Driving in Snow, Sand, Mud, Gravel and Water!
One of the attractions of renting your own vehicle to drive abroad is the chance to get off the beaten track and experience a country away from the main tourist towns and cities. To do that, it may be that you encounter some driving conditions on the roads that you’ve never experienced in your own country.
Therefore here are some tips for driving in some of the most testing conditions –
Driving in Sand
Driving in deep, fine sand should only be attempted in a 4WD vehicle.
The first thing to do when driving in sand is to reduce your tyre pressure (though ensure you have a tyre gauge and a means to reinflate the tyre when you’re back on tarmac.) This increases the ‘footprint’ of your tyre thus giving more purchase in the sand. The optimum tyre pressure will vary by vehicle and the rental company should be able to advise on this. If you forget to ask them a good way of estimating how much air to let out is to park the vehicle on the flat. Place a stone around 0.75cm from the outer edge of your tyre, then let the air out until the edge of the tyre touches the stone.
Driving in sand should be done in Low range of 4WD. Follow existing tracks and try to maintain a steady speed, in 2nd or 3rd gear, avoiding heavy braking or accelerating. Try and coast to a halt if possible with the clutch depressed. Try and have your wheels pointing forward and downhill if possible when setting off. When turning on sand try and make as wide a turning arc as possible. If you encounter a steep hill approach it with the wheels as straight as possible.
If you do get stuck in deep sand, avoid the temptation to press the gas and accelerate out as this will just make you more stuck. Slowly try to reverse and if this works, try edging forward again slowly.If this doesn’t work you may need to deflate your tyres more. Do this gradually. Most tyres can be deflated to a minimum of 40 kPa (6psi) but this should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Ensure the underside of the vehicle is clear of the sand before attempting to free yourself. You could also try and create a path for the vehicle by placing stones, tree branches or gravel beneath your tyres. If you’re still unable to free yourself you may need to resort to a jack which most 4WD vehicles should be equipped with and the rental company hopefully made you aware of. If still stuck, you will need to wait for help to arrive. Avoid walking away from the vehicle to find help you have more chance of being found by staying with the vehicle and signalling using smoke or a reflective device such as a mirror.
There are some videos of driving on deep, rutted sand roads on my YouTube page.
Driving on Gravel
Driving on gravel roads is usually not as taxing as driving on sand, but will still be more challenging than tarmac. 4WD or high clearance vehicle isn’t generally necessary unless the road is in particularly bad condition .The first and obvious point is to reduce your speed -60-70KMH is probably the optimum speed for most roads though gravel can conceal pot holes so if you’re worried about the road quality, you should slow right down. Keep your hands on the wheel at all times and, as with sand driving, avoid heavy braking and accelerating. If it’s dusty, put on your lights and keep a safe distance from any other vehicles. This is particularly true at night when driving on gravel roads becomes much more hazardous.If on a two lane road , slow down when passing oncoming vehicles as stones could fly up and damage either car .
Driving across Rivers
Crossing Rivers may be necessary in a number of countries and this can be an unnerving experience but needn’t be with some forward planning. Never attempt to cross a river in a non 4WD vehicle. You should also be aware of the type of 4WD you’re driving. You need to understand where the air intake is located as this is a direct route for water to enter the engine. A 4WD fitted with a ‘snorkel’ enables the air intake to be lifted above the engine and therefore above the water line. If your vehicle isn’t fitted with a snorkel care must be taken to never submerge the air intake. Drawing water into the air intake will result in the engine cutting out and possible serious mechanical damage. Most 4WD vehicle manufacturers will advise of the safe water line in the owner’s manual (its usually around 50 cm) so check this if unsure.
The first rule of crossing rivers is never to rush into it. Stop and take stock of the situation- ask locals for advice if any are present, but don’t rely 100% on what they tell you. They may not be able to drive themselves, so could be unqualified to give advice. If other vehicles are crossing, observe the route they take and try and replicate that.
