. Know at all times where your front wheels are facing. Take a look out of the window to know for certain that your front wheels are leading you straight ahead. Then, look down your nose and make sure the Land Rover logo on the steering wheel is level.

If you are negotiating a difficult part of the track, ask a passenger to get out and direct you from the front. Simple hand signals will help you steer away from rocks, ruts, or the edge above a deep hole!

If you are part of a group of vehicles, keep well spaced out to minimise the risk of all getting stuck together, should ground conditions become bad. If the vehicle in front gets stuck, they will want some space behind to reverse out of their predicament.

Don’t forget at all times to tread lightly on public and private land. Stay on established tracks where you have a right to drive, leaving scarcely a trace of passing.

If the bank or hill looks in any way difficult from the driver’s seat, get out and survey on foot first. While on foot, check for undulations – holes or humps that could send you off course or, worse still, sideways.

Know where you are driving to once you’ve reached the top. The downward hill the other side could be more treacherous than the side you are climbing. Consider an alternative route up and over for safety’s sake. Trying to turn a vehicle around on the top of a hill can be very dangerous.

It is vital that you drive up a hill or steep bank squarely, taking the shortest, straightest route up and onto the top, especially in wet weather conditions. When the ground is wet, always use an existing track in preference to a wet, grassy climb. Should you fail to reach the top, for whatever reason, it would be far safer to reverse back down the hill or bank with the wheels located in existing ruts, acting as tramlines to guide you back.

One problem when driving up a steep hill is that the steering becomes very light, as all the weight is transferred to the back axle. Even the smallest undulation in the ground can throw you off your chosen route.

Select the appropriate gear – usually second, but sometimes third – within low ratio (making sure that the centre diff lock is engaged if fitted) to take you up onto the top of the hill or bank. If driving an automatic, select second or third and use only enough pressure on the accelerator to keep the engine running without stalling while climbing. Pick as high a gear as possible to minimise likely wheel spin. Spinning wheels do absolutely nothing for traction and are more likely to clog tyre treads with mud, making the climb even more difficult.


Most off-road driving calls for driving as slowly as possible, but you may well have to drive as fast as necessary to take the hill with sufficient momentum.

Don’t even consider changing gear while climbing, as depressing the clutch will cause you to lose momentum. Experience will tell you which gear to use and what speed is required.

Approaching the base of the hill or bank too fast could easily have the front wheels lifting off the ground, which could cause lost traction and throw you off course.

Too much spinning of tyres up and over the top of a bank could have you reaching for the sky. This is the last thing you want as you are going ‘over the top’. Damage to the front drive shafts can easily happen as the spinning wheels ‘land’ on the crest and they will show no mercy on the transmission as they hit the ground. Your front half shafts are at most risk.

Approach the foot of the hill or bank too slowly and you probably will not reach the top. But then, wouldn’t it be better to slowly build up the speed and have several attempts to make the top? If you try to ‘do it in one’ you could lose control either on the way up or going over the top, risking both safety and reliability.

Having built up experience in climbing a variety of hilly situations, make up your mind that you are ‘going up in one’. Judge for yourself the route, gear and speed required.

Always use an established track or rutted route when the ground is wet – providing the ruts are not too deep for your vehicle. To help maintain forward movement up the hill, use the steering wheel technique to gain extra traction on the front wheels.

‘Work’ the steering wheel from side to side fairly vigorously while still holding the wheel in the ‘ten to two’ position. This causes the shoulders of the front tyres to bite the edges of the ruts, giving additional traction. The treads too, will be searching for new ground on which to claw themselves up.

If the ground is very slippery, try varying the throttle to give you the best of both worlds: acceleration gets the momentum going, and backing off gets the tyres biting.

The same technique of ‘working’ the steering wheel from side to side and varying the speed of the wheels applies also to help maintain forward movement when crossing very muddy rutted areas on the level too.

Having reached the top, make sure you back off the throttle to slow down the spinning wheels to enable you to carefully negotiate your route ahead. Crest the hill before stopping, as the last thing you want is to have only the front wheels on the top and not the back. Trying to restart just below the top of the hill with the back wheels not actually making it can be a problem!

