Picture yourself in the driveway on a crisp early morning, the sun just peeking over the horizon. You climb into your rig and grasp the steering wheel in anticipation of a long-planned overland adventure.
You have a steaming cup of coffee in the cup holder, the cooler is stocked, the fuel tank is brimming, tire pressures and engine fluids are checked, and your carefully mapped-out route loaded into the GPS. You smile to yourself as you reverse out of the driveway, “This is what it’s all about,” you think, that first day on the road, a week, a month, a year’s worth of traveling adventure awaits.
No matter how confident or prepared you are, you are still heading into the unknown. There is risk involved in overland travel, whether it’s just a long weekend out to enjoy that favorite local campsite, or a multi-country tour spanning many months. Embracing those risks is a large part of what draws us to overland adventures - taking on difficult terrain, finding solitude and new horizons, escaping from the everyday. If this kind of travel were entirely easy and predictable we probably wouldn’t do it.
However, there’s a thin line that divides seeking out the challenges that fuel our passion for overlanding, and succumbing to them. Arming yourself with some knowledge and preparation, and planning ahead to avoid common mistakes can make the difference between the trip of a lifetime, and a frustrating, expensive, or even downright dangerous failure.
Let’s look at six common failures that can be potential trip-enders, and how to avoid them.
Before your tires turn even one rotation on the dirt, it’s vital that every member of your group or your family are crystal clear on the goals and expectations for the trip. Is this an easy jaunt to commune with nature at a National Forest campsite reached by unpaved, but well-maintained roads? Or is it a big undertaking that challenges both driver and vehicle, tackling hard trails in very remote places, with long hours behind the wheel, covering only a handful of miles per day?
These are two very different kinds of adventures, and it’s important to be honest with yourself as well as you traveling companions as to what the journey will look like. If your group is not mentally prepared for a particularly difficult adventure they may find themselves resenting the experience, possibly even bailing out of the trip early. Are some members of your group traveling with kids and others not? Your childless friends may find themselves frustrated at the slower pace that parents traveling with their offspring often require. Clear and honest communication on this front is vital, both before the trip starts, and with regular check-ins for each member of the group while you are on the trail. This goes also for the solo traveler - it’s important to be self-reflective, know your own limitations, and plan accordingly.
A breakdown is probably the risk factor that most keeps overland travelers awake at night. Mechanical failures can occur at any time and for myriad reasons, and they can end a trip in the blink of an eye. While not all breakdowns can be avoided, their potentially disastrous effects can be mitigated or reversed with careful preparation, and some time-tested wisdom.
First and foremost, whether it’s a classic Land Rover, or a brand new Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, stay on top of your vehicle’s maintenance schedule. Regular changes of fluids, filters, brake pads, and other consumables will keep you ready to head off on your adventures on short notice. Prior to your departure, give your rig a thorough inspection with your eyes, your ears, and your nose - the state of your battery, belts, fluids, suspension components, drivetrain, tires, and electrical connections should all be evaluated. Pay special attention to the condition of aftermarket parts. The failure of a non-factory part may be more difficult to remedy in the back-of-beyond. If you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for, you can always have a professional mechanic inspect your rig for you. It should only take an hour, and cost about $100. It’s good trip insurance.
Beef up your mechanical knowledge of your vehicle. Some of us are more interested in the technical aspects of our rigs than others. Regardless, arming yourself with a basic understanding of how your vehicle works, and what its common failure points are will go a long way to avoiding catastrophic breakdowns. Some vehicles overheat, some are prone to breaking axles, others eat through fuel pumps. Knowing your rig’s particular weaknesses will help you prepare.
Pack spares for those components that are most likely to fail, as well as other spare parts that apply universally to all kinds of vehicles: drive belts, fuses, relays, bulbs, u-joints, and fluids are a great baseline. Of course all of these spare parts are pointless if you don’t know how to replace them. Download a pdf of the shop manual for your particular vehicle, watch some YouTube videos, and have a mechanically inclined friend show you some skills and techniques.
Online forums for vehicle support have multiplied exponentially in recent years - even down to specific models, and years of manufacture. These can also be useful sources of information, but as always, beware advice from strangers on the internet. Cross check what might seem like conventional wisdom - it may turn out to be, well, unconventional, and that could be a problem.
To that end, a basic tool kit is also essential for any overland rig. A thorough examination of a typical overland tool kit is a topic for another article, but, suffice to say here, a set of wrenches, sockets, and drivers that match your vehicle’s fasteners, a selection of screwdrivers, a couple of adjustable wrenches, Torx bits if applicable, pliers, needle nose pliers, a wire-stripper, a razor tool, a simple multimeter, breaker bar, and a hammer are a good start. Be sure to include any vehicle-specific tools as well. For example, it’s a pain in the neck for me to change the fan belt - a common maintenance item - on my Land Rover Defender without a unique tool that serves no other function than removing the cooling fan.
Overlander has a range of accessories to keep your tools organized, protected, and ready at hand.
Lastly, practice mechanical sympathy. Know the limits of your driving skills, and your vehicle’s capabilities. Perhaps the most common variable in mechanical failures is operator error - pushing your vehicle beyond its limits is asking for a catastrophic breakdown, speed and weight being the primary factors. Slowing down, driving with intentionality, and packing light will save your rig, and your trip.
