We’re pretty sure that Benjamin Franklin, the guy who flew the kite in a thunderstorm, never toured the outback in a 4WD.
For a start, he never visited Australia.
Secondly, there weren’t any 4WDs around in the Eighteenth Century.
However, Ben Franklin did have some good advice that still rings true today for anyone thinking about heading outback:
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Unless you’re walking or travelling by horse, your vehicle is the most critical piece of equipment you’ll need for your outback trip.
So it should go without saying that before you go on a trip, your vehicle needs to be prepared and ready.
Sure, you say. I’ll just get it serviced and it’ll be fine.
If you’re heading outback, you’ll not only be travelling for longer periods of time, you’re also more likely to be driving over challenging terrain.
So when it comes to vehicle preparation, there’s a few extra things you’ll need to think about and do before you go.
The last thing you want to do is to ruin your holiday or trip and, potentially, put yourself and or your family into a life-threatening situation.
To help you out, I’ve written this no-nonsense, beginner’s guide to outback vehicle preparation.
1. Get your vehicle serviced
About three to four weeks before you go, have your vehicle professionally serviced. We ALWAYS do before any trip longer than a weekend.
Why 3-4 weeks? It gives you time to be able to fix anything that might need fixing, your mechanic to order in spares, and you to save the extra money you might need for repairs.
2. Specific Preparation for Outback Travel
These are things you can do yourself:
- Check and tighten any screw, bolt and nut which is not done up properly. Many outback roads (ie. Red Centre Way, Sandover Highway, Gibb River Road) are renown for screw-loosening corrugations. Check for loose fittings regularly whilst travelling.
- Make sure your car’s exhaust system is adequately attached to the vehicle body or chassis to support it under severe conditions.
- Check your suspension and replace shock absorbers if worn or leaking. This is one area of your vehicle that gets a beating – ignore it at your peril!
- Make sure all lights are functioning, especially if you’re towing a camper or caravan. Just because the lights were working the last time you used the trailer doesn’t mean they’ll work the next time you hook it up. It’s happened to me!
- I always install dual batteries, particularly if using several accessories such as fridge or inverter, but if you don’t have a major energy drain you may not need to do this.
- If you’re going to travel through dust or drive through water a snorkel is a good idea; or, at the very least take a bonnet skirt to prevent water entry into the air cleaner intake.
- Get a workshop manual for your vehicle, either in paper form or digitally so you can view it on an iPad or similar. Even if you’re not able to, someone else may be able to assist if you have the right gear.
3. Spare Parts
It’s easy to get carried away trying to take every spare part you can think of.
A good rule of thumb is to consider the age of your vehicle, and what might or might not have been changed over recently. Then, take into account what you can reasonably carry.
Our suggestions for spare parts to take with you are:
- Fan, alternator and air conditioner belts (note: some of these may be just one belt these days).
- Spare fuses, some extra wiring, extra light bulbs and insulating tape.
- Radiator hoses, depending on how old your car is, might be a good idea.
- A length of heater hose (1m), some ring clamps and an assortment of bolts, nuts and washers.
- Plastic cable ties and a bit of tie wire are always a good idea so you can make a temporary fix.
- Fuel, oil and air filters (if your vehicle has been serviced just before you go, these won’t be necessary, BUT if you’re on a long trip and need to get your vehicle serviced whilst travelling, carrying these may save your time and money).
- Engine oil, maybe some brake and transmission fluids if you’re in an older vehicle.
- Glue, e.g. Araldite, and WD40 or equivalent
- Duct tape. Do not leave home without it!
- I like to take a second spare wheel and tyre, but this can take up a lot of extra space. If you don’t have room for a second spare, then make sure you take a puncture repair kit for the type of tyre you may need to fix.
4. Loading your 4WD
Don’t pack every thing PLUS the kitchen sink.
You don’t need five pairs of shoes, and that snazzy camping toilet that looked so good at the caravan & camping expo is far more hassle to cart around and set up than squatting behind a Mulga tree with a tiny plastic spade!
I’ll just come out and say it: overloading is dangerous and impacts how your vehicle handles when driving.
The number one rule when packing your vehicle for the outback is this: keep the weight as low and centrally located as possible.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re using a roof rack don’t overload it – it has a specific weight capacity that’s there for a reason.
Overloading a roof rack or putting too much weight on top of your vehicle raises the centre of gravity and can cause a possible roll-over or increased fuel usage due to the extra wind drag.
It can also cause the rack to break.
Make sure everything is secure so you don’t lose it or find it shifting under heavy braking.
A lot of people like to put their second spare up on the roof rack, me included, but this will depend on how much other weight you have up there.
