MANY new 4x4s are fitted with Passenger Car (P) construction tyres. These may look robust, but have a light carcass with thin sidewalls and tread area. A light construction helps tyres dissipate heat, aiding tyre life, and gives them flexible sidewalls, aiding ride comfort. Light weight also minimises rotational forces for improved acceleration, braking, and economy.
These on-road benefits work against passenger car tyres off-road where the light carcass is susceptible to damage from sharp objects. If you’re going to be doing a lot of dirt- or off-road miles, upgrade to light truck (LT) construction tyres, as their heavier construction provides better puncture resistance.
The construction of each tyre type is clearly marked on the sidewall. Passenger car tyres will be marked with ‘P’ or have no marking at all prior to the size listing (e.g. P265/65R17 or 265/65R17) while light truck tyres will be marked with ‘LT’ prior to the size (e.g. LT265/65R17). In the examples listed, ‘265’ refers to tread width in millimetres; ‘65’ refers to aspect ratio (the depth of the sidewall as a percentage of tread width); ‘R’ refers to radial construction; and ‘17’ refers to wheel diameter (in inches).
ALTHOUGH there are many different tread patterns on the market, they can generally be split into three categories: highway terrain (H/T), all terrain (A/T) and mud terrain (M/T). Choosing the right one to suit your needs will depend on the driving conditions you most likely expect to encounter.
If almost all of your driving will be on sealed roads, H/T tyres will provide the best grip in both dry and wet conditions. They also produce less noise than tyres with a more aggressive tread pattern and the potential for less rolling resistance can result in better fuel economy and longer tyre life. On the downside, they will not perform as well off-road; their closed-in tread pattern can struggle to gain purchase and clear away dirt and mud.
At the other end of the scale M/T tyres have wide-open tread blocks that can more readily clear away mud and provide bite in slippery off-road conditions. But they can be noisy on the road and wear faster than H/T or A/T tyres.
A/T tyres are a compromise between highway tyres and muddies. They are ideally suited to those who have to travel long distances on the blacktop, but know there will be a fair bit of off-road driving on the agenda too.
THE MORE common a tyre size the easier it will be to find a replacement in regional areas if you damage one beyond repair. The most common size today is probably the 265/65R17 as fitted to many 4x4 utes, but there are still plenty of 15-inch, 16-inch and even 18-inch L/T tyres around.
If your new vehicle comes standard with flash-looking 20-inch rims, ask the dealer if there’s an alternative size available. Some manufacturers offer a smaller rim diameter as a no-cost option.
WHEN IT comes to fitting bigger tyres to your 4x4 there are some rules you need to abide by. In most of Australia it’s now accepted that you can raise the height of a vehicle by a total of 75mm – 50mm through suspension and 25mm through a tyre-size increase. Before you go up a size make sure you check with your state governing body and your insurance company. Be aware that larger diameter, heavier tyres affect vehicle gearing and performance.
You can fit a tyre with a lower speed rating than listed on the vehicle’s tyre placard, so long as the driver does not exceed that speed on the road. The lowest speed rating for off-road tyres in Australia is ‘N’ (140km/h).
You must never fit a tyre to your vehicle with a lower load rating than that listed on your vehicle’s tyre placard.
Both a tyre’s speed rating and its load index will be marked on the sidewall.
ALL VEHICLES have a maximum payload which must not be exceeded. In the case of some 4x4 wagons, the payload can be surprisingly low – take the ever-popular Toyota 200 Series Land Cruiser, for example, which has a maximum payload capacity ranging from 610kg to 710kg depending on trim level. Throw in a couple of adults (85kg each), a couple of kids (45kg each) and fit a bull bar, winch and lights (130kg), and that only leaves you with 220-320kg of load capacity for luggage, camping equipment, food, water, extra fuel, tools and spares. And it goes quickly.
