Trip Preparation for 4WD'S
Although not exhaustive, this list provides a reasonable schedule to begin preparation for a trip where the conditions are expected to be testing.
The long planned 4WD trip encompassing sand dunes, rock hills, river crossings and hundreds of corrugated gravel kilometres may be a lifetime event for the occupants but for the poor old 4WD it is the ultimate endurance event and often a race to see which worn or suspect component is the first to succumb to the rigours of the bush.
If the vehicles engine is of proven pedigree and has had a lifetime of regular servicing - and providing it hasn’t been severely abused - then it is likely to be the one component that gives the least trouble on a trip designed to test a car’s credentials.
Get a Service Manual
Regardless of mechanical aptitude it is sensible advice to obtain and keep, in the car, a comprehensive and heavily illustrated repair manual. Even if you suffer a breakdown which you cannot repair yourself, the ability to read the manual and name the correct parts from a drawing can be invaluable when trying to describe a fault over a telephone or 2 way radio. Likewise the passing but helpful bush mechanic may be able to draw some insight about a model of vehicle he has previously never seen before.
Some Important Checks
- Assuming the vehicle has been regularly serviced, is topped up with fresh oil and filters and is fitted with a clean and well sealed air cleaner - then tightening nuts and bolts is a reasonable place to begin.
- This is the time to get really well acquainted with your vehicle and spend a couple of hours going over every nut and bolt and checking for tightness. Get under the car with a handful of spanners and lay them on every nut, testing for integrity.
(time to begin looking for loose nuts, damage and leaks) →
- Check all aftermarket components like spotlights, roof racks, aerials etc have been securely fastened with non-loosening fasteners ie; use spring washers (flat washers alone are inadequate), ‘Nylock’ Nuts or Loktite type stud adhesive (it ‘glues’ nuts on) or the use of split pins through crown nuts. Off-road vibration will quickly dislodge a component that would remain seated for years on a bitumen road. Another more permanent arrangement is to deliberately damage any exposed thread to prevent a nut or bolt unwinding itself. Done properly it means the component will have to be cut off but it also aids in preventing the theft of valuable aftermarket accessories.
- Most importantly check the underside of the vehicle which is rarely looked at when driving around town but can become a fairly regular sight in the bush. Shake the exhaust around and examine the joins and welds for ‘fatique’ or ‘stress’ fractures. Ensure all exhaust hanger assemblies are in place and the entire unit has a solid, cohesive feel to it.
- Visually inspect all fluid lines especially fuel and brake lines and check around unions and bends for signs of leaking fluids.
- Jack up and secure the vehicle and spin the wheels and have a close listen. You should hear – nothing. Scraping or abrasive noises indicate a problem and need attention. Look at the wheels rotation and see that it spins evenly and in a true circle without irregularities. Hold the tyre at the North and South and rock the wheel vertically. There should be little play and no ‘clunking’ feeling. Do the same while holding the tyre at the East and West and rock it from side to side. Again there should be no play. Vertical play in the components may indicate a steering issue and a horizontal movement may indicate the wheel bearings require attention.
- The checking and repacking of grease in the wheel bearings is a reasonably minor operation and should be automatically considered if you are unsure when it was last performed and you intend undertaking a substantial journey. This applies to caravans, boat trailers and campers alike.
- (rotating parts like this hub 'throw' fluids using centrifugal force) →
- Remove the wheel and visually inspect the inner guard for signs of fluids thrown around by centrifugal force, indicating a leak somewhere. Inspect and feel the disc rotors for extreme pitting or ‘grooving’ and make sure the brake pads have plenty of meat available. Older 4WD’s with drum brakes require the drum to removed, blown out and inspected in the same manner. Check all hubs for leaking seals.
- Examine the tyres paying attention to the inner wall, rarely seen when mounted, checking for sidewall damage and cuts. Check the tread for nails, screws and stones – anything that could lodge deeper into the tyre and create a puncture. Look at the rim for signs of missing balance weights – added at the tyre shop to balance the wheel.
- Just prior to departure is probably a good time to have a wheel alignment, tyre rotation and balance performed. It exposes the car to another pair of eyes for problem evaluation. Mechanical shops tend to be pretty good at advising you of potential problems if they are aware of your travel intentions.
- Every grease nipple needs to be located and greased properly. If you pay someone to grease your car it doesn’t hurt to check that it was actually done. Nobody likes using a grease gun and it’s easy to dismiss that hard to get to nipple as ‘not really needing attention’.
- Shock Absorbers take enormous punishment on fast corrugated roads and should at least be visually examined for leaks or rock damage. A more thorough examination involves their removal and attempted compression. A gas shock in good condition should be extremely difficult to fully compress and should default to the fully extended position. A hydraulic shock should be extremely difficult to move in or out.
