You've just thrown a stack of cash down to buy a new or used dual-cab ute and you're ready to make a lifetime's worth of off-road memories with your family. Surely, you can drive straight out of the showroom and head for Cape York, right? Not quite. In fact, to tackle even light to moderate off-roading, safely and stress-free, your best bet is to buy a few off-road mods for your pride and joy to improve its off-road ability.
Problem is, you have no idea where to start and what to buy. Don't fret, our adventure-hungry friends, we're here to help. Here are our top five off-road mods. (Please note: some off-road mods listed here will help your vehicle's go-anywhere skills; some have been included to bolster the ute's touring capability.)
Think about it: tyres are always your vehicle's first – and hopefully only – point of contact with the ground. In an off-road situation, or in any situation really, your choice of tyres – and their pressures – will likely dictate whether you get through/over any terrain or obstacle you face.
Many new dual-cab utes are sold with HT (Highway Terrain) tyres and those 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 other tyres.
Light Truck (LT) tyres are stronger than passenger car tyres, but then again so is my six-year old nephew.
A set of good All Terrain (AT) tyres – a good all-round tyre – will save you a lot of hassle on the beach or in the bush. They are tough, less susceptible than HT rubber to sticks-and-stones damage and provide plenty of off-road grip.
Mud Terrain (MT) tyres – big and 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 and run at high pressures. They can be rather 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.
Bullbars might seem like a bit of macho overkill – especially when they're on SUVs that only ever seem to cruise suburban streets – but animal strike is a risk during outback travel as it does happen, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Animals – cows, kangaroos, camels – are unpredictable and can move onto the road with little to no warning. To protect your family, your vehicle needs robust protection. Bonus: a bullbar will help protect all of the mechanical running gear up front – as well as cooling system etc – that would cop a serious battering if you collided with Skippy and your vehicle was sans bullbar.
Gone are the days when bullbars were so clunky and cumbersome they looked like someone had put a pool fence on the front of their 4WD. Bullbars are strong, well-engineered and can hold lights, UHF radio aerials, and a winch, if need be.
The outlay is more than worth it, especially if it's going to keep you and your family safe.
An aluminium-alloy bullbar is a fair bit lighter than a steel one, so will save you a few bucks 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, especially if it's going to keep you and your family safe.
Be aware: a bullbar 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.
Like a bullbar, a snorkel may seem like a fantasy safari-inspired piece of kit for a vehicle that is mostly used as a daily driver, but if you're thinking of taking your dual-cab ute far away from the city limits, then a snorkel is a sound purchase.
A snorkel – which looks much like something you'd imagine would be called a snorkel – is simply a way for your vehicle to source air from a higher point (near the top of the windscreen) than its standard air intake, which is generally about top-of-tyre height.
Should you get really adventurous and take on deep water crossings, of which Australia has many, a snorkel is a way of ensuring your engine's air intake is high above the water's surface, safe from water ingress, thus preventing the wet stuff from getting sucked into your engine and avoiding the utter devastation that would cause.
Snorkels can be rear- or forward-facing and are nowadays well-engineered to fit in with the vehicle they are mounted to.
A snorkel is also handy when driving on dirt, sand or through bull dust as, again, it ensures fresh clean air is sourced from safely above the damaging grit clouds.
Snorkels can be rear- or forward-facing and are nowadays well-engineered to fit in with the vehicle they are mounted to. A top-quality aftermarket snorkel package will cost from $800 (fitted).
Be aware: a snorkel does cause a bit of wind noise, akin to that created by big wing mirrors.
A canopy is not absolutely essential, but it is a very handy addition to any dual-cab ute's off-road armoury.
It's safe to say that anyone who buys a ute is aiming to, at some stage, make use of the tray as a load space – whether that's for work and/or play. Thing is, that tray, as is, offers very little in the way of security or protection for whatever is in there.
A canopy will provide added lockable security for the stuff you stow in the tray – think fridge, camping gear, mountain bikes – and it will also protect it all from the elements (sun, wind, rain) as well as prevent dust, sand and mud ingress while you're driving through the outback or along the beach.
A top-quality aftermarket canopy may cost between $2500 and $4000 (fitted).
Canopies can have one or more well-sealed opening windows.
Be warned: a top-quality aftermarket canopy may cost between $2500 and $4000 (fitted) or even more, depending on your vehicle's make and model, but the investment is worth it for general peace of mind.
If you don't want to go the whole hog and get a canopy, you could get a lockable ute lid (approximately $2000, fitted), which offers security and protection for your tray-stashed gear, but doesn't have the versatility and extra useable space a canopy can provide.
Newsflash for you: Driving off-road is a tad different to driving on man-made surfaces; it can be lumpy, bumpy and very slow-going and the vehicle, especially a fully loaded SUV, will be put through a tremendous amount of stress and strain on uneven terrain.
As standard, your vehicle's suspension is engineered to be driven on roads; it needs to be modified to better cope with more aftermarket weight onboard and the undulating terrain of remote-area touring.
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.
Upgrading the suspension set-up on your stock-standard dual-cab ute is a must. Doing so will improve its load-carrying ability and so make it more stable, more comfortable to ride in and, most importantly, safer to drive off the beaten track than it would have been if you'd taken it in showroom form straight out into the bush.
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). But, if you don't pay, you don't play, right? Bonus: your vehicle will get between a 30mm-50mm lift out of the upgrade.