Top tips for towing in rough terrain

By: Michael Borg , Photography by: Matt Fehlberg

Learn the top tips for conquering the tough stuff with a trailer in tow, no matter the terrain.

Top tips for towing in rough terrain
towing in rough terrain can be challenging.

When travelling this grand country of ours, one thing’s for sure – there’s a truck tonne of challenging terrain to sort the men from the boys! Rock, sand, mud, ruts, hill climbs, bulldust and snow are just some of what good old Mother Nature has in store for the keen 4WDer.

And when you add a camper trailer to the mix, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll need all the help you can get! But the good news is: once you’ve got the skills and the know-how to get the job done, there are many places you can go with your camper in tow that you never even dreamed of.


A clear mind, good pace and plenty of traction are the secrets to balancing on a rocky knife edge.


Maintaining traction keeps things under control on loose shaly rocks. You’ll find that choosing a safe speed is, hands down, the best way to keep traction at its peak. The trick is to find a speed that’s comfortable to travel, yet allows time to navigate tight corners or unexpected wildlife on the road – braking too hard or turning the steering wheel aggressively are the easiest ways to lose traction.

Also, adjust your electric trailer brakes so they don’t lock up the instant you hit the brakes. On most shaly tracks, the shoulder is a lot slipperier than the centre due to the build up of loose rock and dirt, so steer clear of the outer shoulder and stick to the worn tracks, where possible.


When tackling large rock steps, ground clearance is the limiting factor for most 4WDs and camper trailers – more specifically, your approach and departure angles. This is basically the distance and height between the very front of your front tyre and the most forward part of your vehicle. So, the better your approach angle is, the steeper the rock step you can climb. If a rock step’s height is too great for your vehicle’s approach angle, building a ramp may allow your wheels to hit the step ahead of other components on your 4WD. Smaller rocks or logs can safely support your wheels before the bullbar or spring hangers hit the rock. Even laying down your MaxTrax to fill a hole may get the job done.


It’s easy to land yourself in hot water when tackling rocky terrain. Just one wheel out of place and you can find yourself chewing holes in the seat! Yep, off-camber angles are the danger here, so think how your vehicle will react before pointing towards a rock step. But here’s a tip, if you feel the vehicle’s going to roll over – stop! If it’s too late for that, try to turn into the roll. That basically means point your wheels in the direction the vehicle is leaning, which may lead you in a slightly safer position and buy a few precious moments. So, if you start to tip as you lean hard left, turn the steering wheel hard left-hand down and you might catch it in time!


With some of the best coastlines in the world at our disposal, it’s only natural us 4WDers explore it every chance we get. Soft sand is hard enough to drive at the best of times, but add a camper trailer to the mix and it’s game on! The extra weight can wreak havoc on a 4WD and, if you get yourself into trouble, there’s always the risk of the surf swallowing up your pride and joy! And nobody wants that.


Hands down, the key to conquering the sand is pure, old-fashioned momentum! That doesn’t mean you need to hoon around at a 100km/h, but the resistance the sand creates works your engine. For the softer stuff, third gear low range should provide plenty of speed and grunt to get the job done. Minimise gear changes, too, as sand will pull you up quick smart when you back off the throttle. Gear changes should be smooth and snappy to maintain speed. Oh, and if you’ve got electric trailer brakes, turn them down as low as possible, you won’t need help stopping!

If you start to really bog down, remember that once you stop moving forward, you’re only digging yourself down. So, admit defeat as soon as you’re bogged. In saying that, you can try gently reversing over the compressed sand and starting again. Remember, easy does it, as wheel spin only digs you down further.


Different characteristics of your 4WD and camper trailer combination can affect performance out on the sand. Some factors are inherent in your rig’s design, but a few small adjustments go a long way. The first and most important factor is weight – the best tyres in the world won’t help much if you weigh six tonne! The more weight you have, the deeper you’ll sink, and the more resistance is created. That said, some heavy setups can tackle sand, they’ll just do it a bit tougher!

