How To Drive Up And Down Steep Hills In A 4WD


Driving your 4wd on steep hills is one of the most exciting and potentially dangerous things you can do in your 4×4. Exciting because it’s adventurous. Dangerous because there is a real risk of rolling your vehicle. And on a steep hill, you could keep on rolling… All the way down…

Key real key to safely driving up and down steep hills is to do everything you can to maintain traction, once you lose traction you will end up sliding. It’s also important to learn how to do a Stall Recovery. It’s also always important to have a Backout Plan, If you can’t back out safely then don’t attempt the hill.

obviously the above can seem pretty daunting, but we break it down step by step below. So make sure to keep reading before you attempt those hills.

Before you continue, If your new to 4wd and offroading or are not sure what equipment to take out with you on your adventures, make sure to check out the Off Road Aussies Essential 4×4 Equipment List where I have taken the time to review and recommend the equipment I use.

If you kit yourself out correctly you will be able to tackle everything that your new adventures will throw at you.

Driving Your 4WD Up Steep Hills

When driving up steep hills, your first goal should be to retain traction. As soon as you loose traction, you lose forward momentum and risk not making it.   There are a number of things to remember

Billy Goat Ridge. Bendleby Ranges, Southern Flinders
Billy Goat Ridge. Bendleby Ranges, Southern Flinders
  • Tyre pressure – You’ll need as much traction as possible. To help achieve this, reduce tyre pressure. Read more here: 4wd Tips and Tricks – Tyre Pressure.
  • Gear Ratio – Select 4wd Low Range and a low gear to ensure adequate power to drive you to the top.
  • Momentum – That depends on the terrain. Sand you’ll probably need more momentum than harder ground. Try not to overdo it because you may damage the track and your 4wd. Remember, maintain traction.
  • Gear Selection – This will depend on how much momentum you feel you need to get up the hill.
  • Walk it – If you’re not familiar with the track, or if it may have changed since you were last there, then walk the track. If you can’t walk it, it’s a fair bet that you won’t be able to drive it.
  • Plan your line – Decide which line you’re going to drive, but the best traction will probably be in the existing ruts created by other drivers.
  • Stall Recovery Technique – Before you start, make sure you know what to do if you don’t make it.
  • Drive it – Take it easy and steady. Drive carefully and maintain traction.

How To Recover If You Don’t Make It Up The Hill

If you don’t make it up, then it’s very important to know how to get back down. It doesn’t sound hard, but there are some pitfalls to avoid

The biggest pitfall is the uncontrolled descent. The automatic reaction when you are about to stall on a steep hill is to prevent stalling by putting your foot on the clutch. What this means is that you no longer have any forward drive, but worst of all, you have nothing preventing you from rolling backward. And on a steep hill, you’ll roll backwards very quickly.

Billy Goat Ridge. Bendleby Ranges, Southern Flinders
Billy Goat Ridge. Bendleby Ranges, Southern Flinders

Once you’re rolling backwards, your next automatic reaction will be to hit the brakes. On a steep hill, this won’t stop you. The momentum of your vehicle will keep it moving backwards, but with no wheel rotation, you will lose the ability to steer your vehicle.

To avoid these very dangerous pitfalls, you need to know the Stall Recovery Technique as described below.

How To Do A Stall Recovery

The Stall Recovery Technique is the strategy used to reverse down from steep hill climbs.

Manual Vehicles

Stall recovery steps in a manual transmission vehicle.

  1. Allow the vehicle to stall. Do not touch the clutch. This is harder than you think. It’s difficult not to automatically put your foot on the clutch.
  2. As you stall, put your foot on the foot brake.
  3. Engage the handbrake. You now have 3 things preventing you from going backwards.
    1. You’re still in gear,
    2. Your foot brake,
    3. Your hand brake.
  4. If you can, get someone else to double check the track and guide you down. Don’t get out of your car because that’ll mean releasing the foot brake. Your handbrake may fail and the engine can turn over under compression. But it’s handy to have some help in getting back down.
  5. Put your foot on the clutch.
  6. Put the vehicle into reverse gear and engage low range if you haven’t already.
  7. Take your foot off the clutch.
  8. With your foot brake on, release the handbrake.
  9. Carefully and slowly remove your foot brake. With reverse gear engaged, but the engine turned off, you’ll remain still.
  10. Turn the key to start the engine with your foot off the clutch.

Now you’re on your way. Try not to touch the accelerator or the brake. If the hill is steep enough, you may need to lightly touch the brakes. This is risky though. You don’t want to lock your wheels and start to slide.

