Competition 4WD or Outback Tourer?
monster truck towing a caravan

Looks the part doesn't it? If we were to believe a lot of the accessory distributors and much of the off-road press then we'd all be driving these modded-up mini monster trucks.

Four wheel drive journals and after-market suppliers have a symbiotic, if not slightly parasitic relationship, which can translate into a distorted perception of the ideal 4x4.

The same sort of self serving practises can be seen across a broad spectrum of activities - especially expensive recreational activities. Manufacturers pay magazines and journals large sums of money to advertise and promote their products. The journals use and review the advertised products and reinforce the brands identity. For instance, if a tyre manufacturer yells loudly enough and often enough that they make the best tyres; if they charge a premium for those tyres; and if those tyres are visible in articles, reviews and demonstrations - then that tyre can develop a cult following. It happens with winches, it happens with electronics, it happens with caravans, barbecues and beer.

Say you need 33 inch muddies and a six inch suspension lift often enough and eventually the market will absorb some of it as 'fact'. Write articles about taming the river crossings at Cape York or cresting the dunes of the Canning Stock Route - fill these articles with images of vehicles brimming with top-shelf aftermarket accessories, balloon tyres nestled under massive suspension assemblies and a monstrous electric winch snarling from the roobar. Some of the buying public will embrace this image as that of the perfect 4x4.

We recently crossed paths with a sixty-something gentleman who was returning from his first trip to Cape York. He was driving a bog stock 2000 model Holden Rodeo with 326,000km on the clock. It was a petrol V6 and the only modifications he had made were to add a small pair of spotlights. The Rodeo was an ex rental vehicle and still rode on light truck tyres. In tow was a home made camper trailer, primarily made from steel and very heavy. He'd had a ball, got to the Tip unscathed and his only complaint was the heavy fuel usage of the petrol V6 towing the trailer.

The Reality

Many people who plan on taking an extended trip around Australia will have something in tow - usually a caravan or camper trailer. Ninety nine percent of the time it's going to be the trailer that hampers the ability to undertake any extreme off-road driving and not the vehicle.

No matter how good the camper trailer is, how strong the subframe, how extended the suspension or how flexible the hitch coupling, the fact is that the sheer act of connecting an unpowered box on wheels to your car - severely restricts the ability to drive over large boulders and negotiate severe off-camber ruts. The extended wheel base of car/camper/caravan means you simply won't be capable of cresting massive sand dunes or driving ninety degrees across a deep ditch. You are physically limited by the package - not the vehicle.

Of course the potential is that you disconnect the van and are then free to pursue all manner of excursions, detours and acrobatics but most people aren't inclined to take (potentially) holiday-destroying risks with their prime means of transport when they are 4000km from home in a place with little mechanical aid and the chance that any sort of motor repair is going to come at huge expense with a great deal of lost time and inconvenience. Heading out 50km from home for a Sunday afternoon hill climb is a vastly different proposition to tackling a really gnarly incline with a 30 metre drop off to one side and a 50/50 chance of success - while you are alone in a remote piece of bushland. Most people choose to drive around rather than risk their holiday and transport.

Those not towing something are generally driving Winnebago's and the like or getting around in 4WD camper vans with about a tonne of camping gear and associated hardware to make life on the road more comfortable. Their reality is that the pure weight or style of their chosen transport is the achilles heel when it comes to performing off-road gymnastics.

One other important consideration is that there are just not that many places around Australia where you are actually required to perform extreme driving feats in order to access the places you may want to go. There is generally another way around. Accessing places like Cape York, The Canning Stock Route, the Simpson Desert Crossing and the majority of the iconic 4WD tracks you've probably heard of, require nothing more than a standard four wheel drive. Often these iconic tracks can be traversed in two wheel drive.

When the rain sets in to the Kimberley, the Top End or Cape York and the rivers run and the plains turn to quicksand - no one is getting through regardless of the vehicle, tank or bulldozer they are driving. Impassable is impassable.

Extreme Accessories
Ninety nine percent of extreme aftermarket accessories are for extreme driving, not the the sort of day to day four wheel driving most outback tourists will encounter. The average touring traveller who wants and is prepared to get off-road will find that most of their travel time is spent with long periods of highway (hardtop) travel, plenty of corrugated gravel and dirt roads punctuated by soft beach sand, dunes, some rocky hills and occasional mud and river crossings.

