NZ Rally Champion's six top tips for driving on gravel roads
We know that Kiwis love their holiday adventures and to do them, they’ll drive the length and breadth of our beautiful country - with the kids in tow - to access their favourite outdoor playgrounds. And what better time to go for a family road trip than in the school holidays?
However, it’s not always smooth sailing, with one third of New Zealand’s road surfaces remaining unsealed and straight roads that can easily turn into hairpins. Smooth surfaces can change in the blink of an eye, with potholes appearing out of nowhere and many destinations are down long, winding gravel roads.
Subaru brand ambassador Ben Hunt has plenty of experience on the rough stuff in his years of rallying, and as the National New Zealand Rally Champion, he’s well-qualified to provide the low-down on how to drive safely on gravel!
Ben’s production-based Subaru rally car is built to handle all that our road conditions can throw at it and like all New Zealand-new Subarus it features Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive as standard.
All-Wheel Drive delivers engine power to all four wheels simultaneously. Having power distributed across all four wheels, opposed to two on a 2WD vehicle, gives you twice the grip capacity and helps you stay safer on all different kinds of terrain.
With Ben’s wealth of knowledge and experience, we know his tips will come in handy next time you hit that unsealed back road.
1. Check your car: First-up, before you set out on an off-road journey these holidays take a look at your tyres and make sure they are in good shape. Gravel has a lot less grip than tarmac, so ensuring you have a decent amount of tread on your tyres and the correct tyre pressure, is a step in the right direction. To find out what tread and pressure your tyres should have, check your owner’s manual.
2. Avoid dust: Make sure you hit the recirculation button on your car’s climate control function to prevent dust billowing in through the air vents. Wind your windows up too, for the same reason. Dust can also be a problem outside the car, as it can hang in the air and obscure your vision, so allow extra space between your car and any cars in front.
3. Slow down: Stopping takes longer on gravel roads and there’s not the same firm footing underfoot on offer as there is on sealed roads. The key is to brake earlier, accelerate gently and steer smoothly. Drive at a speed that is appropriate to the conditions and bear in mind that many gravel roads are narrow and sometimes winding. Keep to your side of the road and expect on-coming cars, as gravel roads are naturally unmarked, so expect logging trucks (in forestry areas) and even tractors, around farmland.
4. Look ahead: Conditions can change quickly on gravel roads, so look ahead to assess whether there are any potentially car-damaging pieces of road coming up. Potholes or washouts can damage a car’s suspension or wheels. Try to avoid them, along with corrugations, ruts and bumps in the road, where possible.
5. Watch out for wildlife: Gravel roads often have bush or farms surrounding them, which means there could be sheep, cows, or even deer wandering across in front of your car. Slow down around blind corners, or over crests and allow extra distance to stop if you see animals ahead.
6. Common sense: It’s important to remember that New Zealand’s gravel roads aren’t just for rally drivers or four-wheel-driving enthusiasts. If you approach gravel roads with common sense and armed with the knowledge of how to drive car on an unsealed surface, you are two steps ahead of the game already. Take heed of the roadside marker pegs and signage alerts, they are there to help and guide you.
If you aren’t driving in a vehicle that has All-Wheel Drive or 4WD, make sure you know what kind of 2WD vehicle you have. They can be either front wheel or rear wheel drive and both tend to handle a bit differently on gravel. A front wheel drive vehicle tends to pull the car around corners, while a rear wheel drive can tend to push the car around the corners, so make sure you adjust your driving to manage this.
So, if you’re heading on a road trip these school holidays, be safe on New Zealand’s unsealed roads, and ideally travel them in a Subaru with the invisible advantages of All-Wheel Drive that rapidly reveal that extra grip! And most importantly – have fun creating memories getting out and ‘doing’ these holidays!
Subaru brand ambassador Ben Hunt is the 2019 National New Zealand Rally Champion. After the 2020 New Zealand Rally Championship was cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions, Ben is ready to take on the 2021 New Zealand Rally Championship in his Subaru WRX STI.