Hilux in a big rut

Driving tips

by Rudi Schwartz

Outback travelling is not necessarily “off-road” travelling which requires more skill and a fully equipped vehicle.

Driving is driving. One has to be able to master the basic tricks of driving as such, and outback driving will follow.  I say this because there is a huge difference between 4Wdriving and driving in the outback.

One of the terms people are not clear about is “off-road”.  When do I go “off-roading”?  When I leave the blacktop to go on a bush track along the creek about 20kms out of the big smoke?  Or is off-roading that specific form of activity which requires definite skill, a specific vehicle with long wheel travel, up-graded suspension, etc? 

In my book outback travelling is going to the back of beyond where there are reasonable roads, which might require special skill and approach, but on average, does not compare with “off-roading” as a form of sport.

I hate it when people create the idea that one has to have a vehicle with $20,000 worth of after-market equipment before you can go outback.  Nonsense!  It is there for you to enjoy—just use commonsense, and take onboard all the tips of the trade. 

As I said on another page, distances, availability of fuel and spare parts, and climate are the factors everyone planning an outback trip, must keep in mind.  And yes, road conditions will surprise the inexperienced.  Throw in a few sand stretches, and you’re in for something out of the ordinary.

You will agree that driving circumstances might differ in different locations.  That’s why the novice 4X4 will find it beneficial to attend driving classes.

So, what am I talking about on this page?  This is not a page for driving techniques;  you will find this somewhere else.

What I want to share with you is practical—and commonsensical—experience.

Rule #1

One cannot overstress Rule #1:  don’t drive like you are a hero; there is no place for heroes on our roads.

Driving a big 4X4 might give you the idea that nothing will stop you.  Pretending you are a know-it-all hero is dangerous and plain stupid! A crunched ego due to trying to be a hero is very humiliating; but being responsible for the loss of someone else’s limbs, or even life, will haunt you for many years.

Rule #2 

Don’t take risks; it’s not worth the while.  You don’t need to see if your vehicle can really climb the track or swim the creek.  If you really want to do this, join a 4X4 adventure club and if you have to do stunts, do it where others with experience and with the right recovery gear are present.

Rule #3

Get stuck in a 4X4 and you are truly stuck.  Having full-time or part time 4WDrive, with diff locks or not having diff locks , does not mean that you will necessarily make it through mud, snow or water.  Take this attitude, and you will discover that your 4X4 actually took you deeper into trouble if you do not take the necessary steps, or apply the correct gear.

Rule #4

Always carry at least the minimum recovery gear and tools with you.  4WD outlets will advise you what your basic needs might be. 

  1. Check your spare wheel

  2. Have the basic spanners handy

  3. Get a few D shackles (get the high tensile steel ones)

  4. Have the correct size fan belt handy

  5. A snatch strap is a marvel.  Get one!

  6. Have a selection of fuses in your toolbox

  7. A tubeless tyre repair kit will help you when stranded far from the nearest service station

  8. A bit of WD40 (or a similar product) is a must (or graphite powder for dry lubrication)

Sealed roads are not sealed roads

Once you leave the black top of the city and the main roads, you might end up on a highway which is not a highway which meets all definitions.  Highways in Australia are major connections between major centres, running in a general direction, usually taking in quite a few towns from beginning to end.  Some of these can be dirt roads which have not seen the sight of a grader in many a year.  So, don’t be fooled by the title “highway”.  The Silver City Highway between Broken Hill and Tibooburra can be at times more than what a passenger car can endure; other sections are pretty good.  The Gunbarrel Highway is at certain spots not more than a track.

Dirt roads

Now we’re talking business.  All dirt roads are not found in the outback, but as a rule of thumb one can say most outback roads are dirt roads.

Some dirt roads are better than sealed roads, depending on when they were last graded, or when the last good rain fell on it.

A few rules:

  1. Some dirt roads can have deep pools (potholes) of bull dust.  If you are following someone, you will know when to expect it:  the cloud of dust will rise, more than usual.  These bull dust holes become bog holes in the wet.

