I’d hazard a guess and say that the majority of readers of these and similar articles would own a proper 4WD and a camper trailer to boot. Though there would probably be a large percentage who just as enthusiastically own an AWD as their adventure vehicle (or SUV as they’re now commonly known). Regardless which group you fall into, one thing that’s quite evident from both groups is the enthusiasm and passion for getting out there to explore.
Many SUV drivers may never venture that far from the blacktop, but there is a growing number of SUV owners that wish to explore beyond and venture further afield, pushing both their vehicle’s limits and their driving skills. While most SUVs won’t have the capabilities as a well set-up 4WD, they can actually be surprisingly good at tackling many offroad conditions towing campers, if driven well and sensibly.
I’ve driven and camped with a variety of SUVs such as Mazda CX5, Toyota Rav, and Hyundai Tucson, through places like the Coffs Harbour region, and I’ve even explored Fraser Island from Hook Point in the south to the northern-most point without issues, even in a Mahindra XUV500. Becoming familiar with the SUV’s features and limitations, picking the right line, using ample momentum and adjusting tyre pressures will improve your experiences away from the mainstream camping population.
I have found, after driving a variety of SUV vehicles over the years, that they’re surprisingly quite capable of tackling tracks like beaches, gravel and moderate muddy tracks — all in relative comfort with discretionary activation of the SUV’s traction control, or if lucky, the centre diff lock and hill descent, if fitted. Rather than these features, it’s the under-body clearance, lack of articulation and typical smaller standard road tyres that will likely halt proceedings. One of the biggest hurdles confronting many SUV owners is a lack of suitable aftermarket accessories. However there are several add-ons that can make travelling in a SUV more convenient and safer, like fitting better offroad-oriented tyres, nudge bar, tow bar, recovery points, roof rack rooftop tents, UHF radio and ancillary lights, to name a few.
Like all 4WD owners, SUV aficionados need to plan their adventures, including preparing the vehicle, knowing where they’re going, what they’ll need to take along and how to recover the vehicle in the event of confronting likely challenges or becoming stuck.
It’s the latter that I’d like to expand on. By no means is this an extensive account, but rather should serve as a guide for those new to adventuring in a SUV. Remember, planning and common sense will heighten enjoyment while minimising the risk to the SUV, passengers and, don’t forget, the environment.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
So you’ve decided that you wish to take-on a first offroad adventure in your SUV.
You’ve even taken the plunge and fitted a good set of more suitable tyres capable in the rough stuff.
Firstly, ensure the vehicle is well-serviced and, as a minimum, thoroughly read the vehicle user manual so the various operational selections of the vehicle are clearly understood — especially any offroad options such as ESC/traction control and centre diff, if fitted.
Secondly, carry a tyre pressure gauge and a means to deflate tyres (or just use a stick…). Managing tyre pressures is an ace-up-your-sleeve for improving any SUV’s capabilities offroad. Lowering tyre pressures will improve traction by expanding the footprint, increase comfort, lessen the chance of tyre damage and is friendlier to the tracks. Take care when running lower pressures as you need to drive smoothly. Don’t be afraid to experiment with pressures to find the sweet spot for your SUV over different tracks. Don’t be lazy. Remember to be light and smooth on the steering to avoid the tyre coming off the rim.
Thirdly, get on your hands and knees and inspect the undercarriage.
Here you’re looking and checking the SUV’s ground clearance and mentally noting any low or vulnerable components that could get you hung up on the tracks. Whether it’s a 4WD with all the gear or a stock SUV always ask yourself “What if?” What if something goes wrong while on the tracks and do I have an escape plan?
If you’re a novice or don’t feel confident, then I strongly advise to tag along with another vehicle or do what I did many years ago (and still do) and join a like-minded group that share the passion and who freely help in all things off-roading.
Having another vehicle along adds another layer of assurance, safety and comfort in the event of a breakdown or recovery situation. While I’ve undertaken many solo trips, even to the red centre, and usually feel confident tackling most challenges and distances, it does play on the back of my mind: what if I do get in trouble? In most cases when solo, I’m not too far from help or passing vehicles but it does place limits on the distance into woop-woop I’m willing to venture, as it should anyone.