The limited payload capacity of many modern 4x4 wagons is one of the reasons dual-cab 4x4 utes have become so popular, as most have a payload around the 1000kg mark – up to 400kg more than a LC200. Throw a canopy on a ute and you have a pseudo wagon anyway, and one that can carry more gear and keep it safely away from vehicle occupants without the need to fit a cargo barrier.
IF YOUR vehicle has limited payload then you’ll need to either carry as little as possible or source lightweight gear. Fortunately, there’s plenty of lightweight camping equipment on the market aimed at hikers and bikers, from tents to sleeping bags to cooking equipment. This saves weight and load space compared to gear aimed specifically at the 4x4 market. And when it comes to a portable fridge, see if you can make do with a 40L unit rather than a heavier 80L one. Likewise, 4x4 equipment manufactured from lightweight materials, such as aluminium roof racks and bull bars, will be much lighter than the equivalent steel products, albeit usually more expensive.
WHETHER you drive a wagon or a ute there’s plenty of gear on the market for storing stuff so it stays clean and dry and is easy to access. On the inside of the vehicle you could opt for a drawer system and fridge slide, for example, that will allow you to safely stow equipment and access it easily. Bear in mind some drawer systems are much heavier than others, and these too will eat into your available payload capacity.
If you’re not keen on fitting a permanently mounted drawer system, plastic space-cases (hard-cases) are a great way to store items such as food, clothes and other supplies. They are available in a range of shapes and sizes, so you should be able to find a combination that fits easily into the back of your vehicle. Combine these with a cargo barrier and you can stack them to roof height, but remember to keep heavy cases down low and light ones up top. Space cases need to be tied down securely using rated straps and tie-down points.
If you need a roof rack for additional gear, ensure you don’t exceed the vehicle’s roof-load capacity or the rack’s capacity. And try to avoid putting heavy stuff up on the roof as it can be difficult to access. Add a cargo bag or a roof pod up top and you’ll be able to keep lightweight items such as clothes and bedding dust-free and dry.
WHEN IT comes to packing your vehicle for the big adventure there’s no perfect solution, but with experience you’ll soon find out what works best for you.
Just remember, don’t overload your vehicle and keep weight as low as possible. And make sure you can easily access the stuff you use the most, as well as the items you might need in an emergency, such as your first-aid kit and recovery equipment.
A VEHICLE can be raised up to 75mm in most states of Australia without having to seek an engineer’s certificate. Up to 25mm of this height increase can be achieved by fitting larger diameter tyres and another 50mm by fitting a raised suspension system.
The obvious advantage of raised suspension is that it provides more ground clearance for off-road driving as well as improving the vehicle’s approach, rampover and departure angles. Of arguably more importance, however, is a suspension system that will also provide more wheel travel. In the case of some vehicles with independent suspension, this can be difficult to achieve as there are limitations in geometry, but with live-axle vehicles most suspension specialists will be able to provide longer-travel springs and dampers.
THERE are suspension requirements for those who tow heavy trailers and caravans. If the rear suspension sags when a correctly balanced trailer is hitched to the vehicle, then heavier rear springs will need to be fitted, or the vehicle’s current springs will need to be complimented with air bags, or air-helper springs.
Air bags can be inflated when there’s a heavy load on board the vehicle or when hauling a trailer, and then deflated to a lower pressure when there’s only a light load or no trailer, minimising the effect on unladen ride quality.
SELECTING the right suspension system to match the load your vehicle carries is important. This is why most suspension system manufacturers and suppliers offer various kits to suit different loads, whether in the form of vehicle accessories or cargo. If your vehicle is equipped with a bull bar, winch and driving lights it will need heavier front springs than a vehicle with no accessories fitted. Or if you have a ute with a canopy, drawers, long-range fuel tank and water tank fitted, you’ll need heavier springs in the back than a fellow with a standard ute who occasionally throws a board in the tray for an early morning surf.
The best way to ascertain the load your vehicle will carry when touring is to fit all accessories and load it up as you would for your trip away then put in on a weighbridge. Armed with this information your suspension specialist will be able to help you choose the right spring and damper package to suit the weight of the vehicle and the conditions you’re likely to encounter on your travels.
