You’ve just bought your first 4WD. It’s big and shiny and of course, the first thing you want to do is take it out on the trails, plough through some mud wallows, bounce over some rocks and find a spot way off the beaten track to go camping for the weekend!
You’ve got the right idea—after all, getting out in the bush is what 4WDs are for—but if you want to have a safe and trouble free adventure, it’s worth thinking for a minute about what your truck is really capable of.
If your 4WD is stock standard (set up the way it came out of the factory) it’s already a pretty good off-road machine, but even the best 4WDs have limitations. Not many trucks are set up for serious action in the outback when they roll off the factory floor.
There are a few key modifications for an off-road vehicle that set it apart from the pack when it comes to trailblazing. If you want to take your 4WD into the bush where you have to rely on your own resources to keep yourself safe and your truck in one piece, it’s worth investing a bit of time and money into basic upgrades that will make the difference when the going gets rough.
Tyres: they’re not all created equal
The number one improvement every owner should make on their 4WD is a new set of tyres. Most new 4WD’s come with a set of decent road tyres but if you want to go bush you could do a whole lot better.
When 4WD enthusiasts get talking about tyres you’ll hear a lot of complicated jargon, but the main thing that sets 4WD tyres apart is the tread. The tread of the tyre is the part that comes into contact with the ground. On a standard highway tyre, like most new 4WDs are set up with, the tread is designed to give good traction on sealed roads. Highway tyres are great for high-speed road driving. They have good handling characteristics and they’re nice and quiet, but on muddy tracks and rocky ground, they tend to lose traction. Road tyres are also very vulnerable to punctures from hazards like sharp sticks and rocks. A better tyre option for an off-road vehicle is an all-terrain tyre.
All-terrain tyres have deeper groove patterns designed to give greater traction on loose surfaces like mud and stones. They are also more heavily reinforced, even on the side walls of the tyre, to prevent sharp objects causing damage.
On difficult driving surfaces like sand, mud and jagged rocks it is very helpful to let some of the air out of your tyres. This seems counter-intuitive, but reducing the air pressure changes the tyre’s shape, enlarging the footprint; the part of the tyre that is actually in contact with the ground. When a tyre is at low pressure, the sidewalls bulge out, making them especially vulnerable to punctures. For this reason, all-terrain tyres are much thicker than road tyres and have heavy reinforcement built into them.
Investing a bit of money in a good set of all-terrain tyres will make your vehicle a lot more capable and you’ll spend a lot less time on the side of the track changing tyres too.
If you really want to take your 4WD’s capability to the next level, you may want to consider getting tyres that are a bit bigger than standard as well. The bigger your tyres, the more traction you’ll get, so bigger is usually better. On a lot of factory standard 4WD’s there isn’t much room under the wheel arches for bigger tyres, so that means you’ll need to make some extra space. It may be worth considering lifting your truck.
Need a lift?
A ‘lift’ is a vehicle modification that increases the height of a 4WDs body work relative to the axles. The main reasons for lifting a 4WD are to allow the fitting of larger than standard tyres and improve the vehicle’s ability to handle steep obstacles off-road.
You’ll see big 4×4’s driving around with massive lifts, but for most vehicles, an additional 2 inches is an adequate lift height. A 2-inch lift allows for bigger tyres to be fitted and improves the vehicle’s approach angles, which are the ratios between the forward part of the truck and the contact points of the tyres. When a 4WD is driving over obstacles like logs, rocks and steep inclines the approach angles become very important. You don’t want your bullbar bashing into the obstacle and preventing you from driving forward. Lifting the vehicle increases the gap between the bullbar and the ground making it possible to overcome larger obstacles.
One word of caution about lifts: generally speaking, the higher a vehicle is lifted the more it’s road handling characteristics will be affected. Big lifts are great off-road but they decrease a vehicle’s stability and usually increase fuel consumption a bit, because of the extra wind resistance you get when travelling at speed.
Every model is a bit different, but lifting a 4WD usually involves upgrading the suspension and sometimes modifying the body work. If you’re buying a new vehicle a lift may be an optional extra you can get done at the factory before you take delivery, but most owners do a lift on their trucks as an aftermarket modification.
