In this series of articles we are dealing with the challenges of the most difficult, challenging and potentially dangerous country that one can encounter off-road – mud.
We have discussed some of the types of mud drivers can encounter, from the coastal ranges to the deserts, and have discussed how mud can influence your trip planning and the delays it can cause.
In spite of my best efforts, many of our customers ignore our advice relating to fuel and water. They plan these vital supplies on the assumption of dry conditions, good weather, no mishaps, no vehicle breakdowns and no detours.
They fuel up and take on water to allow for ‘just the right amount’. They give every reason why they don’t need a long-range tank and why one jerry can will do.
They think they can cross the Simpson Desert in a day or two with two flasks of water – all nonsense!
A rainstorm in the Simpson can extend your trip by days – unless you’re into drinking muddy water and know basic survival techniques, you will run out of water.
Saturated or flooded areas will cause you to backtrack or at best detour – both require additional and usually large amounts of fuel.
Leaving Oodnadatta and heading for Birdsville, only to find Eyre Creek in flood (this is a real situation that has occurred), and then having to return to Mount Dare or Oodnadatta or travel south to the Rig Line, only to find that Warburton Crossing in flood, highlights the need for a safety margin in fuel.
Do not scoff at the idea. In most cases it will not be needed but when confronted with mud and flooding, suddenly the equation changes.
Back in 1998 on a trip up the Canning Stock Route, the number of detours increased our overall distance travelled by a factor of three along some sections. Combine this with dramatic increases in fuel consumption due to the heavy going combined with 4WD low gear (fuel consumption for a diesel 100 Series LandCruiser dropped from 7km per litre to 2km or 3km a litre).
So the need for additional fuel becomes acutely clear. Mud driving increases fuel consumption so be prepared for it.
Prolonged mud driving dramatically increases wear and tear on vehicles. Engines and drive trains come under excessive loads; clutches slip and wear.
Fine clay and silt combined with water penetrate all components, causing wear and potential failure. Wheel bearings on the vehicle and trailers are particularly susceptible, as are electrical components.
Winches can clog with water and mud. Windows scratch when lowered and raised. Duco suffers. Exhausts clog, as do wheel arches which fill with mud, restricting wheel rotation and suspension travel. The list goes on.
Have the tools, equipment, lubricants and parts on board to allow for these conditions. Take a shovel and tools to clean out mudguards and the undersides of vehicles. Share these among the group.
Apply commonsense and check vehicles and trailers regularly. Trailer bearings, in particular, fail due to lack of inspection and re-tightening in these situations.
We have discussed this equipment in previous articles but suffice to say that a snatch strap, at least two bow shackles and a 20-metre winch/tow strap are essential.
In many cases a winch could be essential, as will be demonstrated in some case studies later.
A long-handled shovel is essential for clearing mud from beneath and around a bogged vehicle.
Traction mats are a great aid, especially when combined with a jack – air jacks come into their element here – and don’t forget a good-sized jacking plate to avoid having the jack sink into the mud.
Tyre repair gear is essential in isolated locations because staking is common in mud – hidden roots, sticks and rocks can cause tyre damage. Make sure you have the knowledge and have practised skills to use the equipment before you get stuck in the mud.
Prepare your vehicle in ways that will increase traction and clearance – more about this later, but this is a function of tyre design, vehicle clearance and differentials.
Avoid mud wherever possible. There are those drivers who are attracted to mud like a duck to water: They love it and they also like all the cleaning, maintenance and repairs associated with it.
Mud causes more damage to your vehicle than any other material in the short term. Avoid it where possible. Drive around it. Get out of your vehicle and test it for depth, traction and potential obstacles just as you would when negotiating water or a stream crossing. Make no assumptions and err on the side of safety.
Finally, don’t be dazzled by all the claims that vehicle manufacturers make about traction controls and so on. When travelling through mud many of these devices are of no great benefit. Traction controls such as 4WD high and low gear, combined with diff locks, represent the best available.
First some basics. Get the kids to wind up the windows to keep the mud off the upholstery. Make sure your wiper washer bottle is full – you will need to use your wipers to clear muddy water off the windscreen and mud will scratch the windscreen under wipers so keep the water handy.
4Wds are not the most aerodynamic when moving through mud – invariably muddy material and water will be sprayed over the vehicle so speed control is essential.