If no one is around you will probably need to walk the crossing first. Use a wading stick to check the depth as you proceed- also be on guard for predators if in a country where crocodiles, alligators or flesh eating fish are present. If the river is flowing so strongly that you lose your footing, it will be too dangerous to cross in a vehicle.If the river can’t be waded accept that it can’t be driven either. The time taken to wade the river also gives the vehicle time to cool down – Plunging hot metal into cold water is a likely cause of various mechanical failures.
Do not cross at deltas where rivers empty into a lake as they are likely to be clogged with mud and will generally be wider than other parts of the river.
As you walk the river, remove any large concealed stones that you come across. If the route across the river will require deviations from a straight line, mark the points you need to turn with sticks driven into the river bottom. If there are no sticks available, use plastic bottles or bags tied to a rock with string.Avoid steep entry and exit points and check that the bank will support the weight of the vehicle.
If you fear that you may get stuck and will need to be pulled out by a support vehicle , attach a rope or winch line to the vehicle before you drive into the river. Attaching a recovery line to an already submerged vehicle can be difficult.
Before setting off, remove seat belts and wind down windows to enable a speedy escape if you get stuck.Engage 4WD Low and 1st or 2nd gear and try and maintain a steady speed, avoiding any heavy acceleration. You should never change gear when crossing a river as water could get into the clutch mechanism, so 2nd gear is probably a good option to help you maintain enough speed to generate a bow wave which helps push water away from the engine. If you aren’t generating a bow wave you’re driving to slowly, if the wave goes over the bonnet and hits the windscreen you’re driving too fast.
If the vehicle stalls you should put it into neutral without using the clutch and try and restart. If successful you will have to risk using the clutch to engage 1st gear but there is a risk of water getting between the clutch plates and flywheel. If the vehicle doesn’t restart, your best bet is probably going to be to exit the vehicle and wait for help. If the river is fast flowing, get out on the side of the car facing away from the flow to avoid being pulled under the vehicle.
Be aware when driving on deep water that your vehicle will become partially buoyant and this can cause problems exiting via a steep or slippery bank. I’ve had experience of this and it can be difficult to judge the correct approach angle so care should be taken when exiting the river.Once on dry land you should perform a check to ensure the vehicle is performing properly before you proceed.
Driving in Floods
Heavy rain can cause floods in both urban and rural areas, and though you should avoid driving in floodwater in a non 4WD car, this isn’t always possible and if floodwaters are rising rapidly and you have a chance to escape, that is probably the wisest option.
If unsure of the depth of the water ahead it may be necessary to get your feet wet and walk the route before driving it. If its difficult to stand up in the water, don’t try to drive it. In a 2WD Car you shouldn’t attempt to drive through water that’s above the centre of your wheels. Never drive at speed into a flood, as the effect can be like hitting a wall. Aim for the centre of the road where the camber should mean the water is at its most shallow.
As with advice for river driving, you should drive in 4L 1st or 2nd gear . For a normal car , again 1st or 2nd gear are the best option (L or 1 in an automatic). Maintain a steady speed to create a small bow wave . Slipping the clutch and revving the engine will also help to keep the exhaust clear and keep the engine .In an automatic keep your foot on the accelerator in the lowest gear and use the brake to control your speed .
If on a 2 lane road, you should avoid passing oncoming vehicles. If a car approaches, slow down and be prepared to stop if needed. If you feel that you’re losing control of the car, it may be that the water is too deep and its started to float. To counter, this, open a door and let some water in. It will ruin your shoes and probably make the car smell for a while but should at least get your wheels back on the submerged ground.
Mechanical failure is a distinct possibility in 2WD Cars. As with river driving you should establish where the air intake is. If water gets into that, you’ll stall and also do some serious damage to the car, which you may find the rental insurance won’t cover. Don’t change gear when driving through a flood as this can cause water to be sucked into the exhaust which will also cause damage. Cold water can also cause your catalytic converter to crack. In short – in a 2WD car don’t drive through a flood unless you really have to!
