Don't Rock 'n Roll
In part two of this four-part series, we thrash out the topic of towing off-road on rocky terrain.To get the full lowdown on how to take on serious rocky terrain with your rugged off-road caravan or trailer in tow, we consulted Ronald Hairbottle of TAC 4x4 Traction in Polokwane.
There are years of experience behind Ronald’s wise words of advice. If you’re looking to be trained, methodically and meticulously, in all things to do with driving and towing off-road, be sure to get in touch with Ronald – his details are in the panel at the end of the article. When towing off-road over rocky terrain, the following points are vitally important. Tow vehicle tyre pressures should be as low as possible, as long as the sidewalls aren’t pinched. This ensures proper traction, as it allows the tyre to conform to the terrain, rather than just spinning on top of the rocks. With the added drag and weight of towing, you need all the traction you can get.
Trailer/caravan tyre pressures should be kept as high as possible, to ensure the least amount of rolling resistance. For downhill and downward side slopes, the unit being towed should have deflated tyres. This will assist in avoiding any sideways sliding and slipping off rocks, as the tyres will conform better to the terrain. The unit being towed should ideally have good ground clearance, a braked axle, shock absorbers – these are a must – and a tow hitch that can swivel around almost 360 degrees. The vehicle’s towbar should be adequately strengthened for off-road use, and it should have enough clearance to ensure a good departure angle. Remember, God forgives, rocks don't! (Ed: We were amazed at the design and strength of the new Ford Ranger’s towbar. It’s built to cope with a vertical load of 225 kg – which is a spectacularly high rating.)
The secret to driving, and even more to towing, over rocky terrain is to be geared as low as possible. With manual transmissions, select first gear low-range, and with automatics do the same. Do not select ‘Drive’. (Ed: Engaging low-range on the Ford Ranger is done with the turn of a dial – simple, no matter how stressful the towing scenario you face. We selected first gear low-range on the auto transmission on our test model by slapped the gear lever across into ‘manual’ mode.)
Furthermore, using the clutch on manual transmissions should be avoided at all costs. Pick your line every five metres, remember it, drive and repeat the process. This ensures a smooth trek through the difficult bits without jerking and getting stuck. Momentum is your friend when towing: you don't want to get stuck between a bunch of rocks and have to try and get going again. Let the vehicle’s suspension handle the terrain; you just commit to a line and drive it, without any stopping. This sounds difficult, but once you do it, you’ll save yourself a lot of possible mechanical and cosmetic damage to the vehicle.
Keep the wheels of the vehicle and towed unit on top of the rocks. This ensures that you can proceed smoothly, without getting slowed down or hung up. Also use any traction aids available: centre difflock on permanent 4x4s should always be locked on gravel to prevent one-wheel spin-out from happening. Diff-locks are a great help to keep the vehicle from spinning wheels and sliding downhill. (Ed: The rear diff-lock on the Ford Ranger is engaged using a switch on the dash. Once it’s engaged, this towing beast steps up its already elevated towing credentials!)
When towing downhill over rocks, it can get very nerve-racking, as the vehicle and the item towed sometimes want to part ways. To avoid this, proper planning prior to attempting the descent is crucial, especially your escape route in case things go wrong. Going straight down is fairly easy: select first gear low-range, and engage lockers. You can pull the park brake up slightly to assist (especially with autos) and drive down in a slow and controlled manner. Be ever prepared for a possible slide, and be ready to accelerate straight down to where the vehicle becomes stable again – this is your ‘escape route’ – and avoid braking at all costs. Remember to release the park brake when you accelerate!
It’s on the side slopes with loose rocks or boulders that nerves of steel come into play. Here again, momentum is your friend: pick a line, commit to it and drive it. If you start sliding, accelerate gradually until the vehicle and item towed stabilise. Do not stop!
Sometimes it’s necessary to use your winch or straps to stop the vehicle and item towed from sliding. Plan this prior to attempting the obstacle: winch cable should be spooled out and connected, or ready to be connected. The same goes for straps. Remember, rather safe than sorry!
Always use a designated spotter to guide you through the gnarly bits. Ensure you know how they are going to direct you, verbally and with signals, prior to the actual event. Listen to the spotter only and follow their advice to the letter. This should ideally not be your spouse, but sometimes you can't be picky!
Remember to keep your progress slow and controlled, but always with enough momentum not to get stuck.