Place your hands on the steering wheel in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions for best control, especially for rotating the steering wheel. Thumbs should be out of the inner orbit of the wheel so that if the vehicle strikes an obstacle and the steering wheel spins, you won’t break your thumb.
Have recovery gear handy and accessible. Make sure you wash out all recovery gear whenever possible and dry it out. Recovery gear must be maintained.
If the situation looks dangerous or unpredictable, get the rest of the family out of the vehicle to reduce stress and tensions. Agree on who is in charge.
Mud driving needs concentration and control and too many cooks won’t always help. Be prepared to take advice from those are more experienced and who are in the know. Humility is an asset.
Engage 4WD. This may sound obvious but it is surprising how many people fail to do it, especially in frantic situations. If you have manual hubs, engage them. Auto hubs will lock in when 4WD is engaged and/or the centre diff is engaged.
Choose the right gear – we will return to this later. Engage diff locks if you have them; 100% traction to all wheels is a most desirable situation in mud.
I am amazed at people who do not want to engage 4WD or diff locks to save wear and tear or fuel. If you have them, use them wisely. That is what 4WDs are for!
As is the case with all unpredictable surfaces, get out and check the track and surfaces. Check mud holes and ruts for obstacles to avoid vehicle and tyre damage.
Do not just plunge in and hope for the best. You may damage your vehicle and/or spend a long time recovering your vehicle.
On steep slopes, the general rule is if you cannot keep your own footing, your vehicle certainly will not – it will slide downhill.
Have your recovery gear accessible. Trying to find and remove gear when stuck in mud is a real pain. Ensure that your winch is in working order (although this should have been done before you set out).
Check for detours and get out and walk them – they may not be obvious from the vehicle.
If you are in a group, get the vehicle with a winch through first. This vehicle can then act as a tow/recovery vehicle.
Check out the area beyond the bog for winching points. Don’t wait until after the event. It may be wise for the lead vehicle to scout ahead – if the mud and bog conditions further ahead are excessive, it may be wise to turn back.
In the case of longitudinal ruts (running on the direction of the track), it may be necessary to use high 4WD or at least 4th or 5th low to get and maintain forward speed and momentum to carry you through.
If there is a lot of water present, don’t forget to put a blind on your vehicle (I’m assuming you have a snorkel installed) to avoid water getting into your air intake.
Check that the ruts are not too deep so that you will avoid getting hung up on the centre rises. Back off on acceleration once you have cleared the main section of the mud and traction is assured.
If one vehicle has cleared the mud section, keep it on hand to tow other vehicles through slowly to avoid damage to vehicles and the track.
For steep ascents and descents with muddy surfaces, danger can be extreme.
It may be far better to wait until the surface dries out. Once again, get one vehicle up, if necessary by using a winch. That vehicle can then act as an anchor point – if necessary, secured to an anchor such as a tree – or as a tow vehicle.
Low range should be used, keeping to the uphill side of the track. Be prepared to direct your vehicle into the gutter away from that edge if necessary – you don’t want to go over there.
Moving the steering from side to side will assist in clearing mud from the tyres as well as maximising grip and traction.
Maintain a steady momentum, accelerating and decelerating if traction is lost.
Have chocks available before you start as these may be needed quickly to stop your vehicle sliding if you are forced to a stop. Have a passenger willing and ready to insert them at quick notice.
Good chocks are available from all reputable 4WD stores. Remember, your vehicle can just as readily slide backwards like a toboggan out of control on a muddy surface, with gravity directing the traffic. Again, in such a situation be prepared to steer back in towards the embankment to trap and secure the vehicle. This is preferable to sliding over the edge.
In extreme situations, mud or snow chains can be used to dig into the surface to gain traction but be aware that the use of these is illegal on all forestry and NPWS tracks because of how they can damage the track. But if there is no alternative and the situation is extremely dangerous, you be the judge.
On steep descents, let the engine compression control descent and avoid braking, which will lock the wheels. Tyres filled with mud form a smooth surface so you will quickly lose control.
It may be necessary to do the very thing that runs contrary to your judgement and that is to accelerate to regain control, maintain control and steerage and avoid a slide.
Finally, you may need to use some momentum to get started on your ascent so be ready to change gears from, say, 4th low to 1st low, quickly and efficiently so not to lose momentum and traction.
