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From Sand to Snow: Driving Tips for Overlanding on 5 Common Terrain Types

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When you're overlanding and you come up against a new terrain, knowledge is your greatest tool. Whether it's finding a route that offers better traction, adjusting your driving technique, or using your surroundings to assist your rig in overcoming the obstacle of that terrain. When you leave the pavement and head off the grid, it's necessary to understand the basics. In this blog, we will focus specifically on driving techniques you can employ when overlanding on five common terrain types: sand, water, rock crawling, mud, and snow.



overlanding on sand in the desert

Sand

Unless you're cruising via a lightweight dune buggy designed for driving on sand, this ever-shifting terrain can be an absolute nightmare for overlanding. Even the most optimized rigs can get stuck if you're not mindful of your route. Here are a few driving tips that will help you move safely through sand.  

Avoid deep sections of sand

The biggest hurdle when driving on sand is arguably finding traction on the shifting terrain. Unfortunately, this will only become increasingly difficult the deeper the sand is. In deeper sand, your tires are more likely to dig into the ground, causing your rig to get stuck. So, if possible, avoid any areas where the sand is noticeably deep.

Adjust your tire pressure

In sand, it's recommended to lower your tire pressure up to 50% from your recommended pressure for travel on pavement. For example, if your recommended tire pressure for road travel is 32PSI, lower it to about 16PSI for driving on loose sand. This increases the tire's surface area, distributing the weight of the vehicle over a larger area, reducing "sink" and increasing buoyancy.

Note: In a vehicle recovery scenario you can lower it even more to 10 or 8PSI, but be sure to refill your tires back to 12PSI or higher once you're unstuck. 

Keep a steady speed

Sometimes, only momentum can propel you through stretches where the sand is deep. So it's crucial to build up momentum on more solid sections and hit the deep sand as directly as possible to reduce your odds of losing momentum.

Avoid steep inclines

With an increased upward slope, there's an increased chance of getting stuck. When driving in sand, even the easiest inclines can be challenging. Be sure to prioritize routes with longer, subtler slopes. If you fail to ascend, reverse back down your wheel tracks far enough to use those same wheel tracks for a second, faster approach.

Make wide turns

Turning your tires sharply or trying a multipoint turn will act as a brake and progressively dig you deeper into the sand. When possible, make all turns wide to maintain momentum and decrease the chance of getting stuck. 

Avoid gear changes

Avoid significant speed changes or heavy braking as it pushes a sand wall in front of the tires, making regaining traction much harder.

 

overlanding through water

Water

If you frequently travel where water crossings are a factor, you probably already know that you should not attempt to cross if you cannot determine the depth and conditions. But when it's safe to do so, you can utilize these driving techniques to make it safer for both you and your rig. 

Maintain a proper speed

Create a small bow wave if the water is over the height of the bumper. As long as you don't stop when pushing a bow wave, even if the water is deep enough to drown the vehicle, the wave will help lower the water level at the front of the vehicle, especially important around the engine bay and air intake.

Do not shift

If your vehicle has a manual transmission, don't shift while crossing. Water between the clutch disc and flywheel can cause your rig to stall.

Angle downstream

When traversing moving water, angle downstream so that the current assists your progress rather than obstructs it. The next best option is to cross it broadside. Only head upstream if absolutely necessary, as it substantially increases resistance and increases the water power pressing against the front of your rig. 

Do not stop

Once you've entered the water, the most important thing to do is keep going. Don't allow the engine to stall. The gas pressure will keep the water from entering the exhaust pipe as long as the engine is running.

Assess vehicle post crossing

Gently ride the brake pedal for 200 ft or more to dry out the brakes. If at any point the bow wave came over the hood of your car, raise the hood to look for water in the air cleaner.

 

rock crawling while off road overlanding

Rock Crawling

One of the most difficult but exhilarating forms of off-roading is rock crawling. It's all about slow-speed while driving up, down, and across terrain that looks impassable. So, this undertaking requires accuracy, preparation, and knowledge of your route and your vehicle.

Adjust your tire pressure

In rocky terrain or bumpy paths, it's recommended to lower your tire pressure about 20% from your recommended pressure for travel on pavement. For example, if your recommended tire pressure for road travel is 32PSI, lower it to about 24PSI for rock crawling or boulder-strewn routes. This improves tire grip, and passenger comfort.

No need for speed

The word "crawling" translates here because you're attempting to low-pass over the rocks. It's often advised to go no more than 3 miles per hour. Unlike sand, water, or mud crossings, speeding over rocks can get you stuck or damage your car. 

Think one step ahead

When rock crawling, you have to guide your car over the obstacles without error, which means being aware of the exact spot your tires will fall at all times.

Walk the line

To better understand the line, get out of your vehicle and walk it. You can also ask a spotter to get out and help you navigate the rocks.

Watch your tires

Rocks can be sharp and jagged, and the sidewalls of your tires are extremely vulnerable to puncturing. Be cognizant of where your sidewalls might come into contact with rocks, so you can avoid puncturing them. 

