You’ve just driven into your driveway with a recently acquired 4WD, and regardless of its state – brand new or second generation, stock or fully kitted out – you’re itching to get it offroad, dirty and exploring dusty tracks.
The excitement can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to four wheel driving, but before you jump in and engage low range, there are a few hints I’d like to share, in support of the old adage: “not just getting there but getting back in once piece”.
WHERE AND WHEN
You’ve got some holidays owing and the family is eager to start exploring destinations and attractions beyond the norms like Sea World or putt-putt. Getting out bush can be a great way to educate the kids and uncover the wonderful Australian bush – its history, characters and indigenous culture.
So you’ve decided it’s time to start preparations. Be wary; whilst most people firstly decide where they’d like to go and what they wish to experience, they often underestimate the kilometres and hours between towns and attractions – not to mention the toil on the driver, passengers and vehicle. Remember to be flexible, and never underestimate the worth of deviating from your initial plans, if necessary, as there’s plenty to discover that you won’t find in mainstream publications.
The next important step is deciding when to leave to maximise enjoyment. In deciding when, take into account that some places are not accessible or at their prime at certain times of year. For example, you want to avoid northern parts of Australia during the wet season, because the heat, humidity, and inaccessibility of many roads and attractions can make travel near on impossible.
PREPARING YOUR VEHICLE
Regardless of what weapon you drive, it needs to be in its best condition to undertake the rigours of long distance touring, especially if the terrain is expected to be challenging. Of course, this includes your trailer, if you are towing.
While some owners like to have their 4WD highly modified and fitted with every trinket, it’s not necessary for your big maiden trip. I suggest starting off with some basics and working out what suits and is affordable.
Once you’ve got a few trips under your belt, then think of what else you may need. You can easily spend many thousands on a 4WD and accessorising it, which is known as ‘investing’ in the industry – but save that for later!
There are just a few modifications you need, which I will discuss in a moment. On top of these, I highly recommend that a few weeks (weeks, not days) before departure you get your 4WD and trailer fully serviced by a mechanic – preferably one who comes highly recommended and who is familiar with your model of 4WD.
Take the time to speak with them; outline your plans and show them your intended journey, so they can focus on what’s important.
Even if your 4WD is not due for its normal, scheduled service, the workshop should (at a bare minimum) change the usual suspects, like all fluids and filters under the hood, oils in differentials, and old or suspect hoses, belts and consumables. Have the brakes, wheels and tyres checked; include a tyre balance or alignment if you suspect any issues.
THREE BASIC MODIFICATIONS
As a minimum for any maiden trip, I recommend addressing three basic modifications for your 4WD. These are: quality tyres, enhanced suspension and the capability to safely carry sufficient fuel and water.
Even though many of us are on a budget and worry our needs and circumstances will change in the future, I suggest fitting the best quality products that you can afford. There is no room for inferior products in the harsh outback; you need the assurance that things will work. You don’t want to be having doubts lingering in the back of your mind; after all, you’re there to enjoy yourself.
MOD ONE: TYRES
If there could only be one prerequisite for travelling the outback, it would be a good set of tyres. Remote areas may have you travelling all manner of roads, driving over corrugations, gibbers, washouts, sand and cattle grids – just to name a few conditions the outback might dish up. Even poorly maintained tar roads can cause havoc.
For touring, I choose name brand tyres such as Nitto, BFGoodrich and Bridgestone, in light truck construction and in all-terrain (AT) or mud-terrain (MT) versions. Over the many thousands of kilometres I’ve travelled through NSW, Vic, SA and the NT, AT tyres have never let me down. They are pretty tough and long-wearing due to their thicker carcass and deeper tread depth, whilst giving terrific traction on and off road, with acceptable noise levels.
While many owners may be tempted to install larger tyres, I suggest keeping close to your 4WD’s tyre placard sizes, for touring purposes. Though larger tyres may help with clearance, having close-to-stock size will enhance general performance. Using near-to-standard size tyres puts less strain on your vehicle’s driveline, engine and cooling system, especially when towing or traversing sandy or muddy tracks, all the while returning acceptable economy.
