How to drive on dirt and gravel roads | Top tips

Editorial Team — 21 June 2024

From deserts to beaches, forested high country to savannah plains and everything in between — Australia’s huge variety of terrain makes four-wheel driving one of our most popular pastimes.

Dirt and gravel roads lead to worthwhile destinations and there are literally thousands of opportunities for 4WD and camping enthusiasts to sample the broad spectrum of offroad adventures on offer.

However, sudden changes in road surface requires a new approach and sometimes a special set of skills. If you’re looking to tackle the Gunbarrel Highway, battle the Old Telegraph Track to Cape York, or cross the Simpson Desert via the French Line, you'll need to know how to handle every kind of terrain.

Preparation is an important part of any 4WD trip, and a big part of that is understanding the terrain you’re likely to encounter. In the following article we’ve done our best to outline the basics of each type of terrain, so you have a good base of knowledge with which to start your offroad adventure.

While any 4WD or AWD vehicle will be suitable for unsealed dirt and gravel roads, the greatest tool for safe driving on dirt and gravel terrain is a switched-on driver, as conditions and road surfaces are so varied and vehicle handling will change accordingly.

Take it easy

No matter how nicely graded and maintained the surface may be, once you leave the bitumen for an unsealed road, you’ll have less traction than on the paved surface. It’s important to slow down a bit to get a feel for how the road surface handles. Take corners slower than you would on a paved road and leave a greater distance between your vehicle and those in front. Rural unsealed roads can be unpredictable. The surface can be uneven ground, loose gravel, there may be water crossings, dips and floodways. It’s important to pay attention to the track well ahead of you. If you have a sat-nav device it will help you to see any sharp bends that may be approaching; however, potholes and washouts may only be visible with the naked eye.

Drive to the conditions

Even just a light sprinkling of rain can turn a nice, smooth dirt road into a slick, slippery surface very quickly. Heavy rain, traffic, animal activity and several other factors can affect the way a road handles from one week to the next. Be aware of conditions and to drive to them accordingly. Check the weather forecasts and pay attention to condition reports from local transportation and roads authorities. Another good way to stay up to date with the latest road conditions is to ask those heading in the opposite direction. These sorts of conversations are easily had at campsites and roadhouses. Ask fellow travellers where they’ve been and where they’re headed and if they’ve travelled the roads you’re planning to travel, ask how they were.

Handling corrugations

Some 60 to 70 per cent of our roads are unsealed which means that any kind of driving through rural and regional Australia will involve dirt and gravel roads. And with this, comes corrugations.

Corrugations are the surface ripples that develop on dirt and gravel roads, also known as washboarding. This phenomenon is attributed to dry, granular road surfaces that receive regular traffic travelling at speed. If you’re heading offroad in almost any part of Australia, you’ll encounter corrugations.

Aside from producing a very uncomfortable ride, the vibrations experienced when driving along corrugations can play havoc with your rig. Bolts can shake loose, shock absorbers can receive a pounding, aerials can wobble off and cupboard doors can fall off. It’s important to perform regular vehicle checks when travelling on corrugated roads to assess any damage that has occurred and fix it before it becomes worse or dangerous.

When you hit corrugated roads, the aim is to control your vehicle in such a manner as to skip along the top of the corrugations, rather than bouncing between them.

Factors that contribute to this are tyre pressure, vehicle weight, suspension and speed. Reducing tyre pressure by about 20 per cent will result in a smoother ride by increasing your tyre’s shock absorbing properties. Finding the right tyre pressure may take some patience; however, you should keep in mind that reducing pressure too far on corrugations will produce poor handling and increase the speed with which the air inside the tyre heats up. It’s recommended that you take a break every hour or so to allow tyres and suspension to cool down.

It can be much more comfortable to drive a bit faster to achieve this skipping effect, but it’s important to note that corrugations produce a repetitive loading and unloading of your shock absorbers, which results in a sharp decrease in handling. While it may be tempting to speed up, pay close attention to how your vehicle is handling and back it off if it feels like you’re struggling for control.

Corrugations also tend to be more pronounced around corners, due to vehicle braking and acceleration, making it necessary to slow down even more than usual on sharp bends.

Safe passing

In many parts of rural and regional Australia, unsealed roads will not be wide enough for two oncoming vehicles to pass one another. This can lead to some tricky situations, but in most cases it just calls for a bit of cooperation.

Contact the other vehicle over UHF radio to work out the best way of going forward. As you see an oncoming vehicle, slow down and pull to the side to allow enough room to pass. This may mean slowing down considerably as you pull onto the shoulder, though you should always try to keep two wheels on the road, and the oncoming vehicle may do the same. In some instances, you may encounter large trucks or road trains, in which case the onus is on you to get out of their way, since they have a far more difficult time getting out of yours. Pay extra care if you’re towing a caravan or trailer, since the shoulders of unsealed roads may be loose and soft.

If you encounter an oncoming vehicle on a single-wide track that’s hemmed in by trees and bush, then you’ll need to assess the situation and one of you may need to reverse as far as the nearest passing area. Again, radios can come in handy here and are also useful in some places to warn any drivers nearby of your approach.

Overtaking should be handled with caution and only when necessary. Use your radio to alert other drivers and ask them to allow you past. Be aware that the dust cloud you create when passing can temporarily obliterate the vision of the other driver. Similarly, be courteous to any vehicles that may wish to pass you; stubbornly refusing to give them the chance to do so doesn’t make anybody happy.

A few simple courtesies such as these can keep everyone safe as well enjoy our four-wheel drive adventures on Australia’s many thousands of kilometres of dirt and gravel roads.


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Driving safety Dirt and gravel roads Road conditions Corrugations Overtaking