Know your angles

For each rock you encounter, you have to be able to judge whether your vehicle can clear it. This is yet another reason why speed isn't on your side when rock crawling: If you go too fast, you might not be able to judge the obstacles in front of you accurately. 

Avoid straddling large rocks

To prevent damaging the underside of your vehicle, line up your tires with the rock so you can quickly drive over them. Don't presume that the middle of your car will be able to clear it. Knowing your car's clearance is crucial.

 

a jeep with a snorkel off-road driving through mud

Mud

There's no escaping it. If you're an overlander, you will have to (get to?) drive in the mud. Driving on mud can be an arduous task. Here are some tips to keep in mind to better tackle muddy terrain.

Check the depth

Gauge the depth of the mud before driving by grabbing a big stick, getting out of your vehicle, and checking the mud depth.  

Follow the ruts

If they are not already too deep, follow the already established ruts on the route. If they are too deep, then straddle the existing ruts. 

Adjust your tire pressure

In mud, it's recommended to increase your tire pressure up to 15% above the recommended pressure for travel on pavement. For example, if your recommended tire pressure for road travel is 32PSI, increase it to about 37PSI for driving through mud. This makes the tire taller and thinner, allowing it to more easily penetrate the loose mud and reach solid dirt beneath it. 

Engage traction control

Utilize all available traction aids on your vehicle when driving in mud. Typically, if you're driving a 4×4 vehicle, it should have a built-in terrain management system.

Keep a steady momentum

To achieve maximum traction avoid rapid speed changes. If the wheels start spinning, lightly press the gas pedal to recover momentum slowly.

Rock back and forth

If you feel bogged, try rocking the tires back and forth. If you can move in any direction, all is not lost. And if moving your tires back and forth doesn't seem to be doing the trick, get out and prepare for a recovery situation.

 

overlanding on snow in a lifted jeep

Snow

Whether it's an overlanding expedition or your daily commute, driving in the snow can be tricky. Here are a few driving tips that can help you mitigate risk when traveling over wintery, icy terrain. 

Adjust your tire pressure

Like with mud, in snow, it's recommended to increase your tire pressure up to 15% above the recommended pressure for travel on pavement. This makes the tire taller and thinner, allowing it to more easily penetrate the loose snow so it can reach a solid, grippy layer underneath. 

Keep Your Distance

Though this is the case in most driving scenarios when the surface is slick, you'll need more time to react. So play it safe and stay far back from the vehicle ahead.

Don't slam on your breaks

When you lose control of your rig, your first instinct might be to slam on those breaks. Do not do this. Remove your foot from the gas pedal first and steer gently in the direction of the skid. 

Do test stops

As you start on your journey, do a few tests in a safe place to gauge how long it takes your vehicle to stop. All sorts of variables come into play, and no two routes are the same, so making sure you know your limits is a great way to keep you and your rig safe on snow.  

Test the Drift

It never hurts to inspect the depth of the snow before you go. Whether traversing large drifts or packed surfaces, knowing what you're getting your rig into can avoid the need to bust out the snow shovel.

Take it easy

There's no rush when driving on snow. Slow and steady is the name of the game when conditions are unfavorable. Overconfidence and impatience are the reasons you see many rigs getting pulled out of a snowbank or ditch. Take it easy when overlanding and save yourself the ever-humbling recovery tow. 



digging out a tire with an ACLIM8 COMBAR

Prepare with Recovery Tools

Whether it's mud, snow, or sand, it's important to carry recovery equipment in case you get stuck. Some worthwhile gear to take with you are tracks, snatch straps or shackles, and a purpose-built multitool.

The COMBAR™ Titanium Pro is a powerful recovery that can dig, hammer, or saw you out of many tricky terrain traps. It has a rigid shaft and solid head with a trowel, axe, and hammer. In addition, the hollow, glass-reinforced polymer shaft contains a storage capsule designed to house your personalized, mission-specific overlanding tools. The COMBAR's strength, durability, and adaptability make it one of the essential overlanding emergency kits items.

Folded, the COMBAR™ Pro takes less space than a rolled-up newspaper, its lightweight and compact size make it easy to transport and stow. Carry it in the COMBAR™ Case for multiple fastening options including tie-downs, or strap-mounts that allow it to be mounted to your truck, ATV or ADV.

 

overlanding in Utah in an adventure van

Having the right driving know-how for all kinds of terrain will give you added peace of mind, but it won't always get you out of trouble. So before heading out, put your money in quality recovery gear, good tires, and an elite, large-format multitool.

Stay tuned for our upcoming articles with overlanding tips on vehicle recovery and insights from veteran overlanders who've seen it all. Do you have driving tips to share that aren't on this list? Join the conversation on Facebook or Instagram!

Want more overlanding? Check out our blogs, 5 Iconic Overlanding Routes in the US: From Easy to Expert and Overlanding? Keep These Five Essential Items In Your Emergency Kit at All Times. 

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Shop the gear from this article:

COMBAR™ Titanium Pro

COMBAR™ Case

How-To's Overlanding

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