The alternative to carrying your spare on the roof rack is to fit something like an ARB or Kaymar Rear Bar with carrier. These are a replacement rear bumper that is fitted to your vehicle and have a swing away spare wheel carrier.
Most 4×4 parts stockists keep a whole range of accessories to improve your vehicle and make your trips more enjoyable.
If you want to be able to pack away gear, food, your fridge, then you might want to consider a drawer system for the rear of your vehicle.
These can be commercially manufactured or, as I did, made them myself, these can be a really useful addition to your vehicle’s kit.
Please also consider what you are going to do with your rubbish, if you carry it in then you can carry it out. One common option is a bag attached to the spare wheel.
NOTE: With authorities starting to keep an eye on gross vehicle weights these days it also pays to know how much your setup weighs. The last thing you want to do is to void your insurance in the unforeseen event of an accident.
4. Love Your Tyres
Tyres do all the hard work when travelling off-road, and they’re also the most common thing that fails.
Punctures and flats are part of life in the outback, so it goes without saying that you should be able to change a tyre before you go.
If you don’t know how to change a tyre, learn! YouTube or an experienced friend are the places to start, then practice in your driveway.
Other must-do tyre preparation:
- Check all tyres and tyre pressures and always carry two spare tyres if you can. Ensure your tyres are in good condition and if not replace them.
- A tyre pressure gauge is a must have – especially if you have to let tyres down to drive on sand and then re-inflate them. A good quality 12 volt air compressor and fittings will help you out here.
- It’s not often a tyre valve lets you down but carrying a couple of spare tyre valves and caps might get you out of a bind.
- Make sure you are carrying the right wheel brace, hydraulic jack and a base plate in case you need something to support the jack in soft ground or sand. If you don’t have a metal, wood or plastic base plate, GET ONE.
- Hi-lift and exhaust jacks (I’ve used both) are also other options here. If you take a hi-lift (kangaroo) jack, make sure you know how to use it safely.
5. Other Essentials We Take
These are the additional items we always take. Yes, some of these are a little more personal (i.e. the solar panel), but some, like a first aid kit, are essential.
- A good quality 12volt fridge (e.g. Engel or Waeco fridge/freezer), to keep things cold.
- If you’re staying in one place for a while, then a solar panel might also be worthwhile to charge your batteries.
Maps: Some people like to carry paper maps for all areas they intend to travel to, but there are many digital options on the market these days.
HEMA digital maps on an iPad or similar are a good option, but there are other cheaper options as well, which use (often free) AUSLIG topo maps.
- A good compass and hand-held GPS loaded with appropriate maps might be handy if you’re really going off the beaten track.
- A good quality first aid kit. This should contain a number of triangular bandages, a couple of compression bandages, including something for snake bite, some small adhesive strips, antiseptic, saline, burn cream, cotton wool, Panadol or Aspirin, any personal medication required and if you have the time, attend a first aid course so you know what to do.
Tools: I take spanners, sockets, pliers, wrenches and screwdrivers to fit my vehicle. I also take a cordless drill and bits just in case.
Recovery gear. This is one place you can get carried away again, but take at least one snatch strap, rated shackles & winch gear if you have a winch. If you have the space, something like Maxtrax are also handy for sand work.
Adequate water. How much you take will depend on where you can resupply. Our tip is to use several 10L containers as well as several 20 litre containers in case of a leak. Ten litre containers are also easier to lift and pour.
6. Preparing for Emergencies
The outback can be very safe to drive through – even places that are incredibly remote, like the Anne Beadell Highway or Madigan Line, are tackled by ordinary people every year with little mishap.
However, if something does go wrong, then you need to know what to do.
Before you go, you need to know
The first thing to remember is the age-old advice: stay with your vehicle.
Read through Amanda’s article here about what it’s like to be a woman breaking down alone in the outback, and pay attention to the advice she gives. It’s not just for female travellers; it’s advice for everyone.
In very remote areas, like the Canning Stock Route or Simpson Desert, it’s vital to be able to contact someone in the case of an emergency.
Common emergency contact options are EPIRBs, PLBs or HF radios fitted to your vehicle.
However, more and more people are opting to carry a satellite phone these days (we do). If you don’t wish to buy a sat phone, you can hire them here.
Whatever you decide, the main point is this: make sure you have some means of raising the alarm if something goes wrong.
An UHF radio is always good if travelling in a group or for general road communications. However do not rely on UHF radios or mobile (cellular) phone communications in remote areas. We have been to parts of the outback where there are no UHF repeaters, and it goes without saying that mobile phone coverage is almost non-existent outside of major towns and highways.