- The steering damper acts in a similar fashion to your car shock absorbers and like the shocks should be assessed for performance.
- All suspension components should be examined. Leaf springs should all be intact and rubber bushes should display no obvious deterioration or signs of perishing. Tie rods bushes and sway bar rubbers should be firm and flexible. The car should show no obvious signs of sagging suspension or abnormal handling.
- The flushing of the brake lines and the replacement of brake fluid is good practise and often ignored.
- Power steering fluid is another reasonably simple maintenance procedure and its replacement will offer peace of mind at least.
- Some vehicles go their whole lives without having a differential oil change. An oil level inspection is a breeze and should be the minimum diff maintenance performed. If you’re unsure about the oil quality or the last service then a flush and change is a good idea.
- While you are looking at the differentials investigate what sort of breathers the 4WD is equipped with. If you intend to tackle river and creek crossings then extending these differential breathers is a good preventive measure to keep water out.
- Radiators and radiator cooling is crucial and requires continual monitoring to ensure trouble free motoring. Cooling systems require regular flushing and coolant replacement. Compressed air can be used to blow out the delicate cooling fins and a thorough visual inspection made. This is a good time to consider installing a mesh screen between the radiator and the outside world. Locusts and grass seeds quickly block available airflow to the radiator and eventually damage the fins. Carrying additional replacement mesh is a good idea. Screens can be bought at specialist stores but making your own from stiff stainless flyscreen is a doddle.
- Dry winters and hot dusty summers deteriorate vehicle "rubbers" – the seals around doors and windows. Dirt roads quickly expose leaks by sucking in bucketfuls of dust in no time. Attending to visually obvious problem areas makes life more comfortable. It may also be time to examine door alignment, especially on rear swing doors that carry the additional weight of spare tyres or fuel.
- Automatic transmissions require regular service schedules while manual gearboxes benefit from clean oil and clutches in good operating order. Clunks, bangs and slipping gears are all symptomatic of transmission issues and need addressing prior to subjecting a gearbox to the stresses of four wheel operation. The slave and master cylinders of the clutch have a finite life and require inspection for leaks and serviceability.
- Tow and recovery points need inspection. If your vehicle has no factory fitted recovery points you may want to consider installing some.
- Air conditioner units should be operated in vehicles for 10 minutes every week summer or winter to distribute refrigeration gas throughout the system and to keep the seals lubricated.
- Issues in the electrical system can potentially lead to real problems down the track, especially with the abundance of aftermarket 12 volt appliances that have likely been added to the standard 4WD. Anywhere a wire is likely to rub against another component has the potential to rub through the insulation and short out the wiring. All loose wiring needs to be secured firmly with cable ties or similar. Connections and terminations should be of first rate quality. Soldering is a solid solution and quality crimped locking connectors also work well. The battery(s) need a good solid platform and require solid bracing and securing. Earth and positive leads should be heavy duty and terminals clean and secure. 12 volt electrics are one area where a ‘Tim the Toolman’ approach works well and a bigger is better mentality is good. Thick, heavy wiring, man sized connectors – everything except over rated fuses.
- Headlights and spotlights can all be checked for function, clarity and proper alignment.
- It may be prudent to check the due replacement interval for the Cam Timing Belt. If it is likely to arise close to the beginning of a trip then it may be wise to change it before leaving.
- Listen to the idler pulleys, bearings and the water pump. With the engine running and making sure not to get your dreadlocks tangled in the spinning fan, take a long handled screwdriver or similar and place the blade against the outer housing of any component with a reciprocating bearing. By placing your ear on the handle of the screwdriver you can listen, stethoscope style, to the inner workings of these bearings. Crunching, grinding noises indicate a problem that requires attention - normally replacement.
- Finally all hoses and belts should be replaced if you are unsure of their vintage. Good condition belts and hoses can be taken as spares
Minimize the Potential
Essentially the preparation for any long range trip is about doing everything possible to minimize breakdowns and inconvenience. An aeroplane drop of spare parts to a remote desert region can cost upwards of $10,000 while the cost of towing a 4WD out of this sort of trouble may be worth more than the vehicle itself.
If anything leaks then seal it. If it rattles then tighten it. If it’s nearing its service date then service it. That side mirror with the tiny annoying shudder will fall off after exposure to enough corrugations. That one dodgy tyre will go down and that one twisted wire, wrapped in electrical tape will short out and cause a problem.
If it serves no other purpose, then a pre trip maintenance schedule will at least buy peace of mind. Travel is for pleasure and no one needs a niggling doubt or worry to surface every time a difficult obstacle or situation is encountered.
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