SUV Driving Tips for Ladakh Road Journey

Driving an SUV through the magical landscape is an experience which will remain itched in your memory for the rest of your life. Ladakh has always surprised us, a section which was easily negotiable becomes tricky and the tricky one becomes a damp squib. It happens all the time.

The likely road conditions that you may encounter during the Road Trip Includes

  • Slush
  • Small Stream
  • Violent Stream
  • Stream bringing slush along
  • Steep Ascent
  • Steep Descent
  • Sand
  • Snow

Usually the tricky sections are very short , perhaps no more then 10 m. In a rare circumstances due to some heavy landslide or heavy rain these tricky sections may extend a few kms. By and large the trip will be smooth.

Of all the sections, handling Heavy Slush, Sand, Hard snow, Violet Stream will pose the greatest challenge. Rest are easily negotiable.

Basic Principles

a) While Parking your vehicle in the hills, use both gear and hand brake. Never depend on hand brake alone.
b) Get a sense of ground clearance of your Car. You must do this before you hit a tricky section.
c) Never use Brake to control the speed while descending. You must use a lower gear and brake combination to control your speed on descents.
d) Always inspect a tricky section by getting down from the car and figure out the path that you need to take to negotiate that section.
e) Maintain a steady momentum, it should neither be too slow or too fast. If it is too fast, you can damage your vehicle under body and if is too slow, you may get stuck. It is all about judgment. For Diesel Vehicle, maintain Engine RPM above between 2200 to 3000
f) Reverse gear is more powerful then 1st gear, If your car is not moving forward, reverse it, inspect the obstacle and start again

Handling Tricky Sections

Steep Ascent

The easiest way to handle steep Ascent is to maintain steady momentum of 10 km/hr to 25 kms/hr and ensuring that the vehicle does not drop below this speed. On a steep incline, if you loose momentum your vehicle will stall and then may not pick up from standstill.

Image courtesy – Manish Acharya ( Traveler with Unwind Outdoor 2015 Season )

Handle steep Ascent by maintaining steady momentum and keeping your engine RPM where it delivers maximum torque

Maintain distance from the vehicle in front if there is traffic ( Likely at Rohtang and Khardung La in June), so that you can view the incline coming up and change gear accordingly.

For Petrol Vehicle
Usually a petrol vehicle  delivers peak torque at a higher RPM as compared to Diesel. Check your engine specs and maintain engine RPM accordingly

For Diesel Vehicle ( Scoprio / XUV )

Diesel vehicle delivers a burst of torque in certain range of Engine RPM .. Consider the following

Mahindra Scorpio : 280 Nm @ 1800-2800 rpm

If you drive on a steep ascent below 1800 rpm you will experience lack of pick up .. Understanding this is very important for smooth ride on the tough terrain of Ladakh.

Scorpio Performs best when engine RPM is around 2000 to 2200 rpm

Mahindra XUV 500 : 330 Nm @ 1600-2800 rpm

Similarly XUV performs best when engine RPM is about 2500 RPM

Keep speed of vehicle at 20 to 25 kms/ hr for a safe experience while crossing Passes like Khardung La / Chang La / etc

Turbo for Scorpio & XUV kicks in above 2200 rpm and hence you get sudden bursts of torque and there will be more then adequate power to negotiate any ascent

IMP : Never Never Drive in half clutch, you can burn the clutch in less then 10 kms of steep ascent

If your car Stops at a steep Ascent, then this what you need to do

a) Don’t panic and relax
b) Disembark few passengers / Reduce load of the vehicle and try again
c) If still Vehicle does not pick up, reverse the car to a point where the incline is less and begin again

Steep Descent

Maintain Steady Speed with Gear / Brake Combination. If you continuously keep one foot on the brake you will burn the brake pads in one downhill descent of 30-40 kms.

Use Gear instead of brakes for steady descend on steep slopes

Slush

Pray that you do not encounter shin deep slush. A small stretch of slush can be handled just like steep ascent but with increased power i.e. more steady revving. But if the slush is long/deep and stretches for a km or more, then you are in for a tough time.

In a slushy scenario .. Ensure that you keep the momentum and bull doze your way through … Change gear swiftly and ensure that momentum does not drop .. If momentum drop, you will be stuck.

Rohtang Pass was known for this but ever since the road conditions have improved it is unlikely, that you will encounter this situation now. But ever since the road have been tarred starting 2012, Rohtang is easier to cross.

Even a 4×4 vehicle with higher ground clearance will not be able to go through in slushy conditions … Momentum is the key 

If you have a 4×4 vehicle use 4H setting for slush but maintain momentum

The technique for handling Sand is exactly the same as slush - Momentum

Small Streams

A small stream is where the water is flowing gently around ankle or just above ankle. A small stream also has clear water. There are no special skills required for negotiating small streams. Just avoid potholes if any while crossing the stream

Violent Stream

Small Streams turn violent post 2 PM. So to avoid this situation start early and finish early. If you follow this principle in this terrain, you are likely to avoid Violent Streams.

Start Early morning and Finish Early to avoid Violent Streams 

Always, inspect the violent stream before crossing. An ankle level stream or stream till shin poses no threat at all. Only when water level in the stream is touching your knee is of any concern to you.

Just inspect the stream, decide your path and go with the flow. If you get stuck, do reverse and start again.

Muddy Water, a sign of violent stream ( Always Inspect )

Always Inspect a Violent Stream before crossing

Violent Stream

Snow

Fresh snow poses no challenge, you can drive normally. During summers, the snow is usually soft and is like a shallow slush which poses no threat.
Only hard snow is slippery. Do the following to negotiate a layer of hard snow ( Ice ) on the road
a) Reduce the Tyre pressure so that you get more friction , typically to 18-20 PS
b) Engage 4×4 and drive slowly, no need to rev the engine. The more you rev, the more it will slip, so keep it slow
c) Ensure that you do not apply sudden brake at it will jam the wheels and you will skid out of control.

Be Safe, wait for the Sun ( usually after 11 AM) to melt the Ice and make is loose. You will be able to drive through easily. Avoid high passes early morning when covered with ice, check the conditions locally before proceeding.

This is fresh snow in Wari La in Aug/Sept – Notice the snow is powder form and not hard .. Hard snow will pose a challenge, soft snow will be just like dirt track .. remember to inspect the snow if you are not sure .. 

Steady Momentum is the key for hard snow

Using Tow Strap

If your car is stuck and is unable to move then disembark, use tow strap and take help of another vehicle to pull your vehicle out.

For example, if you are stuck in the stream, unable to go forward and you have tried to increase the throttle but it is not working .. Reverse the Car and take the same path back. It is important that the Wheels are not allowed to go free by incessant revving. Physically Inspect the path, try a different path and try again ..

Never struggle with your car too much, it is a judgement call. If you struggle too much you can either damage the clutch or damage the under body

Precautions: Once you secure the tow strap, kindly stay away from it so that in case it snaps, no one is injured.

Engaging 4×4

99% of the time you will not be using a 4×4. So if your car is not 4×4, please have no concern as it mostly not required.

a 4×4 is like a gear and should never be engaged directly. Engage it when the vehicle is on stand still and after the section is over, pull over and disengage it again. It is not prudent to keep driving with 4×4 engaged.

SUV have usually two 4×4 settings

4H and 4L

Use 4H for gradual ascend/descend : From all practical purpose a steady momentum will ensure that you do not require it.

Use 4L when encountered with Steep Ascend/ Violent Stream / Slush before you enter the section. After the section is over, disengage it.

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