› Gravel driving

Five practical ways to prepare for gravel driving

You'll do a lot of gravel driving on a trip around Australia, it's hard to avoid it. But it's your car and camper that can pay the price. Here are five easy things you can do to save yourself a whole lot of trouble.

So often, we'll start driving on gravel and think…

"It's okay, no need to do anything." We still do it now. Then the road deteriorates gradually, and we get lazy, so we still do nothing.  And that's the trap. It's comfy in the air-conditioned car, and the road doesn't seem too bad.

A little dust up Cape York, gets much much worse!A little dust up Cape York...it gets much, much worse!

But, if you shred a tyre and have to pull over to replace it…

You would have saved time by dropping your tyre pressure to start with. If that was your last spare and the next tyre place is 400km away, it adds even more stress (we've been there).

Whether you've done 10 or 1000 kilometres on gravel, problems can always pop up. Some of it's pure luck, good or bad – but some of it comes down to preparation. You can definitely reduce the risk of damage to your vehicle and camper by taking a little extra care and being prepared. Here's how:

1. Invest in a tyre gauge and decent air compressor

Tyre gauges cost $10-15 and they are one of the most essential pieces of equipment you'll buy. Having one means you can always consistently measure your tyre pressure. We keep ours in the tray on the driver's side door at all times.

When you carry an air compressor, you'll be more willing to drop your tyre pressure when you need to. Treat yourself to a good one that can do the job. Low flow-rate compressors will not cut it with deflated 4WD tyres, not to mention a trailer. They will overheat and you'll be there forever. You can pick up a good high-flow compressor online for $100-200. You'll need a minimum 72 litres/min, 150 litres/min is even better.

With our 72 litre compressor, we could inflate all six tyres on our car and camper from 16psi to 30psi, plus help out with 1-2 of our friends' tyres. 

2. Manage your tyre pressure

You don't have to deflate your tyres for every bit of gravel driving, but if you're in doubt at all about the road conditions…don't hesitate.

Save yourself the effort later.

If there are sharp rocks, corrugations, or if you're going to be driving on gravel for a while – get out of the car, stretch your legs, and spend a few minutes dropping your tyre pressure.

Save time at the pit stop

Our kids used to help by grabbing a stick and counting to 20 while they held in the tyre valve – then Kumar would tweak it to be just right.

You'll soon get a feel for the right pressure for your car and tonnage in different conditions. Here's a quick guide to start you off:

  • Reduce by 10% for all loose gravel surfaces. This will give you a larger tyre footprint and more grip on the road.
  • Reduce by 20-30% for corrugations to make your ride more comfortable and give your suspension a bit of rest.
  • Reduce by 30-35% to soften the tyre side walls so that sharp rocks are less likely to puncture them, plus you won't feel every jerk.

To give you even more insight, take a look at this video from Australian 4WD Action.

3. Find the right speed

It's a tricky thing to manage your speed on gravel and 4WD roads. Go too fast and you'll damage your car and maybe your passengers. Go too slow and you'll feel every jerk and bump, rattling around in your head for days after. Just enough speed will give you an easier, smoother ride. Experiment with different speeds, especially on corrugations.

How your vehicle copes with gravel driving depends on your suspension, the weight you're towing, and the condition of the road you are on. Whatever you're driving, you'll feel a difference when you get your speed right.

4. Do regular visual checks

We once had an oncoming vehicle flash us on the Nathan River Road (NT), and we had no idea why. Thank goodness they stopped and told us. We had punctured a trailer tyre and kept on towing it without noticing.

When you're driving on gravel, you can't feel a flat tyre the way you would normally.

And because of the dust cloud you create, you often can't see it either! It pays to stop the car every so often to check the tyres. You may not need to get out of the car, just let the dust settle and take a good look. Otherwise you could completely shred a tyre beyond repair – and that is one expensive mistake! 

Gravel driving up the Dampier Peninsula

5. Get a second spare

Depending on how remote you're going, you could consider getting a second spare tyre for your car. We carried a second spare across the Gibb River Road, but it was just a tyre (not the rim). When we replaced our car tyres, we kept one of the old tyres that still had some tread. Our theory was that we could beg a station owner to help us get the spare onto the rim, if we needed to.

If you have the opportunity to get a second spare on a rim, that would be even better. Another option is to fit the same tyres to your car and camper, which makes all the tyres interchangeable (great solution, but potentially really expensive).

Don't get stuck, use these tips for any off-road driving you do, not just gravel driving.

Tyres alone can add up to a big expense…

So invest in them on your trip around Oz. Get to know your tyres and look after them on gravel roads. Prepare yourself for gravel driving and you'll protect yourself against a whole raft of potential problems. Plus, you'll have a safe and more comfortable ride!