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Home 4X4 So what is track damage, and how do we prevent it?
So what is track damage, and how do we prevent it?

So what is track damage, and how do we prevent it?

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Nobody wants to see more track closures.  We all want tracks that offer us a choice of anything from a scenic drive to a winch challenge, and we want emergency vehicles to be able to use the access tracks they need.  Yet tracks aren’t static paths, but are in a state of perpetual change.  As animals, men or machines travel through the bush along the same route, inevitably some form of path is first defined, then it evolves.  Ground is compacted or broken, plants are trampled or prevented from growing, ruts are created which channel rain, focusing erosion, and natural tree or branch falls are cleared to one side, and puddles form and grow into bogs.

The question is at what point this trackevolution becomes known as ‘damage’, because ‘damaged track’ is an emotive term that’s often thrown around.  Like calling someone ‘unAustralian, it really means something that you personally don’t agree with.  Often ‘damaged track’ simply means ‘I can’t drive it’, and one man’s damaged track is another man’s interesting challenge.

There’s actually two very simple tests for whether a track is damaged.  The first one is whether there are bypasses on the track, for example around bogholes or upended trees.  That’s definitely track damage, as it widens or diverts the track beyond original intentions.  The second one is a little harder to define and that is – “has the intended standard of the track changed?”  For example, let’s take a hard dirt road which now has ruts and mud such that a 2WD couldn’t cope. That road can be said to be damaged, because it is no longer passable by its intended traffic.  On the other hand, that exact same set of mud and ruts on a medium-class 4WD track would not be seen as damage because any 4WD could negotiate it.

So there’s two easy tests to define track damage, with the only difficulty being agreeing on the track standard in the first place.  Fortunately, Victoria already has a rating system in place.  Any time an Easy class track needs low range engaged it’s damaged, but if you need to winch a standard car on Double Black Diamond…well, that’s why it’s called Double Black Diamond. 

For recreational purposes being able to drive or not drive a track is not often critical.  An extra few minutes here, a turn around there…it’s part of offroading.  But there’s a group of users who really do need to drive certain tracks and they are the emergency services.  Nobody wants a situation where emergency vehicles cannot access areas because they cannot drive the tracks – notice I didn’t say ‘track damage’ because it’s not necessarily damage, could just be natural degree of difficulty. 

One extreme answer is to just lay down bitumen everywhere, but that’s not going to happen due to expense, among other reasons.  The other is to ban recreational users, and which could happen (and has) but that’s the wrong answer too, because there’s important pros and cons.

Any traffic on any path – even a bitumen road – exacts a toll on that path and therefore some element of maintenance is required.  But there is a major difference between offroad tracks and major dirt roads or bitumen highways, and that is user maintenance.  Every offroader regularly clears tracks of fallen trees, and very often there’s some trackbuilding to be done, for example moving boulders out of the way, levelling ledges or filling in deeper ruts.  Even just using the track keeps it open as undergrowth is prevented from taking it over.  This track maintenance is all part of the challenge of offroad driving. Therefore, it is patently not true to say that recreational users only damage tracks, and banning them would lead to less damage – there is a balance between the wear and tear on the track caused by use, and the fact that same use keeps the track open.  Nobody stops their car to fill in a pothole on the local suburban road.

What we really want avoid is undue, unwarranted, unnecessary wear.  To figure out how to do that we have to consider what causes the wear, or impact of a vehicle on a track.   Those main factors are – weight, tyre diameter, tyre pattern, power and capability.

Taking weight first – simply, the heavier the vehicle, the greater the impact.  There’s already an incentive to reduce vehicle weight as it improves performance all-round and reduces fuel consumption, but other than that, the vehicle weighs what it weighs.

Tyres are more complex.  On the negative side, the larger the tyre, the deeper the ruts in soft but not loose ground, and the deeper the ruts, the more difficult the track is to drive, possibly to the point where you need ever-greater diameter tyres to get through.  Deeper ruts mean more track wear through erosion, as water is more readily routed through the rut which further deepens it, and ruts are an incentive to create bypasses, which are definitely track damage.

On the other hand, larger diameter tyres are able to crawl over obstacles that smaller rubber has to bounce over, spin through or drive around.  So there’s an argument that larger tyres don’t cause as much of a problem in the first place, and on rocky ground there are no ruts to be made anyway.  Nor is tyre size any problem on loose sand.

Tyre pattern is a big track wear factor, but again only really for soft earth. If you have a heavy, powerful vehicle with a very open tread, then you over-power it so there’s lots of wheelspin the result will be digging holes as you go. That’ll happen whether your tyre diameter is 29” or 40”, although the bigger tyre will dig a bigger hole.  Extremely aggressive treads even rip soft grass as the vehicle rolls downhill with no power applied. On the other hand, take big, powerful, heavy vehicle, fit bald 40” tyres to it and there will be ripping, as the wheels will spin and maybe sink, but not dig in.  It’s a bit like giving someone a whip made of feathers instead of leather – they can swing it as hard as they like, it’s just not going to hurt. 

Whatever your tread pattern, you can’t rip anything without power, so the more powerful the vehicle, the more potential it has to rip tracks – although it doesn’t necessarily follow that the power will be used.  Finally, there’s capability – a highly capable vehicle can flow over the ground with minimal wheelspin or bouncing, whereas a less capable one only gets up in a cloud of mud and rocks.  Capability is a mixture of weight, tyre diameter and pattern, suspension and of course driver ability, and yes the most capable vehicles have very large tyres with aggressive patterns which is a balance with their ability to dig ruts.

