Setting Up Your 4WD

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Updated: November 14, 2019

Phil Bianchi is a Western Australian-based off-roader with 30 years experience conquering everything from beaches to deserts.

He especially likes remote-area cross-country driving and will disappear for weeks at a time to places like the Canning Stock Route (CSR) and Anne Beadell Highway. Phil’s to going share some driving tips and a few yarns with WTW readers in coming issues, and kicks off here covering the basics of setting up a vehicle.

You’ve had your D-Max or Prado for a while and enjoyed a few trips beach fishing or camping in national parks. You now yearn to tackle Cape York, the Canning Stock Route or other such exotic 4WD destinations but don’t have the vehicle setup or knowledge. What do you do?

First you should get some 4WD experience by travelling with others on less-demanding trips. When you feel ready, pack up and go with a group of other vehicles for support. It’s best not to travel on your own, at least, not the first time.

Wish List

Setting up a 4WD is expensive and very few of us can drive up to ARB and say I’ll have ‘the lot’. So you’re going to need to prioritise.

If you purchased new you’ve got a clean slate to work with. If you purchased secondhand you’ve probably got a number of accessories – bullbar, spotlights and towbar – already fitted, saving a significant amount of money. But you should ensure they’ve been fitted correctly and are quality products fit for your needs. We’ve all seen the ungainly praying mantis-like 4WD with wide, chunky, tall tyres, a six-inch lift, huge spotties on the bullbar and another row of them across the roof rack? Most of these accessories in my opinion are bling, and such a vehicle set up is not practical for 4WD touring, especially remote touring. Don’t rush your vehicle setup, take your time and plan carefully. Do some research and talk to people with similar interests, join a 4WD club and see how others have set up their vehicle. Don’t be frightened to walk up to a 4WD owner in a car park and ask about their setup; most will only be too pleased to help.

In No Particular Order…

Once you have a wish list you’ll need to sort out priorities. Think hard about the main type of 4WDing you want to do and put the items needed for that type of driving at the top of the list.

Here are the items I recommend you consider as essential up front.

  • Bullbar: available in steel, alloy and winch or non-winch types. Also available are plastic Smart Bars which are flexible and spring back into shape after a minor collision. In my opinion they just aren’t up to the rigours of hard off-roading. I’m also not keen on alloy bars. After striking a medium-sized kangaroo at 80kph I was shocked at the damage to the bar and the front of the vehicle. I have now gone to a steel bar and haven’t had any ’bar damage since
  • Tow bar: if you intend towing a camper, caravan or boat a quality rated tow bar is an absolute must. There is no point in having a tow bar that’s rated less than the towing capacity of your vehicle; ensure you buy right first time
  • Dual-bat ter y system and camper batteries: a dual-battery system with an electronic isolator should be fitted so there is sufficient power to run a 12-volt fridge, camping lights and various phone and camera chargers. Having only a single battery in a vehicle is extremely risky, especially for remote-area touring
  • A fused 12-volt power lead running from the vehicle’s dual-battery is also required to feed power to the camper trailer, with Anderson plugs being the main connectors. Some campers have a 12-volt battery on board. If so it is strongly recommended a BCDC battery charger is fitted to boost the 12-volt charge to reduce effects of voltage drop. I use a Redarc BCDC 1240D, it’s multipurpose, it not only acts as a BCDC charger, it also acts as a battery isolator and has inputs for solar charging so there isn’t a need for a solar regulator. While Redarc might be seen as expensive, it’s a quality and reliable product and takes the place of three devices. Inferior electronics will catch you out. They have no place out bush.

Tyres

Which tyres to use tends to create a great deal of argument and discussion. Most new vehicles have highway rated tyres (HT) and second hand vehicles may have old tyres with cracks and poor wear patterns.

HT tyres are okay for bitumen work. If you’re planning on travelling gravel roads that may have corrugations, sandy patches and washouts, I strongly recommend you replace these tyres with All Terrain (AT) tyres as a minimum. All Terrain tyres have thicker and stronger rubber and better withstand the rigours of off-road travel. Also, they are more puncture-resistant than HTs.

The next level of tyre are Mud Terrains (MT). These have a more aggressive tread pattern than ATs, thicker side walls and are even more puncture-resistant.

If you’re only doing gravel-road based touring ATs should suffice, with MTs being more suited to Canning Stock Route or Cape York type trips.

Which brand to buy is probably one of the most contentious discussions around a campfire. Do get a quality tyre that has a good reputation. There are reasons why some tyres are ‘expensive’ and others cheap. Consider not only the price, but the wear rate, tread depth, typically how long they last, chipping resistance and what people have said online about them.

What tyres do I use? I have two sets of six, one BF Goodrich Mud Terrain KM2s and the other Goodyear Wrangler MT/Rs with kevlar. The BFGs are a brilliant tyre, good for towing and gravel work and have an excellent wear rate. The Wranglers are another tyre altogether. They have tough side walls with kevlar to increase puncture resistance. They can be noisy on bitumen, but not excessively so. I use Wranglers in all my desert travels nowadays because of reliability, excellent traction in sand and puncture resistance.

It isn’t unusual for me to get 10 or more punctures when doing a cross-country drive; some people I’ve travelled with have punctured every tyre before getting back to ‘civilisation’. The beauty of the Wranglers is Goodyear offers a pro-rata tyre-replacement warranty. If the tyre can’t be legally repaired it’s replaced with you only paying for the percentage of tyre used. I have had dozens of tyres replaced this way, with no questions asked.

Don’t forget the camper or caravan also has tyres. Do ensure you get a quality tyre for them. It’s preferable the trailer tyres and rims match the vehicle, allowing you to standardise spare-tyre numbers and to swap them between vehicle and trailer.

Compressor And Tyre Gauge

Buy a quality compressor and ensure the hose is long enough to reach all four wheels. If you have a trailer, make sure you can reach its wheels, too. Don’t buy one of the $20 jobs. They are typically slow, tend to overheat or fail quickly and possibly leave you stranded without a way to inflate your tyres.

Also ensure you have a quality tyre gauge to give consistently accurate pressure readings, especially if you’ve had Polyair-type suspension air bags fitted.

Safety

If you have a sedan, a cargo barrier should be on your must-have list. It’s a safety precaution to reduce injury from projectiles in case of an accident.

A quality first-aid kit should be on that list too. There are many brands on the market, and it’s highly recommended you buy a 4WD or remote-travel kit.

Nowadays an 80-channel UHF radio is a must in a touring 4WD. It allows you to keep in contact with other vehicles in your group and to assist with passing trucks and other slower vehicles.

A radio will also allow you to monitor truck communications and to advise them when you are about to pass so they are aware of your intentions.

Sort out your priorities, spend your money wisely and you will have a well set up vehicle that suits your needs for years to come.