  2.  Always maintain a good following distance.  Driving close behind someone else will cost you a windscreen, and visibility will be down to nothing in thick dust.  You might even consider using your headlights whilst following someone else.  If you need to be in contact, use a UHF radio.

  3. Think about turning on your headlights if you follow another vehicle, or if the dust seems thick.

  4. If the road signs say the roads are closed due to wet weather, accept it.  It is against the law to drive on a closed road when stated.   You might be up for thousands of dollars fine (some cases up to $1000 per wheel—include your trailer too!) if caught driving on a closed road.  Contact the local police or ring the appropriate automobile club for information.  Listen to radio bulletins for road conditions.

  5. You will share the road with road trains carrying live stock and other agricultural goods.  There is no point in playing chicken with them;  once you have spotted one, pull over, stop and give it the right of way. You can be sure this way you will save yourself a windscreen.


A track is a way between destinations which are not necessarily gazetted, which means it does not appear on “normal” road maps and it is not maintained by the authorities. It may run through private properties, or through National Parks.

Having said that, you need to know that you don’t deserve the right of way; take what you get with humble gratitude.

Tracks might also run through land belonging to remote Indigenous people.  Being on these tracks is thus a privilege and not a right.  Respect the owners of the land.  You might need a permit to travel through these lands.

A few rules to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you have permission to drive over the land.

  2. Get information from locals to whom the land belongs and what rules apply.  Stick to those rules.

  3. Always leave a gate the same way as you find it.

  4. Take your litter along in your vehicle; never throw out your rubbish at gates—or anywhere, for that   matter.

  5. Never give in to the temptation to shoot wild animals, or any animals for that matter.  You need permits to do it; visitors are not issued with these permits—that is, if you have a permit to own a firearm!!

  6. Never flick your cigarette butt out of your window.  Many uncontrollable bush fires started that way, with people’s livelihood at risk.

  7. It is wise to follow your road maps (or electronic maps) very strictly and not to rely on your own sense of direction.  The majority of people who get lost do so because they don’t trust their maps and then follow their own heads.

  8. Identify landmarks as far as you go and check the position of the sun all the time to get a general direction of travel.  This will help you to find your way back if you are lost. (Just something which might help:  moss usually grows on the south-side of a tree trunk, out of the direct sun.)

  9. Determine the direction of the usual flow of a creek by looking at what side of a tree trunk the debris (tree bark, grass, etc) is stuck; the flow is way from the debris.

Wet unsealed roads and tracks

  1. If you face water over the road, turn off you ignition, get out and assess the situation.  If you need to calm yourself down by first getting out the gas stove for a cuppa, do so; you are after all out bush to enjoy it.

  2. You should have hand gloves and a pair of water boots.  Put them on, get yourself a long stick and see if you can walk through the water (only if the current is not strong; otherwise please stay out of the water!).  If it seems shallow enough, probe with the stick in the water to find possible holes, which will of course put your vehicle deeper into the water.  And then, if you are not sure, wait! I have pitched a tent to stay a night to work out what to do next; it paid off!

  3. If you are absolutely sure that you will make it across, ascertain how deep the water can be without ingressing into your vehicle.  Keep in mind the vital parts of the breathing of the engine, the electrical and electronic parts of the engine, and also the doors.  You might need to fit a tarp over the grille of your vehicle to divert the water away from the engine.  Remember to remove it immediately after the water crossing to allow the flow of cool air through the radiator.

  4. Always try to maintain a steady speed though the crossing. This will ensure that you create a wave around the front of your vehicle.

  5. Don’t try to navigate around a bog when it seems like there is no other way out.  Stay on the crown of the road, which is usually the hardest and the highest.  Once you have ended up in the table drain, getting out is virtually impossible on your own.

  6. There is an exception:  trust the locals; if they find a detour around a bog, you might follow them, but only after you are sure that is a safe option.