Shedding weight helps but if that’s not an option, distributing the rig’s mass evenly helps keep it afloat on the sand. In fact, moving some weight from the trailer’s ball can relieve enough weight off the back of your tow vehicle to stop it bogging down too deep.


A tyre with a large footprint spreads the load over a larger surface, so it doesn’t sink as much. That’s why lowering your tyre pressures is so important – it increases your tyres footprint (amount of tyre that contacts the ground). Tread pattern also impacts your vehicle’s performance on sand. For example, Mud terrain tyres are designed to hunt through the mud for the traction underneath, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.


Next up, check that the width of your camper trailer’s wheel base matches that of the tow vehicle. If it doesn’t, the camper will carve up its own ruts, forcing your 4WD to work overtime though virgin sand. To ensure your wheel tracks match, measure between the inside of your 4WD’s back tyres and compare it to your trailer’s wheel track. Changing the offset of your rims can make up for any slight differences, or you can look at installing a custom-length axle.


Clawing to the peak for that million dollar view is no easy task, especially with a camper trailer in tow! But you’d be amazed where you can go with a bit of know-how and the right gear. Let’s start with the basics – low range is your biggest friend on steep hills. It increases your engine’s available torque, and controls your speed on the way back down. Even on moderately steep hills, low range eases the strain on the engine.


Steep hills are hard work so, when it comes to sizing an obstacle, consider your rig. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t walk the hill, don’t bother driving it. This usually indicates the hill’s depth and the traction available.

Next, choose a line and stick to it. And, as you’re planning your line, keep your rig as straight as possible the whole time, otherwise, your trailer could end up on a different angle to your vehicle, pulling it exactly where you don’t want to go. Where possible, stick to any pre-worn ruts. That way, if you have to reverse back down, they will help guide you instead of jackknifing halfway down. If you lose traction half way up, don’t panic! You can usually find extra traction by changing your line slightly, and remember to look for a line that keeps your wheels on the ground at all times.

It’s also worth having a think about which gear you’d like to be in to avoid gearshifts mid-way through. This minimises free rolling in between gears on nasty angles.
Oh, and if you do stop on an extra steep hill, starting again can be a bit tricky. If you’ve got a manual choke, wind it up a few notches, and start releasing the clutch until it begins to labour then off you go. This method will help reduce any unnecessary roll back.


Control is essential when heading down a steep hill. Gravity is constantly pushing you down, and it doesn’t take much to get caught up in an uncontrollable slide, which rarely ends well. Naturally, low range keeps your speeds low and takes advantage of your engine’s braking.

Avoid engaging the clutch, as it cancels engine braking and causes free-roll which increases speed, and if you hit the brakes the wheel may lock up and skid, impairing braking and steering – which is no fun at all! Oh, and if you’ve got a rear locker, engage it. It can help steady the back end of your vehicle by distributing drive evenly between your back wheels.


There aren’t many options when it comes to tackling large ruts – you either put your wheels in or outside of them. Both options have their risks but, when it comes to driving in them, you can end up on a particularly sketchy angle. If the rut’s got a slippery surface, slipping into an awkward position could become a real concern. In saying that, sometimes braving uncomfortable off-camber angles may actually be the best way to keep all four wheels in contact with the ground in order to maintain traction. Of course, this depends on the individual rut along with the different surprises it’s got in store for you.


Nine times out of 10, the safest option is to straddle the ruts. This basically means to place the driver’s side wheels on the right side of the rut and the passenger’s side on the left. This technique keeps your vehicle as level as possible, but you have to pick your ruts carefully, if a nasty rut gets too wide, or you just lose track of where your wheels are, you could slip into it accidently. Sometimes this isn’t a problem but, if you find yourself slipping into a deep one, you could risk damage, or even end up rolling over on to your side if the slide is violent enough.

The other consideration to make is how well your trailer will follow you. For example, if the rut is fairly wide and has a few turns to follow, there’s a good chance your trailer will slip down into it, and possible drag your 4WD in if you’re on the edge.

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Check out the full feature in issue #93 October 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration