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How to drive steep hills in your 4WD

With patience, know-how and a fair bit of common sense, you'll be able to conquer any drivable steep hill in your off-roader.
Marcus Craft
Editor - Adventure

4 Jun 2018 • 8 min read

Some people love them, some people loathe them but steep hills are part of the off-roading landscape. Prepare yourself for them with our expert tips and you'll be able to tackle them safely every time.

CHECK THE TERRAIN

That's right – get out of your vehicle and thoroughly check your planned route up the hill. 

Remember: if you can't walk it, don't drive it.

Look for hazards, obstacles, sections where the track becomes steeper, deeper, rockier, tighter or changes direction because any of these factors will affect, slow or prevent your progress – and if you're unable to maintain traction or keep moving up the hill then that's, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, dangerous. Clear the way of any obvious obstructions – tree branches, sharp rocks, etc – that might scrape your vehicle's underbody, damage any exposed components, hinder your progress or present a risk of other damage.

Use first gear low-range – or the closest equivalent in your 4WD – when you need maximum traction. (Image: Toyota Australia) Use first gear low-range – or the closest equivalent in your 4WD – when you need maximum traction. (Image: Toyota Australia)

Now, when you're checking the track on foot, is the time to seriously consider whether you can get up the hill safely in your vehicle and indeed whether you should try to climb it at all. And that's a crucial point to remember when you're off-roading; if, for some reason, you don't like the look of an obstacle – maybe a hill looks too tricky, or the flow of a creek-crossing looks too strong, or a mud-hole seems too deep... or whatever the reason – there's no shame in pulling the pin on that particular obstacle and simply going around it. Spare yourself the stress and strife and push on. Never bite off more than you can chew.

If you've decided to drive the hill, and you've noticed a few trouble spots up the line you're going to take, make sure you build the track in those spots; using rocks to fill in any tricky ruts, doing anything really to improve your chances of maintaining solid traction and steady momentum up the hill-climb.

DEFLATE YOUR TYRES

If you haven't already done so, air down your tyres to a psi pressure that suits the terrain. By dropping your tyre pressure you'll reduce the risk of punctures, improve traction and make the ride a more comfortable one for everyone inside. As much consistent traction as possible is your goal.

The terrain you're on will dictate the tyre pressure you aim for; if it's a steep sandy dune, you'll drop to about 15-18 psi; for a steep rocky hill drop to between 20 and 25 psi. Sometimes you'll have to drop even lower than that.

Clear the way of any obvious obstructions that might scrape your vehicle's underbody, damage any exposed components, hinder your progress or present a risk of other damage. (Image: Toyota Australia) Clear the way of any obvious obstructions that might scrape your vehicle's underbody, damage any exposed components, hinder your progress or present a risk of other damage. (Image: Toyota Australia)

Get your tyre pressure right and that'll help you conquer most natural challenges.

SWITCH TO LOW RANGE

Use first gear low-range – or the closest equivalent in your 4WD (in an Amarok it's first gear with off-road mode selected) – when you need maximum traction. All four wheels will drive your vehicle and a low gear ratio is being used – and that extra low-down torque is crucial off-road, especially up a steep hill.

Put your vehicle in Park or Neutral, make sure you've selected the appropriate terrain mode (if so equipped), switch to 4L or 4Low (whatever the designation is in your vehicle) and you're ready for the next step.

PICK YOUR LINE AND STICK TO IT 

As much as possible, drive in a straight line up the hill and stick to your chosen route – make no sharp or sudden changes in direction – and that way you should be able to make safe and steady progress on your ascent.

Get your tyre pressure right and that'll help you conquer most natural challenges. (Image: Ironman 4x4) Get your tyre pressure right and that'll help you conquer most natural challenges. (Image: Ironman 4x4)

GO SLOWLY

Have someone stand outside of the vehicle, at a safe distance away, to guide you while you drive; they can use a hand-held radio or hand signals to point you in the right direction.

In low range, let your vehicle do all the work; use that gentle acceleration to maintain that all-important steady momentum. 

Take your time, go slowly and you should be able to creep up and over the top of the hill with no worries.

IF THE CLIMB GOES WRONG

If you lose traction or can't climb any further up the hill for some reason or if your vehicle stalls, don't panic. Apply the hand brake, and then when the vehicle is stationary, re-start (if it stalled*) and gently reverse down the hill the way you came up.

(*For the purpose of this yarn, we're assuming you didn't stall and you don't have to re-start because stall recoveries require a detailed explanation by way of a whole yarn.)

Once at the bottom re-assess your route or pick another line up the hill or, if possible, simply go around the hill. There's no harm in avoiding a potentially vehicle-damaging route if there's an easier safer alternative.

GOING DOWN

Remember: if you can’t walk down the track, don’t drive it. (Image: Isuzu Ute Australia) Remember: if you can’t walk down the track, don’t drive it. (Image: Isuzu Ute Australia)

The 'going up a steep hill' principles apply just as well to going down a steep hill: check terrain, deflate tyres (if needed), use lowest gearing possible, pick your line and stick to it, and go slowly.

Remember: if you can't walk down the track, don't drive it.

On the way down a steep hill, keep in first gear low-range, select Hill Descent Control (if available), and use the vehicle's engine braking to deliver a smooth, controlled ride down the route.

Only ever use the brake gently – just tap it when needed – and never abruptly change direction; the smoother your driving down the hill, the smoother and safer your progress down it.

SWITCH BACK TO 4H OR 2H

When you've finished any low-range driving, inflate your tyres back to suitable pressures, and switch back to 4H (if you're back on flat dirt etc) or 2H (if you're back on the bitumen).

What are your tips for driving steep hills? Tell us in the comments section below.

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