How To Drive Safely On Gravel Roads

The new year is a good time to revisit some fundamentals of four-wheeling. Key among those is how to drive on gravel and dirt roads. After all, four-wheeling necessarily involves driving on unpaved surfaces.

First, we’ll look at the hazards. Then we’ll review steps you can take for safer driving on gravel roads.

Hazards of driving on gravel

The hazards of driving on gravel are many, and include:

Reduced traction: It’s no secret that traction is reduced on gravel, dirt and sand. Vehicles handle differently on these surfaces compared to paved roads. There’s a greater potential for skidding, and stopping distances are greater.

Traction is also reduced on ‘washboard’ trails. Plus, the pounding effect takes its toll on the drive train and other parts.

Road use often limited to one lane: Drivers tend to drive down the center of gravel roads. That’s smart, as it keeps the vehicle away from the gravel berms often found along the shoulder. More on that in a bit. The danger lurks in the form of drivers coming from the opposite direction doing the same.

Sight is restricted on curves and hills: This is true on all roads. It’s especially a concern off-road, where trails tend to be narrower than city roads and you are driving in the middle..

Loose gravel along the shoulders: As road graders smooth the road, they leave a berm of gravel along the shoulders. If driven into improperly, that wedge of gravel can cause a vehicle to go out of control. Avoid hitting these if possible.

Washouts and potholes: These often have sharp edges and can be rather deep. Hitting one at high speed can result in significant damage to tires and shocks/struts.

Parking on a trail or gravel road: Always a little dangerous, as the roads tend to be narrow. Avoid parking near blind curves or at the base of hills.

Visibility diminished when close behind another vehicle: Vehicles kick up a large plume of dust as they drive on gravel or dirt. Visibility can be near zero if you’re close behind. Reaction time is short, and you may not see obstacles and hazards on the road or along the right shoulder.

How to safely drive on gravel roads

Four-wheelers can take a number of steps to mitigate those hazards.

Air down and slow down: Reducing tire pressure to18- 15 psi results in a bigger footprint for the tire meaning more contact on the ground. Driving slower provides more reaction time, reduces the dust that’s kicked up, and helps to maintain control of the vehicle.

Whatever the recommended stopping distance is on pavement, double that on gravel. Give yourself more time to react.

Drive in 4WD High: As soon as you get on gravel (or dirt), put the vehicle in 4WD High. Power in those front wheels gives the vehicle more control. You’ll stand a better chance of pulling out of a slide or spin if in 4WD High.

Always look ahead: Take advantage of the added visibility when atop a hill or other high spot. Regardless of where you are on a trail, look ahead as far as you can for other vehicles.

Watch for a dust cloud in the distance. If you see one, chances are someone’s on the trail. But, just because you don’t see a dust cloud doesn’t mean that there isn’t a vehicle out there. Sometimes the light is just so that you can’t see clearly.

Drive in own lane when approaching hills: Recall that drivers coming toward you are probably hogging the center. Move way over in your lane for maximum distance. The same applies when approaching blind curves.

Drive through gravel berms: If you catch a wheel in a gravel berm, resist the temptation to jerk the vehicle back into the center of the road. I’ve heard of people who rolled a vehicle by jerking the wheel.

In this case, slow down, and turn slightly to the right. That will get the wheel out of the gravel pile, which is now under the vehicle. Once down to a reasonably slow speed, ease back onto the trail.

Drive properly on ‘washboard’ trails: This technique is tricky. The key is to find the rhythm. That will minimize the impact on the vehicle but often involves driving at a relatively risky speed. With any luck, the wash boarded section is short.

Park safely: Park where others can see you. Avoid blind curves and other locations where visibility is limited. If possible, park off the trail but not onto sensitive land.

Keep distance from vehicle in front: Don’t drive in the other guy’s dust plume. Create distance so you’re beyond the dust plume. You need to be able to see the road, along with any obstacles, such as potholes or large rocks.

The lead driver must keep this in mind, as well. That person should avoid sudden actions (stops, for example) unless necessary. For group travels, it’s good to have a radio in each car. Any driver deciding to stop should announce his intentions. The other drivers have the opportunity to react.

Driving on gravel and dirt is a natural part of four wheeling. Knowing how to handle those surfaces is critical for a successful drive. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare for your next four-wheeling adventure.


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Did you miss the previous articles? Here is a recap of 2023.


Some Upcoming Events (click on the link for details)

The 2024 schedule of clinics and adventures trips has been posted on the web site.

January 2024

January 13, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road – LA Area
January 14, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – LA Area
January 13-14, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – LA Area
January 13, 2024 AWD Off-Road Driving & Safety Clinic – SD Area
January 20, 2024 Dutch Oven Mini Clinic
January 27, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – SD Area
January 28, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – SD Area
January 27-28, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – SD Area
January 27, 2024 Sand Dune Off-Road Driving – Oceano Dunes
January 28, 2024 Self Recovery Clinic – LA Area

February 2024

February 3, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – LA Area
February 4, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – LA Area
February 3-4, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – LA Area

February 10, 2024 Tire Repair and High Lift Mini Clinic – LA Area
February 11, 2024 Super Bowl Club Run
February 17, 2024 Starting Rock Crawling 

February 24, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – SD Area
February 25, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – SD Area
February 24-25, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – SD Area

March 2024

March 2, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – LA Area
March 3, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – LA Area
March 3-4, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – LA Area
March 13, 2024 Cal4Wheel Death Valley Experience 
March 16, 2024 AWD Off-Road Driving and Safety Clinic – SD Area
March 23, 2024 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – SD Area
March 24, 2024 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road Driving – SD Area
March 23-24, 2024 Getting Started Two Day Package – SD Area


I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.

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Copyright 2024, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.

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