Driving in Mud
After rain, roads in many parts of the world can turn into a quagmire. A 4WD is preferable for negotiating mud obviously, but if you have a 2WD and encounter mud, try putting some additional weight in the boot over the rear axel. Stones and logs are good as you can also use them if you get stuck (see below)
If you can stop and plan how to negotiate a particularly muddy section section you should do so. You may need to get your boots dirty by walking the route. Try and select the highest set of tyre tracks to follow, as the water will gather more in the lower tracks. If the raised ridges between the tracks are not as muddy try to drive on those. Be careful not to follow a deep track set by a vehicle with higher clearance than yours which risks leaving you stranded on the central ‘stripe’.
When driving, maintaining momentum is the key as is listening to the engine. If you have a 4WD Select 4L and 2nd or 3rd gear. 2ND or 3rd are probably the best choices for 2WD too. Avoid heavy acceleration but change the amount of gas in line with what the engine is telling you. Try and keep a steady speed to avoid getting stuck. ‘See sawing’ the steering wheel slightly can help the tyres keep moving and avoid getting stuck. If your wheels are spinning, step off the gas lightly. If you begin to skid, turn gently into the direction of the skid.
If you get stuck, try reversing before you try to move forward again. If that doesn’t work, use some stones, logs or gravel to try and create a path for the vehicle concentrating on the rear wheels if you have a rear wheel drive vehicle or front wheels for front wheel drive. If you get stuck and are totally trapped, you’ll need to wait for assistance. At the end of the day, you’ll have a good story and some great mud spattered pictures!
Driving in Snow and Ice
Driving in snow and ice can be a shock to travellers from warmer countries but is to be expected in most of the Northern Hemisphere in the Winter months. Preparation is key and weather forecasts should give you good notice that a cold snap is expected before you set off. Make sure you have window scrapers, de-icer, and some grit or salt and a shovel if embarking on a long journey. Also make sure you have plenty of warm clothes and a flask with warm drink in case you’re stranded and have to turn the engine and heating off. Keep you petrol tank full in case you need to divert and take a longer route and top up your window washer with a solution containing an anti freeze liquid.
Unexpected snow and ice on untreated roads is very dangerous. If you find your self driving on an untreated road whilst snow is falling and settling , or you suspect their may be ice. You should proceed with extreme caution.
When driving in snow and ice obviously you should slow down. Increase the distance between yourself and other vehicles and approach junctions much more slowly than normal in case you skid. Always brake on the straight, never on a corner or bend. If you begin to skid, ease of the gas and turn gently into the direction of the skid, avoiding the brakes as you do so. Select ‘snow’ mode if available on automatic cars, or if an advanced electronic stability control system is fitted.
Drive in the highest possible gear, which reduces the chance of wheel spin, especially when trying to climb a hill.When setting off try to do so in 2nd gear or even 3rd if facing downhill. 4WD vehicles should be able to cope with snow better than 2WD. As with driving in Sand, if driving in deep snow, deflating the tyres slightly will help. Unless in very bad conditions, 4H should be used, and the highest gear possible.
In some parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, most reputable rental companies will fit their vehicles with snow tyres. There are different types of snow tyre which can be used depending on the likely conditions and these can make a big difference to your ability to drive in snow and ice. You should clarify whether the vehicle will have snow tyres before renting it if you suspect you may encounter snow and ice.
Some rental companies will also make snow chains available.(They are often compulsory for vehicles rented in ski areas of Europe and USA) As their name suggests these are chains fitted in pairs to the driving wheels of the vehicle . Some people also fit them to the non driving wheels, which certainly improves all round stability, but isn’t 100% necessary. 4WD vehicles should generally fit snow chains to the front wheels. If your vehicle comes with snow chains you should ask the rental company to show you how to fit them properly. You shouldn’t drive with snow chains for long distances where there is no snow as you will damage the tyres.
Generally, traction control/anti-skid should be turned off when using snow chains and some chains need to be checked/tightened/loosened after driving a few miles- again ask the rental company. You shouldn’t really be driving at more than 30 MPH with chains on.
Remember, when driving in any conditions with which you aren’t familiar, take extra care and if you feel really out of your depth, then stop when its safe to do so and either wait for the conditions to improve, or seek a different route. If in doubt, don’t, is good advice in those situations!