Failed Hill Climbs

If you fail to climb the hill or bank for whatever reason, it’s important that you come back safely to the bottom. Maybe the tyre treads clogged up quickly, the surface was too slippery, or the approach speed too slow. You will need to come straight back down the hill or bank to the bottom in reverse gear in complete control of the situation.

Taking manuals first: Hopefully your engine has not stalled – good!

Having done everything in the book to get up the hill, the moment that forward movement is lost, it’s important to get the vehicle into reverse gear in order to come back down off the hill or bank under engine braking. The moment you decide that it’s time to give up climbing, do the following:

Depress the clutch and footbrake simultaneously. Pressing down on the clutch pedal obviously enables you to select reverse gear. The footbrake helps hold you on the hill for a split second, and if your four wheels were spinning trying to climb the muddy hill, you need to stop them turning in that direction to make it ‘crash free’ into reverse on the gearbox.

Select reverse gear and take your feet off both the clutch and footbrake at the same time. Go on, and come off the pedals steadily. Caress them, don’t bash them, or you could cause lurching, not good on a hillside!

You should then be returning down the hill in a controlled fashion using full engine braking, with both feet clear of the pedals.

Should your engine stall – probably because you picked too high a gear and insufficient speed in the beginning – do things slightly differently.

As the engine stalls, depress the footbrake pedal immediately, to momentarily hold you on the hill while the vehicle’s dead engine is in gear.

Only after then, depress the clutch pedal, move the gear lever into reverse, then take your foot right off the clutch.

Reach for the ignition key and flick the starter a split second after taking your foot off the footbrake. The weight of the vehicle will ensure the engine fires nicely, allowing you to come back under engine braking, again with both feet well clear of the pedals. By coming off the footbrake just before firing the engine, it immediately confirms that you are in gear. If you failed to find reverse quickly, brake and get into gear!

In either case, do not use the handbrake, as it could jam on and possibly swing you sideways on the hill.

For automatics, if the engine is still running when you stop, use the footbrake to hold you momentarily on the hill, while you select reverse gear. Should the engine stall, again hold yourself on the slope with the footbrake, select either ‘N’ or ‘P’, start the engine, then select reverse gear, taking your foot off the footbrake. Practise this in a safe, mild situation.

Assuming you were steering generally straight ahead when climbing the hill, look over your shoulder when descending to make sure you way back is clear. Place one hand on the top of the steering wheel to ensure that you don’t over-steer one way or the other. It is easy to totally lose track of where the front wheels are pointing when descending backwards down a rutted track.

You will stay in the ruts whichever way your front wheels are pointing, but what should happen if the front wheels bounce out of the ruts, or they suddenly become shallower while you are on full or part lock? You will come off the hill at an angle, frightening both yourself and passengers, and risking a possible sideways rollover.

Having looked over your shoulder to make sure the way is clear, you may find it easier to use the door mirrors to guide you backwards using the sides of the vehicle and ruts in the distance like gun sights. For this reason, I only fold in my door mirrors when there is a real danger of catching them.

Should you be tobogganing backwards, i.e. the vehicle is sliding down the hill faster than the wheels are turning, pick up the engine revs on the throttle to turn the road wheels faster and match the vehicle speed. Having regained traction, come back off the throttle.

Dealing with a failed hill climb is the most important off road technique to practise. You must not dip the clutch when coming backwards or you will career out of control. If you should brake, you run a real risk of skidding off sideways due to the weight transference to the back axle, leaving the front axle very light.

Make sure you steer squarely back off the hill, taking the shortest, most direct route to the bottom, especially if you don’t have ruts or a track to follow. This is known as the fall line.

It is important to make sure that if you are using a Series I, II or III Land Rover with selectable ‘part time’ transmission fitted with front wheel hubs, that they are both fully engaged. It has been known for one hub to be turned back into the free position through being trapped against a bank.

Should you be using a vehicle using permanent four wheel drive – ‘full time transmission’ – fitted with a manually operated lockable centre differential, be sure to have it engaged before attempting any off-road situation. The only exception to the rule is easy going on level farm tracks.