MOST aftermarket suspension manufacturers and suppliers will be able to fit an integrated suspension system to your vehicle that includes springs, shock absorbers, bushes and other components, all designed to work in unison.
As well as different spring rates to suit different loads, there are a number of dampers (shock absorbers) available, such as mono-tube shocks, twin-tube shocks, foam-cell shocks, bypass shocks and shocks with remote reservoirs. Choosing the right dampers will depend on your requirements and your budget, but always go with a reputable brand, and one that has outlets around the country in case of failure.
THE BEST device for short-range vehicle-tovehicle communications is the UHF radio, and these days you can pick up a good quality 80-channel transceiver for as little as $250. UHFs are fantastic for communicating with people in other vehicles, and a must for when travelling in a convoy.
UHFs are also very handy when trying to tackle difficult off-road terrain, with the driver using an in-vehicle radio and the spotter/navigator using a handheld radio. They also come in handy during vehicle recovery operations.
The main limitation of UHF radios is their range – or lack there of. Even the powerful units with big antennas are limited to around 40km in flat country, and much less in mountainous terrain.
THESE days the most common form of long-range communications in areas where there is no mobile phone coverage is via satellite phone (satphone). As their name suggests, satphones use satellites that orbit the earth to receive and transmit voice and data communications.
Depending on the network and the device’s unobstructed view of the sky, some of them will operate from anywhere on the planet, allowing you to directly call any landline or mobile phone number.
Modern satphones are not much bigger than standard mobile phones, and offer many features, including text and data. There are a few networks from which to choose, and subscription prices vary, usually depending on the amount of data required and the coverage offered.
The Iridium Network is the largest, with the most satellites, offering complete worldwide coverage. Immarsat offers coverage across most of the globe, generally up to 70 degrees north or south of the equator, while Thuraya claims to offer coverage in 110 countries, including Australia. All three networks offer their own satphone handsets, and Thuraya also offers a device called the SatSleeve, which essentially turns your standard mobile phone into a satphone.
Another form of long-range communication is via HF (High Frequency) radio, which requires the installation of an HF transceiver in your vehicle and a special auto-tuning antenna. HF radio signals can operate over long distances as they bounce off the earth’s ionosphere. To make emergency calls or to communicate with landlines and mobile phones, you’ll need a subscription with the VKS-737 radio network (see vks737.radio).
FOR THOSE who don’t need reliable voice communications, there are a few affordable text-only options. Devices such as the GPS-enabled SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger, for example, allow the user to check-in with family and friends and send pre-programmed messages. The SPOT 3 also allows others to track your location, so you can share your adventure with online maps. Most importantly, in the event of an emergency it can send your GPS coordinates to emergency responders.
IF YOU don’t need two-way communications, even when in remote areas, but like the idea of a back-up system in case of an emergency, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a good investment. A PLB is essentially a smaller version of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that transmits a signal on the 406MHz radio bandwidth to alert search and rescue services when there’s an emergency.
You can buy a PLB for less than $300 and there are no subscription costs. Be warned, however, that once activated the search and rescue authorities will come looking for you, potentially at your expense, so PLBs should only be used in emergency situations.
DUAL battery systems have been around for a long time and they’re still one of the most popular solutions for powering electrical equipment. The components of a dual battery system are the vehicle’s charging system (alternator), the starting battery, an auxiliary battery (usually a deep-cycle battery), a battery tray/box, a wiring loom and a battery isolator.
While starting batteries are designed to deliver short bursts of power for starting the vehicle’s engine, deep-cycle batteries are designed to discharge more slowly over a longer period of time to power accessories. There are several types including Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM), Gel batteries and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries, the latter the most expensive option but advantageous due to compact dimensions, lighter weight and longer service life.
The battery tray or box is designed to securely hold the battery in place, either in the engine bay (if there’s space), under the vehicle or in the tray/tub of a ute.
