Namibia is a paradise for offroad driving; in fact, some of the ordinary roads are impassable for ordinary vehicles. Car rental companies, however, will often put restrictions on where you may drive, and they will record their vehicles' locations.
There are no special restrictions on using a 4x4 vehicle. Literally though, "offroad driving" (driving where there is no road) is prohibited everywhere. Opportunities for offroad driving are:
- hundreds of 4x4 trails on privately-owned farms, often for a fee
- towards, near, and in Khaudum National Park
- roads in other national parks, marked '4x4-only'
- some district roads (D-roads) that are just not passable with ordinary vehicles
- almost all roads in Kunene Region
- roads designated with an F ("farm") or P ("private"), and those that have no designation at all
Be aware that most off-road tracks require a combination of vehicle abilities, and not just a drivetrain capable of supplying two axles. This always includes sufficient ground clearance, torque, and wheel diameter. On more challenging tracks differential locks are useful. They ensure that torque is still supplied to one wheel when the other wheel on the same axle does not have traction. A low gear range ensures that difficult patches can be driven at extremely low speed (0.5-1 km/h) without the use of the clutch.
Places to ride
- In, around, and towards Khaudum National Park: One of the least visited, most inaccessible, most remote national parks in Namibia. Park publications claim it is the largest accumulation of sand on the planet, and that gives you an idea of the driving conditions. Additionally, the park is crossed by several omiramba: wide, ephemeral rivers that become muddy within minutes when it rains. During the rainy season (Oct-Dec and Feb-Apr) much of the park can become completely inaccessible because of them, and in other months deep, loose sand and an almost complete lack of infrastructure makes it the least visited of all established national parks. There are more elephants in Khaudom (3,000 - 4,000) than tourists per annum. Driving around is, as often in Namibia, not just a challenge in terms of car specs and driving ability, but of remoteness as well: You are completely on your own and need to carry supplies for at least a week. The park rangers will start looking for you a day or two after your intended departure, and only if they have petrol and a working car. Enter the park through one of its gates, 1 Khaudum tourist reception or 2 Sikereti tourist reception.
- D 2303 This district road leads from the old mine at Brandberg West to 1 Twyfelfontein. Travel by sedan is not possible, even though the northern part of the 75-km track does not look very challenging. There are sandy patches, the Aba Huab River is to be crossed, and closer to the mine the track becomes steep and rocky. GPS is essential, as there are almost no signs and many crossing paths. Medium difficulty. Suitable for trucks.
- Khowarib Gorge: On the map it appears as a shortcut from 2 Sesfontein to the Galton Gate of Etosha National Park. If you are short on time, drive the tarred road, it is much faster than this track. The Khowarib Gorge track is one of the most versatile tracks in Namibia. It will take you through river sand, the river itself, steep rocky ascents and descents, and deep tracks of fine sand, almost dust. The view is spectacular, and the navigation is difficult. Cars higher than an ordinary SUV cannot pass, as many of the trees have low-hanging branches under which one has to squeeze through. The eastern part of the track has deep, fine sand. It requires about 35 cm ground clearance, and differential locks.
- 1 Robbie's Pass (Starts at the terminus of the D 3705 from Kaoko Otavi, and leads to Sesfontein. The 110 km take about 7 hours to drive. Marked as 'impassable' on standard Namibian maps, this is not a beginners' drive. The much feared Van Zyl's Pass is child's play in comparison. With a small truck (Unimog or similar) it will be less of a challenge). The pass comprises the first 5 km near Otjinanwa, where the track follows a dry mountain creek littered with boulders of up to suitcase size. You need a car with exceptional ground clearance, and tyres with good grip. Be aware that this track is not on the standard travel itinerary, even of 4x4 enthusiasts. A week can pass before the next car comes through - You're on your own here. Once you leave the riverbed and enter the plateau of the Joubert Mountains it becomes a bit easier to drive, but there are still a few very steep river crossings on the way to Sesfontein.
- Van Zyl's Pass: The best known pass for offroad drivers in Namibia; many visitors come to Namibia to just beat this track. It is in Namibia's Kunene Region in the far northwest of the country. You will need a car with low gear range and good ground clearance. However, the challenge is the remoteness, rather than the difficulty, of the track: If your car breaks here then you repair it yourself or you leave it where it is; plenty of abandoned cars and trailers bear witness to that. There is no petrol station, no supermarket, no repair shop, in an area of about 50,000 km².
Thanks to the fame of the pass the route is rather well-traveled, and you might have to wait for several hours to attempt the most challenging part. It is recommended that the pass be driven downhill (into Marienfluss). Uphill driving is not forbidden, though, and well manageable with differential locks. The main pass will shake the car quite a bit from side to side, one side facing an abyss of well over 100 m - make sure all heavy luggage is stored near the axles of the car, and not on the roof rack, or you might flip over sideways.