Having made the top of your hill or high bank, you have to get down the other side. Get out of the vehicle and look down first before contemplating driving down.

If going over the brow of a hill, the chances are you can’t see your route right down to the bottom. If so, walk either all, or most, of the route first to establish your chosen exit.

Always use an established track to the bottom rather than simply going down a grassy surface. If the ground is wet, the slightest undulation could send you well off course, never mind slipping out of control.

A rocky track out of a hill is no problem, other than having to pick your way around nastily placed rocks or gullies. However, take great care when a mild slope becomes a steep hill.

All steep descents must be taken only in low ratio, first gear, with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted, as we need to rely upon engine braking all the way to the bottom. A simple way to remember is bottom gear to the bottom of the hill.

Having decided on your route to the bottom, move off the top of the hill as slowly as you can in first, with both feet off the pedals. Remember the slower you go off the top, the slower you will go down to the bottom. If it’s a muddy surface, perhaps you will be lucky enough to have ruts to come down in. Great if you have, because at least you will have some tramlines to guide your wheels in.

As you go over the top, be sure to know where your front wheels are pointing. When travelling down in muddy ruts it could be so easy to have a part or full lock to either left or right and not realise it as you are coming down. The problem is, if you should hit some severe undulations in the rutted track or should all of a sudden the ruts become shallower, you will wonder why you are careering off sideways at an angle!

So, as always when driving off-road, make sure where your front wheels are pointing, especially before going off the top of a hill. Look out of the window, straighten the wheels and as you descend, cast your eyes down your nose and make sure that the Land Rover logo is level and facing you the right way up!

While descending to the bottom, gain confidence in the vehicle’s engine braking. Both the diesel and petrol versions have good low down torque characteristics to control you at the bottom. You should not use the footbrake to slow you down for fear of transferring the weight onto the front axle. This will make the back axle go light which could cause you to slide uncontrollably off the hill sideways, risking a sideways roll.

However, if you find when driving down a steep slope, you are travelling a touch too fast, a little light braking could be used. This could happen when driving a petrol version, which has slightly less engine braking than the diesel models. Then you could slow things down a little by ‘feathering’ the footbrakes very carefully.

Never slam the brakes on and cause a skid through locking any of the wheels, which will throw you off balance.

On the other hand, you could be travelling down the hill too fast because you are tobogganing out of control owing to the weight of the vehicle coupled with the steepness of the hill on a very slippery surface.

The wheels may not be turning fast enough causing you to lose control as you slither down on the surface.

If this happens, accelerate slightly by blipping the throttle to raise the speed of the wheels to match the speed of the vehicle. This brings back both control and steerage. Having regained some control, come back off the throttle to try slowing the vehicle up a touch.

Hopefully, the bottom of the bank has a run out, as it is imperative that you don’t dig your front bumper into the ground. Pick a route to make sure that this cannot happen.

If the wheels tend to ‘break away’ while descending a steep bank, accelerate out at the bottom. This saves the enormous shock loading that occurs on the front drivetrain as you ‘land’ at the foot of the bank or hill. As you accelerate off the bottom of the bank, the front wheels will pull you out onto the flat.

All Land Rover engines fitted to their products are absolutely perfect for off-road work. Both the four and eight cylinder petrol engines give ample engine braking when descending, providing the idle revs are turned down to about 700-800 rpm.

All too often, we have vehicles on our course whose idle settings are too high. Not good for engine braking when descending. It must, however, be remembered that one must have sufficient idle revs so as to maintain satisfactory engine oil pressure.

On the other hand, diesel engined vehicles are brilliant off-road as their high compression ratio always ensures incredible engine braking. In the case of the newer Tdi engined vehicles, engine braking is even more superb. Where you use first gear to the bottom of a hill in a petrol engined vehicle, in a Tdi you could well be using second. First is sometimes too low, causing you to slither down a wet hillside as the tyres break away.

Don’t forget it is always advisable to use only first gear and, if this seems too low, just gently accelerate to bring the speed of the wheels up. At least that way, if you need to slow down, you need only take your foot off the accelerator in order to slow down again.

