Using 4WD's in the Aussie outback - Joe Cali

With a 4wd, you have tremendous freedom in the outback. Many people have the wrong impressions of 4wd's because of movie stunts. Driven carefully an all terrain 4wd is capable of much more than most drivers would be willing to attempt. Driven carelessly a 4wd can leave you stranded in remote areas with little hope of being found within a reasonable time. Here are a few hints for safer off road travel.

Picking up the vehicle

When you rent the 4wd make sure the attendant gives you a demonstration of how to engage 4wd. Ask for a photocopy of the service manual that includes information of engaging 4wd, location of the jacking points, lubricant information and lubrication and fluid points.. Ensure the jack is appropriate for the vehicle. Check that 4wd will actually engage before accepting the vehicle.

Check that your rental contract allows off road driving and the insurance covers off road use in the rental contract. Even if off road driving is allowed, you may be responsible for the first $4000 of damage when driving off road even if you have paid a waiver that covers you on road. Find out the fuel capacity of the tank(s) and test the range of the vehicle and calculate fuel economy. As you drive, be aware of how many km range you have left in the tanks so that you don't miss out on a fuel stop and get stranded.

Before heading out

Open the engine hood and check all fluid levels. That includes engine oil, clutch, brake, radiator, & windscreen washers. Cast your eye over the engine bay and look at the state of engine belts and radiator hoses. Yes the company is supposed to do this but once you are in a remote area, replacing a timing or fan belt is hard work.

Engaging 4wd

After becoming bogged, it is sometimes very difficult to get the transfer lever to engage 4wd or disengage it after you are out of trouble. This problem is called tailstock wind up. The drive shaft of the vehicle is twisted and the transfer gear can't be engaged. Put the vehicle into reverse in its current drive mode, slowly lift the clutch until the 4wd.engages or disengages.

Most rental 4wd's have petrol engines. Fuel vapourization may become an issue if it's really hot. That's a phenomena where the fuel evaporates before getting into the combustion chamber of the engine. Fuel use becomes inefficient and you end up with really bad fuel economy. Your fuel tank range is reduced substantially and you might need to carry extra fuel supplies. I worked in the Gibson Desert once in those temperatures in 1993. The fuel consumption increased substantially. The 4 litre engines (carburettor) normally used 17-20 litres per 100km. This increased to around 35 litres per 100km in the heat. The modern Landcruisers are fuel injected. I don't know have any data on how this problem affects fuel injected vehicles. It is not a problem with diesel.


You may run into bulldust. It's a fine dust with the consistency of talc colour of red sand that blows around and fills up deep wheel ruts dug in by 4wd's during wet weather. As you are driving along on what looks like flat road when suddenly on one side or both sides of the vehicle wheels drops into a rut and grabs and the car flips. If you don't believe me I can put you in touch with a friend who is paralysed from the neck down as a result of that very phenomena. His Landcruiser was travelling at 60km / hr at the time not far from Cameron Corner. The roof of a 4wd isn't very strong for the weight of the vehicle and they tend to cave in during a roll-over. Since the accident I referred to above, all our work 4wd's have been fitted with roll cages as standard. The 4wd camper vans are very top heavy & unstable. Please drive with extreme caution.

The most important thing to carry is water. It is the difference between life and death in the summer heat. You will need to have around 5-8 litres per person per just in case you break down and the temperature soars. 55 C (130F) is not unheard of in central Australia. Extreme temps are more common in late summer not December. Have at least a weeks supply in case of breakdown.

Recovery & safety gear

4wd manuals will list hundreds of items that you should bring into the desert. For Eclipse travellers, it isn't practical to purchase all the recommended recovery & safety equipment.
Some 4wd's have hydraulic jacks. On soft ground these may not be able to be inserted to the jacking point as the 4wd wheels might be buried in the sand. When inserted the jack may sink in to the soft sand and not jack the vehicle.

A few inexpensive items I would recommend you purchase would be
Shovel for digging the jacking point or to clear bogged tyres (US$10)
Flat piece of wood board 1" thick 500mm long by 250mm wide to support the jack on soft sand. (US$10)
Tyre gauge (US$3-5) from Repco or bring one with you from home.
Toilet brush (US$2) for removing grass seed from hot radiators.

5 litres motor oil. (US$25)

Note : If you hire a diesel, the oil for diesel engines is different to that for petrol engines. Purchase the correct type - usually CD/CG grade for diesels.

If any other fluids were low when you checked the vehicle, buy extra. Check the fluids every day or two. My diesel 4wd never uses any oil until I use it in low range for extended periods in hot conditions. In those conditions I have to top it up every few hundred km. It is a good idea to have your 4wd fully insured either with rental company damage waivers or travel insurance that insures the excess(also called deductible in some countries)

Sand Driving

When driving on hot soft sand, the vehicle may become bogged or lose traction. If this happens take your foot off the accelerator immediately you feel the loss of traction. Do not "floor it" as this with result in a vehicle bogged to it's axels. You will then have to dig 11 inches of sand from the entire underside of the vehicle and an escape ramp before trying anything else.

If you follow my advice, there will be an inch or two of sand dammed in front of the tyres. Dig the sand from around the tyres. The normal tyre pressure is 32-45psi depending on the vehicle. Lower the tyre pressure to 22 psi. Make sure the vehicle is in low range 4wd and that the 4wd is engaged properly. Engage 3rd gear on a big engine 4wd 2nd gear on a small engine 4wd. Do not engage 1st. 1st has too much torque and you will only dig in. Slowly release the clutch. Do not drop the clutch. You can lay some dead wood in front of the tyre but this should not be necessary with a 4wd unless the sand is particularly soft.