It is of course very dependant on the type of vehicle you drive: its power, weight, age and technology.
MOD TWO: SUSPENSION
Most 4WDs available on the market are fitted with quite acceptable suspensions, but that doesn’t mean they are up to the challenges of coping with extended trips over rough roads – especially once the 4WD is loaded up with all your essentials or towing a heavy trailer. Like most things 4WD, everyone has an opinion on what’s best; the amount of options can be overwhelming, and when money is on the line, it’s imperative your choice is the correct one.
In my experience with fitting out 4WDs, I’ve found it very rewarding to simply ask around among fellow enthusiasts who drive similar vehicles to mine. Along with surfing online forums and talking to industry gurus, this has certainly helped me to weed out the cheap in favour of higher quality suspension.
Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of buying bits from here and other bits from there, in order to save a few coins; it’s an expensive mistake that I’ve been guilty of. Try to buy a complete package suited for your situation, so you can be confident all parts work seamlessly and safely together. It’s also better to contend with just one supplier if it comes to fixing any issues, rather than having each supplier pointing fingers at each other.
While you’re at it, for little more cost, consider incorporating a small suspension lift, perhaps 50mm. This will enhance articulation and clearance, but take care to ensure it’s still safe and legal.
MOD THREE: FLUID CAPACITY
These days, most modern 4WDs are quite economical when driven on open roads. But when you cross long dirt tracks or sandy stretches, with lowered tyre pressures partnered with heavy loads, the fuel gauge starts to have a mind of its own.
So, given the long distances between stops and unexpected detours you are bound to face when touring, it’s vital to increase your fuel capacity. It’s not inexpensive, but many 4WDs can have the existing fuel tank capacity increased or supplemented with an auxiliary reservoir.
For my trips, I had an 85L auxiliary tank fitted by Long Ranger Automotive in NSW, for around $1,700. It’s proven very rewarding and incredibly handy on several occasions. Thanks to Long Ranger’s excellent pre and after sales service I’ll definitely be back for my next installation.
Of course, you could just use jerry cans, but they take up valuable space and are not that easy to safely handle, especially if you take a ‘mature’ approach to storing them. However, jerry can holders on your 4WD or camper trailer help to make this a more viable option.
I also carry a 20L water container exclusively for the 4WD, in order to address any unforeseen coolant leaks. Other additional fluids onboard should include: a few litres of engine oil, differential oil, and brake fluid (to address any unforeseen brake system problems). It all depends on your vehicle; if using a manual transmission, carry enough appropriate fluid designed for your 4WD.
Regardless of the duration of the trips I undertake, I always carry a bag of tools. You don’t need to be a trained mechanic; if you can turn a screwdriver or you meet someone on the tracks who can, then having a few tools could save your bacon.
You can cover many unexpected ‘misfortunes’ or niggling annoyances by carrying an assortment of sockets, screw drivers, spanners, pliers, wrenches, allen keys, and side cutters – just to name a few bits and bobs. Other inclusions that can get you out of trouble are cable ties, duct tape, rescue tape, fence wiring, auto cables, terminals and a multimeter.
Naturally, you can add more to this list as you see fit, but be aware of the extra weight. $20 secured me two soft, zippered tool bags from Bunnings, the ideal choice because they pack better and are quieter to store.
On my journeys, I’ve found it helpful to carry not only a good GPS, such as Hema’s HX-1, but also a 4WD road atlas and paper topo maps, available from reputable suppliers like Hema. These texts are invaluable and full of useful information for your travels.
As a final note, it’s not always possible to address all the situations you may contend with. However much planning you do, things are bound to go differently now and then – oftentimes for the better.
I mean, I’ve found the most surprising landscapes in the most unexpected places, like the amazing Pink Lakes in Victoria, which was poorly posted and down a 24 kilometre dirt track.
And whatever happens, each day’s discoveries will be filed into your memory and there will always be plenty more to experience.