As a sensible SUV owner, carry a quality air-compressor like those, for example, supplied by TJM or ARB which I have personally used over the last 15 or so years. These compressor kits, and others of like quality, can be sourced for around the $250 - $400 range, including air hose. For around $120, buy a brand name recovery kit that should, as a minimum, include a rated snatch strap around nine metres, two or three rated bow shackles of 3.25t or 4.7t (or perhaps invest in the newer style soft shackles), a pair of leather gloves and cable dampener all in a tough carry bag. Hint: carry a tarp to avoid dirtying your clothes too. Once again, I’ve used kits by TJM, ARB and Just Straps, which I rely on for any recovery challenge. Another overlooked handy tool is a long handle shovel, which helps manipulate tracks and clears debris when needed. One of the best recovery tools of recent times, suitable for all SUVs, is a set of recovery boards, like my favourite, Maxtrax. A pair of boards like these range from about $180 - $250, depending on model. It’s worth getting a carry bag or two to safeguard your interior from carrying dirty gear and traction boards.
You will also need to ensure your vehicle has fitted recovery points, front and rear. A towbar paired with a $35 recovery hitch purchased online or from your favourite 4WD store is a safe point for a rear recovery (but never attached to a tow ball). A front point, or preferably two points, may be harder to come by on many SUVs, so you may need to do some research to find places that are suitable.
Most SUV-, and 4WD- too for that matter, supplied tow/tie-down points are rarely safe for anything more than the lightest of recoveries and are not recommended by me.
Whether with another vehicle or solo, understand the challenges ahead by getting out of the vehicle and inspecting the track ahead to see if it’s within the vehicle’s capabilities and, of course, your skill range.
Travelling on sand can be at times smooth and easy and at others quite challenging. Some beaches are renowned for difficult traversing. Sand differs from beach to beach, season to season, and weather can play a significant part, too.
Beach driving can be a lot of fun and well within the capabilities of most SUVs, as long as common sense prevails. The trickiest part is selecting the right tyre pressure (18psi is a good starting point, emphasis on “starting” as lower pressures may improve forward travel). Know how to enter and exit the beach, as sand is most often soft, may have plenty of criss-crossed tracks and, in most cases, presents an uphill exit.
On any sand, switching off traction control to maximise drivability (read the manual on activation procedure), selecting the right gear, following existing tracks and using ample momentum will have the SUV purring along with little trouble. Hint: if you need to pull up, always stop pointing downhill.
In a nutshell, on sand you should: lower tyre pressures and set your traction options correctly (engaged centre diff, if fitted). So what happens if you’re travelling along nicely and you get stuck or progress is dramatically deteriorating? Number one rule is not to over-spin the tyres while slowly increasing speed, as this will result in the vehicle burying further into the sand, making recovery more difficult.
If progress is slowing, the first thing to do is not to panic.
Stopping with absolute minimum use of the brakes, as early as possible will maximise the odds of a successful self-recovery. On sand, more than 95 per cent of time taken recovering a SUV can be saved if you observe the rule of stopping before sinking further.
As with most recoveries, use appropriate devices and the minimum required force. You can use some or all of the following suggestions. Firstly, unload all passengers and cargo, as a lighter load can be a big help. Next, remove any sand build-up around all tyres and from under the SUV. This is where a long shovel really helps, or use the traction boards as a shovel alternative. Lower tyre pressures a further 10 per cent. It’s amazing the increase in floatation and traction that a few less PSI enables. Next, slowly reverse following the tracks just formed as the surface will be a little more compact.
If the SUV manages only a few metres in reverse before sinking again, stop and drive forward and repeat carefully a few times. This will further compact your tracks, increasing drive-out capability. Once recovered, reverse along previous tracks till the vehicle hits firmer ground and decide how to approach future driving tactics.
So what happens if after a handful of times you’re still stuck, even after dropping your tyre pressures to single digits? The use of traction boards can really help in these situations, so don’t be lazy or afraid to use them. You may need to reposition them several times for a successful outcome. (That’s your passenger’s main job in life…). Another option would be to have another vehicle snatch you out using a rated snatch strap or even their winch, if available, using safe techniques. As mentioned most SUVs only have screw-in tow hooks or tie-down hooks, and they’re only recommended for the lightest of recoveries. A better choice is the towbar which could be substituted for recoveries in reverse, using that recover-hitch-receiver I mentioned earlier. Never ever use the tow ball, as they’re simply too dangerous due to the extreme forces involved. They can easily sheer off and become a lethal projectile.
With all recoveries, only use undamaged, rated equipment and follow industry standards. Have all bystanders well away and establish clear communication between all parties. If the SUV hasn’t been buried deeply, then it should extract easily. Finally, remember to thank the other driver.