How to drive on gravel with your SUV

Marcus Craft
Editor - Adventure

24 May 2018 • 10 min read

A vehicle's ride and handling change on different surfaces. Logical, right? And yet a lot of people seem to forget that simple cause-and-effect change happens when they drive from bitumen onto gravel tracks or dirt backroads.

How your vehicle drives on a flat consistent surface – such as bitumen – is markedly different to how it behaves on a surface like loose gravel, which may offer little in the way of decent traction. As the vehicle's on-road characteristics change due to the surface on which it is being driven, so too should the steerer's driving style.

Now, modern all-wheel drives (AWD) and four-wheel drives (4WD), even two-wheel drives (2WD), are engineered in such a way that a lot of them can be driven comfortably, safely and at speed on gravel tracks, but that doesn't mean you can drive your vehicle straight from the showroom and into the bush – you need to know what you're doing, otherwise it's easy to swiftly come undone.

It's not as simple as you think it is to drive well on gravel, but read our tips and you'll be able to head off on back-country roads and bush tracks with confidence.

Know your vehicle

Before you have a crack at gravel – or any driving at all, really – have a clear idea of the ins and outs of your vehicle's drive system. Is it 2WD, AWD or 4WD? If it's AWD, is it an on-demand AWD system? If it's 4WD, is it part-time or full-time 4WD?

There are differences, strengths and weaknesses to each system, but for more detailed info, visit this CarsGuide yarn.

You should use the full extent of your vehicle's drive system and tech capabilities on all surfaces, including gravel.

Use anything appropriate that will help your vehicle gain optimum traction on the terrain you're driving. For example, in something like a Land Rover Discovery you can dial in, via its 'Terrain Response' system, a direct match for the ground you're tackling: select grass-gravel-snow for loose, slippery surfaces; mud and ruts for when you're in a sloppy bog; or rock crawl for slow-going, hard-work scrambling on steep, rough terrain. Suspension, engine response, and more are all adapted electronically to suit the terrain, depending on what selection the driver has made.

The essential takeaway from all of this is that you should use the full extent of your vehicle's drive system and tech capabilities on all surfaces, including gravel.

Adjust your pressures

If you plan to spend a fair bit of time off-roading, buy a good set of all terrain tyres; highway-biased, showroom-stock tyres are not ideal for bush tracks.

Good advice is always repeated, so, yes, we'll repeat something we here at CarsGuide Adventure are always keen to tell anyone who's gearing up to go off-road: take the time to get your tyre pressures right for the terrain you're on.

Getting your tyre pressure right will help your driving – on any surface – no end at all. If you set them to suit the surface, you will drive and look like an off-road champion. You can overcome many bush and beach challenges simply by getting your tyre pressures correct.

When you deflate your tyres, you lengthen the tyre's 'footprint'– its surface area from front to back – increasing the vehicle's contact with the ground, thus aiding traction – and great traction is what you need.

As a general rule, aim for these psi (pounds per square inch) measures: bitumen 30-38 psi (check the tyre placard inside your vehicle); sand 15-18 psi; firm dirt/gravel track 28-36 psi; rough gravel track 26-32 psi; and rocks 22-28 psi or much lower, if you're forced to go at crawl speeds over rocky terrain.

To accurately measure tyre pressures, use a good-quality tyre-pressure gauge; don't just guess because guessing will get you bogged – or worse.

Recently, while driving the length of a well-graded but still stony Birdsville Track, we ran about 28 psi tyre pressures and that yielded quite a comfortable ride for the duration of our trip.

As well as helping you to conquer many off-road obstacles, correct pressures will be better for vehicle ride and handling, will improve driver and passenger comfort, will improve safety and you'll save cash on tyre wear and tear. You'll also reduce your fuel bills because correctly pressured tyres are not set too high or too low for the surface you're on.

To accurately measure tyre pressures, use a good-quality tyre-pressure gauge; don't just guess because guessing will get you bogged – or worse.

To deflate your tyres accurately, use a deflator from a reputable company, such as ARB or Ironman 4x4. In layman's terms, a deflator, via removal of the tyre's valve stem, lets air out at a faster rate and with more precise control, then you would be able to otherwise.

Now, before you head back onto the bitumen, make sure you inflate your tyres. Driving on hard surfaces with low-pressure tyres is unsafe and may damage, among other things, your rims.

Use an air compressor to inflate your tyres. These units are simple to use; attach its alligator clips to your battery's positive and negative points (red to positive; black to negative) and pump up all tyres to the required levels. Check on your tyre placard, inside the vehicle, for the correct on-road pressures.

Slash your speed

Slow down when you're driving on gravel tracks. As well as giving you time enough to savor the scenery, dropping your speed will give you extra and valuable time to avoid anything that may be thrown your way: undulations, fallen trees across the track, wash-outs, ruts, dirt-bikers emerging from side tracks, and, don't forget, animals.

Once again, this 'slow down' principle is common sense: the slower you're travelling, the more time you'll have to assess the oncoming terrain, undertake a few defensive-driving manoeuvres and dodge around trouble.

Once you've dropped your tyre pressures, drive conservatively, because your vehicle's handling has been compromised.

Another bonus of going slower is that you and your passengers will be more relaxed; blasting through the countryside at mach speed might be fun for short bursts but sustained periods of it can be very stressful. You're supposed to be having fun, remember?

Work these go-slow principles into your bush-driving style – accelerate and brake gently, and use a more conservative all-round driving approach – and you and your family or friends will have a much more enjoyable time.

Change your driving style

Once you've dropped your tyre pressures, drive conservatively, because your vehicle's handling has been compromised.

If you're driving with deflated tyres, avoid doing fast, sharp turns as these may roll a tyre off its rim or, worse, the vehicle itself may roll.

Braking distances are also affected once you've aired down your tyres, so take that into account if you're travelling in a convoy or nearing a populated area in the bush.

Slow, steady driving is generally a pretty sound approach when applied to all types of off-roading.

Stick to road rules and speed limits on gravel tracks in the bush and if there aren't any signposted, then err on the side of caution – slower is always safer.

Even if you haven't had to air down your tyres, still take it easy on gravel because it's a tricky surface which does not offer uniform traction; it can be as loose as a stretch of ball bearings, or as bumpy as a run of lumpy stuff.

Slow, steady driving is generally a pretty sound approach when applied to all types of off-roading: on gravel, sand, mud, snow... anything.

All of these tweaks to your driving habits will ensure you're able to drive smoothly and safely on gravel.

The gear you need

  • A recovery kit, including snatch strap and bow-shackles. (image credit: Dean McCartney) A recovery kit, including snatch strap and bow-shackles. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • An air compressor. (image credit: Dean McCartney) An air compressor. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Vehicle recovery tracks. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Vehicle recovery tracks. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Tyre pressure gauges and deflators. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Tyre pressure gauges and deflators. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • A first aid kit.  (image credit: Dean McCartney) A first aid kit. (image credit: Dean McCartney)

Being prepared for an off-roading adventure means having the skill-set and the gear necessary to do it all sensibly and safely.

There is a mind-boggling variety of gear available – ranging wildly in quality and price – but stick to the basics for starters, get good-quality equipment onboard your vehicle, and you'll be heading in the right direction.

Get a tyre-pressure gauge, tyre deflator, vehicle-recovery tracks, an air compressor, a long-handled shovel, rated bow shackles and snatch strap. (Note: your vehicle must have rated recovery points in order for shackles and snatch strap to be safely used.)

What's your best tip for driving on gravel? Let us know in the comments below.

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