What is off-road driving?
Off-road, on-road, sealed, unsealed gravel, bitumen – many travellers exploring Australia by car may not have thought about what kind of tracks they will be driving on. In fact, many backpackers and travellers venturing Down Under may not even be aware what the differences are and what impact their choice of route will have on their selection of vehicle they intend to hire or buy.
Unfortunately not every car can travel every stretch of land (safely) and even vehicles claiming to be off-road ready may not be suitable for every terrain. Worst case scenario is: you choose a car for a destination and have a bad breakdown. By “bad” I mean irreparable, nasty, tuttokaputto – and if worst comes to worst this doesn’t only refer to your car.
So what does it all mean and what do you really need to know? Let’s start with the simple on-road tracks. Every sealed, or bitumen road, is called on-road. Most cars (unless it’s a bomb) will drive here. If you look at a map of Australia most parts of the country, including small towns, can be reached on a sealed road. No probs.
Let’s move on to the more curly definitions. Unsealed or Gravel roads consist of, you’re guessing it, gravel or sand surfaces. Very short stretches – as in, going up a driveway to a farm on gravel – are usually fine with any car. In Australia some gravel roads can be very narrow and only allow one vehicle to drive on it and to pass oncoming traffic both cars will have to slow down and make room for each other. Also, as dust gets kicked-up turning on head-lights is a good idea to increase visibility and so is slowing down because of the surface the car requires a longer distance to break.
Longer unsealed roads are an absolute no-go with usual passenger vehicles. Some paths even have warning signage explaining you can not, under any circumstances, drive this track without a proper four-wheel drive. This could be because of steep increases or descends, deep sand, rocks, river crossings carrying water – the possibilities of nasty obstacles are endless.
The difference between a “true” four-wheel drive as opposed to an all-wheel drive vehicle is simple. In a four-wheel drive you can manually lock the differential. This means all four wheels receive the same amount of torque from the engine (if you need the full technical rundown check out Wikipedia). An all-wheel drive does not allow you to lock the differential.
What does that mean? Let’s say you’re in a tricky situation; one of your tires has lost contact with the ground. In an all-wheel vehicle the tire hanging in the air will spin madly, the other three will do nada, niente, nothing – you’re stuck. In the same situation only sitting in a four-wheel drive you can lock the differential and, voila, all of your wheels (contact or no contact) will spin at the same time and (most importantly) move you out of your tricky situation.
The problem with off-road travels is you won’t know exactly what to expect without a little bit of planning and reasearch. If you’re driving by the seat of your pants and want to check out what’ll come your way one thing is for sure: if you try driving a four-wheel drive only track despite the warning with a regular passenger or all wheel drive vehicle chances are high that you will have to turn around and go back at the first sight of a problem (which would be fine), you get stuck (and hopefully you have the gear to free yourself and turn around) or you damage your vehicle (and hope someone will come along and help).
If you’d like to make sure you know the ins and outs about planning for your road trip travel adventure have a read of my travel guide. It may help heaps.