As its name suggests, the battery isolator simply isolates the starting battery so that electrical appliances run off the auxiliary battery, ensuring the starting battery always has enough charge to fire up the engine. Isolator types can include a manually operated switch, a switching solenoid, a blocking diode or a microprocessor control system.
Modern vehicles, with ‘smart’ alternators, require the inclusion of a DC to DC charger in the system to ensure correct charging.
The cost of a dual-battery system will vary depending on several factors, but when you add up the cost of all components plus labour for installation, you’ll be looking at a minimum of around $1000, and significantly more if you add a DC to DC charger and/or you fit an expensive LiFePO4 battery.
IF YOUR vehicle doesn’t have space for a traditional dual battery system, or you simply want a set-up you can transfer from vehicle to vehicle, a smart battery box is a good alternative. These boxes are designed to accept a variety of battery types and they can be hard wired to the vehicle’s electrical system or in some cases plugged in to a 12V power outlet. Some can also be charged from a 240V mains source and others feature external battery terminals for charging, as well as Anderson plug inputs for charging via solar panels.
Smart battery boxes offer power outlets including USB ports, 12V DC ports and, if fitted with a built-in inverter, 240V AC outlets. Some also incorporate a smart DC to DC charger, power management display and a low-voltage cut-out to prevent accidental drainage of the starting battery.
Depending on quality and features, smart battery boxes range in price from $100 to $500, plus the battery, which will add around $300-$400 for an AGM or Gel battery, and close to $2000 for a LiFePO4.
PORTABLE power packs are similar to smart battery boxes but feature built-in batteries, usually AGM or Lithium.
Most portable power packs will offer charging via a 240V mains source, 12V DC or Anderson plug, and have outputs including 12V accessory plugs, USB ports and merit sockets. Other features will include a voltage/amperage display, low battery warning and overload protection.
There are power packs on the market ranging from 33Ah capacity to over 100Ah. AGM power packs around 44Ah cost around $400, while Lithium power packs of the same capacity can cost more than $1000.
WHETHER you opt for a solar panel affixed to the roof of your vehicle or trailer, a fold-out panel that you can set up on a stand or a solar blanket you can lay across the bonnet or windscreen, you’ll need to ensure it has enough output to meet your power requirements. You’ll also need to make sure it’s equipped with a regulator to safely charge your battery, smart battery box or power pack, and that it comes with a long enough cable to reach your batteries charging input.
Solar panels around the 160-200W range cost around $250-$600 while solar blankets around 150-200W cost from $400-$900.
EVEN if you have a dual-battery system, smart battery box or power pack, there’s always the possibility you could exceed your setup’s power capacity or have an equipment failure of some sort, resulting in a drained starting battery. If this happens when travelling solo in a remote area, you’ll be glad you invested in an emergency power pack.
For less than $300 you can pick up a device that’s small enough to fit in the glovebox yet packs a powerful enough punch to start your vehicle’s engine. Most also feature USB outlets, a 12V DC outlet and an LED light, so they can also be used for charging phones and tablets, and they can be recharged via a 240V DC mains or through the vehicle’s 12V DC socket.
THE ESKY or fridge question is almost redundant thanks to the fact portable fridges are now better and more affordable than ever. Of course, a big esky full of ice still has its place, say, for keeping the catch cold when you can buy ice just up the road, but if you’re going to go touring in remote areas you really need a portable fridge.
THE STYLE of fridge you buy will depend on what food and drinks you need to keep cold and how you want to access the fridge’s contents once it’s mounted.
Portable fridges come in sizes ranging from small 15-litre units that can be mounted between the front seats to big 80-litre units. The size that best suits you will depend on how much space you have available in your vehicle and/or trailer.
Some fridges will have a single cabinet with a removable basket while others will have dual cabinets with separate controllers, allowing one cabinet to operate as a fridge and the other as a freezer.
