Up-to-speed with off-road driving?

Off road vehicle in the desert
Off-road driving might look like a lot of fun, but if you’re not careful you could end up facing costly car repairs - or even find yourself on the wrong side of the law.


We’ve all seen those ads showing rugged 4x4s tackling extreme terrain, but tempting as it maybe to follow suit and head off-road in your own car, you’ll need to swot up on a few groundrules first.

Is your car up to off-roading?

If you’re planning on taking your car down a moderately bumpy off-road track at no great speed, then most cars will be up to the job. However, if it’s serious off-roading you’re considering, which involves driving on rocky, steep or exceptionally muddy or wet terrain, anything other than a 4x4 is likely to come to grief. Here’s HonestJohn.co.uk’s list of the top 10 vehicles for off-road use:

  • Land Rover Defender
  • Mercedes Benz G-Class review
  • Land Rover Discovery
  • Nissan Patrol
  • Toyota Land Cruiser
  • Mitsubushi Shogun
  • Range Rover
  • Fiat Panda 4x4
  • Suzuki Jimny
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee

What sticky situation did a footballer get himself into after driving off-road?

Tyred and emotional

If you do own one of these cars, or another make of 4x4, don’t assume that you’ll be okay to immediately start driving off-road – you’ll need to check what tyres you have first. The best tyres for owners who want to use their cars both on and off-road are known as ‘All Terrain’ tyres. These may be offered as an optional extra when you buy your car, so make sure you request them if off-roading is on the agenda. Another option you might want to consider are ‘Mud Terrain’ tyres. There, as the name suggests, are designed to cope with especially muddy conditions, and are most suitable for people who will spend around 80% of their time off-road, such as farmers. They are not recommended for drivers who will clock up a significant amount of road miles as large tread gaps mean that braking distances are much longer in wet weather.

Off-road, on cover?

If you’re planning on driving off-road, then get in touch with your insurer to see if you’re covered. Chances are you’ll need specialist 4x4 off-road insurance. Premiums for this sort of cover will cost more than for a conventional policy, as there’s a greater risk of damage to your vehicle. Adrian Flux and NFU Mutual are among the insurers which offer this type of cover.

Track changes

Don’t assume you can simply drive off down any old track if you’re looking for a bit of off-road action.

According to Section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle on common land, moorland, Forestry Commission land, or in fact ANY land which isn’t part of a road without authorisation. That means you must get permission from the landowner first, or risk a heavy fine or even possible confiscation of your vehicle.

Keys to the byway

The only ‘off-road’ areas you can drive without seeking permission are known as ‘Byways Open to All Traffic’ (BOATs), or Roads Used as a Public Path (RUPPs) both of which should be marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Even if you are driving legally on one of these roads or byways, you must make sure that you don’t cause damage either to the environment or wildlife. If you do, you could end up in big trouble with the England and Wales Forestry Commission, who have the power to seize your vehicle if they consider it necessary. If you’re in any doubt about where it’s legal and safe to drive off-road, it’s a good idea to consult the British Off-Road Driving Association (BORDA) first. This is the UK’s only professional Association dedicated to off-road driving at authorised venues throughout the UK. Find out more at www.borda.org.uk.

Recovery position

The short answer is no, so if you’re planning on going off-road, you must be prepared to foot recovery costs yourself if something goes wrong (and preferably have a friend with a winch and a 4x4 themselves.) Check the small print of your breakdown cover if you’re uncertain, but most providers clearly state that they won’t cover you if your car is involved in motor racing, off-road driving, rallies or track days. They also won’t come out if your car breaks down in a place they can’t get to.

Off-road driving tips

You’ve got the right car, the right tyres, the right insurance and you’ve found a legal route to drive on – but are you up to speed with off-road driving techniques? The following tips might sound obvious, but it just takes one little mistake to end up in serious trouble, so ignore them at your peril.
  • If you’re travelling up a sharp incline, check there is a clear route for you to exit at the top. Make sure too that there are no big rocks or other hazards, as you won’t be able to see these when you’re driving.
  • When you’re driving down a steep hill off-road, stay in first gear and go down slowly, Go too fast and you could end up with the front of your car buried in mud.
  • Travel at a reduced speed when driving through water. This will help ensure you don’t flood the engine. If you aren’t certain how deep the water is, or whether there’s a firm surface underneath, don’t risk it.

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