Cross slopes in particular are dangerous as the tangential force of gravity will slowly but surely pull you across the slope towards the gutter or embankment (most tracks are graded in this direction) or worse still, towards the edge that falls away.
Sometimes it may be necessary to allow your vehicle to slide towards the gutter and come to rest to regain composure and control, even if it means scraping or denting your vehicle – the alternative may be far more excessive.
In general you will need to use a ‘cross saw’ motion on such surfaces. Direct your vehicle up the side slope of the track with acceleration and then decelerate to allow the rear of the vehicle to come around. Repeat this action continuously until you gain better traction – you are in effect crabbing along the track.
On outback tracks, apply all of the above when necessary. Gearing, maintaining steady momentum, accelerating and decelerating, moving your steering wheel from side to side to gain traction and so on will all assist.
In general, however, keep to the centre of the track and avoid the side gutters which will be quagmires which will trap you for long periods. Winching points may be entirely absent and any tow vehicle will not be able to gain traction to extract you.
Do not side-track onto adjacent ground – you will sink up to your chassis or worse. The track surface is at least capped or compacted due to regular vehicle passage and therefore represents the best traction surface.
This principle applies across the board even when track ruts are filled with water – the ruts are compacted while the edges and adjacent surface are totally unconsolidated.
On the Canning Stock Route, I have been able to travel long distances on flooded and muddy tracks because of this principle while any attempts at detour involved an immediate bog.
In dune desert terrain, it may be possible to detour around muddy claypans and tracks by following the edge of the sandy dune until a cross or interconnected dune allows you to return to the track on the other side of the flooded and mud-filled section.
If you are forced to take this alternative (remember Tread Lightly principles), minimise your impact and scout it out first so that you are convinced it will achieve the desired result.
Avoid speed on muddy tracks in the outback as rollovers are a real threat if the vehicle loses traction and goes into the gutter. Be very conscious of top-heaviness if you are carrying gear on a roof rack.
When you get the chance – at a stream or waterhole along the track – clear mud from your vehicle, particularly mudguard recesses, tyres, brakes and hubs. Remember to dry out your brakes – especially drum brakes – after exiting muddy water sections of track.
When negotiating mud remember;
• Slow and steady
• Safety first
• Check out the track
• Minimise environmental impact
• Observe road closure signs
• If necessary, set up camp and wait for the track to dry out – within reason. The CSR track took nearly four years to dry out after the cyclones of 1998!
Tyre pressures are critical. The same principles apply as in the case of sand.
Tyres highly inflated or at highway pressure will slip and lose traction while tyres deflated to around 15-20psi will increase grip and traction and assist steerage, although steering will be heavier.
Remember that when negotiating muddy ruts that the risk of staking and damage will be greatly increased. Use pressures that will maximise traction but minimise damage – there is always a compromise.
On returning to base or home, have your vehicle thoroughly serviced with particular attention to drive train components and oils, brakes (muddy grit accelerates wear), checking tyres for damage and all electricals.
Clean your vehicle. Mud can bake hard on your entire vehicle, damaging duco and even staining it.
The longer it is left, the bigger and harder the clean-up. While your ego may be enhanced by driving around the local neighbourhood in a dirty 4WD, you will find most people don’t really care!
More could be said but the above covers the main principles for the recreational 4WD operator – I am not preparing you for mud-run events!
Hopefully you will have gained a greater appreciation of the challenges and dangers. When experienced travellers talk about the black or red soil plains of the inland and the slicks or ‘silks’ of the high country, you will know what they mean.
Carry a full recovery kit. Just a winch may be useless if you do not have proper recovery gear available. Make sure it is serviced and accessible.
A winch comes into its own when negotiating mud. Whether it is vehicle mounted (electric, hydraulic or PTO) or a hand winch, make sure it is working efficiently. For a hand winch, take spare shear pins.
Mud tyres are what they say they are. Their lug pattern maximises grip, traction and mud evacuation from the tread. They also have lugs on the sidewall adjacent to the main tread, designed to aid grip and act as ‘paddles’. They are the best option for all off-road driving excel in mud but the wider lug separation exposes them to stakes – all the more reason to check the mud holes and ruts you intend to negotiate.