- 2 Brandberg (The track leads once around the mountain. It is scenic, easy to drive and easy to navigate—just stay at the foot of the massif—but don't underestimate the distance. Once around the Brandberg is about 125 km, and at 10-15 km/h... you do the math. Part of the track goes through the Ugab River and might not be passable, as there are many water ponds, but there is always an alternative track outside the river bed.). You may camp along the track but not in the gorges of the mountain. Apart from the Ugab River bed there are no narrow passages, so all-terrain trucks can attempt it, too. Driving the track is free. If you stop to take a hike in the gorges you need a permit. You can buy it from the National Heritage Council, 52 Robert Mugabe Avenue, Windhoek, or at the Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis. Namibians / SADC citizens / International visitors / Disabled: 400N$ / 450N$ / 700N$ / 300N$.
- 3 Donkerhuk West (Off the C28 about halfway between Windhoek and Swakopmund, west of the Bosua Pass. That pass, and the subsequent 30–40km stretch of C28 in the direction of Windhoek, will be challenging with an ordinary sedan). Three easy 4x4 trails, the owner provides a map. You can also camp on this farm. Self-drives on the farm N$ 50pp.
- Daan Viljoen: This small government-run game park outside Windhoek has a short 4x4 track that you may drive at no extra cost. Most ordinary sedans will also manage this track, it is really on the easy side. The track may only be attempted clockwise.
- Elisenheim: Just 6 km north of Windhoek, Elisenheim features a restaurant and a 4x4 self-drive course. Drive the B1 northwards, turn off at Elisenheim. Drive through the residential development to reach the farm with the same name. The 4x4 track (3-4 hours, about 30 km, 200N$ per vehicle, February 2017) is easy and a good way to find out if 'serious' offroading in Namibia is for you: if your car breaks, you have cellphone coverage to ask for help, the view onto the capital Windhoek is spectacular, and the restaurant at the start and end of the track will get you back in shape.
- Isabis: About 130 km south-west of the capital, this farm offers an exclusive drive and stay: only one group of visitors is allowed at any one time. Drive the C26 from Windhoek southwards, then turn left onto the D1265. You need four-wheel drive, or at least a car with good ground clearance, to get to the campsite. The camp site's name is Klip Dam (rock dam). Any other path, marked white on the visitors' map, requires a serious all-terrain vehicle and an experienced driver. There are also routes marked black, in the words of the farm owner "wheel-eating and bone-breaking". Take him serious, even the easy tracks are not easy. The 4 Swemgat (Swimming hole, a rock pond that usually has water) and the 3 Isabis Camp, a very scenic camp site no longer maintained, are reachable via white tracks. Access is 100N$ per vehicle, and accommodation on the camp site is 100N$ per person, kids 12 or younger stay for free. Unfortunately the drought in the 2010s has killed almost all of the trees at the camp site so that it is now more spooky than beautiful (January 2020).
- 5 Namibgrens (On the way to Spreetshoogte Pass). Three easy 4x4 trails, nicely signposted but the owners also provide a map. No charge for overnight visitors.
- Erindi Game Reserve: Erindi is one of Namibia's largest guest farms. To drive anywhere except to and from your accommodation, you have to buy a 4x4 self-drive ticket (250N$ per vehicle per day, February 2017). All tracks are easy, except for the ones the receptionist warns you about; those are moderate. If you have no experience driving 4x4, this farm is a nice way to gain some.
- 4 Sossusvlei: The last 5 km of the track to the oldest sand dunes in the world leads through deep sand and require a 4x4. This is not the track to gain your first experiences, though. Navigation can be difficult, as the track branches all the time, and some of the tracks' sand is really deep. If you're just in for the fun, take a ride with the official shuttle drivers. They are very experienced and can show you how much fun offroad driving can be (for 110N$, kids free, January 2016).
- Lüderitz peninsula: located south of 5 Lüderitz, the peninsula is criss-crossed by tracks, many of which need an all-terrain vehicle. The major attraction, the replica of the cross erected by Bartholomew Dias in 1487, is reachable via District Roads but many of the tracks to minor destinations are not passable with a sedan, including the majority of the bays, and the "Kleine Bogenfels" (Rock Arch Minor) rock formation. Watch out for flooded areas and muddy patches. No charges for these tracks.
Offroad driving is an inherently dangerous activity. Never drive down a path that you couldn't drive up; your only way out might be to turn back. If you feel that you are out of your depth, or that your car is, turn around. If your wheels are spinning, your car is sliding, rocks are scratching the underbody, or you have to take obstacles at speed, then you're out of your depth. Adhere to general 4x4 safe driving principles as described on Offroad driving.
In Namibia there are (as of 2023) quite a few companies that rent out overloaded 4x4s. You can recognise an overloaded car by checking the rear blade springs. Those springs are only proper if they have the shape of a 'u', that is, bend upwards. If they are straight, or even bend the other way, the car is not safe to drive. You can also check the general load of a car by adding up what's loaded on it. Most of the 4x4s rented out are 1-ton pickups. That is how much you can load onto them; the exact number in kg is printed on the side of the car. Without specific modifications, any such car is overloaded if it carries 2 roof tents (at least 2 x 50 kg), spare tank (100 kg), spare wheels, gas, water, firewood, camping equipment (several 100 kg), and 4 adults. A full camping fridge can add another 100 kg. Private 4x4s in this configuration typically have special shocks and special tyres fitted to increase the load capacity. With rented cars this is not likely.