Reliability isn't an accident.  How to keep your Overland rig healthy.

Reliability isn't an accident. How to keep your Overland rig healthy.

by Patrick Rich

One of the things you’ll hear often from seasoned travelers is that a reliable vehicle is not a maintenance free vehicle, and that a little TLC on the regular is better than mad bush mechanics skills. Whether you are driving your new Jeep straight off the lot, or like me, wheeling a 300,000+ mile Toyota, scheduled maintenance is always going to be a big deal for any serious overlander.  

As I tell people looking for used overlanders - it’s less about the mileage and more about the maintenance. I would drive to Ushuaia tomorrow in a 30 year old truck with a mountain of maintenance records, but pause for an 80,000 mile vehicle with none.  

As the season is winding down for many people and just starting for others, I figured it would be a good time to talk about Overland Vehicle maintenance.

RECOMMENDED SERVICE INTERVALS

Regular service saves cars

My first recommendation is that you follow your manufacturer's scheduled maintenance. I know that sounds like a cop out but the truth is that there is just too much variability between makes and models to have reliable advice for your situation. In your manual, pay special attention to what my Toyota manual calls “special operating conditions.” Towing, offloading, heavy loads, short trips, excessive idling, etc. You know, overlandy things. In almost any manual that I’ve ever seen there are shortened intervals and additional checks if you use your vehicle this way, and if you are reading this then chances are that this applies to you. With all that being said, I want to provide a rough guide for the overlander, if for no other reason than to jog your memory about that one thing you told yourself you’d remember to do...about 20,000 miles ago.

Service Item

Old car interval (pre-2000)

New car interval (post 2000)

Engine oil and filter

3000

5000-7500

Engine air filter

20000 (inspect often)

20000 (inspect often)

Differential oil

15000

30000

Transfer case oil

30000

30000

Automatic Transmission fluid*

30000

60000

Manual transmission oil.

20000

30000

Power steering fluid (Hydraulic)

75000

75000

Brake fluid

30000

30000

Engine coolant

30000

100000+

Driveshaft grease

3000

3000

Steering joint grease (solid front axle)

5000

5000

Spark plugs (copper/platinum)

30000/60000

60000/100000

Timing belt (If equipped)**

60,000 - 105,000

60,000 - 105,000

Cabin air filter

10000

10000

Accessory belts

50000

50000

Tire rotations

5000-10000

5000-10000

Wheel bearing (grease/replace)

30000/100000

30000/100000


These are rough guides only, your owners manual will have the correct information for your vehicle. For overlanders, if you are given a mileage range in your manual, always choose the shorter interval, the longer interval is for light use and not for you.

*A note on automatic transmission service - many manufacturers are removing the dipstick for transmissions and or are calling them “sealed” or “lifetime fill”.  “Lifetime”, in this context, doesn’t mean lifetime, it means expected new vehicle life - sometimes as few as 10 years. Even lifetime fill transmissions have change intervals and service departments will know these recommendations.  In the example of Toyota’s “Lifetime” WS fluid, service departments recommend 60,000 miles. Don’t be duped into the myth of “forever fluid”. Change your fluid regularly for a healthy transmission.

**Timing belt service varies by make and model, be sure to refer to your owner’s manual or service department.  

This is far from a complete list of things you will need to keep an eye on, but doing these fluids and services will go a long way towards keeping your vehicle reliable and long-lived.  

WEAR COMPONENTS

Check those parts

On the topic of wear components, it’s critically important for the overlander to check on certain additional components that may need attention.

Check your suspension components at least annually, this includes suspension arm bushings, shock mount bushings (notorious for wearing quickly with off-road use), shocks, and mounting locations.

Also be sure to keep an eye on any booted component - CV axles, steering component ball joints, drag links, etc. So long as CV axle boots aren’t torn an axle can be good for 100,000 miles. If you want your axles to last a long time, have them torn apart, regreased and re-booted every 60,000 miles.

Brakes are an item that could last 100,000 miles or 5000 depending on use.  Whenever you rotate the tires, be sure to visually inspect pad thickness and look for scaring or uneven rotor wear. Some vehicles like a Tacoma may only need their rear drums adjusted once or twice in their life, whereas some like the GX470 seem to go through rear rotors and pads like breakfast cereal. Never skimp on brake service.

SPECIAL USE CASES

Extra harsh, extra care

In addition to the regular wear and tear of overlanding, certain environments can be especially hard on running gear.  