The most frequent mechanical failure while out on the road is a flat tire. When it happens well off the beaten path, it brings the whole enterprise to a screeching halt, and can, in a word, be a very deflating experience. Thankfully, tire technology has advanced significantly in the last couple of decades, and off-road focused and all-terrain tires have become much more reliable and resistant to punctures and tears. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen to you.
Preparing for a flat tire means preparing for two scenarios - changing out the damaged tire for a spare, or repairing it right there on the trail. In the former scenario you need a full-sized spare wheel and tire, preferably matching your road tires, in good condition and not beyond its expiration date (yes, tires break down over time even without use. Ten years is a good rule of thumb). Check also the condition of your jack - are all its components in place? Does it work properly? Often factory jacks are not built for the rigors of off-road use, so consider adding a Hi-Lift jack or bottle jack to your tool box.
In the latter scenario, certain kinds of punctures can often be repaired in the field, even without removing the wheel from the vehicle. The tire repair kit is a simple and lightweight trip-saving tool - every overland traveler should carry one.
To complete that repair, you’ll need a reliable and high powered air compressor, especially for larger tires. Overlander stocks air compressors from ARB and ViAir that have a well-deserved reputation for being long-lasting and highly efficient.
All of our vehicles have finite carrying capacity for the two most important fluids that sustain our overland adventures - fuel and water. It’s often very difficult and expensive to swap or modify factory fuel tanks for more capacity, and water storage is a headache because of its weight and bulk. Thankfully, the aftermarket has plenty of solutions for helping you get more range from your rig, and clever containers for filtering, storing, and dispensing water. You can shop Overlander’s wide selection of storage solutions for both fuel and water here.
Planning for water storage and consumption, especially on longer trips to more remote areas, can be a tricky process. A good foundation is a minimum of 1 gallon of water per person, per day. This can vary depending on the weather, and whether or not you’re washing a lot of dishes, or yourself, frequently. Always keep one gallon per person in reserve for emergency situations. In the case of needing to restock your water supply, know where your water sources are and what condition they’re in. In most wilderness contexts, filtering water from lakes and streams is necessary to avoid water-borne illness like giardiasis. MSR’s Autoflow XL gravity filter and Dromedary storage bag are a slick way to filter a large volume of water in a relatively short time with little effort.
Figuring out your strategy for fuel storage necessitates finding a safe and secure place to mount fuel cans on the outside of your vehicle. For obvious reasons, carrying gasoline or diesel inside your rig is not a great idea. Overlander offers several modern fuel storage options from Rotopax and Wavian that are lightweight, impact resistant, and seal exceptionally well. Of course, the best method for staving off range anxiety is to keep careful track of your consumption, lighten up on the throttle, and gauge how off-road driving will affect your fuel mileage. Lots of time in low range, thick sand, and significant gains in altitude can wreak havoc on your calculations.
Vehicle recovery techniques and gear are a topic we’ve covered in-depth here. And, Clay from Expedition Overland reviews some of the most commonly used recovery gear in this video.
Overlander is your source for all these options - from MaxTrax traction boards, to recovery kits from ARB, and winches by Ramsey and Warn. Vehicle recovery is dangerous business - moving around a several ton vehicle with synthetic straps and steel cables builds up potentially lethal forces. Proper training in recovery techniques is the number one recovery tool.
That said, getting stuck means you’re having an adventure! With that training in place and the proper recovery kit, there are very few situations from which you won’t be able to extract yourself or your friends. Vehicle recovery can be something of a puzzle, and a satisfying one to solve. If you find yourself bogged down, take a moment, catch your breath, drink a soda or a cup of coffee, and carefully review your options. Also know when it’s time to turn around - sometimes a little bit of caution makes all the difference between spending your day shoveling out your Jeep, or using it to explore new roads.
The last of our trip ending failures is bodily injury. This is a risk in overland travel that you should try to minimize over all others.
In very remote areas help could be many, many hours away, maybe even days, especially in places where communication with the outside world may be impossible. In the often harsh environments where we travel, we encounter a lot of objective risks that can be hard to mitigate. Extremes of heat or cold, unpredictable weather, dangerous heights that create the potential for falls, wild animals, and working around heavy and hot vehicles are all possible elements in that landscape of risk. So, avoid activities, especially for children, that compound those threats. Does little Mary really need to be climbing a tree that tall? Should Tim be out in the inflatable kayak without his life vest?
As with your knowledge of mechanics and recovery, first aid training is a must - we might possibly say that it’s even irresponsible to venture into the wilderness with your family and friends without some basic education in first aid and CPR.
For the commitment of one weekend, and for less than the cost of a nice LED light bar, you can get certified in Wilderness First Aid. For a week-long commitment, and for less than the cost of a set of quality tires, you can be certified as a Wilderness First Responder. There are plenty of organizations that teach these outdoors-based first aid courses, including online options, such as Aerie Backcountry Medicine. Search for one in your area, it’s well worth the time. It might save your life.
In addition to that training, you need a well-stocked first aid kit. Overlander carries comprehensive medical kits of many sizes from Line Medical and MiniFAK, among others. Expedition Overland reviews some of the options here.
With a little bit of advance preparation and some practical knowledge you can avoid ending your big trip early by addressing some of these common failures head-on. It will have you returning to your driveway at the end of the adventure with another smile on your face.
What kinds of failures have you had on the trail? Were you able to salvage your trip? Sound off in the comments below!
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