Preparing for the trip
A well maintained tow vehicle known for reliability, and a similar camper trailer, will readily cross Australia via routes such as the Tanami Road, and the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strezlecki tracks without problems.
The author personally did such trips three times each way from Broome to Sydney and back with a 2005 4.2 litre Nissan Patrol and Tvan. All that was needed was a grease and oil change at each end, plus (for security rather than wear) a new set of tyres after every second or third such trip. Prior to that were ten similar return crossings (with a 1994 OKA) – again with no problems.
Fundamentally unsuitable towing vehicle/trailer
Those planning to cover thousands of kilometres on Australia’s remote inland tracks need serious off-road reliability, plus service where available. This mostly limits choice of vehicles to 4WDs that have assured service facilities in remote areas.
There is a wider choice of camper trailer but none suitable is cheap.
Those planning trips around Australia do not need such ruggedness. Most 4WDs, or even rugged SUVs such as a Subaru Outback, will cope. As will most really well-made camping trailers.
Do not exceed the maker’s recommended pay load. Many carry a heavy boat, a 40-50 kg outboard motor plus its fuel, a big generator etc., plus every cubic centimetre of tow vehicle and trailer crammed full of gear.
If you cannot load all you need inside the rear of the tow vehicle and still have room for a slide-out fridge plus that which fits comfortably into your camper trailer, your expectation/desires are not reasonable.
There is no need to overstock on food etc. Even in the remote outback, you are always within a few days of being able to buy basic but costly supplies. Food for one week (plus a pack of emergency rations) is ample.
Suspension problems are mostly a result of overloading. With low priced trailers however, it is often due also to fundamentally unsuitable suspension – even if not overladen.
Particularly for off-road use, a leaf-sprung axle must have long springs, and swinging shackles at the rear (not just a bit of spring leaf sliding in a slot), and high quality shock absorbers in top condition. Without this, spring and stub axle breakage and wheel studs shearing) is not unlikely.
Typical spring breakage: Pic: source unknown.
Damage can be caused by towing in fifth gear, or ‘overdrive’. Automatic transmissions too can be damaged by overheating on long stretches of heavy soft going, particularly in sand. Cooling systems are available.
If the vehicle needs close to full throttle below fourth gear whilst in sand, drop tyre pressures, including the trailer’s, to 155 kPa (about 22 psi) and use 4WD.
This alone may make it possible to use one gear ratio higher in a manual vehicle.
Always use 4WD in such going. If the engine is labouring, you are risking transmission failure, including breaking a drive shaft.
Computer and computer associated failure
Computer issues were common in early computer engine management systems. Statistically, these computer systems improve liability but even minor issues may partially or totally incapacitate the vehicle. Some now have a ‘limp home mode’ but limiting power such the vehicle can only pull a heavy trailer on a hard surface.
Experienced outback drivers tend to avoid such vehicles, preferring the pre-2006 4.2 litre Nissan Patrol, Toyota Troopies etc. There are now far fewer such failures but many living in the outback prefer to use pre-computer 4WDs maintained in top condition.
Poorly maintained vehicles can be the owner’s and any repairer’s nightmare. Routine competent maintenance is essential. If your vehicle is not known to have had that, I strongly advise to find another one that has. Ideally seek a vehicle that is still under extended warranty.
Vital bits may wear out and fail (mechanics can advise re this) but most breakdowns are due to poor maintenance, and the expiry of rubber bushes, belts, hoses, filters, shock absorbers and/or their bushes etc., that have long outlived their service life.
Even more serious is failing to replace a rubber timing belt (pic below). This needs doing every 80,000 km or so and may cost $1000 or more. If that is not done, and the belt fails it may cause more damage than the vehicle is worth to recover and repair.
Lack of maintenance is the potential cause of breakdowns waiting to surface, yet are often blamed on previous repairers, if/when they do.
