How to... drive rocky inclines

In this instalment of off-road tips, we will focus on techniques for steep rocky climbs, like the one featured in the article on the way to Wadi Mudbah.

The incline suddenly seems a lot steeper than you had anticipated, and the track gradually deteriorates until the rocks are the size of aggressive camel humps. Recent rains have washed out entire sections, and the surrounding sharp peaks crowd around you ominously - you start having doubts about the sanity of the adventure. In this instalment of off-road tips, we will focus on techniques for steep rocky climbs, like the one featured in the article on the way to Wadi Mudbah.

An early eye on the layout of the terrain is crucial to negotiating a steep incline on a dry, dusty track, and a quick but careful note of where downhill will lead if you slip, can help with your strategy. A four-wheeled vehicle is much more stable when facing directly up or down, but when off-camber, or sideways across the slope, the situation can get tipsy very quickly. So your first calculation must be the worst-case scenario - if the climb goes all wrong, and the wheels slip, and that rock comes loose, and I sneeze and my hat gets stuck over my eyes, where will I end up?

If the common sense part of your brain is screaming danger, then listen to it. There's nothing that forces you to attempt that obstacle other than perhaps a macho ego - and that can be quickly replaced by that split-second chill after the mishap, when you wish you could turn back time. If you feel the climb is within your capabilities, and your worst-case scenario is within your risk management (scrape the bumper slightly, versus roll down that 20m escarpment and explode into flames) then go ahead and engage the low-gear ratio.

The transfer case in your 4x4 directs power (torque) to both front and rear axles, and it hopefully has a "Lo" and a "Hi" setting. If it doesn't, then you have an all-wheel-drive car and should not attempt challenging off-road tracks. The "Lo" setting's reduced gears slow down the vehicle and increase the torque available at each wheel, and will help you maintain traction both climbing up or down.

With one eye on the obstacle ahead and one on both sides of the car, and another on each wheel placement, you can begin your climb. If you have only two eyes, then perhaps convincing an enthusiastic spotter to walk with your vehicle would be a good idea. For me, this task falls to my wonderful wife and partner of 20 years, and I can only wish you similar luck and foresight in spousal selection. The ideal climb is one where you do not stop the vehicle, but slowly inch your way up and over all rocks, loose shale, gutters and bumps, trying to always keep contact between rubber and earth.

If you do have to stop, engage the handbrake and never move into a neutral gear. Starting off again will require a very smooth application of power in order to prevent the wheels slipping. This is the actual danger of such terrain. As long as the wheels maintain traction, the driver will have control over the direction and speed of the vehicle; but when the wheels slip, the direction is determined by gravity.

And gravity rather unapologetically always heads downhill.

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