In general, if you want to test yourself and your vehicle over extreme terrain you need to go out of your way to find it because the majority of the really difficult trailblazing was accomplished over 60 years ago. Remember that much of this pioneering off-road exploration was performed in vehicles such as the venerable Series One Land Rover, split rims, skinny tyres and a hand crank!

We include items such as large suspension lifts (over 3 inches) as extreme. Big fat mud terrain tyres fall into the same category as do differential locks and electric winches. Spotlights that can fry a kangaroo at a kilometre are fine but are they really necessary and do you need traction mats, exhaust jacks and beadlocks as well?

What's Really Needed To Tour Australia by 4WD?

Tyres: Big tall 13 inch wide mud terrain tyres may look the part on an off-road monster truck but we couldn't imagine anything worse than spending all day on them. The people that use them to their greatest advantage are competition rock climbers who run extremely low tyre pressures and use the big footprint to claw up boulders most of us couldn't climb over on all-fours. Mud terrain tyres eat fuel, fling rocks and sound woeful on the bitumen. They cost a fortune and don't aid your on road comfort or handling one bit. We like quality all terrain tyres that are as close as possible to the rolling diameter of the original equipment. Gearboxes, engines, diffs and tyres are designed by the engineers to work as a package. Changing the height (diameter) of the tyre changes things like fuel consumption, acceleration and speedometer reading. On a touring vehicle that will be doing lots of highway kilometres we would generally opt for a slightly taller tyre over a tyre with a slightly smaller diameter. The slightly taller tyre will help keep the engine revolutions down on the highway, resulting in less engine noise and slightly lower fuel consumption. A taller tyre will also give a longer contact patch when deflated for sand use - resulting in more traction. Of course if your vehicle is underpowered then a taller tyre may hurt your ability to accelerate away or to churn through soft sand or mud.

We're not big fans of wide tyres. Our favourite tyre on the bigger rigs like Toyota Landcruisers and Nissan patrols is the 235/85R16. The 235 stands for 235mm or about nine and a quarter inches wide and we find this to be about the best all around compromise as a general purpose four wheel drive tyre. It's narrow enough to dig down to the hard-packed base of sandy wheels ruts and still negotiate rocks, trees and other obstacles. Any wider and the tyre feels vulnerable to staking with an inability to go around things. Wide tyres force you to drive over things you'd probably prefer to drive around and put additional stresses on steering and suspension components.

Most large 4WD passenger arrive with 265/75 tyres. 265mm is nearly ten and a half inches wide and the new vehicle market has probably shifted away from narrower tyres in an effort to gain market edge. Many new vehicle owners immediately rip off the original tyres and fit wider tyres without really knowing why and we believe vehicle manufacturers are attempting to stay one step ahead of the pack. We don't believe that a 265mm width makes for a great all purpose off-road tyre.

Wide tyres have nothing to do with load carrying ability. The ability to carry heavy loads comes from the tyre's construction - notably the stiffness of the sidewall. Tyres are given a numerical rating that corresponds to the load carrying ability. The higher the number the greater the load carrying capacity.

Spotlights: Or driving lights help you see at night, no problem. The question is how much night driving will you actually do? Most tourers are parked up by four in the afternoon with a beer in hand and plans for a barbecue dinner.

Big spotlights with really big outputs also have really big cases and lenses that often protrude well out from the front of the car - making them an excellent $1000 target for sticks, stones and the occasional brush with a highway-crossing kangaroo. They're also a great target for thieves.

Spotlights mounted on the roof are next to useless when it's time to pick your way down a tree lined track to the beach. They are begging to be ripped off by branches or smashed off by birds. Start to do lots of highway driving and you are going to hit lots of birds, sometimes big birds. The first place they go after they've cracked your windscreen is up and over the roofline taking your four-pack of expensive spotties with them. Roof mounted driving lights are for pig-hunters, ute musters and monster trucks.

Suspension Lifts: Suspension lifts can be useful. To a point. Manufacturers, understanding that many four wheel drives will never see much off-road action, often keep ground clearances low so Grandma can get in and out of the car with relative ease.

A 50mm (or 2inch) suspension lift can generally be accomplished without disturbing to much of the car's original geometry or handling characteristics. The extra boost in height helps when (a) the car is carrying a mountain of weight and the suspension is compressed anyway and (b) when you're cresting sand dunes or picking over larger than average rocks and gullies. A small suspension lift increases approach and departure angles meaning slopes and ditches are negotiated with less chance of catching the leading or trailing end of the vehicle.

