Lets off-road!

When you think of getting an adrenaline buzz from motoring it’s usually all about the speed. Hanging onto a car as it teeters on the edge of adhesion. Pushing as fast as you dare with the scenery rushing by at touching distance. The thought of deliberately driving slowly seemed unlikely to provide the same enjoyment. However, a recent interest in overlanding as a way of travelling off the beaten track lead me to find out more about the off-roading scene. Both the vehicles themselves and the skills required to drive one off-road. A browse through any 4×4 magazine will give you a glimpse of the vast range of equipment and technology you can pack into an off roader. It makes rally car preparation seem almost mundane in comparison. With my interest piqued I searched for somewhere to try out some typical 4×4’s in action.

A birthday present saw me booked onto an introductory course at Whitecliff 4×4 based in Coleford, Gloucestershire. The rugged forest of dean landscape combined with some proper 4×4 machinery seemed the perfect place to start. The day dawned bright and sunny. Arriving at 9.30am I was greeted by Geraldine, the owner, and Bryn, the second instructor.

A short briefing covered the basic concepts of 4×4 vehicles, including an explanation of low range, and diff locks.  The do’s and don’ts were also covered, which included showing us a driveshaft that had sheared due to overly rough treatment. The main takeaway: while 4×4’s might look bombproof they can be easily broken if treated incorrectly. We were then lead out to the vehicles and driven up to the quarry where the extensive off-road course awaited us.

With six of us on the course, two vehicles were in use. A Series 1 Discovery and defender 90. Both were running all terrain tyres but were otherwise totally standard. After low range was engaged to keep everything slow and increase the torque, and the diff was locked, (locks the front and rear axles together), the instructors drove around a basic course to demonstrate the basic technique for starting and stopping the vehicles. Despite having manual gearboxes, it’s essentially similar to driving an automatic; holding the vehicle on the brake until the clutch bites then release the brake. Once on the move, the slower the better. Feet off the pedals and just steer.

We then faced 7 different courses of increasing difficulty. Before each one we’d walk the course, with the instructor picking up on line, gear choice and use of throttle, if any. Picking the line was an interesting process. Looking for the smoothest line with the most grip and least chance of bottoming out. Similar to loose surface rallying in many ways.

On my early runs, the instinct to use the brake pedal when downhill sections became steep was hard to resist but braking only causes the wheels to lock and the speed to increase. The last thing you want. Vague steering was also difficult to adjust too, especially with the diff lock reducing the turning circle.

Through the day we were able to move between Landy’s to get a taste of both. The discovery was more comfortable, with a wider track to straddle gulley’s’ but its rear overhang needed to be taken into account. The defender was a much less comfortable ride and its very narrow cab meant right leg and arm room was tight. Now I know why farmers always drive defenders with their arm out of the window! With a narrower track the defender had to follow different lines in certain places but the short overhang meant steeper angles were possible. Neither vehicle was better than the other, just different.

WhiteCliff 4x4

The instructors were in the vehicle throughout to give advice and were essential in helping us navigate around the labyrinth of tracks and routes in the quarry. The dry terrain made the routes easier but still challenging with a few people getting stuck and having to roll back for a second attempt.

A demonstration illustrated the vital importance of the diff lock. As the diff lock locks the rotation of the front and rear axles together, if you get into a position where 1 wheel on each axle is off the ground, without the diff lock off, you are stuck as those wheels rotate and the wheels with grip remain still. Engaging the diff lock allows the wheels with grip to turn so freeing you from your predicament. The process for turning off the diff lock was also covered. Simply disengaging it will not release the wind up the transmission has experienced so the diff lock light will remain on. Reversing the vehicle while turning unwinds this tension. A seemingly simple solution but one that could avoid major transmission damage if you headed straight out onto a sealed surface with its extra grip.

The final run involved driving across a steep incline at 45 degrees and tackling some steep climbs and descents. The uphill sections finally needed some throttle which I gladly used. I was even up to 3rd gear at one point, although it was only equivalent to 1st in normal high range…

Throughout the course we’d all been scored on how we’d performed. While tucking into lunch back at the office, I discovered I’d narrowly won driver of the day. A nice surprise!

After being unsure about whether I’d enjoy my off-roading experience, I’ve come away pleasantly surprised. It was exhilarating to control a vehicle as it clambers over terrain that you’d struggled to walk up a few minutes earlier, even if at slow speed. I’ve also learnt that even with a good off-road vehicle it is still easy to get stuck and cause damage if you don’t read the terrain ahead and pick the correct line. Walking the course might seem tedious but it beats being winched out if it all goes wrong. While this was only a brief introduction to off-road driving, this course would give you the confidence and skills to safely use at least some of your 4×4 vehicles off-road abilities.

Many thanks to Geraldine and Bryn who were very friendly, knowledgeable and patient. With this only being the introductory course, I can imagine the advanced course is pretty hardcore, especially in the wet!

I don’t think I’ll be doing any extreme off road events or winching a 4×4 up a welsh mountainside anytime soon, but the skills I’ve learnt may well come in handy on an overland trip or green lane adventure in the future. Now if I could just persuade my wife that a 4×4 could be the perfect family car….