Travelling On Dirt

On the Gunbarrel H'way

Driving on dirt roads requires a different set of skills to driving on bitumen. When these dirt roads are in remote areas it becomes even more important to ensure that you drive safely and in accordance with the prevailing conditions. Be aware that medical help for yourself and passengers could be hours if not days away and the RAC will not likely be of assistance if your vehicle is involved in an accident or breaks down.

Following are some of the more important points when travelling on remote dirt roads:

  • Lower both your speed and tyre pressures. By lowering your tyre pressures you lessen the risk of stone punctures to the tyres, and cracks to the rim as your tyres will more easily deflect as they roll over stones. Corrugations will be better absorbed and will not impact as severely on you or your vehicle. Remember to put up the pressures once you are on bitumen again;
  • Nearly worn out tyres should not be used in remote area travel, leave them for home use. Any tyre with less than 30% legal tread remaining is best left at home. Tyres should be of a minimum ATR (All Terrain Radials) and LT (Light Truck) construction. The less tread you have the more chances you have of getting punctures. An LT tyre has a stronger sidewall and is therefore more resistant to sidewall punctures;
  • Engage four wheel drive. Do not wait until you “need” four wheel drive but always engage it when travelling on dirt roads. This will give you more control over your vehicle and make punctures and accidents less likely;
  • Increase the threshold setting on your caravan brake controller so that your caravan brakes before the vehicle. This reduces the chance of your van jack knifing when braking.
  • Put your headlights on low beam. Putting your headlights on makes you much easier to see specially if there is dust in the air;
  • Passing a roadtrain

    Don’t drive in dust. If you want to kill yourself then drive in the dust cloud created by another vehicle. There have been some horrific accidents due to this. If venturing into a dust cloud there is simply no way of knowing what else is in that cloud. Slow down, pull over or wait, it is much safer. However always be aware of what is behind you and ensure that any such traffic will not collide with you if you slow down in a dust cloud;

  • Give way to roadtrains. Think you deserve half the road, don’t try it with a roadtrain or you will have 94 wheels throwing rocks and dust at you. On narrow roads pull right over and let the roadtrain and his dust pass. You should have your UHF on Channel 40 so as to give the roadtrain driver a call and let him know your intentions early on as well as using your indicators. Always be aware of what is behind or ahead of you as a roadtrain passes as you will be enveloped in dust for a period of time;
  • Most front windows broken by stones are broken because the vehicle drives into a falling rock. It is the speed of the vehicle receiving the rock that causes the window to break. Slow down when passing other vehicles when in loose gravel and you are less likely to break a front window;
  • Do not overload your roof rack. Do you really need all that weight up there? Fuel has no place on a roof rack and do you really need to carry that much fuel anyway? Corrugations take a heavy toll on roof racks and some travellers have no alternative but to abandon them beside the road. Such loads increase the centre of gravity and therefore makes a rollover more likely;
  • Lift kits may have their place but it is not in remote area travel. Such kits increase the centre of gravity and make a rollover more likely;
  • Negotiating washaways

    Be wary of modification to vehicle specifications. Most people who repair vehicles in remote areas will tell you that modifications generally make the vehicle more prone to failure and certainly make any repairs more difficult;

  • Respect cattle grids. At any sign of a cattle grid slow down. Cattle grids have concrete either side of the grid and on gravel roads this can be well above the level of the gravel. Hitting such grids at speed can be disastrous;
  • Watch out for dips in the road, dip signs are there for a purpose. Some dips especially over creek crossings can be very steep. Go into them too fast and you may damage your vehicle. Remember you shouldn’t go into a dip under hard braking as this will cause the suspension to be in compression and therefore the suspension is already under as much load as is possible;
  • When in sand dune country always fly a desert flag and monitor your UHF. Serious accidents have happened at the top of dunes when two vehicles have met head on. Allow that some travellers will not have UHF or a desert flag and may be speeding. Hire vehicles are renown for this;
  • Be careful at water crossings. Do you know the maximum water depth recommended by your vehicle manufacturer? Anything over 700mm should be treated with respect. For any crossing ensure your differentials have cooled or they could suck in water. For over 700mm use a tarp or car bra to protect the engine and immobilise any plastic bladed fan (you might damage the radiator core otherwise). Except in crocodile country walk the crossing first. Engage the appropriate gear, most likely low second, and proceed across. (Tip:For viscous coupled fans drill a small hole in the end of one fan blade then mark the hole with nail polish. You can then easily use a thin piece of copper wire to immobilise the fan). Fast moving water is dangerous, stay out of it; and
  • When driving over country flooded by water do not deviate from the formed road bed. Deviating from the road to avoid water will likely get you bogged. The road bed has a hard base so stay on it.

It is unfortunately all to common to hear people recounting how “they” didn’t need four wheel drive, didn’t need to lower their tyre pressures and drove at 130kph or some such ridiculous speed. “They” don’t seem to know or care about the danger they are to themselves or other road users. Likewise they don’t know or care about the damage they do to tracks and dirt roads by their idiotic behaviour.

We first visited Birdsville around 30 years ago, in a two wheel drive utility by the way. In those days travellers on remote roads actually stopped and talked to each other. Now sadly that is a thing of the past, travellers in their air conditioned 4×4’s with tinted windows firmly closed whiz past, barely slowing or acknowledging each other.  I have experienced this on some of the remotest tracks in the country. So slow down and make an effort to talk to, or at least acknowledge, fellow travellers. The experience can be rewarding.

Crossing the Calvert River

updated 28/02/2012

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