5 Safety Tips for Winter Four-Wheel Driving


For many of us, winter means rain, mud and a substantial drop in temperature. If you are lucky enough to have access to a 4WD, you’ll know it’s also a fantastic time to get out and explore some of Australia’s best 4WD tracks.

However, do it with a bit of common sense and caution. There are a few things you really need to understand before taking your 4WD out in winter:

Your chances of getting bogged increase

Tracks can change completely after a bit of rain. It doesn’t take much to turn a mild 4WD track into a slippery, muddy slop-fest which will provide zero traction.

Even if you’ve been out plenty of times, except that there’s a much higher chance of getting bogged! As long as you are prepared though, it’s not the end of the world. It’s all part of the adventure.

Ensure you have quality recovery gear

Just like you’d buy quality camping gear for a good night’s sleep, don’t put your 4WD and your own safety at risk by using poor quality recovery gear.

Snatch straps are not suitable for badly bogged 4WDs

If you have ever been stuck in the mud, you probably realise the amount of suction it applies to your 4WD. A snatch strap is fine if the vehicle is only a little bogged. However, once we start talking mud over the height of your axles, you need to reconsider.

Snatch straps work by releasing kinetic energy to pull a bogged 4WD out. The problem is that a badly bogged car in mud will often apply more force than what your snatch strap will handle, and you will end up with a snatch strap smashing through your window. Not fun, nor safe – stick to recovery boards and/or a winch!

An old Suzuki Vitara driving through a muddy puddle

Gently does it. Don’t create a splash when crossing water in your 4WD. 

Proceed with caution

If you do get stuck, take your time, think about the recovery and do it safely. There’s been plenty of people killed and badly hurt from 4WD recoveries gone wrong. The last thing you want to do is ruin a good day out! Check out my piece on 4WDing Australia on 20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery.

Travel with a mate

You should always head out with a second 4WDer. At the very least, if something goes wrong you have a ride home. However, having two or more 4WDs means you can help each other out if you get stuck, and the company is always good.

Water should be approached with extreme caution

Water crossings in a 4WD are a lot of fun unless you get it horribly wrong. Think that won’t happen? I’ve lost count of the number of 4WDs that I’ve seen written off or badly damaged from water crossings gone wrong. This is by far the easiest way to do seriously expensive damage to your car.

Despite what you might think, it’s not always the wide, fast flowing rivers that cause the damage. A simple hole in the ground that’s filled with water has the same potential to totally ruin your pride and joy.

Toyota LandCruiser crossing water in Western Australia

A bit deeper than I thought. Crossing a river in the 4WDing Australia LandCrusier.

Do you have a snorkel?

A snorkel raises the air intake of your 4WD from under the bonnet level to almost roof height. All you need is a teaspoon of water to get into your engine and you’ll need major mechanical work. For many vehicles, that’s enough to write it off! Snorkels are great insurance when it comes to water crossings.

If you don’t have a snorkel, find out where your air intake is (usually in the inner guard), and pay attention to it – usually, anything over 30-50cm deep is pushing your luck.

In Perth, we have a well-known 4WD track in the hills that become incredibly popular over winter. There’s a section with more mud runs than you know what to do with, and they have caught a huge number of drivers out. Often those new to the game, and without snorkels! From the surface, it just looks like a basic mud run, but some of them are well over a metre and a half deep, with vertical entries and exits.

If you do have a snorkel, check that it is watertight before relying on it!

Check the depth and firmness

Before you drive your 4WD through water, you should always check the depth and firmness of the bottom. The easiest way to do this is with a stick – just poke it into the ruts, and see how far it sinks. You’ll know if the bottom is hard, you have a much better chance than if the stick just keeps going down!

The only time you may not be able to check the depth is when there are crocs around – like the northern parts of Australia. If that’s the case, you need to take serious caution entering any water!

Any water over 70cm deep… be extremely careful in!

Benefits of fitting your 4X4 with a snorkel

This is why 4WDs get fitted with snorkels before doing serious off-roading. This would have swallowed a lesser vehicle.

Check the water flow

Depth is just one thing. If the water is flowing then you need to be very careful. They say if you can’t easily walk through it, then you shouldn’t drive through it. The deeper the water, the less flow required to pick your car up and push it down the river.

Drop a bit of bark into the water and watch it float downstream. If it moves faster than walking pace, it’s a miss for the crossing!

Do you need to drive through it?

More often than not, 4WDs that get into strife don’t even need to drive through the water crossing in the first place. If there’s a solid track around the water crossing, it’s the safest bet.

Install breathers on your 4WD

If you are driving through water any deeper than about 25cm, you need to get breathers installed. The two differentials are most important, but your gearbox and transfer case are vital too, for deeper crossings. Without breathers, as your differentials are dunked in cold water, the metal shrinks and sucks some of the water into the diff.

Water and oil don’t go well together and result in expensive rebuild costs down the track if not picked up early.