Don't drive at high speed with deflated tyres. They can over heat or roll off the rims while the vehicle is cornering. When you are out of the soft sand, just take it easy. At 22psi, you can safely travel at 60km/hr. This is a good safe speed for sandy tracks or rocky roads. When you are back on the highway, same thing, just keep your speed under control until you get to the next gas station then use the air gun to readjust the tyre pressures. On an extended trip in Central Australia in 2007, I lowered my tyre pressure to 22psi near Coober Pedy when I stupidly drove into some soft ground and got bogged. I didn't reinflate the tyres until 3 weeks later. During this time I spent most of my time on bush tracks but occasionally travelled sections of sealed highway for hundreds of km.

Sand Dunes

If you lose traction driving up a sand dune, take your foot off the accelerator immediately. Once traction is lost, you cannot regain it. Get out, clear sand from behind the vehicle lower tyre pressure as per above. REVERSE down the dune to flat ground. Reverse a long way along the flat to get a run up and get up some speed to get you over the dune. If you fail again, repeat the process back up further and hit the dune with more speed until you get over. Ask the passengers to alight and walk up the dune to remove some weight from the vehicle.

Water crossings

Never drive into water unless you know how deep it is. There is only one way to find out. Walk through it first. Once your vehicle is submerged below the air intake in a remote area, you may be delayed for up to a week. Spending a few minutes walking the water-course is time well spent. Check the ford for deep holes. If the water is muddy, walk across along one tyre line and back along the other then keep the tyre in those lines to have walked.

Driving straight into deep water with hot 4wd transaxles is not recommended. The breather tubes can back-suck water into the differentials. Let the axels cool before crossing.

Exhaust manifold

The exhaust manifold is hot enough to start a fire if you park in long dry grass. The heads of the grass touch the manifold and your vehicle is right on top of a grass fire before you know it. If you have to park on top of grass, use a shoel to clear the grass from the manifold.

Radiator care

When crossing deep water, disconnect the fan belt. The radiator fan blades can deflect forward when submerged and chop a hole in the radiator

If you are driving along twin tracks with tall grass growing between, check your radiator frequently. The seeds can block airflow to the radiator. This, in turn, can cause overheating. A household toilet brush costing a dollar or two is very useful for removing seeds.

Salt lakes

The surface of most salt lakes in Australia cannot be driven on. The surface consists of a thick soft water saturated salt crust covering a soft mud or clay pans below. A 4wd will quickly breakthrough the salt crust and sink to its axels where it will stay until winched out by another vehicle.

Off track (cross country driving)

Small sticks can easily puncture tyres especially in the summer heat. This heat softens the tyre rubber. On a trip into the Gibson Desert in 1993 our two vehicles suffered 14 broken tyres. That is where the tyre rubber softened by the heat is deformed enough while running over a sharp stone or obstacle to break the steel belts on the 10 ply tyres. The vehicles you rent will only have one spare tyre. Vehicles fitted for off road travel usually carry multiple spare tyres and tubes and repair kits.

If you are forced to drive cross-country slow speed is the key. At 5km/hr you are far less likely to spike a tyre than at 40km/hr.

Roll over

A roll over does not signal the end of the world if you know what to do.

First check if your passengers are injured. Release the engine hood and get out of the vehicle. Find the tool kit. Go to the battery and remove it before all the battery acid spills out. Without a battery, you aren't going anywhere. Next check that fuel tank isn't leaking from the vehicle. Unpack the vehicle of all contents and place them well away from the vehicle. Find some shade or else make some from tarpaulins, sheets whatever. If your vehicle has a winch you might be able to right the vehicle yourself. Run the winch cable from the front of the car around a tree (Bury the spare tyre if there is no tree) through a pulley block and back to the uppermost rear wheel if the vehicle is on its side, either wheel if it is on the hood. You will need to reconnect the battery to do this. Wind in the winch and if you are lucky, the car will end up back on it's chassis. Give the battery some time to recover before trying to start the engine.

If it won't start, rest, keep hydrated and wait for a passing car to assist you.

In the event of any type of break down or accident, always stay with your vehicle. Never walk off! It is much easier for a search plane to spot your car than you as a small dot in the landscape. If you have no fuel to light a signal fire, remove the spare tyre, get it away from the vehicle pour petrol on it and set it alight. The thick black is visible from a long way away.


EPIRBS and Satellite Phones
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons or EPIRBS cost about A$600. Australia recently changed the EPIRB operating frequency so do not buy these items second hand on ebay. Satellite Phones cost considerably more. Both types of items can be rented from some outlets. Whilst it is a good idea to carry them, you really need to undertake a risk assessment of the region in which you are travelling. In 2007 I travelled along the Oodnadatta track to Dalhousie Springs on the west side of the Simpson Desert. Though this was a hot inhospitable environment with rough difficult roads, it is a popular destination among 4wd enthusiasts. The springs feature hot (37oC) natural Artesian spring waters. In winter, they were just glorious. I decided that because it was so popular, if I had any problems, cars would pass at least once every couple of hours. So I didn't hire a satellite phone. On the other hand I have worked in parts of Australia where the nearest town was 1000km away. On those occasions I carried a HF radio, it was before satellite phones were common.

Good luck and safe driving!

Joe Cali