4x4 for beginners - A complete checklist for newbies

Congratulations! You took the plunge and hired that 4×4! If you are riding for the first time and don’t know where to begin, we at Drive South Africa have you covered. As everyone starts out as a beginner, we asked a couple of seasoned 4×4 junkies to share their insights on problematic scenarios they wish they knew how to solve when they were still in the 4×4 amateur camp.

If you are interested in going on a 4×4 adventure, but find yourself in need of a vehicle, you might want to consider 4×4 hire Botswana or 4×4 hire South Africa to find the perfect vehicle for your travel needs.

4×4 for beginners: the scenarios

Scenario 1: I’m not ready to go off-road and want to gain some experience

Be honest. How confident are you in your off-roading skills? If you are serious about 4×4 driving and want to get first-hand experience in a safe and guided environment, it might be a good idea to drop an R500 and invest in a good training course.

There are various accredited and certified 4×4 training courses in South Africa. Learn essential practical as well as theoretical information and tips on how to operate a 4×4 vehicle correctly.

Scenario 2: The dunes look a bit intimidating. Should I cross them?

Balancing speed and momentum correctly is an extremely important art to master before you set out on a 4×4 excursion dotted with hills and dunes. In fact, if you do not have a lot of experience driving a 4×4, it would be best to avoid dunes altogether and stay on the level parts until you feel prepared and equipped for bigger challenges.

Scenario 3: I’m driving on super soft sand and feel out of control.

Driving on soft sand, especially on the beach, can be a lot of fun. It does, however, require a certain level of know-how. The most important tip to keep in mind is to not increase speed when soft sand (sometimes unexpectedly) slows you down.

As there might be obstacles like rocks hidden in the sand, you should not rely on momentum but rather stay in control at all times. Let your vehicle work through the sand slowly. Your 4×4 will speed up by itself as soon as the sand gets firmer. The only way to stay in control is to deflate the tyres a little so that a larger footprint of the tyre hits the sand, increasing traction and control.

How do I deflate my tyres?

Remove the valve and drop from your regular tire pressure of about 30 psi down to at least 20 psi. This does, of course, depend on the kind of vehicle you’re driving. For very soft sand, a tyre pressure of 10 psi is said to be the best. Release the air by pressing a pointy object into the valve. Use a pressure gauge to dial in the psi. You can buy a gauge from most stores that sell car parts such as Midas or any 4×4 accessory store.

Choose the right type of pressure gauge for your vehicle.

Scenario 4: I’m stuck. What should I do to get out instead of digging deeper?

Again, the first thing you can do if you’re stuck and going nowhere (not even slowly), is to let a little air out of your tyres. Don’t forget to fill them up again when you do get out of the ditch!

If you are stuck in a mud pool, we suggest you do the following: take a deep breath, turn the steering wheel from left to right to gain traction and carefully build up speed. Once you’ve gone as far forward as possible, you can try to reverse out of the mud.

Whenever you spot a mud hole ahead, get out of the vehicle and use a stick to test for depth and softness. A soft hole is usually extremely hard to escape from and should be avoided if you’re a 4×4 beginner.

Scenario 5: The steering wheel has a life of its own. 

You hit a ditch and the steering wheel is spinning as if it’s possessed by something unholy. 4×4 experts suggest that whenever this happens, you should hold the steering wheel with your thumbs out to prevent injury and increase control over the wheel.

Also, never hang your arm out of the vehicle like you’re some smug farmer driving through cornfields. This is off-roading and you should avoid accidents at all times by keeping arms and legs inside the vehicle.

Scenario 6: I’m stalling and my tailpipe is under water.

It happens to the best of us – you’ve stalled and your tailpipe is under water. As a cylinder filled with water can destroy an engine and lead to dire consequences, you should get towed out immediately and pull the spark plugs asap and let the water run out.

Scenario 7: An obstacle (or three!) appeared out of nowhere.

When you get a very intimidating obstacle, momentum is key. How do you get perfect momentum? Start a little way back to gain the momentum you need. This is, however, a skill that can only be mastered over time.

As mentioned earlier, the rule is to always go slowly over obstacles. To avoid spinning and have more control over the driveline, you should pull the handbrake a little. Remember to use your low range sensibly by figuring out what it is beforehand and using it sparingly. Don’t forget to switch back to normal mode when you’re back on tar!

Scenario 8: I’m out alone and want to test my 4×4’s limits.

Answer: Don’t. Never ever try new tricks when you’re out alone. This is also applicable to seasoned 4×4 drivers as you never know what might happen. Always test your limits when there are more experienced drivers with you.

Scenario 9: I don’t feel like biting the dust.

If you like to have a clean face after your off-road challenge (and also keep the interior of the vehicle in a civilized condition) you should keep the windows up at all times.

Scenario 10: Give me the steepest hill with gazillions of obstacles, I’m not scared!

As with all things in life, you have to stay humble. Leave your ego at home and respect the unpredictable curveballs Mother nature tends to throw all who set out to trample African soil.

What else do 4×4 beginners have to know?

  • Learn how to change a tyre – trust us, you will have to change one when off-roading.
  • Keep the following with you: a spare tyre, a plug kit, a high-lift jack and a steel wire.
  • Don’t travel alone.
  • Wear a safety belt at all times.
  • Do not compare yourself to other 4×4 drivers.
  • Educate yourself by going through 4×4 forums.
  • Avoid damaging plant life and stick to trails.

Planning a 4×4 trip and need to hire a 4×4 vehicle locally? you might want to have a look at 4×4 hire to find the best vehicle for your adventure.

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