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Off-road series with Alan Pepper: how to drive downhill nose first

Alan Pepper
By
May 04, 2018
  4x4s

Off-road series with Alan Pepper: how to drive downhill nose firstModern 4x4-ing is rife with debate. In this series, our expert tackles the best way to go downhill nose first.

Suzuki’s 4x4 expert, Alan Pepper, has spent 43 years tackling challenging roads with a variety of 4x4s. He bought his first off-road vehicle in 1975, and has been training thousands of people at Bass Lake for decades. Here are his thoughts on how people should be driving. This is the start of our series on modern 4x4 driving. Have anything to add? Comment on our   Facebook  and/or Twitter   platforms.  

Training courses have been around for the last four decades and the strange thing is that they have not changed very much! The course content is almost verbatim out of a manual published in the seventies that people are still using a good four decades later. However, vehicles have changed dramatically and can handle different situations in many different ways to what they did back then. Smaller engines, automatic gearboxes and a host of electronic aids allow the inexperienced driver to perform amazing feats off-road... yet the courses continue to serve up this information that is just blatantly wrong. The reason that it survives is that it is ‘very macho’. It’s also important to remember that the technology developed works REACTIVELY, not PROACTIVELY, and a good 4x4 driver is always proactively exploring the dangers of the road ahead and strategising how best to deal with them.

Today I’m going to explore the correct way to go downhill, versus the way it has been taught for decades.

First of all - what are the risks of going downhill incorrectly? Rolling your car!

When going downhill nose first, if you’ve been on 4x4 training, you might have heard the warning to “avoid the temptation to brake”. I call this the, “Put the vehicle in low first gear, both feet on the floor and let the engine do the braking as you careen out of control down the hill” method - with the message from this old training being DO NOT TOUCH THE BRAKES or CLUTCH or you will roll over and DIE!

In its day it certainly worked. Not so nowadays as we have smaller engines and 4x4 automatics. The ratios on the old vehicles kept them slow enough not to be a problem. The reason that the system was used was because the old braking systems were set with 70% braking on the front wheels and 30% on the back, and when the vehicle went down a steep hill the weight transferred to the front wheels of the vehicle and the back brakes locked up causing the vehicle to slide to one side.

However, since the 80s, vehicles have been fitted with load proportioning valves that restrict the power of the back brakes as the weight is reduced on the back axle. Modern vehicles can use the brakes to stop on any hill without the fear of sliding sideways. You can safely come down in neutral! I even do it with the engine turned off in an automatic!

It’s also important to note that a lot of new vehicles have hill descent control. Just push the button, take your feet off the pedals and the vehicle will crawl down the hill - very reminiscent of compression braking. Of course, it uses the braking system to achieve this.

As I said above, there is one problem with all electronic aids in that they are all reactive, and not proactive. Something has to trigger a reaction before it engages. You, as a human, can see what you are going to encounter and can prepare for it before it happens, whereas a 4x4, no matter how well made, can’t do that. You can also control the brakes better than a hill descent control.

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