The other major factor is the driver, and most (but, crucially, not all) of those factors are driver-dependent, which makes the driver an important element ofdetermining the impact of a vehicle on a track.

The end answer is that the worst track-damage machine is a powerful, heavy, not-very-capable 4WD with very aggressive, large-diameter tyres driven by an idiot whose solution to any problem is more right pedal.   The best machines for minimal track damage are largely the opposite – light weight (bonus being so you don’t need much power), capable, with relatively small-diameter tyres and driven by a responsible driver who minimises wheelspin whenever possible.  And it is possible to put an idiot into a perfectly normal vehicle and that idiot will cause more damage that a good driver in a potentially high-impact vehicle.

So we have a situation where tracks could be damaged, with damage defined as making the track more difficult than its intended standard.  The emphasis is on ‘could’.  What we do next is depends on your basic philosophy to life’s question of control vs choice.

On one hand, you have the view that if a minority abuse a tool that tool should be banned, thus ending the problem.  On the other, you take the view that minority abuse should not mean the majority be penalised, and the way forwards is to manage the minority by penalties, incentives and whatever other means to bring them in line.  My view is the latter.  As an example, roadcars and alcohol are available to everyone – we don’t ban either because a few people drink-drive for example.  Instead, we locate and ban the drink-drivers and we have an ongoing public education programme which has, and is making such behaviour socially unacceptable. The hard part is as a society we accept the consequences of negative actions of a few in exchange for freedom of the majority.  If we start off with knee-jerk banning it won’t be long before we’ll all be sitting at home doing nothing, because any sport or recreation you can think of can be wrecked by idiots.

So now to a solution. There’s already a general acknowledgement chains are not to be used except in extremis or in snow because of track damage.  I think the same is true of tread patterns more aggressive than muds, and I don’t think it unreasonable to request that these tyres not be used in public forests, and to be honest they’re not the safest on the road anyway.  As for diameter – while larger tyres are only a problem in soft ground where they make deep ruts, the problem is unlike excess wheelspin as no amount of driver skill is going to change the depth of those ruts.  So let’s say a maximum of 35” would prevent ruts becoming overly deep. 

These two rules would by no means ban highly modified vehicles from state forests, but it would mean that you can’t take your 37” Mega-Digger tyres out on public land, so you’ll need to swap to say a set of 35” muds which is often a typical daily-driver tyre for many comp trucks anyway.  That seems like a reasonable compromise between free access and track wear. As an aside, I’ve long been of the belief that for a tourer all you need is the stock tyre size in mud terrain, a 2” lift and perhaps a set of lockers.  Add that to your average low-range machine and you have a very capable vehicle which could get you anywhere a touring 4WD would want to go, and many places just for the hell of it.  You’d need to go actively looking for difficult tracks to justify say 35”s or a high-performance V8.  But that’s not to say that such vehicles shouldn’t be owned, or in some circumstances may cause less track wear than less-modified equivalents.  It just such mods aren’t necessary for the vast majority of offroad touring.

So to recap – the problem avoiding undue wear and tear on tracks, and we define that by rating tracks and then monitoring their conditions against the rating.  Banning the public is counter-productive, as while the public creates wear they also keep the track open.  The focus needs to be on those actions which cause that undue wear, and that means closing tracks in winter that are prone to severe rutting.  It means an ongoing education and penalty programme to eliminate the idea that ripping up tracks is acceptable, and that while you may choose to modify your rig, it’s not actually necessary just for your average tourer.  And it means out of courtesy to everyone else, not taking tyres that are over 35” or beyond mud terrain on tracks that can be rutted.

But you know who is the worst offender for shredding tracks?  Mother Nature.  You can run a complete offroad competition in a state forest featuring Unimogs with tyre chains and dragster engines, then the Mother looks at that and just sniffs – “amateurs!”.  Just take Victoria as an example – we’ve pretty significant and torrential rain on occasion in the last couple of years and let me tell you that once Nature cuts loose she rips into her own work like you wouldn’t believe. Tracks that were easy become winch-only, trees are thrown about with abandon, minor ruts or creeks become chasms, giant rocks are moved, rivers are diverted by landslides and blockages…mere man cannot compete with nature for remodelling the landscape and that’s before we even consider fires.

But that doesn’t absolve use of the responsibility as public land users to drive safely and as gently as we can, maintain tracks and encourage others to do the same, regardless of our purpose or vehicle.

Summary

  • Tracks are classified as damaged when bypass track paths are made by travellers, or when the intended class of vehicle can no longer traverse it
  • A track rating system can be used to determine the difficult of a track, and thus clearly decide when the track is truly classified as damaged
  • All traffic, recreational or otherwise on 4WD tracks generates wear and tear on the track, but also helps keep the track open and passable, so banning recreational users is not the answer
  • The vehicles that have the potential to damage tracks are heavy, powerful and use large-diameter tyres with very aggressive tread.  But that’s just the potential. The actual damage largely, but not entirely depends on the driver.
  • Nature itself can damage tracks well beyond anything man is capable of, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to take care of our tracks
  • The solution to keeping tracks open is – rate tracks, monitor their condition, repair when they fall below, intelligently use seasonal closures and especially, continue the ongoing programme of driver education and training.  Limit public roads to mud-terrain tyres of 35” diameter so ruts are not over-deepened.
Robert Pepper Automotive journalist specialising in 4X4s, sportscars, camping and future tech.

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