The external shape of the fridge will affect its ease of use. If, for example, it’s quite high and with a hinged lid on one end, you might struggle to open it in a vehicle with a low roof height. Examine the different ways in which lids open on different models to ensure the one you choose suits your requirements. The fridge will also need to be near a 12V power source and you’ll need to ensure you can easily see and access the fridge controls. To operate efficiently, the fridge will also require space around the compressor and condenser, so don’t pack stuff right up against it just in case.
THE LAST thing you want is to get crook on a trip away, especially when in remote areas far from medical help. Always wash your hands before handling food and check the fridge maintains its set temp – when in doubt, chuck food out. A fridge monitor with an alarm is a fantastic accessory.
When carrying perishables such as meat, it will last longer in cryovac packaging. You can buy your own machine or ask a butcher to package the meat this way.
Ensure your vehicle has enough power to keep your fridge chilled. You’ll need a dual-battery system and a decent charging if you want cold beer for the entire trip.
THE BIGGER the fridge the more it will weigh, so take that into account when selecting a model to suit your vehicle. Larger fridges also tend to consume more power, although that’s not always the case depending on efficiency and the effectiveness of cabinet and lid insulation.
A fridge’s claimed power consumption will be listed in Ah (amps/hour), but when comparing one fridge to another ensure the way in which power consumption has been measured is the same for each fridge. For example, take note of the cabinet and ambient temp at which the manufacturer has listed power consumption.
Overall cooling capability is also important as any fridge you put in the back of your vehicle will need to be able to maintain a temperature of below 4°C to keep food fresh, even when the ambient temperature is above 50°C.
THE SHAPE of the interior cabinet is important. A fridge with a separate fruit/ dairy area is a good idea, as is one with a basket and divider, allowing you to more easily stack and access fridge contents. Other features are a built-in evaporator and drain plug for easy cleaning, an interior light and a low-power cut-out.
Examine the materials the exterior cabinet and lid are made from, and ensure their finish is up to the task. Make sure the fridge has sturdy carry handles and tie-down points, and check for accessories such as transit/insulation bags.
A fridge slide will make access to fridge contents much easier.
JERRYCANS have been around since the Second World War and they are an effective and affordable way to carry extra fuel. Modern jerrycans are either made from steel or polyethylene, and their basic design has remained largely unchanged for 80-odd years.
Jerrycans and other fuel containers shouldn’t be carried inside a vehicle cabin, especially if carrying petrol, and they need to be kept well clear of electrical accessories such as fridges and other potential ignition sources.
In a ute, jerrycans can be stored in the tub, but if you drive a wagon they will need to be mounted in a jerrycan holder either at the rear of the vehicle or, as a last resort, up on the roof. A full jerrycan will weigh around 20kg, so they can be difficult to load and unload from the roof of a vehicle and can also affect vehicle handling, on the road and off it.
Fuel transfer from jerrycans to a vehicle’s main fuel tank can be a messy and dangerous affair, and there’s also an increased chance of fuel contamination, especially in wet or dusty conditions.
FITMENT of a long-range fuel tank is without a doubt the best way to increase your vehicle’s fuel capacity, although it will be much more expensive than the cost of a couple of jerrycans.
Whether you opt for a larger capacity tank to replace your vehicle’s OEM tank, or you add an auxiliary tank to complement the OEM tank, the undervehicle location of a long-range fuel tank ensures weight is kept low where it will have the least impact on vehicle handling.
Other advantages of long-range fuel tanks include much greater fuel capacity for vastly extended range and no need for potentially messy fuel transfer. Replacement tanks simply operate as your OEM tank would have while auxiliary tanks usually feed into the vehicle’s main tank via gravity transfer or an integrated fuel pump that can be operated from inside the vehicle at the flick of a switch.
Most long-range fuel tanks are manufactured from steel although some are now made from tough plastics as used in OEM tanks. Most well-designed tanks are cleverly designed to fit around vehicle components for the greatest possible fuel capacity without interfering with driveline and suspension components. Occasionally, ground clearance has to be compromised to achieve this, so when choosing a tank for your vehicle ensure it will give you the touring range you want without unacceptable loss of ground clearance. And bear in mind that carrying a lot of extra fuel will add weight to your vehicle, reducing its overall capacity to carry other gear and equipment.
