15 Off-Roading tips to make you a pro
You’ve booked your site, packed your camper trailers, corralled the family into the tow-tug on time, but with the tin-lids constantly sick, hungry or “busting” and your partner snap-happy, you’re suddenly hours behind. And when you do finally arrive, some Johnny’s nabbed your site.
Not to worry, though. Because the old bloke at the tackle shop (on your eighth stop) told you there’s something better down that old tired, overgrown track. But are you ready to get there? Here’s what you need to know before heading off-road.
- Is your vehicle right for the job?
Our tow-tugs do such an amazing job, sometimes we take them for granted, but towing really works the engine and suspension and when you head off-road the impact’s compounded. It’s important to remember tow ratings are for on-road touring, and while a late series Commodore or small SUV can handle a small trailer on the bitumen when you travel offroad they struggle — especially for extended periods of time. Less will go wrong under these conditions when you’re towing with a separate-chassis 4WD (wagon or ute) with a beam/live rear axle, especially over long periods of time.
- Buy all terrain tyres
See those flashy brochures showing off 4WDs carving up the tracks? Believe it or not, that ‘off-road machine’ won’t be ready for any of it when it rolls off the factory floor. Not with the tyres they’re usually supplied with, anyway. The highway-grade rubber fitted on most new 4WDs have a lightweight tread and sidewalls geared for on-road comfort, grip, fuel consumption and noise suppression. But that same finely-tuned tread will hold as much traction as a pair dress shoes on a hiking track when travelling on anything rougher than freshly-graded dirt.
- Service your rig before you go
Ensuring your rig is in tip-top shape before heading off-road will put your engine and driveline components in the best position to withstand the rigours. Especially with a trailer in tow. But you’ll need to find a mechanic that specialises in off-road travel first, especially if you plan to travel beyond an easy-to-access national park campground. And while you’re at it, make sure you’re trailer’s up to speed too. Insufficient grease on bearings is a common shortfall in new trailers.
- Expect the unexpected
Off-road travel often equals isolation so therefore it’s important to equip yourself with an adequate first-aid kit and first-aid knowledge. Even if you completed training in the past, a refresher first-aid course will improve your existing skills and bring you up to speed with any changes to first-aid protocol. Also, fit your cabin and trailer with a fire extinguisher and fire blanket.
Emergency communications appropriate to the conditions and regions in which you’re travelling will help you receive medical intervention sooner or save you hours of waiting if you breakdown.
Have sufficient insurance for all your contents, too, and important paperwork such as credit cards. Carry some emergency cash.
- Respect your limitations
I’ll never forget the sweet, smokey smell of singed clutch when I first attempted a firetrail. Apparently, I’d forgotten to engage 4WD. With no foreseeable way forward, I was stuck zig-zagging my way in reverse around a 90 degree bend with thumping-grand hybrid van behind. Several attempts later, the property owner came to my aid, apologising for the state of the track but in truth, it was my lack of experience that had left me ‘driving blind’.
Had I spent the money on those ‘expensive’ 4WD and towing training courses first, I now know I would’ve come out of the situation financially a whole lot better.
Even with good equipment, training, practice and planning, don’t risk your safety (or sanity) by over-driving your rig, or yourself.
- Change a tyre before you leave
Hear me out here… because, your tyre-changing ability isn’t the only thing that prevents a successful tyre change out on the track. Sometimes it’s equipment incompatibility that stands in your way. Like when wheel nuts fail to fit the wheel-brace, or if the wheel-brace doesn’t fit inside the wheel-nuts’ bores, or the machine fitted nuts are rattle-gunned too tight. And let’s not forget the jack: if you bought your 4WD second-hand you may have the wrong one… or worse still, none at all. Changing a tyre in your driveway at home before you leave will provide you the opportunity to resolve any of these issues before you set off where supplies are slim on the ground.
- Pack Light
Weight impacts performance and every kilo your vehicle and trailer weighs and carries (including you and your passengers) is costing you fuel and working its way to wearing out your tyres, suspension and driveline.
