To get to some of Australia’s most beautiful destinations, you’ve got to travel off-road. Here’s how to tow your RV there safely.
There are a number of things you need to be prepared for when you’re going to be towing offroad or in the outback – bad weather, personal injury and mechanical failures, just to name a few. While pre-trip servicing and daily checks of your 4WD make breakdowns largely preventable, unforeseeable incidents can happen and it pays to have the right tools, spares and other kit to get you back to civilisation.
Having done the Big Lap around Australia over the last 12 months, we look back on some of the events which caused us grief, and what we learned from them.
TOW VEHICLE OVERHEATING ISSUES
Out west, we encountered an overheating issue which cost us $6000 and stole four weeks from our trip. Our 4WD’s cooling system was checked and given the all-clear in Perth following indications it had been running hot.
As a precautionary measure, the radiator was replaced because the end tanks were showing early signs of corrosion. Despite this safeguard, the problems persisted. On the advice of the radiator company, we continued travelling north to their nearest store in Geraldton to have it inspected, stopping regularly to top up the coolant, which was spilling out the overflow in transit. At one point, we even resorted to driving with the air-conditioner off, the heater on full and the windows down, to avoid overheating the system. Not much fun in the WA heat.
When we reached Geraldton, the radiator supplier re-tested the system and diagnosed it as a head gasket issue, suggesting the radiator flush had caused the head gasket lining to dislodge, causing an even bigger problem than earlier.
After two weeks of testing, the mechanic concluded the overheating issue had warped the head. Add a further two weeks waiting for parts and repairs and we were back on the road, with a Redarc Low Coolant alarm fitted as a preventative measure.
What did we learn from this experience? Next time, we will be staying put at the first hint of a cooling issue. A cooked 4WD engine can cost big bucks – $10,000-$15,000 for a modern machine is not unheard of. And for major surgery, your best bet is to tow the vehicle to a large centre where you will find greater expertise. A four week wait for any repair is unacceptable.
Preventative maintenance for your 4WD extends much further than the end of your driveway, especially when you plan to tour over rough roads. Your vehicle and caravan should be serviced prior to any extended outback travelling, and advising your mechanic about your planned rough-road adventures will ensure any urgent repairs are prioritised. Assisted recovery missions to remote areas will cost thousands, much of which may not be reimbursed by roadside assistance programs. And there is also the risk of wrecking your holiday.
Once on the road, make a habit of checking your 4WD at least once a day, if not at every stop. Feel your trailer hubs for excessive heat – they should be warm but not hot, which is an indication of bearing problems.
You should also feel the tread and walls of your tyres to ensure they are inflated correctly, and are also not too hot. A tyre-pressure monitoring system that tells you pressures and temperatures is a good way of keeping abreast of any issues. And check underneath your vehicle to make sure you are not collecting undergrowth that could catch fire against a hot exhaust. Look for missing or loose nuts, bolts and fittings. Shiny surfaces can be indicative of a loose nut that has been rubbing.
Our truck suffered two broken windscreens and a broken spotlight from passing traffic during our trip. While this can occur from any passing vehicle, road trains are the biggest risk as they drive on the crown of the road at high speed, followed by a long plume of dust. The safest thing you can do is to get as far off the road as possible when you see one coming. Not only will this help isolate you from any potential flying stones, it keeps you out of the dust that would otherwise cloud your vision. Slowing down for oncoming traffic will also minimise the risk of rocks thrown up by aggressive tyres.
After-market electrical components are another area of unexpected risk on your rig. We found many electrical connections were only crimped, rather than soldered. While that might be fine around home, it only takes a few thousand offroad kilometres to compromise crimped connections on a 4WD. For maintenance repairs you can either carry a soldering iron powered via an inverter from the back of your car/van, or purchase a butane-powered soldering iron (just make sure you carry a spare butane canister).
Daily checks should include tyre pressures, fluids and oil levels, nuts and bolts, plus the air filter if you’re driving in dusty conditions.
FIT FOR PURPOSE
Mt Dare Hotel’s Dave Cox is regularly called out to recover or repair 4WDs in and around the Simpson Desert. Dave believes much of the damage generally results from inappropriate modifications or rigs not fit for outback and offroad travel.