Water: In my Land Cruiser manual, Toyota recommends adding lithium grease to the driveshaft u-joints and slip joints no later than 24 hours after water crossings. While that may sound extreme it’s good practice to grease anything you can grease when you get home from a trip with a lot of water. This is especially true for open knuckle joints like solid front axle Jeeps. Water contamination will reduce the lubricating properties of grease and add years of wear in a very short time. If your trip is especially wet, be sure to inspect steering knuckles, differential and transfer case oil and transmission fluids and gear oils. 

All vehicles have breathers on these components to allow for temperature extremes which could damage or dislodge seals if left uncheck. When a hot differential hits cold water, the pressure inside the differential drops rapidly and creates a strong vacuum to fill the sudden change in volume. Breathers have check valves that prevent water ingress but water can still come in through the breather or even be pulled in through seals as the breather closes and prevents the vacuum from equalizing in the housing. A good investment for any overlander should include breather extensions to avoid these problems but even with breather extension water ingress is possible.  

Salt Water: It should go without saying that if you are driving near salt water that a thorough fresh water wash should accompany each trip. Remember that many snow belt states also salt their roads and the same washdown should apply.

Sand: If you’ve been traveling in heavy sand be sure to clean your brakes well and check your engine air filter.  Dust can foul an air filter in a single trip and a trapped coarse grain of sand can score your rotors.

GREASES, OILS AND FLUIDS

Easily one of the stickiest debates on any car forums is “what ____ fluid is best”. I won’t even get into that here but to say that you should follow your manufacturer's recommendations for grade and specification. Avoid mixing fluid types and brands if possible, especially as it relates to coolant as there are complex chemistries that are often very incompatible and could cause serious problems.  

A reminder also that no matter what some internet forum or mechanic tells you, in the US, a manufacturer cannot void your warranty if you use a fluid that isn’t branded by your make or model SO LONG AS THE FLUID YOU USE MEETS THE EXACT SPEC OF THE MANUFACTURE FOR YOUR MAKE AND MODEL. The Magnuson-Moss warranty act specifically prevents this, so long as whatever fluid you are using conforms to the manufactures specs, which may be very specialized - example VW 501 14 brake fluid which is also FMVSS 116 DOT 4.  So long as you use FMVSS 116 DOT 4 of any brand in a VW that calls for 501 14, VW cannot legally void your warranty.  

NOTES FOR OLD VEHICLES

330,000 miles and feeling fresh

If you are driving a 20+ year old vehicle like I am you may have additional considerations for long term reliability.  

If you have an old vehicle and are unsure of the previous owner’s maintenance, a good first step is to “baseline” the vehicle by replacing all fluids and having an inspection done on wear components like joints and brakes.  

Plastic tank radiators should be replaced every 15-20 years regardless of mileage. Water pumps should be replaced no less than every 150,000 miles.  Starters and alternators can typically be re-brushed and should be done every 150,000 miles. PCV valves should be replaced every 60,000 miles or less.  Rubber bushings should be inspected annually including engine, transmission and transfer case mounts.  

LONG-TERM STORAGE

If your overland vehicle isn’t driven regularly or stored seasonally, you need to take care to store it with a battery tender on to keep charge on the battery and keep volatile computer memory active. Check on battery electrolyte levels every 6 months to make sure the water level hasn’t dropped. You should always store it with the tank full of fuel, preferably without any blend of ethanol or with the addition of a fuel stabilizer made for blended fuel. If you plan to store it for 6 months or more you may consider taking some of the weight off the vehicle with jacks to reduce flat spotting the tires and loading the bearings though this is generally only for very long term storage. Be sure to clean your vehicle inside and out for food traces to avoid attracting rodents. Some recommend cedar wood or peppermint oil to deter pests.  

CONCLUSION

Did I miss anything? What are your tips for keeping your overlander running like a dream?


2 Responses

Mark Compton
Mark Compton

September 05, 2021

Thanks for the great article. I’m soon running fast up to my last “under warranty” full service inspection and fluid changes for my 2020 T4R. Always have done my own maintenance but these newer rigs are a bit more mechanically special; actually looking forward to working more under the hood on mine and not just working the build aspect of it all. I love the adventures; but I also want my rig to last!

Kauri Jacob
Kauri Jacob

September 05, 2021

Thank you for this article!! I previously had not heard of the PCV valve, and it looks like something I should be keeping an eye on for my older vehicle.

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