Off-Roading Know-how – Steady As We Go

In this chapter David Bowyer covers driving techniques for slopes, ditches, gullies and soft ground.

There is always a certain amount of risk when driving off-road, but the greatest ones usually involve hillside slopes. Either travelling across, ascending or descending a hill at an angle is going to give a new dimension.

For safety’s sake, the best advice is to avoid side slopes, especially steep or wet and slippery ones. If there’s going to be a problem off-road, then it’s nearly always going to be associated with hillside driving. Tackling a hillside either diagonally or, worse still, across it, must be the most dangerous.

Descending a steep, long, slippery hill, here momentum could take over, comes a close second. After all, once you have gone over the top you are committed.

I put ascending as the third most dangerous, on the basis that if you don’t make the top, then it’s not so far to come back down.

Let’s first look at crossing a slope at right angles. Assuming that there is no alternative safer route to use, take a long look ahead, or walk it first to establish whether there are any hidden bumps, rocks or roots on the higher side, or dips on the lower side that could cause you a problem. All Land Rover vehicles are perfectly capable of being driven along a sideways slope up to quite a reasonable angle tilt. I expect you will bottle out well before the vehicle does.

Should you come anywhere near this ‘bottling out’ angle by accidentally lifting a wheel over a rock or a root on the higher side, or dropping a wheel into a hole or rut on the lower side, you run a real risk of tipping over sideways. Proceed with absolute care and drive as slowly as possible in low ratio, first gear with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted (automatic engage ‘1’).

Always have an escape route in mind – a way out of a possible predicament by steering downhill should the angle of tilt become alarmingly great. By steering in such a fashion, you take away the risk element by ensuring the front wheels guide the vehicle off the hillside down on to level ground.

While travelling along a sideslope, there is sometimes a feeling of “I don’t like it, but I think it’s alright”. Then a signal is transmitted from the brain to the hand on the steering wheel to “steer me up the hill”! Watch out for this odd phenomenon. Since your brain is on the tilt too, the normal reaction is to steer upwards. Don’t – it could easily make matters far worse.

Now let’s look at driving up or down a hill at an angle. Only do this if weather and ground conditions make it safe to do so. If the ground is either slippery or loose, you run the risk of sliding off sideways.

If climbing a hill at an angle, the slightest undulation will throw the front wheels off course, putting you broadside to the hill. A horrible predicament, especially if you were attempting the route in second low and too fast. It wouldn’t take much of a bounce to set the vehicle into a sideways roll at the bottom, causing both vehicle damage and personal injury. Don’t do it. Use only established tracks diagonally up a hill, and then with care.

Descending a hill at an angle in low ratio, first gear, can be nearly as dangerous. As in the last two instances, much of the vehicle’s weight is transferred to the wheels on the lower side, making the higher-sided wheels take less weight.

To make a descent down a hill, you should always be aware where the front wheels are pointing. Steer only with the ruts if there are any and don’t let the brain accidentally tell your hands to do otherwise. Steer accidentally back uphill and you will soon be broadside on the slope.

Remember to cast your eyes down your nose to check the Land Rover logo on the steering wheel is level. Okay, so you may turn the steering wheel up the hill by about 15 degrees just to stop the front wheels from lifting out of the ruts on the downhill side, but no more please.


Descending a bank at an angle

In any of these situations, be sure that any passengers stay on the topside only. If in doubt, have them get out altogether, as their weight increases the centre of gravity enormously.

Any load in the back should be low down and well secured. A shifting load at the wrong time could make your vehicle very unstable, and liable to roll over sideways.

It all comes back to the secret of driving off-road, pretending you have a spirit level on the dash. You can drive uphill and downhill all day safely, but taking chances by driving on awkward slopes could lead to danger sooner than you think.


The technique for crossing a ditch starts with getting out of the vehicle and first assessing the situation. Drainage ditches up to about 40×40 cm can be easily crossed if approached at the right angle.

Crossing too square will have both your front wheels landing heavily with your bull bar, bumper or number plate buried in the opposite bank and the vehicle’s chassis resting on the approach side of the bank. Result: well and truly stuck, requiring much effort in getting out.

Better to approach the ditch at about 45 degrees in low ratio, first gear with the centre diff lock engaged, if fitted, (second gear if very slippery), taking through only one wheel at a time. This way you always have three wheels on the top either pushing or pulling the vehicle across.