That being said, if you’re travelling to the outback from a city, even on the main routes like Uluru-Alice Springs, you’ll need to get a Telstra sim.
As much as we love to hate them, Telstra rules the bush when it comes to mobile coverage. So we’ll say it again: get a Telstra sim in your mobile. Other phone companies like Optus are now providing service in several outback areas so it might pay to get a dual sim phone to cover all bases.
Always take a little extra food and water. Throw in some water purification tablets or a pump in case you run out and you find some suspect water.
A space blanket or two never goes astray as does a mirror, a torch and matches in case you need to light a fire.
Finally, there is no use taking all this stuff if you don’t know how to use it.
If you’ve never used a GPS or a snatch strap before, then being stuck in the middle of the desert is NOT the time to learn. Spend a couple of Saturday afternoons unpacking, using and repacking your recovery gear, GPS, hi-lift jacks, winches BEFORE you go.
If you’re still unsure there are plenty of providers that offer training in 4×4 driving and equipment use. Just Google them in your area.
We recommend reading our 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Travel Outback article, which contains some provoking and confronting things you need to ask yourself before you go.
Before you go, get your maps or GPS out and plan your travel. Know where you are going and how far it is between fuel stops.
It is important to know the distance your vehicle can get on a full tank of fuel and to remember to allow for the extra weight, driving in 4WD and on rough roads.
You may need to even check that the specific type of fuel is available in some places
Do you require any permits to enter specific locations as you may need to apply in advance as some take some time to process? Then you’ll need to get those sorted before you go, too*.
*Some roads, like the Red Centre Way, have issue-on-demand permits that you can purchase on-site.
Here is a vehicle prep checklist so you can tick the boxes
- Check all hoses
- Check all drive belts and replace if necessary
- Check wheel bearings
- Check suspension, springs, coils, shockers
- Replace all oils, filters and air filter
- Check radiator and hoses for leaks
- Grease tailshaft
- Check brake pads and fluid level
- Check battery levels and ensure electrical system is 100%
- Check wiper blades front (and back if you have them)
- Check bolts, nuts and any other fasteners to ensure everything is tightened as required
- Check your tyres, pressure and if you have the space consider a second spare
- Check your jack and wheel brace
- Check spotlights or driving lights for proper function and aim
- If you’re towing with an auto, consider fitting a transmission cooler
- If you are operating in dusty conditions or are expecting water crossings, consider a snorkel
- Check first aid kit
- Familiarise yourself with all equipment and KNOW how to use it
I hope this helps, remember these are only suggestions but they will help you to form your own ideas about what you need to do to prep your vehicle for the trip of a lifetime.
Going too big red bash and leaving from Shepparton Victoria wanting too travel the Birdsville track from s.a any ideas on how the track will be then surface wise cheers
The Birdsville Track is a big, broad, SMOOTH gravel highway these days. It’s very well-maintainted. We’ve travelled at speeds of up to 100 km/h in it with our Prado. A 2WD sedan would easily drive it, unless it’s been raining. Then you need a 4WD and most of the time the road is closed ASAP after rain to stop naughty people driving on it, getting bogged and chewing it up (we’ve driven it wet and dry!).
You did not mention radiator service to be carried out not longer than 18 m– 2years apart by a radiator specialist. Service by people who understand the country that you are going to–as some including dealers do not. Good article though.
Hi Amanda. Great article. I used your site extensively when we went to the Red Centre for a week in 2016. Your advice was invaluable and we greatly appreciated it. ALL travellers to Central Australia should read and heed the articles on this site.
Many thanks again
Richard and Penny
Thanks for the kind comments Penny and Richard
good read for us first timers and thanks heaps
Great article! I am in the process of preparing for the trip myself.
I noticed there is no snorkel to your vehicle. I don’t have one on my vehicle either, a Toyota Land Cruiser 200 diesel.
Just wondering if the air filter element had to be replaced at any stage during your trip.
Thanks Lawrance, no we don’t have a snorkel as we don’t do much in water. It is on my list of to do’s though because getting your air pickup higher generally contributes to better air. No, we didn’t have to replace our filter. I don’t like following others to eat their dust and always put in a new filter before the trip. Cheers
Great read full of plenty of information.
We are planning on going to the Flinders rangers and then do the oodnadatta track in our 2005 Nissan Pathfinder would all terrian tyres be ok or would we need something between a all terrain and mud tyre (hybrid tyre).
Hi Chris, all terrains will be fine. Just ensure you have at least 50% tread and we recommend lowering your pressures on dirt roads to about 25psi. It will be more comfortable and aid in traction. Cheers Gary