Here's a guide to things every bush traveller needs to know.
We all learn as we go along, but there are some absolute basics you need to know before you venture out of your driveway.
The starting point is to sit down and read the owner’s manual that came with your vehicle – all of it, from cover to cover.
For example, if you need to change a wheel that has a flat tyre you’ll know where the jack and the tools are; where the safe jacking points are and how to access the spare.
You’d be amazed at the number of people we’ve helped that had no knowledge of where these bits were and how to use them.
Even if you’re not mechanically inclined it’s essential to know how your vehicle’s 4WD system operates. Some 4WDs have a ‘part-time’ system; others have an ‘on-demand’ system and others have a ‘full-time’ or ‘selectable full time’ system.
You need to know if you can operate your vehicle safely in 4WD on all surfaces, or if you can engage 4WD only on loose or slippery surfaces.
You need to know how it can be towed safely: must the front or rear wheels be clear of the ground, to avoid transmission damage?
If you have to fit snow chains, should they be on the front or rear wheels, or must they be fitted to all four?
Most people assume that all is well mechanically all the time and don’t do daily checks. However, when you’re away from familiar mechanical support you need to be pro-active.
It’s essential to check the coolant level every day, by looking at the level in the overflow bottle. If you do have an overheating issue on the road, don’t be tempted to open the radiator cap. Severe burns and blindness can result.
You need to check engine oil level on the dipstick every day, but make sure the vehicle is level and cold, giving an accurate reading before you tip in more oil.
Battery terminals loosen on rough roads, so check them for tightness.
You need to inspect your tyre sidewalls – including the inside sidewalls - and treads every day for damage or unwanted inclusions such as nails.
You also need to check the inflation pressure and top it up if necessary before driving.
Windscreens get coated with grime and bugs, so you need to keep the washer bottle topped up with a soapy mixture.
If you’re towing, be sure to check the trailer tyres, spare tyres and, whenever you stop, feel the temperature of the wheel bearings. Hot hubs mean worn bearings or dragging trailer brakes.
Check your trailer connections, safety chains and wiring connectors every day and have someone ensure that trailer lights, brake lights and direction indicators are working.
If you’re not sure how to set up your electric trailer brake controller for proper brake balance, seek professional advice.
If your trailer has override brakes, make sure the reversing lockout collar is disengaged, or you won’t have any trailer braking.
On every trip we see at least one van being towed with its TV aerial and/or roof vents open. Check before you start off every day.
Nearly everyone travels with a fridge.
The basic setup is a 12-volt job that runs when the vehicle runs and that’s fine for day-tripping. However, make sure that it can’t flatten the starting battery when the vehicle isn’t running.
The next step up is a 12-volt fridge that operates from a second battery. It may be in the 4WD or it may be in a camper trailer or caravan. You need some way of knowing what charge is in that battery and you need to monitor the charge level and the fridge temperature several times each day.
Some fridges are ‘two-way’ (12-volt or 240-volt) and some are ‘three-way’ (12-volt, 240-volt and liquid petroleum gas [LPG]).
A two-way fridge needs to be switched to the correct input voltage – 12-volt while you’re driving.
Three-way fridges don’t work very well on 12-volt power, but are fine on 240-volt and on LPG. However, if you run the fridge on LPG while you’re driving, you need to switch it off when refuelling – turn the fridge off, not the gas bottle. (If you turn off the gas at the bottle the fridge will keep trying to start, causing sparks that could ignite service station fuel vapours.)
Accessories that have been fitted after vehicle purchase are the most likely sources of trouble in the bush – particularly electrical stuff.
Roof racks always work loose, so the fasteners need regular checks.
Everyone gets a flat battery at some time. Jump starting is simple, but is often done wrongly, risking a battery-gas explosion from the flat battery.
The only jumper cables you should use are ‘spike-protected’ types, otherwise there’s a chance of damaging electronic systems.
The accompanying diagram shows the correct connection sequence and note that the final connection is from the donor vehicle’s battery earth post to a suitable earth point in the stranded vehicle – not to its battery earth post. Batteries emit hydrogen and a spark at that point could trigger a gas explosion.
Remove the jumper leads in reverse order after the vehicle starts.
Changing a wheel
This is a routine task on many bush trips, but needs absolute care. Don’t rush.
The first step is to get the vehicle into a spot where you can work on it safely: better that you damage a flat tyre by driving it off the road than risk being killed by passing traffic.
Wear a fluoro vest (cheap at any hardware store); put out a warning triangle if you have one and illuminate the area with torches and lanterns at night.
The vehicle needs to be on a level surface that offers a stable base for the jack. If the ground is soft you’ll need to use a broad plate under the jack – a heavy, flat shovel blade works if you don’t have anything else.
The parking brake needs to be applied with at least one wheel chocked. (Not the wheel you're jacking up!)
Loosen the wheel nuts slightly, before jacking up the vehicle. That way, you won’t risk moving the vehicle off the jack with the effort of undoing the nuts.
Now is not the time to discover that the last tyre fitter to touch your vehicle used a ‘rattle gun’ and over-tightened the nuts. (Before you leave home make sure your wheel brace can loosen every wheel nut.)
With the vehicle jacked up and the wheel clear of the ground, remove the wheel from the studs by levering it, using a tyre lever or jack handle under the bottom of the tyre.
Fit the spare wheel the same way, using lever action under the tyre to lift it over the studs. Part-tighten the nuts, then lower the jack and do a final tighten with the wheel on the ground.
Tighten wheel nuts in a staggered, criss-cross pattern, to avoid distorting the hub.
There's more that you'll pick up as you go along, but these are the absolute basics.
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