Having chosen the angle to cross, be sure to maintain it all the way across by holding the steering wheel with the front wheels pointing straight ahead. This will ensure that you don’t land sideways into the ditch. The best way is to pick an aiming point ahead and keep steering for it until the last wheel is through.

As you are crossing the ditch, count your wheels through: one, two, three, four. Practice will teach you how fast to drive. Too slow, and you will become trapped; too fast, and you will lurch alarmingly.

Low Ridges

Cross low ridges of, say, no more than one or two metres high, in a similar way. However, in this case, we are trying to stop the chassis of the vehicle grounding on the high point of the ridge.

Drive up at an angle, obliquely across the top and turn down square the other side. Normally use low ratio, first gear, with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted, to control your speed. If the ground is slippery, use second to minimise wheel spin when climbing, backing off the accelerator as you go over the top.

There are several reasons for crossing a ridge at an angle. It ensures that we are not trapped by our approach angle or by our ramp break over angle (diagonally opposite wheels lift the chassis clear of the ridge). Finally, as we lower ourselves down the other side, we keep the rear number plate or tow hook just clear of the ground where we have our departure angle.

Only cross in this fashion if ground conditions are dry and firm. If slippery, don’t attempt to climb up and over at an angle. If you think you are going to be stuck approaching, on the top, or exiting, find an alternative route.

‘V’ Gullies

There are generally two types of gullies: the ‘v’ shaped gully and a deep gully resembling an enormous ditch. Both are often formed by years of erosion by the elements.

We could attempt driving up through the ‘v’ gully. Ensure that its sides are strong and firm enough to support the vehicle’s weight. Always survey on foot – first to establish whether or not it is safe to drive, and secondly where it finishes up!

Gullies have a habit of getting narrower, deeper or wider, depending whether you are approaching from the bottom of the hill or the top. I speak from experience. A few years ago, while climbing down a deep gully, one side gave way and I joined the ‘roll-over club’! Using low ratio first gear (or second if climbing), with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted, proceed with absolute caution. Drive as slowly as possible, keeping the vehicle dead level across, to ensure that you have an even weight upon each wheel, across each axle.

In a ‘v’gully, the shoulders of the tyres, rather than the treads, will, in fact, be making contact with the walls of the gully. Make sure you don’t accidentally drive up to one side, because if you do, you will lose the vehicle’s balance very quickly and tip over sideways, trapping yourself in the gully. Apart from the inevitable body damage, recovering the vehicle can be extremely difficult.

It makes sense to have a passenger direct from ahead, facing the vehicle. They can see the front tyres on the gully walls and look right under the vehicle to establish where the back wheels are in relation to the ground. Follow their simple hand signals to help you steer.

Ideally, they should beckon with both hands to tell you to steer straight ahead, use their left hand only to tell you to steer slightly right and their right hand to tell you to steer slightly left. Make sure you have an understanding with your ‘director’. What he or she may be telling you could be against what your brain is telling you. Believe them! If there are several people ahead, nominate only one person to give you instructions.

Deep Gullies

Imagine coming across a huge deep gully some two, three or more metres deep with a long steepish climb out up a bank the other side. As always, get out of the vehicle and survey on foot first in order to pick a safe route down, across and up the other side.

Check that its approach angle doesn’t catch out your vehicle as you reach the bottom before climbing out. The departure angle is also important. The rear number plate or tow hook could be a little too close to the ground behind as you level out to start climbing.

If so, you might catch the front end, rear end, or both. If the ground conditions are dry, pick your way down carefully in low ratio, first gear, with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted, and start turning out just before reaching the bottom of the gully. When levelling out, turn the steering wheel the other way, quickly dropping into second gear and power straight up the bank and over the top.

It it’s slippery, however, try to pick a point to cross the gully where it’s shallower going down, a little wider at the bottom, with a straight climb out the other side.

Park square on top of the bank your side, choose low ratio, second gear. Go over the top, feet off all pedals, then just before reaching the bottom, accelerate as required to gain sufficient momentum to take you right up the other side, picking a straight route down, through and up. This is by far the easiest and safest way, but watch those approach and departure angles.

