Words Dean Mellor
There’s nothing like the feeling of setting off on an extended outback expedition, usually after months of planning and preparation, but most of us can’t find more than three or four weeks a year to get away on such a big off-road adventure. Thank goodness for the weekends, eh? Because sometimes a two- or three-day escape is enough to recharge the batteries before you have to head back to work.
While a couple of days might not be enough to get a long way from home, you often don’t have travel far off-road to find some spectacularly tranquil and isolated spots. And while it might be isolation that you’re looking for, it’s also isolation that means you need to be well equipped and properly prepared… even on a quick weekend getaway.
Whenever you’re going to drive off-road, you need to make sure your vehicle is up to the task. Have a good look over it before you head off for the weekend, checking all fluids, hoses, belts and filters. Have a good look underneath for any damage, loose bits, things hanging down where they shouldn’t and leaking fluids. Look over the tyres for nicks or cuts, and make sure there’s still plenty of tread depth. Also check the condition of your spare tyre and make sure your jack is in working order.
Have a walk around the vehicle to check that all the lighting systems are operating correctly; if you have a roof rack fitted, make sure it’s tight and free from damage, and if you have an electric winch, make sure it’s operating as it should, and you put the remote back in a spot you’ll be able to find it when you need it.
Check the state of charge in the starting and auxiliary batteries and test all power outlets to make sure they’re working okay, especially the one you’re going to plug your fridge into.
If you regularly maintain your vehicle then these sorts of checks will be second nature. If you’re not sure what you’re doing or what to look for, then drop by your local 4x4 specialist or mechanical workshop and ask them to have a quick look-over your vehicle, and ask them to show you what areas might need attention. It’ll be much better to find and rectify any potential problems before you set off rather than having a mechanical failure out in the bush.
You might only have a couple of days but if you’re heading to an area you’re not familiar with make sure you have relevant map coverage. Even if you’re running electronic maps on a device such as a Hema Navigator or VMS, or on a phone or tablet, you should still carry paper maps in case of an equipment failure.
If you’ll be driving into an area where there’s little or no mobile phone coverage, it’s important to tell someone reliable exactly where you intend to travel and when you expect to be home. This is even a good back-up for those who travel with additional communications equipment such as a locator beacon, EPIRB or satphone.
Make sure you have enough fuel for your trip. If you’re heading into an area where there’s no fuel, calculate distances and fuel consumption to ensure you’re not going to be left short. Remember, fuel consumption can increase markedly when driving off-road especially if sand driving is on the agenda. Carry extra fuel if necessary, either in a dedicated long-range fuel tank, jerry cans or other approved fuel containers.
When packing food and water, throw in some extra supplies in case you end up being away for longer than you expected. And make sure you have warm clothes and a blanket even if you don’t intend to camp out; if you get stuck in the bush overnight you’ll be glad you’re prepared.
You should always carry at least a basic recovery kit in your 4x4. If you’re travelling solo you’ll need to add a few extras to your kit.
A basic recovery kit consists a shovel, snatch strap, rated shackles, a cable damper and gloves. Solo travellers will also need to throw in a pair of recovery tracks and a winch, and associated equipment (winch extension strap, tree trunk protector, cable damper, snatch blocks and shackles). Other items that can come in handy include a ground anchor and a Hi-Lift jack.
You’ll also need to make sure your vehicle is equipped with rated recovery points both front and rear, and that they’re easily accessible and other accessories don’t prevent you from fitting a rated shackle to them.
Tools and spares
If something breaks in the bush and there’s no one around to help, you’re going to need to rely on your own mechanical nous and toolkit. A basic toolkit will include spanners, pliers, needle-nose pliers, vice-grips, a socket set, Allen keys, flat- and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a hammer and a Stanley knife. You’ll also need work gloves, duct tape, electrical tape, wire and cable ties, and some specialist repair items like a fuel-tank repair kit and radiator hose repair kit. Oh, and don’t forget a torch, super glue and or Araldite.
Your spares kit should consist radiator hoses, fan/serpentine belts, assorted nuts and bolts, assorted light bulbs and fuses and a small electrical repair kit. Throw in a power pack in case you drain your starting battery – they’re affordable, light and don’t take up a lot of space, and can be a lifesaver if your battery is dead.
Finally, you’ll need a fully stocked tyre repair kit (with tools, plugs, patches, glue and spare valves) and an air compressor. Throw in a decent air pressure gauge and a tyre deflator as well.
If you can find somewhere to carry this stuff in your vehicle all the time, and you stock it when you use it, there will be one less thing to think of before you head away for the weekend.
Emergencies & Communications
You should always carry a first aid kit in your 4x4. Make sure it’s fully stocked, its contents are in date and replenish supplies if necessary. There are plenty of first aid courses, so make sure you’ve completed one, and that your first aid certificate is up to date.
As mentioned, you don’t have to travel far out of major centres and towns before mobile phone coverage drops out. While satphones are expensive, they are certainly one of the most convenient and reliable methods for making calls where there’s no mobile coverage. Other options are a device such as a Spot Tracker, which allows you to send texts using satellite technology, or an HF radio. At the very least, you should think about carrying a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).
For short range communications, such as vehicle to vehicle, or driver to navigator/spotter, you’ll need a couple of UHF radios. If you have one fitted to your vehicle as well as a handheld for use outside the vehicle, then you’ll have a back-up in case your primary unit fails. Don’t scrimp when buying a handheld UHF; go for a 5W unit that can either be recharged from your vehicle’s 12V DC power system or one that runs on replaceable alkaline batteries.
Of course, in addition to all the gear listed above, you’ll still need to pack other gear such as camping and cooking equipment, food, water, clothes, toiletries and cameras, so write yourself a checklist that you can refer to each time you head off for a weekend escape and add to it as needed or delete stuff you think is surplus to requirements.
Sure, all this vehicle checking, trip preparation and gear packing might seem like a chore, but once you’ve got your system sorted you’ll be ready to roll in no time, so you can make the most of the limited time available.