mud driving

Mud driving tips for overlanders

Mud driving is unavoidable on Africa’s roads, especially in rainy season. Learn how to handle this sticky surface type to avoid getting bogged down. By Nell Hofmeyr

Mud is broad term that refers to any combination of soil types mixed with water to form a wet, sticky substance. Like sand, gravel or any surface type besides tar, driving through mud calls for a special set of skills. To learn how to achieve a safe, smooth ride that gets you from A to B with minimal hiccups or vehicle damage, read on.

We asked Defender Trophy founder and self-drive enthusiast Johan Kriek to break down the basics. Whether you’re new to mud driving or simply need a refresher, keep these tips handy in times of need.

Before you go

  • You will need an off-road vehicle to drive on thick mud.
  • Always bring a pressure gauge, tyre inflator and the necessary equipment (see below).
  • Outfit your vehicle with recovery points. Even the best drivers get stuck sometimes.
  • Use mud-terrain tyres for better flotation and grip.
  • Always drive with at least one other vehicle. Off-roading is seldom a solo enterprise and for good reason – you’ll need help if you get bogged down!

Remember: Guidelines are helpful but they’re no substitute for experience. If you live in a muddy area or anticipate mud driving on your travels, practise ahead of time to get a feel for it.

A muddy hole filled with water
When faced with a giant muddy water hole, don’t simply plough through it. First walk the ground and poke the  bottom with a stick to determine its depth. Pictures by Johann Groenewald.

Assess the situation

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mud driving; several factors play a role and each situation is unique. Crossing the vast, sludgy salt pans of Botswana requires a different approach to cruising through a small patch of muddy clay. And if you land up in cotton soil (high in clay) – well, that’s a different story altogether. The point is to be prepared and change tack as required.

Factors that play a role include:

  • the mud type
  • weather conditions
  • water volume
  • vehicle type
  • tyre type
  • vehicle weight
  • driving experience

In most instances, it’s useful to stop the vehicle, get out and take a closer look at what you’re working with.

“The best thing you can do is to walk the area,” says Johan. “No one likes to do this because it dirties your shoes but seeing how deep and sloshy the mud is will give you the best indication of what is needed.

It’s the same with any obstacle: walk it, assess and take it from there.”

The sludgy Makgadikgadi Pans
The muddy Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana are not to be underestimated. Always go in a group if you plan to drive the pans.

It’s all about the tyres

Invest in some quality mud-terrain tyres. As the name suggests, getting you safely through muddy surfaces is what they’re built for! Keep in mind that the mud tyre you choose may not be equally effective on all surfaces.

Mud that has a slippery outer layer and hard surface underneath is best suited to slim, narrow tyres – like those found on the old Landys – that can penetrate the top layer and grip the ground below. Thick, sludgy mud, on the other hand, is best traversed using wide mud tyres that provide the necessary flotation.

“Nowadays, because most of us own these wide, flat mud tyres, it’s much harder to get traction on mud with a soft top layer. The big tyres won’t cut through as easily, so you’ll probably need to lower tyre pressure to improve flotation,” says Johan.

Tyre pressure

The optimal pressure varies, but between 1.3 and 1.8 bar is a good starting point. Avoid going lower as this could easily lead to a puncture. Rocks, roots and sticks could be lying in wait, ready to slash your tyre walls.

“Generally speaking, there is no hard and fast rule; you can only judge it when you see the terrain. It’s best to approach it in a similar way to sand driving,” Johan advises.

Also read: How to drive on sand

BFGoodrich KM3 Mud Terrain Tyres
Johan Kriek’s favourite mud-terrain tyre: BFGoodrich KM3 Mud Terrains

Tread pattern

Type and width aside, the tread pattern is what matters most when it comes to mud tyres. When the lugs are large with deep voids between them the tyre is able to self-clean by releasing excess mud as the wheels rotate. This prevents clogging and improves traction.

Looking to buy? Johann recommends BFGoodrich’s KM3 Mud-Terrains. “They’re strong, pliable and have just the right tread pattern for mud driving.”

Mud driving 101

Vehicle Lock the centre differential for maximum traction. If the vehicle is equipped with terrain response, select the “mud driving” mode before you move off.

Speed It varies according to how much momentum you need. You want to drive fast enough to make it through without getting stuck or sinking, but slowly enough to manage hidden obstacles. Try to maintain a steady speed as you go.

Movements As a rule, avoid sudden braking and aggressive steering. In certain instances, however, sharp turns can count in your favour.

“If you’re truly bogged down and nothing else works, swinging your steering wheel from left to right can force the tyres against the sides of the rut you’re in. This can assist with traction because then you’re not just relying on the tread underneath.”

Tracks Stick to existing tracks where the ground is compacted. If you encounter watery tracks, drive through rather than around them. It seems counter-intuitive, but the ground is usually more solid underneath – which is why water was able to collect there in the first place. If you lose traction completely, reverse the way you came and try again with a little more thrust.

Performing a mud vehicle recovery
Sometimes it takes a village to pry a vehicle out of the muck!

Handy equipment

These items are a must-have for mud driving. It goes without saying that you should pack the standard recovery gear.

Spade Useful for scooping up mud, clearing debris from the underside of the vehicle and improving the road surface.

Maxtrax/Recovery tracks These lightweight recovery boards slide in front of your wheels to supply traction where there is none.

Tyre chains Wrap these around your tyres before venturing into the mud. Just make sure to buy ones suitable for your tyre type.

Also read: How to drive on gravel roads

Maintenance and cleaning

Mud clings to everything it touches, so you’ll obviously have to give your vehicle (and yourself) a good rinse afterwards. It’s important that you clean thoroughly and remove mud build-up where it’s visible and where it’s not.

A common blind spot is mud on the rims. If you let it accumulate, your wheels will be completely out of balance on the road, resulting in a bouncy ride, uneven tyre wear and a vibrating steering wheel.

Have you experienced your fair share of muddy driving? Let us know in the comments below which routes/countries are notoriously tricky in your book.

Let us know about your experience