How to Drive on Gravel
In Australia driving on gravel becomes a real possibility the minute you decide to visit any area that is even slightly remote. Access tracks and entrance roads to even major tourist attractions are often unsealed and may involve travelling 50 metres or 500 kilometres.
Two or Four Wheel Drive
Gravel or hard compacted dirt roads generally have a firm base and a loose surface that can change the way a vehicle turns and brakes considerably. The choice to travel in four wheel drive or two wheel drive is a personal one. Large mining companies insist all their employees travelling on gravel do so in 4WD at no more than 80km. Many people believe that driving in 2WD is less fatiguing - the ride becoming more comfortable by allowing a small loss of traction .
If your vehicle is 2WD you have no choice and your car will either be front wheel drive or rear wheel drive. Both type of drive behave differently on gravel - rear wheel drive pushes the car around corners while a front wheel drive by pulls it around.
Finding the Speed of the Corrugations
Choose your speed according to the conditions and drive at a pace that you feel comfortable with. Note that corrugations often have a comfortable travelling speed and you may find a small increase in speed will synchronize the suspension of the car to the corrugations. Everything suddenly becomes far more comfortable.
Avoid sudden changes in momentum and direction on gravel. Vehicles respond much more acutely to driver input and smooth adjustments to direction, acceleration and braking are the key to maintaining control.
Traffic is usually fairly light on back roads but if you find have you have other cars wanting to overtake you may want to consider pulling over and letting them go past. This courtesy can be extended when overtaking another car. Go around smoothly and allow a large gap before pulling back in front, trying to minimize rocks being thrown up.
Choose your driving line according to comfort. On long straight stretches there is no need to stay locked firmly to the left. Straddle the corrugations and ruts in an effort to minimize vibration. Tyre pressure plays a large part in comfort. More can be read about tyre pressure here.
Braking & Turning
Do your braking before you enter corners. Slow down enough so that you can exit the corner while applying gentle acceleration. This enables the suspension to remain loaded and drives the vehicle through the corner in a controlled manner. Avoid coasting around corners or braking midway around.
Constantly scan the edges of the road for animals, especially near water, and understand if you’ve passed a single kangaroo or cow that there is probably another one right up his backside. Don’t swerve to avoid animals. Swerving to avoid collision is a natural reaction and requires a conscious shift in attitude to overcome. Nobody wants to end up in hospital or worse saving the life of a rabbit or bird.
If you are going to collide with an animal apply braking force to slow the vehicle without losing control and keep travelling in a straight line. Be prepared to hit the animal.
Striking animals like kangaroos and emus while decelerating is messy, but not normally fatal. Swerving off the road and rolling over can be. Larger animals like cows, horses, donkeys and camels are a different proposition. Running into a heavy, long legged horse presents a whole different set of parameters than hitting a kangaroo. The suggestion here is to drive within controllable limits and treat every situation on its own merits. Again running into anything whilst braking is generally better than swerving at high speed.
Slow down for washouts and gullies and enter really rough sections at an angle, one wheel at a time, allowing each individual corner of the car the chance to deal with the obstacle.
The transition of bitumen to gravel is often eroded and should be approached and departed with suspicion. Likewise, the approach to cattle grids can either be seamless or severely rutted.
Driving on gravel isn’t the dangerous, daunting task that uninitiated drivers often assume it is. With a little practise and an understanding of the dynamics a reasonable gravel road is often a better route than a bitumen road in poor condition.
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