Automatic Models

If you have a vehicle with automatic transmission, you will probably already know that the engine braking isn’t as good as it could be even though you have selected ‘one’.

When descending gentle slopes ‘one’ is probably good enough to maintain control. If the vehicle is starting to run away with you, you can very carefully, slow things up by gently feathering the brakes. But be warned, if you press down on the footbrake too hard, you will cause one or more wheels to lock up which could be disastrous.

A better way to control your speed would be to footbrake against the torque converter. As you come over the top of a steep hill, accelerate at the same time as braking. This is known as power braking.

This must seem an odd statement to make! Depending on the weather, ground conditions, the steepness of the hill and the tyres fitted, as you go over the top, carefully accelerate in ‘one’ up to 1,500-2,000rpm at the same time as ‘left-foot’ braking. What you are actually doing is putting power through both the front and rear propshafts to all four wheels and applying equal wheel braking through your four disc brakes.

In all cases, practice makes perfect. Learn on gradual slopes first and build up your confidence on experience gained. Once you’ve got the knack, tackle slippery slopes till you get it just right. Just enough acceleration and braking at the same time.

This is fine on hill slopes, but for very steep banks, your two tonnes or so of vehicle is only going to break away, so it’s best to keep your feet flat on the floor as if you are driving a manual transmission vehicle.

A hint that could help you is, if you are taking your auto V8 Classic Range Rover or V8 Discovery down, say a 45° bank, lower yourself over the top on the footbrake to a point where you see the bottom. At this moment, the rear wheels must still be on the top. Then come off the footbrake to avoid locking any of the wheels, simply steer straight down and out at the bottom, in low ratio ‘one’. This ensures that you go as slowly as possible over the top.

Power braking is also very successful when descending backwards, say when dealing with a failed hill climb. Again, practice makes perfect. Don’t overdo power braking, save it for only those occasions when it is absolutely necessary. I don’t think Land Rover Ltd recommend this method.

Anti-lock Braking

In recent years, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have appeared on Classic Range Rovers and Discoveries, either as standard or as an option. Its purpose is to allow efficient braking without wheel locking, allowing you to retain steerability and control of the vehicle.

If your vehicle has ABS fitted, you can control your descents much more safely, especially with automatics. Even so, still only ‘feather the footbrake’ carefully, as standing abruptly on the footbrake while on a slope will transfer the weight more onto the front axle making the rear go light, which could cause an unnecessary experience!

When driving down into and through a high banked gully area, always know you have an exit. You may be unable to continue your route ahead, say because of a fallen tree out of sight, and unable to turn round on a narrow track, so may be forced to reverse back up the hill.

Not easy if the hill is steep, rocky or slippery. We know that we need a higher gear to climb in order to minimise wheel spin. But as reverse gear is very low, we could have a problem coupled with the fact that the general weight of the vehicle is thrown forward, not helped by having the engine at the front, so the back axle becomes light. The steering is the wrong end of the vehicle and when we look backwards, all we see is the sky! If the track is on a twist, you will have a further problem in that the back of the vehicle could slide sideways. The moral of the story is always know your exit.

Over the years, I’ve regularly had the dubious pleasure of being a passenger in a vehicle when either the main gear lever or transfer lever has fallen into neutral while descending. When I say don’t or hardly use the brakes, there are exceptions!

Should your beloved Land Rover decide to pop into neutral when descending, use your common sense. Try to bring the vehicle under control by using the footbrake carefully without locking the wheels. If you can, try to stop or at least nearly stop, before putting it back into first gear or low ratio, whichever came out. Then keep one hand on the offending lever until you reach the bottom. In rare circumstances, even a newer vehicle can jump out of main gear or transfer gear, so always be prepared.

One last thing. When you survey on foot before descending down a steep hill, if you come across any nastily placed rocks, move them to one side to minimise the risk of burst tyres. It’s usually the tyre’s sidewall that gets damaged.

Next part: Getting up to your axles in mud.


Telephone: 01363 82666


Goodwinch Ltd, Oakleaf Way. Gunn. Barnstaple. Devon. Ex32 7NZ

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