So think about this when you’re packing all your gear and equipping your vehicle: a public weighbridge will reveal the weight of your ready-to-travel rig… you may be shocked!
If you’re swimming in stuff, or towing beyond your legal weights (which is asking for trouble off-road) adopting the “two-uses only” rule, where everything you pack will assist at camp in two or more ways should help lighten the load.
- Optimise your tyres for the terrain
Higher tyre pressures on the road can reduce heat build-up and rolling resistance in your rubber, but deflating some air will improve flex in off-road conditions such as on dirt, sand and gravel, increasing traction as a result and minimising the likelihood of a rock piercing the tread.
Punctures are still likely, though, so carry a tyre repair kit and a compressor.
- Know your speed limit
Highway speeds aren’t appropriate off-road, in fact, it’s worth capping your travel at 80km/h on a well-maintained gravel road tops, even without the weight of a camper trailer behind. If conditions are extreme driving at a walking pace when you’re approaching and passing oncoming traffic will reduce the impact of stones.
- Managing fuel reserves
If you’re carrying extra fuel put it into you vehicle’s main tank as early as convenient to help maintain a stable centre of gravity. Don’t over-fill it though, and always carry full jerry cans in an upright position.
Also, when you’re filling up your jerries, make sure they’re on the ground.
Keep in mind the risk from campfires and other ignition sources when refilling as fuel vapour can flow long distances over ground.
- Start off slow
If your off-road driving experience is limited work your way towards your ambitions if you’re planning a long-haul trip or want to tackle challenging terrain. The same applies if you’ve recently invested in an expensive mod or purchased a new vehicle or camper trailer. A weekend trek or two will let you know that everything’s working fine. You’ll gain a better understanding of the time it takes to set up everything, which will help you plan your itinerary.
- Work a flexible plan
Plans are great but make sure you build in a little bit of flexibility within them, as life on- and off-road has a way of taking charge: leaky fuel tanks, broken windscreens, weather-induced road closures or sick kids can all stop you in your tracks.
Try and include at least one three-consecutive night stay in one place at least once a week, to allow for a decent sleep and a few stress-free days for washing and restocking supplies.
- Carry recovery gear
If you’re going off-road, it’s important to pack good 4WD recovery gear to help deal with some of the driving dilemmas you’re likely to encounter, especially if you’re off-roading for fun of it. A good recovery kit should include a pair of sturdy rigger’s gloves to avoid broken strands, a snatch strap, a winch extension strap, a tree trunk protector, a snatch block, a pair of rated bow shackles, and a recovery damper.
It’s also a good idea to carry traction pads such as MaxTrax to provide traction on soft surfaces, a good hi-lift or exhaust jack.
Electric winches are also extremely handy, but you’ll need a course in order to learn how to use one safely and properly.
- Keep an eye out on the terrain
Your approach to driving will change according to the conditions and terrain, but conditions can change quick so it pays to think clearly about the risks as they emerge.
Is it safe to attempt that track with a camper trailer in tow? What about the overhanging branches, do I have a chainsaw on hand to address the obstacles?
What looks safe now can change with a decent soaking. What’s my exit strategy?
- Share the driving
We all like to think we’re invincible out on the tracks, but if you’re travelling distances or for long periods of time it often pays to share the driving. Switching drivers at regular intervals will ensure whoever’s in the driver’s seat is sufficiently alert and well rested. If your fellow traveller is concerned take heed, and let them take the helm as we can over-estimate our endurance just as fatigue starts to set in.
And, if you’re travelling into extreme off-road conditions or spending long periods travelling off-road, travel in convoy. The point of a convoy is to support each other, so speak out if you’re struggling to keep up but make sure you stay far enough behind to avoid the bull dust cloud!
Communications are essential in convoy, so you’ll need to sort that out before you go.
It may seem a lot to remember but honing your off-roading skills is all about meeting challenges and having fun. And once you’ve enjoyed the pleasures of a remote, pristine campsite with friends and family away from the masses, you’ll wonder how you ever managed to holiday without them.
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