Billy Goat Ridge, Bendleby Ranges, South Australia. Photo by Mauchit

Automatic Vehicles

Stall Recovery is a little different in automatic transmission vehicles because, as a general rule, they don’t stall. However, on occasion they do. So if you decide you’re not going to make it up the hill, you still need to know how to retain control and back out safely.

  1. Put your foot on the brake.
  2. Engage your handbrake.
  3. If your engine has stalled, put it into Park. At this point, you have 3 things preventing you from rolling.
    1. You’re still in drive or park (you lose this when you go to Reverse),
    2. Your foot brake,
    3. Your hand brake.
  4. If you can, get someone else to double check the track and guide you down. Don’t get out of your car because that’ll mean releasing the foot brake. Your handbrake may fail and the engine can turn over under compression. But it’s handy to have some help in getting back down.
  5. If your engine has stalled then you need to start it up if you can.
  6. Occasional when you shift from a forward gear to a reverse gear, your vehicle rocks slightly backwards. This can be enough to start your vehicle sliding.
    1. Put your vehicle into Neutral first.
    2. Engage Low Range if you haven’t already.
    3. Then move your vehicle into Reverse.
  7. With your foot brake on, release the handbrake.
  8. Carefully and slowly remove your foot brake. You’ll start your descent.

Now you’re on your way. Do not to touch the accelerator. If the hill is steep enough, you may need to lightly touch the brakes. This is risky though. You don’t want to lock up your wheels and lose control.

Have Another Go

Once you’re down, change your strategy. If you didn’t make it once, you probably won’t make it a second time unless you try something different. Try reducing tyre pressure, pick a new line, lock your diffs if you can, and have another go. Or take the chicken track.

Driving Your 4wd Down Steep Hills

Driving down steep hills in your four wheel drive is much simpler because you’ve got gravity on your side. This isn’t always a good thing if the track is too steep. As with driving up, it’s important to retain traction.

The steps to take to safely descend a steep hill in your 4×4 are:

  • Walk the track – If you can’t walk it then you won’t be able to drive it
  • Pick your line – Decide on the best path. Usually the line that’ll give you the best traction will be right down the middle of the existing ruts created by other drivers.
  • Increase traction – Reducing tyre pressure increases the surface area of your tyre in contact with the track, increasing your traction.
  • Gear Ratio – Use low range. If you don’t, your car will run away from you and it’ll get scary.
  • Gear Selection – Use first gear. A combination of first gear and low range will keep you in control.
  • Backout plan – If it gets too steep and scary then you’ll need to have a backout plan before you head down. Remember that getting out will probably mean reversing back up a steep hill.

How To Recover If You Don’t Make It Down A Steep Hill

If you decide you’re not going to make it, then you’ll probably need to reverse up a steep hill. But first, you need to stop going down.

Assuming you’ve followed the steps outlined above, you probably won’t be traveling very quickly. To stop yourself, apply the brakes gently until you come to a stop. Don’t hit the brakes hard or you’ll lock up your wheels and risk losing control. Remember that just because your wheels have stopped, it doesn’t mean your vehicle will.

Once you’ve come to a complete halt, put your handbrake on, then engage reverse.

From here it’ll be a simple matter of reversing up the way you’ve come.

Driving Across Steep Hills

Simple… Don’t to it. Driving sideways across steep hills vastly increases the chances of losing control of your vehicle; as soon as you lose traction, your vehicle will slide sideways. You’ll also run a very real risk of rolling your vehicle all the way to the bottom. And I don’t mean on the tyres… So DO NOT drive sideways across steep hills.

Other Information

This information is provided for interest only. Although every attempt to ensure accuracy has been taken, please don’t rely on it when you’re out there. Everybody’s car and skill leves are different so what works for one may not work for another. Please make sure that you know what you’re doing. I would always recommend joining a 4wd club and/or undertaking some training before heading out into the wilderness. I would also always recommend traveling with at least one other vehicle.

James Mitchell

Hi, I’m Jimmy Mitchell and I love exploring the off beaten tracks hopefully you’ll enjoy my 4 Wheel Driving Blog about my 4×4 adventures and looking at my photos. And hopefully you’ll be inspired to get out there and enjoy yourself in our great outdoors. We love being out on the open road. Exploring this vast country and all it has to offer. As an avid 4 wheel driver, I’m very keen to share my experiences and adventures. Through my blog, you’ll read about my personal take on 4 wheel driving, my experiences, my travels and adventures. My family and I are based in Western Australia so the majority of my adventures will be in the vast wilderness that makes up a huge percentage of this state. I drive a 2010 Nissan Navara ST that I am slowly building into a family tourer. I also own a 2015 PMX Stirling LX Camper.

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