The rules vary a bit from state to state but it’s worth checking with your local motor registry before you make any modifications to your 4WD. A lot of mod’s require engineering certificates to be road legal, and they may impact your insurance assessment as well, so do a bit of asking around before you go ahead with your lift. Most workshops that do these kind of mod’s will be well informed about the rules, so talking to your mechanic is a really good start.
Don’t Get Stuck!
If you want to get out in the bush and really have some off-road fun, sooner or later you are going to get bogged. Getting stuck in the mud is part of the fun in off-roading but it’s only fun if you can get yourself unstuck again. There are always plenty of horror stories going around about inexperienced drivers heading out into the woods, getting themselves stuck and then paying massive amounts of money to a tow truck operator to come and pull them out again.
In the worst case scenario getting yourself stuck somewhere in the outback can be a risky situation. Australia is a big place. If you get bogged in the middle of nowhere, out of reach of assistance you have to rely on your own resources to get out of trouble, so having your own vehicle recovery gear is a really smart idea.
There are lots of different accessories and tools available for 4WD recovery: jacks; ramps; straps; pumps—it’s a long list. The best all round recovery solution though is to fit your truck with a winch.
A 4WD winch is basically a heavy duty electric motor with super low gearing, which is attached to a high tension cable. If your 4WD is stuck in mud or sand, you unroll the winch cable, attach the end to an anchor point like a tree trunk, and then use the powerful winch motor to help pull the vehicle out onto solid ground.
Good quality winches are rated for different vehicles and it’s very important to make sure the winch you get has enough torque. Smaller vehicles are OK with smaller winches but if you’re driving a big Landcruiser or a Humvee, you better make sure the winch you get is up to the job.
A lot of 4WD models need to have an aftermarket bull bar fitted to use a winch. The winch unit has to be bolted directly to the chassis or a recovery rated bullbar, otherwise, it may just pull your truck’s bumper bar off instead of pulling you out of the bog.
Well established 4WD accessory companies like ARB make bullbar and winch kits for most popular models and have all-inclusive parts and fitting services. Unless you happen to know a really fantastic backyard mechanic it’s a good idea to have your winch installed by a professional. Badly installed winches are ineffective at best and can be very dangerous. Massive kinetic energy is built up during winching operations and if something breaks the potential for serious injury is very real.
Once your winch is fitted on your truck it’s essential to learn how to use it safely. There are just a few simple rules to follow.
- Before you use your winch in the wild, unroll the cable completely and then carefully coil it back onto the spool, keeping it under even tension. This is very important because it prevents the cable from jamming when it’s under heavy strain in a recovery situation.
- Never clip the winch hook onto its own cable. If you’re winching off a tree, use a rated tree strap. Clipping the hook onto the winch cable can cause the cable to tear or break under load.
- Always stand well clear when operating the winch under load. Winch cables can and do break sometimes, and the recoiling cable can cause very serious injury. It’s a good idea to place a blanket or something similar over the middle of the cable so if it breaks the blanket will damp down the recoil.
If you follow basic safety precautions you’ll get years of trouble free use out of your 4WD winch. Always remember that recovery situations are potentially hazardous and use your common sense.
There’s a lot to learn
The biggest and most important upgrade you can make to your 4WD is educating yourself about how to use it properly. Off-roading is great fun and it opens you up to a world of adventure, but if you dive in without knowing what you’re doing it can be really dangerous. Combine difficult terrain, challenging climatic conditions, distance and lack of communication and you have a recipe for very serious accidents.
Your 4WD is only as good as the person sitting behind the wheel. The more experience you get driving off-road the more skilled you’ll get, so it’s a great idea to team up with some experienced drivers and learn some basic techniques. Knowing stuff like how to pick the right tyre pressures for different terrains, what recovery gear to take with you and how to assess obstacles will enhance your driving experience and keep you out of danger.
If you want to get some skills and have a lot of fun, do a Google search and find out if there’s a 4WD club near you. Most 4WD clubs do regular weekend drives and camp-outs. They’re great fun and an excellent learning opportunity to build up your skills as an off-road driver.
Australia is full of amazing places that are way off the beaten track. Whether you’re a dirt biker, fishing nut, family camper or just love driving through mud bogs, you’ll never run out of 4WD adventures out there.