Gravel road

How to drive on gravel roads

Whether you’re exploring Africa in a 4×4 or ordinary sedan, getting to grips with gravel is vital for your comfort and safety. We asked Andre Botha, a 4×4 training expert, to give us his list of do’s and don’ts.

Dry, dusty, loose, rocky… gravel roads come in a variety of types, and you’re bound to encounter more than one as you travel through Africa. But what first-time overlanders don’t always realise is that the minute you move off the tar, a new set of rules come into play.

Andre Botha, founder of Just 4×4 Adventures, knows a thing or two about how to manoeuvre on uneven terrain. He is a seasoned 4×4 training facilitator and assessor, having trained everyone from the Namibian Special Forces to the UN mission in Lesotho. As a qualified 4×4 overland tourist guide, he has spent the past two decades taking tourists on guided, self-drive trips through Southern Africa.

Tracks4Africa recently caught up with Andre to learn more about the do’s and don’ts of gravel road driving.

gravel road in the karoo
The Ouberg Pass in the Karoo, one of South Africa’s iconic gravel roads. Picture: Pixabay.

What are the main causes of accidents on gravel roads?

Ignorance and a lack of driving experience are the chief culprits. Some drivers simply don’t understand how important it is to adjust speed and tyre pressure, properly secure their baggage and check whether the vehicle is roadworthy beforehand. The latter is especially important – shock absorbers and coil springs that are in a bad state will leave you with almost no control in a gravel road emergency.

Gravel roads are notorious for causing drivers to lose control because the surface offers less grip. Aggressively braking or over-steering when the vehicle starts to slide will just send it into an uncontrolled spin.

Is there an optimal speed for driving on gravel roads?

Be it a smooth or bumpy gravel road, it’s wise to keep a slow and steady pace. My rule of thumb is to drive at least 20% slower than the speed limit. On badly corrugated roads, decreasing speed becomes even more essential. While it’s tempting to accelerate and ‘fly over’ the gravel so to speak, this is not recommended.

If your vehicle’s suspension can’t handle the rough surface, the back of the car may swing to one side. Inexperienced drivers will likely react by aggressively jerking on the steering wheel and hitting the brake pedal, which can easily send the vehicle spinning out of control. Remember: the worse the road gets, the slower you should travel!

Also read: Are you a considerate dirt road driver?

Always strive to generate as little dust as possible on gravel roads out of consideration for passing vehicles.

What is the recommended tyre pressure for driving on gravel?

Getting a grip on tyre pressure is vital, especially if you’re an inexperienced driver. The correct pressure depends on the weight of your load. For a lightly laden vehicle tyre pressure is best at 1,8 bar. The heavier the load, the more you will need to inflate your tyres but take care not to over do it.

How does your vehicle type affect your approach to driving on gravel?

It goes without saying that 4x4s offer more stability and control. If you are driving a 4×4, shift to H4 (4×4 mode) as soon as you move from tar to gravel. With 4×2 and ordinary vehicles, you don’t have that luxury, and therefore less stability and control as a result. With these vehicles, it’s best to slow down and decrease tyre pressure.

What driving techniques do you recommend?

When driving uphill, it’s important to stick to your side of the road even if the surface looks better on the right. You don’t want to be surprised on the wrong side of the road when a vehicle crests the hill from the other side.

As for going downhill, make sure you don’t let your vehicle run free. Proceed as slowly and safely as possible and if it feels like you’re going too fast, make short and gentle brake motions (the tapping or feathering method) to reduce your speed.

For turns and corners, brake to reduce speed before entering the corner. Don’t coast or let the vehicle run free as you go through a corner.

Also read: Advice on driving Africa’s difficult roads

cars passing each other on a gravel road
Stick to your side of the road at all times and keep a healthy distance from passing vehicles. Picture: Janine Reyneke

What steps can you take to minimise dust, road/environmental damage and corrugation?

When driving through farmsteads, local communities, small towns and orchards, you need to drastically reduce your speed to minimise the dust generated by your vehicle. It’s the considerate thing to do! Driving a 2×4 vehicle on a 4×4 route or over-inflating your 4×4’s tyres both cause plenty of wheel spin which in turn make holes and ruts, contributing to erosion.

Are there any other aspects to gravel road driving that readers should be aware of?

Find out ahead of time what type of gravel road you’ll be driving. In some areas, the roads are littered with pebbles and rocks which will give you a slippery ride, whilst in others, like the Tankwa Karoo, you’ll likely run into sharp-edged rock splinters.

Here you will need to be cautious and always on the lookout to prevent punctures; travellers to these regions often carry two spare tyres. Always do proper research before embarking on a gravel travel trip. It can save you a lot of money and time!

In summary: Andre’s top rules for gravel driving

  1. Drive 20% slower than the speed limit
  2. Avoid sudden braking and aggressive steering
  3. Deflate your tyres to 1.8 bar if your load is light
  4. Inflate your tyres for a heavy load, taking care not to over inflate
  5. Never let your vehicle run free, especially going downhill or around corners
  6. Drive slowly to minimise dust
  7. Research the road conditions beforehand

For more driving tips and advice on navigating Africa’s roads, look no further than T4A’s Botswana and Namibia Self-Drive Guidebooks. Written specifically for overlanders, they include detailed descriptions of road rules and conditions to help you travel Africa informed. Visit our online shop for more information. 

Our Namibia and Botswana Self-Drive Guides

One thought on “How to drive on gravel roads”

  1. I would suggest at the top of his list should be “Turn your headlights on” so oncoming vehicles can see you.

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