Driving through mud is akin to dipping your toes into unknown waters; it could be a harmless body of murky water or there could be a vehicle-swallowing chasm lurking under that grotty surface. A stagnant bush pool, pothole or puddle may look shallow and friendly, but don’t ever be fooled.
Discovering it is a formidable but achievable challenge can be a hell of a lot of white-knuckled fun; finding out it’s something far worse can be very costly.
The key is knowing when to push your luck a bit and when to back right off, drive around and make some happy memories elsewhere.
Remember: the rules are different depending on what kind of vehicle you’re in: a city-based AWD SUV or a purpose-built 4WD. Always drive within your limits and those of your vehicle.
Here are our tips for driving in mud.
BEFORE GETTING DIRTY
Know your vehicle’s maximum wading depth*; on city-focused AWD SUVs, it tops out at 500mm on the Subaru XV; on 4WDs it can be anywhere from 500mm (Mitsubishi Triton, Land Rover Defender et al), 800mm (Ford Ranger and Everest) to even a claimed 900mm (Range Rover). (* Max wading depth is the manufacturer’s recommendation for how deep the vehicle can go in water which is not flowing and has a solid, flat surface on which to drive).
Know where your vehicle’s engine air intake is and where the lowest, most vulnerable electronics and electrical gear or wiring is – know the location of those and you’ll have a better idea of how deep your vehicle can go before you need to be concerned. If your air intake is suddenly forced to suck in water, then it’s all over red rover. Your margin for error is somewhat reduced if your vehicle sucks air from below wheel arch level, than if its air intake is bonnet level. In either case, an aftermarket snorkel, which sucks air from roof level, will substantially improve your off-roading game.
If possible, walk a mud-hole before you drive it; at the very least have a poke around in the hole with a long branch or stick, in an attempt to gauge the depth of the mud, to check for any submerged snags (branches, rocks, debris) – that your vehicle may get hooked on – and to get a better idea of the consistency of the base. Never barrel into a mud hole without having a good idea of what lays underneath.
Another bonus of checking the muddy obstacle is that it will give your vehicle time to cool off. Hot engine components – or diffs – do not respond well when suddenly dipped into cold water.
If you’re not convinced that your vehicle will get through, drive around the mud or back-track a bit – there’s no shame in that.
TACKLING THE MUD
If you’re in a 4WD and you decide to go into the mud, rather than around it, make sure your recovery gear is at hand and attach any snatch straps (basically elasticated ropes used to tow a vehicle out of trouble) by bow shackles to your vehicle’s recovery points at the front and back. This is a sound pre-emptive strategy and will prevent you from being forced to scramble around, looking for the gear when it’s actually needed.
If you can cover the front of your vehicle with a tarp, that’s great, or a proper water blind, even better. Anything like this will help prevent water getting into your engine bay where it can cause damage.
Mud offers very little in the way of traction and, as you should know by now, great traction is an off-roader’s best friend. The key to driving through it – as with snow or soft sand or any surface that offers little in the way of good solid traction – is to maintain constant throttle and a steady momentum through the soggy stuff.
However, you’ll need more momentum – more mongrel – on a muddy hill because a greasy surface plus a steep gradient equals a very tricky obstacle indeed. If in an AWD, best to avoid this sort of terrain because it is firmly 4WD-only territory.
In ruts, either get on top of the high points in between the existing wheel ruts or punch your way through the ruts themselves, but be aware of the importance ground clearance plays in these sorts of scenarios.
In muddy pools, keep up enough speed to create a small bow wave in front of your vehicle – a small rolling wave that creates a pocket of air under the bonnet, preventing muddy water from getting into the engine bay and causing strife – but avoid going so fast that you’re ramming the front of the radiator into the water and risking damage.
If you’re losing too much traction and you’re slowing down, ease off the throttle a bit, give your tyres time to find greater traction, and gently accelerate again – even try jinking the steering wheel from left to right in short, sharp bursts to boost tyre grip.
If you lose all momentum and feel the tyres digging down, back off immediately. Stop accelerating; do not continue to try and force your way out – you’ll simply get bogged that way. Throw it into ‘reverse’, back out of your sticky predicament, then try again. Simple.
CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF
As you would after a beach drive, make sure you thoroughly wash your off-roader in the wake of a muddy excursion. That way, you’ll keep all surfaces and mechanicals clear of mud which can dry and cake hard onto bodywork and clog components.
THE GEAR YOU NEED
There is a massive range of vehicle-recovery gear available – ranging in quality and price – but stick to the basics for starters and make sure you have good-quality equipment onboard, then you’re 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, snatch strap and water blind.