Can you learn to be a better 4x4 driver from a book?
The answer is yes. And no.
Don’t stop reading, because that’s not an evasion.
The “no” part of the answer is easy to explain. Simply put, nothing can substitute for having an experienced human instructor in the seat next to you, or outside your open window, to give you second-by-second advice on your control inputs and choice of lines. Not long ago I watched Tim Hüber stand next the the driver’s window of a Range Rover while he had the owner repeatedly back up and slowly inch over a soccer-ball-sized boulder. Back and forth, back and forth. The aim was to hone the driver’s ability to gently ease over an obstacle or down a ledge, rather than bouncing and compressing the suspension, which reduces ground clearance and increases the chances of contacting bodywork. The fellow finally nailed it, and negotiated the following driving course with consummate grace. I can think of dozens of other instances I’ve watched (or, indeed, have experienced as a student), with such skilled and patient instructors as Sarah Batten, Graham Jackson, or any of the ex-Camel Trophy team members who’ve taught at the Overland Expo for a decade now.
Having a live instructor is especially vital when learning to drive in conditions new to you, or more extreme than you’ve experienced before. This applies to such procedures as driving on side slopes, negotiating steep hill descents or difficult climbs, and similar situations where inexperience might either make you overconfident (unlikely), or too timid to fully exploit the capabilities of your vehicle.
However. You can significantly enhance your level of preparedness for that personal instruction by reading the right book. And I know of none better than Tom Sheppard’s Four-by-Four Driving. I’ll offer full disclosure right now: I wrote the chapter on winches and winching, and the section on the Hi-Lift jack, for this and the previous edition. But that’s a fraction of what this book is about.
(And in case you think you’re beyond such a primer, note that Four-by-Four Driving is the mandatory textbook for several trainers I know who contract with two governments to teach Special Forces operators advanced driving and recovery techniques.)
Why is it so good? I think the answer lies largely in the fact that Sheppard was a test pilot in the RAF before he took to solo exploration of the Sahara. And when you’re flying an experimental jet aircraft, poor preparation and bad driving won’t just get you stuck—it will get you killed. Thus Tom insists that a thorough knowledge of the vehicle itself, and especially its driveline and four-wheel-drive system, is the key to being an effective driver. Think of it in terms of a maxim:
If you don’t know how the vehicle operates, you won’t be able to operate the vehicle. The more you know about how it operates, the more effective an operator you will be.
For this reason, a full 20 percent of Four-by-Four Driving is devoted to an exhaustive look into the drivetrains and systems of vehicles from the Suzuki Jimny up to and including the Bentley Bentayga. While you might be tempted to find your own model in here and only read about that, don’t. Learning about other approaches will help you understand both the strengths and weaknesses of your own ride. Besides, if you ever have the opportunity—or need—to drive something foreign to you, you’ll look like a hero if you hop in and immediately turn that LR4’s Terrain Response dial to the proper setting—or, for that matter, are aware that you’ll need to get out and lock the hubs on that Troopy before pulling back on the transfer-case lever.
The driving section then begins with another vital subject: mechanical sympathy; that is, how to drive with awareness of the vehicle and the right touch to avoid stressing or breaking it. Further discussions cover suspension articulation, low range and when to use or not use it, throttle and brake control, followed by extensive sections on types of terrain and the techniques used in each: sand, mud, tracks, deep ruts, rocks, water. What is the correct way to ascend or descend or traverse a steep slope? To cross a deep ditch or sharp ridge? Negotiate snow or ice? It’s all in here.
The following extensive section is all about recovery, both assisted and solo, and includes an utterly brilliant chapter on winching. :-) A short but fascinating chapter on advanced driving covers such arcane skills as changing from low to high range on the move, or driving a non-synchro transmission—just in case you ever get the chance to take a Bedford RL on safari. There are also useful sections on trailer towing for those of you with adventure-type trailers.
That would be a complete book, but Tom continues with a section on expedition basics—sort of a flash introduction to the last word on the subject, his Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide—as well as sections on loading and lashing, equipment, fuels, oils, tyre repair, and vehicle selection for expeditions.
That front section, however, is why you should buy this book. For the fifth edition Tom immersed himself in the latest models and technology and updated anything that remotely hinted at being past its sell-by date. There’s even a brief flash of a disguised Rolls-Royce Cullinan careening along the face of a sand dune, with a typical Sheppard wise-cracking caption: “No, your Ladyship, the brake is on the LEFT! And Rolls is the marque, not the aim.”
Read this book. Then go get some professional instruction. I’ll bet you at some point your instructor will look over at you and say, “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”