You’ve saved a pile of annual leave, the kids have been given a free ticket from school, and it’s time to start planning that ‘big trip’ many of us always dream of but don’t get to do. Whether it’s a month touring the Top End and tropical north, or three weeks hopping from one High Country campsite to another, an off-road adventure is a bloody awesome experience, provided you’ve planned and prepped carefully and – importantly – have done so well in advance.
Trip prep can be daunting when you first start thinking of all the things you need to tick off your list: vehicle readiness, navigation, the destination itself, health and safety, and ‘all the gear’ you think you may need. By allowing plenty of time and breaking your trip prep down into different groups of essentials, you’ll have it nailed and be heading off with a mind clear of any ‘what about that’ thoughts, and that means you can focus on enjoying an epic experience.
STARTING TO DREAM
THE first thing you need to figure out is how much time you have and what destination fits in that timeframe. There’s no use planning a Kimberley adventure if you live on the eastern seaboard and only have four weeks off, as it’s logistically impossible. It’s tempting to set yourself some long driving days to get there, but don’t – driving long distances each day and trying to adhere to an unachievable schedule will cause loads of stress, tiredness and more than a few arguments, turning the wished-for trip of a lifetime into a living nightmare. Our advice is to cut your ‘usual’ daily driving time in half, or at least chop a third off it; then you can enjoy the journey to that destination and stop to check out things along the way, whether it’s a side-trip to a particular natural highlight, or just a park for the kids to play in to let off some steam.
This brings us to choosing the destination, a decision that will govern what (if any) specific mods you may need for your vehicle. That could be the fitment of mud-terrain tyres if you’re going somewhere with particularly rugged tracks, additional fuel storage if you’re heading into more remote areas, or season-specific camping gear and clothing. Once you have a destination sorted, the best part of trip prep begins: pulling out the maps and planning your route.
FIND YOUR WAY
IN the age of Google Earth, GPS and mapping apps on smartphones, it can be easy to dismiss old-school paper maps as non-essential for route planning. This would be a big mistake, as paper maps of varying scales offer a far larger impression of the area you will be travelling in, as well as the distances involved in relation to where your destination is and where you’re coming from.
For most tourers, Hema Maps’ range of maps is always the first go-to point. Hema covers the entire country (indeed, the world) with its maps and offers numerous maps based on popular destinations such as the Vic High Country, the Red Centre, Cape York and the desert country. These maps are accurate and chock-full of information including fuel stops, local highlights, and road conditions and warnings. The Australian company backs all this up with a collection of atlases/guidebooks based on different regions, the excellent HX-7 in-vehicle GPS, and the Hema Explorer app – which allows you to download topographical maps of different states and regions for close-scale navigation – for a smartphone.
Spend plenty of time with paper maps to rough out your itinerary, and make sure it is not too ‘tight’ in terms of time or potential overnight stops – and don’t forget to take those maps with you. A GPS and/or smartphone are brilliant for navigation once you’re under way, but they can malfunction or run out of power. By taking paper maps you’re covered for all eventualities; plus, paper maps are a great distraction for young kids (giving them a map to follow is a great way to educate and entertain when travelling).
Once the route is sorted, fuel stops marked and potential side-trips noted (either on the map or, better still, in a journal), photocopy the marked-up map or write out the itinerary, and give family and/or friends a copy so someone else has an idea of where you may be during your trip, in case of emergency. Also ensure you have a good comms setup – a UHF radio is great, but a sat-phone is better. Then it’s time for the second most enjoyable part of any big trip: kitting out your vehicle.
MOBILE BASE CAMP
BEFORE you do anything with your vehicle, get a thorough check-over from an experienced 4x4 mechanic – preferably one you know has worked and advised on touring rigs. Make sure you mention where you are going, as a big desert trip will offer different challenges to a rig compared to an east coast-mountains journey. A mechanic will check over all the essential mechanical items on your rig and advise on any spare parts you may need to take with you (from extra hoses and fluids to the ubiquitous gaffer tape). They’ll also advise on any mods you need for the trip, such as a second spare wheel/tyre and an up-to-date recovery kit. They should check over the outside of the vehicle for any potential problems, too: worn roof-rack brackets, dust inside door hinges and seals that causes excessive wear, tired suspension (and worn tyres), and any loose fitments such as driving lights. They’ll also replace/replenish all fluids.
As with a mechanical check, an electrical check is a must, so book in to see an auto-electrician so they can give your vehicle’s power set-up a thorough pre-trip check and recommend any spares needed or essential tweaks. If you’re going truly remote you’ll need a reliable power source – a dual-battery setup or a power pack – and an experienced auto-electrician can advise and fit the appropriate set-up. Regardless of which of these you choose you’ll need a way of replenishing power, so a portable solar set-up is an essential addition. With camp lighting, fridge/freezers and various electronic gadgets to keep powered, you don’t want to run out of juice.
Checking over your vehicle doesn’t finish once the trip starts, and you should perform daily checks on things such as fan-belt tightness, radiator levels, brake and engine fluid levels, tyres (both for wear and the correct air pressure), the security of your roof rack (corrugated roads may have loosened nuts and bolts), battery levels, door seals and dust ingression. It sounds a bit over the top, but this level of scrutiny can nip any potential problems in the bud and keep your four-wheeler running as sweet as the day you left home.