How to protect your vehicle from off-road damage
When you head off-road the potential for fun is high – in fact, it’s always fun. The potential for your vehicle to sustain damage, minor or otherwise, is not quite as high but you still have to safeguard against it, which is easy if you plan, prepare and protect. In this yarn, we’ll focus on the ‘protect’ part of the Adventure strategy because it’s a great idea to get plenty of top-quality gear designed to give your vehicle the bush-and-beach armour it needs.
It’s not enough to think you’re the best off-road driver in the world – you have to actually get some training because there is always plenty more to learn. Do an off-road driver training course with an accredited instructor and that will go a long way to making sure you’re able to minimise the risk of damage to your vehicle when you go off-road.
During a legitimate course, you’ll learn how to drive through sand, water, mud, up and down hills and how to recover your vehicle if it does get stuck, bogged or otherwise momentarily forcibly paused in its forward progress.
Remember: no vehicle or equipment is so good that it is an effective substitute for skills and experience, so spend money on a driver-training course.
A set of good tyres – set at appropriate pressure – will enable you to drive safely on any terrain, and if you’re driving safely then your vehicle is less likely to sustain any damage beyond what is generally regarded as normal wear and tear or as the result of an odd mishap.
All Terrain (AT) tyres are a good all-round tyre for bitumen and dirt-road touring, as well as on the beach or in the bush.
HT (Highway Terrain) tyres are well-suited to long-distance bitumen touring, not off-roading. They are skinny and don't offer as much protection against off-road damage as some other tyres.
Mud Terrain (MT) tyres – knobbly and made for getting through mud – are for hardcore 4WDers. They are noisy on-road and can add to your fuel bills if you're doing a lot of highway travel on them.
Light Truck (LT) tyres are stronger than passenger car tyres, but then again so is my six-year old nephew. LT tyres have thick sidewalls and are built to carry loads. They can be noisy on-road but are great performers off-road.
So, get rid of your HTs and throw on top-quality ATs or LTs – they'll set you back between $250 and $450 per tyre, depending on how gnarly you want to get.
3. Underbody protection
There are plenty of vital areas and components on your vehicle’s underbody, including electronics, sump, fuel tank, diff, gearbox and more, that are vulnerable to damage when you go off-roading. Sticks, rocks and other things, natural or mad-made, may rip, tear or puncture something vital on the belly of your beast – and copping that sort of damage may cost you thousands of dollars in repairs or replacement. However, you can minimise the chance of that happening by, firstly, knowing where your vehicle’s vulnerable bits are and, secondly, by protecting them with top-quality aftermarket armour.
This protection comes in many forms – engine and gearbox skid plates, bash plates, sump guards, diff covers – but it’s all aimed at shielding your off-roader’s underbody from damage.
You may also like to invest steps and rock sliders as they protect the vulnerable sides of your vehicle and under the doors from damage if you have to rock-crawl along a difficult section.
Depending on what you get, vehicle protection plates/guards can cost anywhere from about $600, not including fitment.
Your vehicle's showroom-standard suspension is engineered to be driven on roads; it needs to be modified to better cope with the unique hardships of off-roading and the fact you’ll be carrying more aftermarket weight onboard than you would if the vehicle was only used around town for school runs and shopping.
A fully loaded SUV is really put through a tremendous amount of stress and strain when driven on uneven terrain.
Upgrading the suspension set-up on your off-roader is a must. Doing so will improve its load-carrying ability and make it more stable, more comfortable and, most importantly, safer to drive off the beaten track than in its showroom form.
Word of advice: Sort out the suspension after you've thrown all of the other bits and pieces on that you want including the above and – though they're not mentioned in this yarn as add-ons – extras like a long-range fuel tank, dual-battery system, spare-wheel carrier, UHF radios and more. All of that extra weight will mean the suspension upgrade will have to take on that burden.
An off-road-friendly suspension set-up (with coil springs, leaf springs, shocks and more) will cost upwards of $2000 (fitted). Bonus: your vehicle will get between a 30mm-50mm lift out of the upgrade.
Word of advice: Sort out the suspension after you've thrown all of the other aftermarket gear on, as bullbars adds weight to the front end of your SUV, so vehicle dynamics will change and you will have to adjust your driving style to suit.
There’s a risk of animal strike during rural travel because cows, kangaroos, camels and the rest may move onto the road with little to no indication they are about to do so. To protect your family and your vehicle, invest in a strong, well-engineered bullbar. Bonus: a bullbar will protect all of the mechanical running gear up front – as well as cooling system – that will cop a serious battering if you collide with an animal in a vehicle that does not have a bullbar. It can also work as a mounting point for lights, UHF radio aerials, and a winch.
An aluminium-alloy bullbar is lighter than a steel version, so will save you cash in the fuel-consumption stakes, but a steel bullbar is stronger.
An OEM bullbar or an airbag-compatible bullbar from a reputable aftermarket supplier (ARB, Ironman 4x4 et al) is just the ticket.
Bullbars can cost anywhere from $1300 to $2800 (including fitment) depending on your vehicle, but the outlay is more than worth it.
Note: This is a top 5 list, but we’d recommend that you also consider buying a snorkel – to feed clean air into your engine on dusty tracks and to boost your vehicle’s wading depth through water crossings – and, because dirty fuel is a problem out bush, throw a pre fuel filter into your vehicle before you set off. You may want to add even more things to your list but remember: more gear adds more weight to your off-roader, so vehicle dynamics will change and you will have to adjust your driving style to suit. Also, weigh your vehicle to ensure you are always legal.