We always carry mud or snow chains in the high country but use them only in emergencies complying with Government Authority rules.
These will always ensure maximum traction to all wheels while traction exists. They are expensive but I believe essential for the 4WD operator regularly entering potentially muddy terrain. Ensure that air lockers (if you have them) are in working order before you set out. Get them serviced if necessary.
MUD OR TRACTION MATS
These can help gain traction over short distances. Repeated insertion may be necessary but they can assist in more consistent mud. Some people use the ex-Army tracks which they carry on roof racks – they are about 2-3 metres long. These are only for the enthusiast – especially Land-Rover owners! On the Walcott Inlet Track (Kimberley) adjacent to the 12 Hour Bog (it supposedly takes you that long to get a vehicle through) a tour operator has left these against a tree at the beginning of the bog to assist drivers – a great assistance in bottomless black mud!
BULL BAGS OR EXHAUST JACKS
These are useful for lifting vehicles to gain clearance to insert mats, branches, rocks and other materials aimed at gaining traction. Their wide flotation base counters the tendency to sink into mud – a common problem with other jacks. If you have a Hi-lift or hydraulic jack, ensure you carry a large jack plate to counter sinking and to provide a solid surface. Ensure your vehicle has jacking points and/or you carry Hi-lift bumper or hub adaptors in the their absence.
This is essential. Have it secured to your roof rack and accessible with appropriate holders that are readily available.
Carry appropriate equipment. Mud contains stakes that can cause multiple punctures so beware. Be capable of using such equipment and practise before setting out. Carry an air compressor capable of re-setting the bead as well as being able to reinflate tyres after negotiating mud.
SAW OR AXE
Carry these for cutting branches to insert under tyres to gain traction – ensure you clear off all the side branches which form potential stakes.
Get some experience through training before the event – it helps greatly.
1984, The Gibber Plains, Wanaaring to Tibooburra, NSW. We were camped on the Paroo River and it began to rain at 1 am. We packed immediately. The usual 2.5-hour trip to Tibooburra took 13.5 hours. It was steady as you go, applying all of the above techniques. We were passed by a faster group of vehicles who thought it all to exciting and came across them with one vehicle rolled with a woman and child severely concussed. Rendered assistance, rolled the vehicle back onto its feet and got them to follow us to Tibooburra.
We spent 13 days holed up at the back of the Family Hotel in two storerooms and makeshift shelters. We certainly got to know the locals and all the other visitors – truckers, cattlemen, uni research students and some backpackers. Invented games and went for walks observing fool’s gold washed out in the main streets.
Our Simpson Desert Trip did not eventuate in spite of a number of RTA-permitted attempts to break out to Camerons Corner. In retrospect, it was one of the best trips ever in the memories of all who were involved.
1991, High Country Victoria . Caught in a valley after rain. Retreat was blocked by three separate steep ascents; forward progress by one long one. We went forward. One vehicle was driven as far up the slope (about 300 metres long in its main ascent) as possible in five attempts and then chocked. It was then winched to the top and used as a tow vehicle for all the other vehicles – 15 in all.
Because the track was curved and a dangerous gully existed on one side, winching pulley blocks were installed at three locations attached to trees with tree protectors. A 150-metre cable was used with 30-metre winch straps to pull vehicles up in stages.
A vehicle would have to be disconnected and re-connected at various points to be able to achieve the ascent. Crews were set up at each point to achieve this. UHF signalling was agreed on and used and all safety measures insisted on.
It took 15 hours to get all vehicles out, followed by some harrowing mud slicks and slides before a main gravel track was gained.
1999, CSR. Following a major downpour – over 300mm in 10 hours. For every kilometre forward we detoured via the inter-connected dunes for 5km to 8km! Fuel became a major issue but we had applied our normal principle of allowing for additional fuel reserves. Numerous winching exercises to get a lead tow vehicle through.
Most track ruts were solid due to compaction, even though covered in water up to 45cm deep. We could not stop on these too long as they would collapse under the vehicle weight due the saturated sub-strata. Made it to Well 33 to refuel as arranged. Abandoned further progress and exited via the Telfer Road – the Kidson Track was under 1.5 metres of water .
2004, Coastal Ranges south of Yamba, NSW. Heavy rain along boggy ruts. A case of getting one vehicle through with momentum and a winch and then using it to get the others through.