How to climb rocks with your 4x4

Marcus Craft

24 May 2018 • 7 min read

Rocks and rocky hills come in all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of difficulty – from large stony gravel tracks to slow-going boulder-sized obstacle courses – but use the following tips and you’ll be tackling rocks with ease in no time.

Deflate your tyres

Before you switch to low range, deflate your tyres to a psi pressure that suits the terrain. Aim for a tyre pressure between 20 and 25 psi (138-172 kPa) for rocks – you generally don’t have to drop too far down from highway pressures but every now and again, you may have to drop lower.

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.

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 to it in your SUV (in an Amarok it’s first gear with off-road mode selected) – when you need optimum traction. All four wheels will drive your vehicle and a low gear ratio is being used – and that extra low-down torque comes in very handy off-road.

Put your vehicle in Park or Neutral, switch to 4L or 4Low (whatever the designation is in your vehicle) and you’re ready for the next step.

Get set and go slowly

If you have to – stop, get out and use loose rocks to build the track, like we had to do on a particularly tough section of this track once before. That track-building helps you avoid damaging your vehicle’s undercarriage on the rocks. 

While you’re at it, 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.

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.

Pick your line, your wheel placement, and stick to it.

In low range, let your vehicle do all the work; use that gentle acceleration we’ve mentioned in our previous ‘how to’ yarns and vids, as well as soft braking, and simply just go slowly

As you first get your tyres on the rock – at a slight angle to avoid bottoming out on the rock – add some throttle to get you up and over. 

Pick your line, your wheel placement, and stick to it. As you first get your tyres on the rock, add some throttle to get you up and over. Take your time and you should be able to creep over the top. 

Now, the importance of examining your intended route through rugged terrain before you actually commit to driving it was hammered home to us on this trip. For our video to go with this yarn, we had intended to tackle a very difficult set of rock steps. 

We’d driven it before in a HiLux, so we knew it could be done, even though on that occasion it had involved a few attempts and a lot of track-building. Since that shoot, however, the section has been severely washed out by heavy rain and, as a result, the rock steps were even more treacherous than they were last time.

On the way down a rocky hill, keep in first gear low-range, and use the vehicle’s engine braking.

We were in a LandCruiser 200 Series this time, a very capable 4WD, and even though we could have likely climbed the rocks steps with a bit of judicious driving, the risk of the vehicle sustaining damage during the traverse was simply too great so I pulled the pin on the whole exercise. You have to pick your battles.

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.

On the way down a rocky hill, keep in first gear low-range, select Hill Descent Control, and use the vehicle’s engine braking and off-road tech to help you maintain a smooth, controlled ride down the route.

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 firm sand etc) or 2H (if you’re back on the bitumen).

So, there you go: how to drive over rocky terrain in your SUV: drop tyre pressure; drive with controlled speed/momentum; and maintain that momentum – with extra throttle if needed – until you’re up and over the rock.

Have you stepped into your own rocky title fight? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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