A repairer, for example, clears a blocked fuel line and advises the whole system needs cleaning and filters replaced. This is a time consuming job costing $200 or more, and is usually rejected. The vehicle breaks down again 50 km out of town with dirt again being the cause. But, despite warning that this may happen, and offering to fix it, the first repairer is more than likely to be blamed.
Replace shock absorber bushes at 25,000 km and the shock absorbers at 50,000 km.
Replace any tyre over seven years old even if only partly worn.
Check exhaust pipe hangers and also exhaust systems.
Competent, regular maintenance from new is essential. Given that, any suitable vehicle under 200,000 km is likely to be fine. If not, it is a gamble with unknown odds.
Blocked air filters
Air filters must clean without restricting flow. They need changing regularly, even if they look as new.
Replacements are costly so owners may consider a change to a cleanable equivalent. These are fine but after cleaning, must be treated with the special oil supplied by their makers. This oil traps the dirt, the foam element holds the oil in place. Normal oil is unsuitable.
Many engines have an internal toothed belt that drives overhead camshafts etc.. Breakage causes major damage. It is vital it be changed according to manufacturers’ schedules as breakage is likely to cause extensive internal damage. Pic: Z-Mech.
Avoid suspect fuel
Avoid discount fuel, especially diesel. It may contain solvents, crude oil etc. that causes the engine to overheat and/or foul injectors.
Dirty or contaminated bulk storage tanks are still around in a few remote outback areas. Except in emergency, buy from major-brand service stations in major towns, or from truck stops. Fuel is available in outback communities but may be up to twice town prices.
Have injectors cleaned and adjusted every 100,000 km, or if the engine blows black smoke, try an injector cleaning liquid. If the vehicle is laid up for a time add an anti-bacteriological diesel additive.
Most diesel problems are due to contaminated fuel, or muck ingested via the air intake. Water, leaves, sand, rust or paint flakes may find their way into or form within your vehicle’s or a fuel vendor’s tank, restricting or blocking fuel flow.
Water in a petrol engine’s tank is really hard to diagnose. It can stop an engine running (seemingly at random) over months of intermittent misery. The original filter traps most gunk (but not always water). It pays to add a second one – but first consult a repairer specialising in your vehicle. Adding a second filter may critically affect the rate of fuel flow.
Water in diesel fuel turns into high-pressure steam when injected. This can cause serious engine damage. Fuel filters have water traps that need draining twice a year.
Oils ain’t necessarily oils!
Most engine lubricating oils are multi-viscosity. They are thin when cold (easing starting) and thicken as they warm. Multi-viscosity oils gradually lose this property. They may be nominally 20/50 oil that over time reverts to 20/20 (thin) grade. This is inadequate for a hot engine.
Diesel engines must have oil changes at least as often as the manufacturer recommends. Lubricating oils with greatly extended lifetimes are now available but before using check they approved by the vehicle’s maker.
Lubricating oils generally have an American Petroleum Institute mark on their containers. The typical marking is ‘API’, then ‘C’ for diesel, or ‘S’ for petrol. The ‘C’ (or ‘S’) is followed by a further letter – C, D, E, F etc. The further this letter up the alphabet, the more complex the additives.
If you can’t find the exact oil (or an equivalent), oil designated ‘API CC’ or ‘API SC’ (for diesel and petrol engines respectively), will get you out of trouble.
If you have a newish, popular, and well-maintained vehicle, and do not venture far off main routes, you can get by with only a few basic spares: fan and alternator belts, radiator hose/s, fuses, headlamp globes plus at least one inner tube (of value also for leaking tubeless tyres). Basic tools suffice.
Most other bits are likely to be available at the nearest big town, or can be air freighted within a day or two. If weight limits permit, carrying the parts listed on page 93 will save you time and money if you break down. It also saves time at services.
* Three outback essentials
WD40: For things meant to move but don’t.
Gaffer Tape: For things meant not to move but do.
Fencing Wire: For everything not fixable by the above. Use the flexible ‘8 gauge’.