Big suspension lifts, where shiny yellow coil springs and fat shock absorbers are plainly visible between the wheel and the guard, aren't really going to benefit you in clambering over treacherous rock ledges because faced with the choice of smashing over or driving around an obstacle, most people will opt for the safer route when they're a million miles from home.

Big suspension lifts will cost you a fortune, may upset the car's centre of gravity resulting in poor handling and the climb into and out of the vehicle may be awkward for the shorter/older occupants.

Winches: We'd hate to try and guess how many vehicles are driving around with an inappropriate power winch bolted to the front of their cars. Most winch suppliers and manufacturers will advise you to buy 1.5 times the gross vehicle weight or GVM.

  • Most people are unaware of the real weight of their vehicles. Full fuel tanks can add 200kg. Camping gear, additional spare tyres, fuel, fridges, batteries, etc., and lets not forget the driver and passengers and all the other things we cart around, will add considerably to the GVM.
  • A 2 tonne 4WD is starting to look like a 3 tonne proposition on the road and this is the figure you need to base your winch buying decision on - a fully loaded 4WD.
  • When a 4WD is bogged in deep mud, crossed up in a rut or wedged on the side of a hill it is no longer a standard winching load.
  • A 2000kg vehicle requires a pull of about 10% of it’s Load Weight to start it rolling on a hard level road.
  • It requires a pull of about 30% of it’s Load Weight to start it rolling on an off-road surface such as grass.
  • It requires a pull of about 100% of it’s Load Weight if it’s bogged to the bottom of the wheel rim.
  • It requires a pull of about 150% of it’s Load Weight to move it up a 30 degree slope.
  • As well as these factors we need to consider things like resistance from things like mud, rocks in front of wheels and damaged wheels etc.

Winches also require a quality electrical system to enable them to function properly and the times we've seen and heard of winch failure due to poor quality electrics or water contamination after a river crossing are innumerable.

Bull Bars and Snorkels: We think you really need to have both if you plan on taking to the Australian bush in your 4x4.

Bull or Roo bars do deflect smaller animals and will usually save your vehicle from damage from hitting kangaroos, emus, birds, pigs and other mid size critters. Cattle, horses, camels and donkeys are a different matter.

Bull bars are also great for pushing aside bush when you're forging through an overgrown track and they help create a decent bow wave when you make river crossings, which brings us to snorkels.

Snorkels do more more than keep the water out of the vulnerable insides of the engine as you drive through rivers and creeks. They also get the air intake up and away from the car and as a consequence - away from the bulk of dust and hot air that circulates around the lower regions of a travelling vehicle.

What you don't need are dual raised chrome exhaust stacks.

Diff Locks: Great things for finding traction on rocks and snotty hills but could be considered overkill on the average outback tourer. The reason - most of your poor traction driving is likely to be on sand, dunes and muddy tracks. In these situations the poor traction means that all four wheels will likely be spinning anyway and diff lock isn't going to make a huge difference.

Diff lock comes into it's own when the going gets really tough and your vehicle is faced with situations of dramatic imbalance and a genuine poor foothold. Then diff lock shines as all four wheels turn at the same rate and enable the 4WD to find traction where regular 4WD's fail.

The reality is that you don't need diff lock to go to Cape York, cross the Simpson or make windscreen deep water crossings. You need diff lock to climb over obstacles that would otherwise be impassable. It's rare that you can't find an alternative route that avoids such obstacles.

Conclusion

Four wheel driving is fun. It takes people to places that they wouldn't otherwise see. Four wheel drives tow loads that many cars are incapable of. Their big solid presence brings a sense of security on long highways and when tackling nasty terrain.

Competitive off-road driving is also a lot of fun. Testing yourself and your vehicle against nearly impossible obstacles, against other likeminded souls, is a sport and hobby and to many people, much of the pleasure is derived from bolting the assorted bits and pieces together to make it all work.

However these cars can be absolute pigs to drive on the road and many get trailered to the event.

The message is that - for the vast bulk of Australian off-road driving a standard four wheel drive will take a reasonably proficient driver to most places. That reasonably proficient driver can always work out a plan to bypass really difficult obstacles. It's amazing what a shovel and some carefully placed rocks or branches can achieve.



You may be interested in the following articles -

4WD Trip Preparation.

Air Intake Snorkels.

Essential 4x4 Accessories.

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