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How to Navigate Different 4WD Terrain Types

There are several different types of challenging terrain that four-wheel drivers will encounter. Each type requires different driving techniques and vehicle preparation. Once again, gaining experience is the best way to learn to cope with different track conditions. It is always advisable to check the state of a track before heading out on it too.


Some tracks are not all that hard to tackle but because of creek crossings or a ridge in the middle of the track, high clearance may be needed. Basically, this is the distance between the lowest point of the car (other than tyres) and the ground. Low-to-the-ground vehicles can suffer damage or even get stuck from bottoming out when going over uneven terrain. 


Compacted sand is a dream to drive on as it is smooth and hard, but always be aware of creek washouts hidden in the sand. The biggest factor to successful soft sand driving is tyre pressure. Letting air out of your tyres makes them bulge on the sides, giving a bigger footprint or surface area. This helps keep the tyres on the top of the sand. A rough guide is to drop tyres to 20psi and go from there. When back on hard surfaces, tyres need to be reinflated. Compressors that are designed to pump up tyres are an essential accessory for sand driving.

4x4 4wd sand driving

Momentum is the key to not getting bogged in soft sand. If possible, don’t stop in soft sections. If you are stuck in sand, try lowering tyre pressure even more and dig away the sand in front of the tyres.

While driving along a beach, remember that salt water and cars do not mix. So always check the tides. There is nothing more urgent than a four-wheel driver digging out the car when the tide is lapping around the tyres.

Water Crossings

With good reason, nothing makes a four-wheel driver more nervous, or excited, than negotiating a water crossing. It comes down to decision making — make the right one and it’s a thrilling adventure but make the wrong one and it could be your last. The rule for crossing water is to walk it first. If you can’t walk it, do not go. 

4wd 4x4 Water Crossings


Water flowing over unsealed roads during or after heavy rain can erode and form gullies, and the edges of roads are particularly vulnerable. They can even be a problem weeks after the rain if the grader hasn’t been through. Hit a deep washaway in the middle of the road at speed and you will know about it. So will your mechanic. Being alert and concentrating on the road is the best way to avoid washaways.


Many areas in Australia are usually as dry as a chip, but when the rains come, tracks turn into quagmires of slimy mud. Rangers and local shires usually close roads to keep tracks from being churned up. But you could already be on a track and get caught out by a sudden downpour. When in mud, the tyre tread fills up and traction is next to nothing. Special mud tyres may help, but getting out of mud can be tricky. 

Mud Driving 4x4 4WD


Although 2WDs can handle gravel, if taken carefully, the 4WD and AWD varieties tackle it better and more safely. This general statement should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Four-wheel drive vehicles by their nature are top heavy, or have a high centre of gravity, and this makes them inherently unstable and prone to rolling over if driven recklessly. Gravel road conditions all depend on when the grader was last through. Gravel roads also change their surface condition quickly in the event of rain; dirt soon changes to slippery mud.


Corrugations are ridges that form on a road after many cars and trucks have driven down it. Some can be small and close together, while others can seem like hard sand dunes. In most cases, it is more comfortable for all involved to find the optimum speed to drive over the corrugations. This is usually around 60–70km per hour. This means the car skims over the top of the ridges. Going slow means the car and its occupants feel every single bump, while going too fast can compromise the vehicle’s handling ability. 


Rocky tracks need to be taken slowly, especially when going up or down hills. Rocks come in different shapes and degrees of tyre-puncturing ability. Rocks flung up by front wheels can strike rear tyres with considerable force, puncturing them. Driving slowly under these conditions minimises such events. Rocky bedrock tracks require slow, careful going to not damage tyres, risk suspension damage or shake up the passengers too much.

Rocks driving 4x4 4WD

Uphill and Downhill

Rocky descents and ascents require very slow, careful going. It’s best to go in low range; first or second gear to slow the vehicle down to a crawl. Manual vehicles are better than automatics because of the gearing. It is important when going down steep rocky or sandy tracks that you don’t use the clutch at all if possible. With clutch engaged, the vehicle is suddenly thrown into uncontrolled forward motion that can have disastrous results.

Uphill 4WD driving

Alpine Driving

Driving in alpine areas is a unique experience with unique problems. The weather is unpredictable, so it pays to be prepared. Snow, blizzards, and storms can strike at any time of year without any warning. That said, you should always carry suitable clothing and equipment for all conditions.

In alpine areas, short distances can take a long time. Weather conditions can turn any excursion into a life-threatening experience. If a track is subject to seasonal road closure, you can safely assume you’ll need a capable 4WD vehicle, recovery gear (that you know how to use) and experience in four-wheel driving.

Next steps

At Hema Maps, we strive to provide the most comprehensive and accurate maps and guides for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore Australia's natural wonders.

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  • David: May 17, 2023

    Lowering tyre pressures is done to increase the length of the footprint, not the width.

  • Tony Willison : May 17, 2023

    I drive regularly on WAs outback gravel roads. As a rule of thumb, I stop and place my troopy into 4WD. To me I have less likelihood to slide as my front wheels will assist in pulling out of a slide if on the rare occasion I get into one. I often wonder what the general consensus is. I.e. Whether 4WD will make any significant difference.

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