ANOTHER fuel-carrying solution comes in the form of moulded poly tanks that offer more capacity than jerrycans and come in various shapes and sizes to fit into various places in or on a vehicle, including footwells, ute tubs, rear bars and up on roof racks. Many of these tanks can be fitted with optional fuel lines and taps for safer and cleaner fuel transfer, and some can even be permanently plumbed in to feed directly into your vehicle’s main tank.
When touring in remote areas where there are no fuel supplies, you should monitor your fuel situation. Check jerrycan lids are on and tanks are not damaged, and if you have a long-range tank do a daily check for leaks around welds/joins, fittings and fuel lines. It’s also a good idea to carry some extra fuel in a separate container and a fuel tank repair kit.
THE WAGON or ute decision will come down to how much gear you need to carry on your trip. Four-wheel-drive utes have significantly more load-carrying capacity than 4x4 wagons and these days they have comparable equipment levels and safety features, decent off-road performance and reasonable on-road ride and handling.
A good 4x4 wagon will always offer a better ride than 4x4 ute, and it will offer greater protection for your luggage, with far greater weather and dust sealing. However, some modern 4x4 wagons are severely lacking when it comes to payload capacity, especially once equipped with weighty accessories such as a bull bar, winch, extra spare wheel and/or a long-range fuel tank.
This is where a ute equipped with a canopy becomes an attractive proposition, thanks to its much greater payload and a larger cargo area. Bear in mind, however, you’ll need to stump up for a good quality canopy and a tailgate dust sealing kit to keep your gear dry and dust-free. And remember, utes are generally longer than wagons, with a longer wheelbase; if it’s going to double as your daily driver it won’t be as convenient or manoeuvrable around town as a wagon.
A SHINY new 4x4 or a used rig? Both have their pros and cons.
The obvious benefits of buying a new vehicle are that you’ll write the vehicle’s history yourself, including its driving and service records and you’ll have access to the full warranty period as well as any fixedprice servicing on offer. You can also set up a new vehicle just how you want it, before or after taking delivery, with your choice of tyres, suspension, protection equipment and more. On the downside, much of the initial purchase price of a new vehicle will be lost as soon as you drive it off the showroom floor.
The main advantage of buying a used 4x4 is price, and if you look around you’ll no doubt find a bargain. You might even find a vehicle loaded with all the accessories you want. On the downside, you never really know a vehicle’s complete history, and some modifications may have been made that don’t quite suit your requirements. It should also be noted that many people off-load new vehicles just as they approach the end of the warranty period, and if you buy one of these you could potentially be up for the cost of expensive repairs, especially if it’s a private sale.
DIESEL vehicles have advantages over petrol-powered ones, both on- and off-road.
While many petrol engines produce more peak power than their respective turbo-diesel counterparts, they do so at much higher revs. Turbo-diesel engines, on the other hand, usually offer better low-rpm and midrange torque, which is beneficial when driving off-road or when towing.
When it comes to refinement, there’s no doubt petrol engines are generally smoother and quieter than diesels, but modern turbo-diesel engines have come a long way in the past few years and are more refined than ever.
Diesel engines offer a fuel-economy advantage over petrol engines, especially when under load.
If fitted with a good quality snorkel, a diesel 4x4 will more likely make it through a deep water crossing than a petrol-powered 4x4 due to the latter’s electrical rather than compression ignition.
While diesel vehicles often cost more than their petrol-powered equivalents, this can usually be recouped thanks to higher resale values. Diesel is also a safer fuel to handle and transport than petrol.
If you want to travel long distances in the bush, or tow a trailer or caravan, diesel is the best choice.
NO MATTER what vehicle you buy there’s always room for improvement. Thankfully, Australia has the best four-wheel drive aftermarket industry in the world, with a huge range of innovative and wellengineered products designed and developed locally to suit a wide range of vehicles. So check them out.