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How to drive a 4x4

By Gemma Black, 01 Jun 2011 Gear

Technique: 4X4 School

4X4 Australia’s newest journo learns a thing or two about four-wheel driving.

4X4 Australia’s newest journo learns a thing or two about four-wheel driving.

Contrary to common belief among certain demographics, when it comes to cars, 4X4s and even directions, knowledge is not innate.

In fact, it has to be learned and then practiced, before it resembles anything that seems like innate.

So, having come to terms with that harsh reality, a four-wheel drive course is a good place to start and, as I’ve been part of the 4X4 Australia team for almost six months now, it was deemed high time that I officially learned at least the basics.

There are a few accredited training institutions around the place, but we chose Getabout Training Services on word of mouth and prior experiences.

Getabout Training Services, run by renowned four-wheel drive instructors, John and Julie Eggenhuizen, offers several courses on the safest ways to enjoy various outdoor activities.

I took a one-day course in basic four-wheel driving, which costs $375 for one driver and $50 for a second trainee in the same vehicle. An advanced, two-day option is also available. Other courses include first-aid, winching, sand driving, on- and off-road towing, navigation and GPS, and more.

My training took place about 10km west of Lithgow, NSW. Access off the Great Western Highway is via a short, but fairly rutted track that leads to a converted shed (surrounded by Lidsdale Forest) where introductions and theory would take place.

My first feeling rolling up beside the other eager-to-learn 4X4s was a bit of size-envy. This is an emotion I’ve never experienced before or since – for obvious, gender-related reasons – but, having been confronted with it, I was determined to prove that my stock-standard Suzuki Jimny with highway tyres would hold its own against its peers, some of which sported snorkels, muddies – even bullbars! The little red Zook and I were in for a challenge.

First things first, though. And that meant gathering inside for a cuppa and a biccy while our instructors – Bob, Tony and Graham – covered the 4X4 basics.

“Who here owns a four-wheel drive?” Bob asked, standing at the whiteboard and wearing a mischievous grin.

A couple of hands were raised promptly (sure – wasn’t that part of the course criteria?); others who seemed to know better kept there hands firmly by their sides; the rest of us let limp, uncommitted hands hover somewhere around the shoulder mark, sensing a trick question somewhere in the vicinity.

Turns out, unless we could lock both front and rear diffs, our prized 4X4s were nothing but two-wheel drives (and what we once thought of as 2WDs are, in turn, really only one-wheel drives). And, even if you do have the ability to lock up both ends, don’t expect to be able to turn. Cheeky but, in theory at least, more or less true.

Bob also explained at this point that there would be no failures at the end of the day; instead we would be graded as either competent, or not-yet-competent (an admittedly comforting euphemism). The instructors would observe participation and progress throughout the day and, provided we met some key competency criteria, we would take home an official-looking certificate for the pool room.

So, humbled and all-ears, we learned some drivetrain basics, before heading outside to check under a few bonnets, where electrics, air intake, filters, hoses, belts and fluids were on the agenda. Instructor Graham then jumped in the front of one of the 4X4s and took us through proper seating – important not just for comfort, but safety, too.

Next we put our newly-acquired knowledge to the test, but we weren’t going far – yet. Nearby was a short track with a couple of deep ruts, perfect for lifting wheels and demonstrating loss of traction.

First vehicle to try it was a Pathfinder, to demonstrate traction control. We watched the deliberately-unstuck wheel shudder and jut, before finding the ground again and easing forward. Next, a big, dirty Patrol with big, dirty muddies and a very proud owner was sent forth to teach us about the joys of wheel travel – the Patrol left those dug-outs for dead.

The third contender, a Prado GXL, was giving it a go and having a hard time, wheels spinning and kicking up mud, when Graham quietly suggested I go and get the Jimny. Surely, I thought, this was more for the benefit of my photographer, and perhaps some light entertainment, than any real educational purposes?

But, eager to prove my and my fourby’s worthiness, I attempted the admittedly pretty mild test run. Sure I let my wheels straddle a couple of holes after having them spin and swing mid-air, but the Jimny made it through no worries, and I have to say I was pretty chuffed.

By this stage the photographer was getting a bit restless, used to (at least I assumed) rather more visually exciting stuff. Lucky for him, there was only a practice snatch strap recovery to go before we would proceed into the forest. Gory anecdotes which validate the importance of doing this properly abound. Our demonstration was only a mock-up, but after passing around the gear, discussing how to tell if it’s in good nick, rated properly and so on, watching and participating in an almost-real-life recovery was priceless education.

So much can go wrong. A lot of the time you’ll be fine – I’ve watched plenty of YouTube clips with morbid fascination since the course (search “snatch strap gone wrong”) and seen a lot of dumb luck in action. Only thing is, it’s the unlucky ones that don’t get the chance to upload their mistakes online for a laugh.

We learned to get by without relying on luck, and one of the best ways to do that is through good communication, which will ideally include a third coordinator.

Once we’d learnt the basics of snatch recoveries, it was almost time to head bush – finally! Lunch first, though, and that gave the instructors a chance to get back to the whiteboard and go over tyre pressures for different terrains (did you know the surface area of a deflated tyre actually becomes longer, not wider?).

We downed our home-packed lunches, and then it was time to get behind the wheel. Getabout provided us each with UHF radios, and explained convoy procedure before we left. This meant maintaining safe distances between vehicles, and waiting and indicating at each turn until the following vehicle arrives.

Between stops, the instructors would advise gearing over the radio for the first part, after which it’d be up to us (but you didn’t lose any points for asking!) We practiced key stall starts on a steep, rutted track that looked well-used by past Getabout trainees. First we all ‘read’ the track together, and then drove it a few times to get the hang of it. Finally we all had a go at the rather unintuitive technique of the key stall start.

It was because of this very element of the course that I was required to bring my little manual Suzuki and not a big, comfy automatic press vehicle – and I have to say, it was worth it. This is a tricky, but valuable skill to have, considering the increased safety of maintaining full and constant control of a 4X4 on steep, rough terrain.

It can be done in reverse or moving forward, and basically requires you to stop the vehicle without engaging the clutch (best not to ride in neutral in sticky situations), and then restart it in gear (low-range first). Definitely something that should be practiced before attempting in a real-life situation with real risk to you or your vehicle!

Our final stop was for instruction in water crossings. On the way, the instructors drilled us over the radios on everything from how to set up camp, to why it’s important to let your vehicle cool down before a water crossing.

All my size-related insecurities arose again when we got to the designated practice crossing, and it was announced on the radio that the Suzuki couldn’t possibly make it.

However, I soon had Graham at my window ensuring me that it wasn’t just my little guy that would struggle, but the Pathie, probably the Navara, and even the two Prados would have a hard time. It wasn’t worth the risk, he said, and I was happy to believe him, as I was equally happy to accept the decision. Lithgow had received some unseasonable snow the previous day, and I wasn’t in the mood for a swim.

Instead, we chose another, shallower crossing with a firm gravel bottom. We learned to maintain a steady momentum for the entire crossing, that it’s safer to leave a down-stream window open and your seatbelt off when driving through water, and to leave the engine on (particularly when the exhaust is submerged) and avoid using the clutch.

By mid-afternoon, our minds thankfully the only thing now swimming, we headed back to base and each received our certificates; no failures, or not-yet-competents in this group.

As the instructors stressed, they may have deemed us competent to get out and enjoy our fourbies, but we had a lot of learning to go. They’d given us “day-one”, they said. The rest was up to us. And that means practice; something I’m sure I’ll get plenty of in this gig. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll look like I’ve been doing this my whole life.