By choosing second gear for going down, providing the drop off is not too long or too steep, you not only keep your hands on the steering wheel, but you won’t lose out on your momentum as you cross the gully.

Soft Ground

Driving across soft ground conditions, for instance marshy, boggy or sandy areas, needs much thought. Always walk the ground ahead first and make a mental note of difficult areas to avoid.


Discussion on the route ahead

Mark your route ahead with sticks, clods of weed or have passengers stand alongside your chosen route to point the way ahead. If you can keep a straight line, then drive direct towards and object on the horizon. This could be a chosen tree, a group of bushes or someone standing in the distance.

Reducing tyre pressures down to about 15psi can help enormously in these conditions. This will increase the contact area of the tyre with the ground, giving some flotation to help stay on top, although this slightly reduces your ground clearance. Don’t forget to re-inflate your tyres before returning to the tarmac road.

As you approach the soft ground, build up your speed to be as fast as necessary and in the right gear – low ratio, second or third normally – with the centre diff lock engaged if fitted (‘2’, ‘3’ or ‘D’ for automatics). Try not to spin the wheels by too much acceleration once on top of the soft ground. Try and ‘glide’ across, rather than break the surface by spinning the wheels. Always use the highest gear possible within low ratio with the least number of engine revs.

Don’t try to change gear, because as soon as you depress the clutch, you will lose momentum. Better to select the appropriate gear in the beginning and make up your mind that, come hell or high water, you are going to cross it.

Driving too fast will have you bouncing about atrociously, wheels sending you out of control and losing traction into the bargain. Working the steering wheel from side to side and varying the throttle will have the front wheels fighting for new ground.

Don’t end up in a situation where too much welly and not enough forward movement causes you to be dragged into the mud. Make sure, too, that you have chosen a route that will keep your vehicle level across. This is very important, as you must keep a similar weight upon each wheel, across each axle, to give about the same grippage or slippage on each side of the vehicle. Start bouncing about and your wheels on the higher side, or as they come out of ground, will spin away aimlessly, getting you nowhere.

Once the wheels have broken the surface, you will have the added problem of a greater area of each tyre being in contact with the ground. The mud, bog or sand will enclose the tyre in front, each side and behind. This will become very power sapping. You will quickly lose your reserve power and as you dig yourself down, your axle diffs and chassis will soon be down in the mire. If you do have to cross an area like this to the other side, either be certain you can get through by carefully choosing a safe route or find an alternative way round!

Soft areas probably cause more headaches than any other ‘stuck’ situation. You will need a good winch, a very good ground anchor and a team of two or three other vehicles, plus people to get you out. The best advice is not to try the impossible, as you are sure to get well and truly stuck!

If you do, get out and assess the situation. Can you reverse out backwards? Would a push help? Or some digging? Using reverse gear in low ratio might dig you in further. Try using high ratio four-wheel drive or low ratio in overdrive to minimise the dreaded wheel spin.

Be careful where people are concerned when they offer to push. It’s so easy to get trapped behind or under one side, should they slip or fall over as you start to move. Recoveries should be carefully co-ordinated.

Make sure you know where your strong front and back towing points are, should you be about to be either winched out or recovered with a tow rope. If you are about to be recovered with a Kinetic Energy Recover Rope (KERR), make sure your ‘recoverer’ and yourself know how to complete the recovery safely. If you have never used a KERR rope before, read the instructions first.

Beaches call for other considerations, the main one being just why you’re there. Most U.K. beaches are not only inaccessible but also often closed to vehicles. In one short stretch of beach, the sand can vary enormously from soft and power sapping to firm. The worst problem is getting caught by a rising tide, should you sink up to your chassis.

Another problem on many beaches is shingle. The rounded shingle just falls away from under the tyres and it is imperative that you don’t allow the tyres to spin. Driving in such conditions requires using the highest possible gear with the least number of engine revs.

Salt-water can ruin the chassis and everything made of metal under the vehicle. It might seem fun at the time, but mark my words, you will pay for it later in the rust it causes, the bushes that sieze and the electrics that give up the ghost.

Next part, I’ll continue this series with everyone’s favourite pastime – wading.

Telephone: 01363 82666

Fax: 01363 82782

Goodwinch Ltd, David Bowyer's Off Road Centre, East Foldhay, Zeal Monachorum, Crediton, Devon, England, EX17 6DH

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