AVOID INAPPROPRIATE TRACKS
Having a hefty van on the back of your vehicle obviously makes for a few extra considerations when touring offroad, not the least of which is the additional travelling length added to your rig. This adds an extra degree of difficulty when manoeuvring through trees, creeks and other obstacles.
Pay close attention to those ‘No caravans’ signs – I speak from personal experience, having run into trouble on a previous drive along the Reynolds River Track, which cuts through the NT’s Litchfield National Park. Upon arriving at the track’s particularly treacherous-looking first water crossing, we decided to walk the creek to find a viable alternative. Back in the vehicle, we carefully weaved through the tree line along the bank before dipping down into the creek and up the bank on the other side, shaving past two trees by the narrowest of margins, before dipping back down to another tributary, requiring full lock to avoid a tree part way down the bank. As we edged down, it became apparent that our long rig couldn’t quite clear the last obstacle without taking out a tree in the process.
There we were, perched with the vehicle facing down the embankment, the trailer facing up and attempting to reverse under extremely tight tolerances. And did I mention the crocodile warning signs? We eventually extracted ourselves from that predicament with sweaty palms, but it taught us a valuable lesson. Pay attention to those signs and always remember the length and size of your rig when towing offroad.
PACK THE RIGHT SPARES AND TOOLS
There are differing views on the volume of spares and tools required when touring offroad. Some people like to take everything but the kitchen sink, including a spare axle and springs. However, this increases the risk of overloading your rig beyond legal limits, thus placing extra strain on the chassis and suspension.
I prefer to fall somewhere in the middle, with a basic toolkit and common failure items such as fan belts, radiator hoses, a jacking plate and any troublesome parts. For instance, the 3L ZD30 Nissan Patrol can have issues with the Mass Air Flow (MAF) sensor and the bearing in the belt tensioner, so I keep these replacement parts on hand. Other spares include air and fuel filters, funnel, puncture repair kit, tyre pliers, fuses, bulbs, assorted nuts and bolts, cable ties, trailer wheel bearings, high temperature grease, wire, ratchet straps, WD40 and jumper leads.
I like to carry a litre of oil for top ups, as well as injector cleaner, diesel-fungus treatment, coolant premix and demineralised water. For alpine areas, I carry anti-gel fuel treatment since alpine fuel is often not widely carried.
On previous 4WD touring trips I have carried a large toolbox (30kg-plus), But these days I take a combination toolkit with spanners, sockets and a tool roll in lieu of the box. The tool roll is not as bulky and easier to store, while the combo kit is compact. After a number of wiring failures I have invested in a butane soldering iron; another compact tool.
While many people will wait until their next service to pick up any breakages, damage or wear incurred on the trip, some things may need to be done sooner, because they could impact on the safety of your 4WD. It’s a relatively cheap and easy exercise for your local mechanic to put the car up on a hoist and inspect for damage.
Up on the hoist at our local mechanic, a quick inspection of our truck revealed a cracked left caster correction bush, big gaps in the rear sway-bar bush, moderate wear on the front sway-bar bush, worn rear upper coil dampeners and missing/damaged upper rear coil sleeves; the latter two contributing to additional vibration. The rear shock mount had also copped a hit but, despite the untidy appearance, it was deemed okay.
The bushes affect vehicle handling on and offroad, particularly the castor correction, which serves to correct negative castor following a significant suspension lift. Negative castor can contribute to undesirable driving characteristics such as vague steering and straight-line stability.
Our mechanic recommended using silicone to keep the rubber coil sleeves in place and replacing the rubber dampeners, or using polyurethane spring packers to avoid any unnecessary metal-on-metal contact.
Regardless of the 4WD or trailer you have, corrugations, potholes and rugged offroad conditions can take their toll. But using products fit for purpose, adopting preventative measures, and maintaining appropriate speeds will help you identify issues as they occur. Should things go awry, good tools, spares and a bit of mechanical know-how will have you safely back on the road in good time.
Want to read our latest eBook packed full of hints and tips, planners, product guides and more? Ensure your Big Lap of Australia goes off without a hitch by downloading our 20 page eBook here!