Installing some aftermarket breathers is a relatively simple DIY job, and costs under $100 – well worth doing for peace of mind!

Don’t hit it with speed

Water crossings should be entered gently, with enough speed to create a small wave of water in front of the vehicle that stays there the whole way across. If you enter with a big splash, you risk getting water where it shouldn’t go. Gently does it, and aim for a perfect bow wave.

Mud and water is fun but comes at a cost

There’s nothing more fun than driving your 4WD through the mud. It’s slippery, requires a heap of attention and will push your vehicle to its limit.

However, a moment of fun in the mud can come at a pretty hefty price, which is often misunderstood or forgotten about in the moment.

The cleanup

If you haven’t had the privilege of detailing a filthy 4WD covered in mud, count your lucky stars. Mud is terrible to clean. Sometimes you get lucky and it hoses off, but if it has any clay content, you are going to need to wet it, then physically remove it.

I’ve come back from trips in the south-west of WA and physically removed several wheelbarrows of mud from my car. It takes a lot of time, leaves a lot of mess and is not the most enjoyable job!

Ten minutes in the mud can take hours to properly clean off. Make sure you do clean it ASAP too, as it can have a high salt content and if left, will cause rust to begin.

Toyota Prado climbing up a muddy hill in Australia

Driving in slippery, slidey mud is all part of the fun when 4WDing in winter. 

Additional mechanical wear and tear to your 4WD

Mud is shocking when it comes to damage done to your 4WD. It’s so fine and sloppy that it works its way into everywhere you don’t want it. Seals, bearings, differentials, brakes, radiators and pretty much anywhere you can name that you wouldn’t want mud, it’s going to get.

Those who regularly do water crossings and play in the mud have to maintain their 4WD’s at a much higher rate than those who don’t. Mud’s a lot of fun, but it’s keeping your mechanic in business!

Electrical gremlins

The number one cause of engine bay electrical issues from off-road work is water. Water just doesn’t play well with electrics, especially in petrol vehicles. If you have issues with your alternator after driving through water or mud, you can guarantee it’s gotten in and is playing havoc.

Sometimes you can fix them quickly, and other times they need repairing or replacing. Ask anyone who drives a V8 LandCruiser how many times they’ve had to replace, repair or clean out alternators. If they head 4WDing in winter regularly I bet it’s more than a couple!

Engine braking is a must

Rain often results in a massive lack of traction when 4WDing. Whilst it’s instinctive to use your brakes in your 4WD, you need to learn to resist the temptation, or at least to do it very carefully on hill descents.

Downhill descents are downright dangerous when traction is limited and you are using the brakes. The concept is pretty simple – when you are rolling down a hill, the 4WD begins to pick up speed. Instinctively, you brake to slow down, but even the slightest touch on the brake pedal locks your wheels up, and then you are in real trouble.

Toyota LandCruiser climbing a muddy hill in Australia

The LandCruiser trying to bite into the dirt but struggling. 

With your wheels locked up, you will keep gaining speed, which is seriously dangerous in a limited traction scenario. The correct technique is to approach slippery descents as slow as possible and keep your 4WD in low range, first gear. This forces the 4WD’s wheels to turn at a set rate and will control your speed. Try not to accelerate or decelerate too quickly, or you will lose traction.

If by chance you do lose traction, and your wheels are turning slower than you are moving, you need to accelerate and speed the wheels up until they match the speed you are moving, and then gradually decelerate. You can use your brakes, but do so extremely cautiously!

Your tyres must suit the terrain

Four-wheel drive tyres are critical. They are the only thing that touches the ground and provides you with the traction needed to brake, corner and accelerate. Kind of important stuff!

Winter brings rain, and rain brings mud and a massive lack of traction. You must have suitable tyres when it comes to driving in winter. If you are still running the slicks (or highway terrains) that many vehicles come with, I’d advise you not to head out when it’s wet (unless it’s sand work).

Highway terrains just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to 4WDing in the wet, they just aren’t able to bite into the ground enough to keep you moving. It’s not just frustrating, but they can be dangerous.

Sand driving and beach fishing in Western Australia

Sand is a pretty reliable driving medium year-round.

All-terrain tyres are a fantastic compromise – they have much better puncture resistance, provide a lot more traction and they go well in everything from sand through to gravel and mud.

Mud terrain tyres are ideal when the going gets really tough, but these are not always what everyone wants to run.

Four-wheel driving in winter

There’s no reason to lock your 4WD up and wait for the colder months to pass by. After all, winter is the perfect time of year to set up camp around a campfire and prepare hearty stews.

Get it out, get it ready and take it out on an adventure. Some of our best 4WD trips have been in the middle of winter. When it’s rained, we’ve gotten bogged and had a laugh in the process. Ideally, though, you avoid the getting bogged bit!

Australia has some truly epic places to explore – why not get out there this winter?


Where’s your favourite winter 4WDing and camping destination?

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Joined back in July, 2016

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