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VEHICLE SUITABILITY FOR LONG RANGE DESERT TRAVEL

    Connie & I regularly spend enormous amounts of time in the western deserts. Due to our unusual employment over the last so many years we have had to re-evaluate our opinions on the current crop of 4WDs. Suffice to say glossy marketing serves no purpose in our sphere of operation. In fact some of the best long term desert vehicles never seem to get advertised at all.

    We will only list the vehicles large enough or seemingly large enough to carry the gear needed for long range desert work. Again please remember the following are our opinions drawn from experience in the western deserts over the past 30 years therefore our advice and recommendations are slanted toward the few vehicles we consider adequate for that purpose over the long term; that means a great many trips.

    The fact remains that any vehicle can only be a compromise between what you wish to do while on holiday and what you need to do when back at work or home.
 
    The topics covered include;

 

Long Range Desert Travel

    We had better explain what we mean by long range desert travel; quite simply it is the ability to be self-sufficient (no re-supply at all) for at least a 10 - 14 days. (In some cases you won’t see anyone for that length of time let alone a shop or service station.) If you have this capability you then have the means to tackle any trip within Australia with ease, including off-track expeditions which we consider the highest level of desert 4WD use. The details below should help to illustrate what we mean;

 

Gear Weight

    I’ll just mention the reasons why gear adds up to about 1 tonne;

    These are approximate figures from our experience. On top of that you have to add the weight of the gear added to the vehicle to begin with (most folks don’t remember to do this).

    Add up the above figures and you can see that a vehicle has to carry more than it should in conditions generally exceeding its design parameters. This is why there are so many companies earning a living from vehicle accessories, particularly suspension components. Large firms such as TJM & ARB are classic examples. From the factory none of the 4WDs are good enough to do the above work consistently without damage is some shape or form. We can say this because we have seen damage occur to new and/or poorly set-up 4WDs.

  Now please remember this;

    If your vehicle is overloaded there is a very good chance that in the event of an accident your vehicle insurance will not cover you. It is the same as if you travel on a closed road or without a permit for a road, your insurance is void. Have a long hard think about this issue.

 

Axle/Suspension Types

Live Axle (Solid Beam)

    This is the oldest form of 4WD axle/suspension combination and has been proven reliable in 4WDs for almost 70 years the world over in every condition imaginable. All the axle components are housed in a heavy steel shell onto which all of the suspension is attached, including the springs and shock absorbers. In a nutshell Live Axle is very simple with no exposed moving parts.

Advantages for desert work;

Disadvantages for desert work;

Independent

    This is the "modern" type of axle/suspension system. In principal it is the same as the wishbone suspension on your family sedan. Independent suspension is a rather complex geometric system with a number of moving parts and a couple of exposed moving components. It is designed to be a compromise between comfortable on-road and around town travel and occasional recreational use. (In past years IFS vehicles doing extensive heavy tour work had a great deal of trouble, many operators went back to live axle vehicles.)

Advantages for desert work;

Disadvantages for desert work;

 

Vehicle Selections

    Currently there are three types of 4WD vehicle, the modern "Independent Suspension" vehicles and the old fashioned "Live Axle" or Solid Beam. Of course to confuse things some vehicles have both, independent on the front and live axle on the rear, (currently this form of vehicle is the most common).

    I’ll only list the 4WDs that actually have the room or payload closest to what is needed for extended travel in the western deserts, as well as the capacity for more than two seats. We are only pointing out the better alternatives and some are older models that would be on the second-hand market now.

 

"Live Axle"
Front & Rear
Independent - Front
Live Axle - Rear
"Independent Suspension"
Front & Rear
Land Rover Defender 110 & 130 Toyota 200 Series Land Rover Discovery 3 & 4
Toyota 70 Series Toyota Hilux Mitsubishi Pajero
Nissan Patrol Nissan Narvara  
Toyota 78 & 79 Series Holden Colorado  
  Mazda BT-50  
  Ford Ranger  
  Toyota 100 Series  

**** Be sure to check the payload of these vehicles when researching..........

    When choosing a long range vehicle take all of them for a test drive, carefully consider whether they are built strong enough to do the work you want them to. Do not believe everything that is written or said, nearly all of it comes from folk with little travel experience in harsh conditions. In a nutshell the heavier duty vehicles will be better in the long term if you want to do off-track work on multiple remote trips every year.

 

Modern Tyre Sizes

    The trend toward larger diameter rims is really annoying for a bloke such as myself who has to repair customers tyres while touring around the western deserts.

    18" are simply a joke even for normal off-road work. The lack of sidewall height dramatically changes how you can manipulate tyre pressure for off-road work. Heavily corrugated roads can't be dealt with "properly" using the tyre as the primary shock absorber so the vehicle suspension and chassis has to absorb more punishment, remember that the vehicle will be overloaded for any reasonable trip in the western deserts. If you have to stick to tubeless go for the 17" at least they are a good compromise. (From experience I can safely say 18" are buggers of things to work on in the bush.) Fitting tubes into 18" as a safety precaution after repair is also problematic. Only 16" tubes are available normally, they do work in 18", but 17" is much better to work with.

    Having two sets of tyres & rims is a very good idea. Keep the 18"/19" for in town & get some 17" on steel rims for bush work. It also ultimately saves you money as they will "last" longer by splitting up the usage.

 

Towed Campers Vs Tray-top Campers

    Connie & I can’t offer much advice about this topic as we don’t have either unit. This will probably depend more on what the vehicle is required to do during the non-travel times, which for most folk is the bulk of the time. You need to consider a vehicle for 12 months of normal use, not 1 or 2. Ask yourself the following questions;

    Both types of unit have merit. Personally I shy away from towed campers as they simply represent more work (I'm a mechanic) and expense (rego', insurance, maintenance, extra fuel). However we have a great many folk travel with us that swear by them, fair enough. On cold, windy, wet nights I can see their point!!!!

    All of the tray units tend to be heavy as far as I’m concerned. Think about it, you need a tray on the ute to start with, that's about 200-400kgs (use steel, not aluminium, the alloy trays break) then nearly all of the camper units are between 400-800kgs. So already you are at your maximum payload or well on the way for almost every vehicle available in Australia, (remember the tray itself takes up some of your payload). The heavy duty utes are only rated for around 1200kgs. Now add on top of that your gear, fuel, water & yourselves (which can weigh nearly a tonne) and you can see how much strain a ute is put under, particularly the "light" weight versions.

    It's easy to see why suspensions need to be upgraded........

 

Expedition Problems with Modern Vehicles

     Getting onto the most complex issue; participation in an expedition or any long range travel involving no roads or tracks at all. These days there is so little of this type of travel available that it doesn’t rate much of as mention normally but as Connie & I still do these sorts of trips commercially the rules & lessons learnt over the past 60 odd years and even longer still apply today. As far as I'm concerned from my experience late model modern vehicles are all well and good but they are not designed with any "work" in mind, beautiful cars but not very practical 4WDs. Of course these are my opinions and I'm sure if you went onto Exploroz with the same questions you would get answers that would make you far happier. As I said above I'm just being honest.

    Quite simply modern independent suspension vehicles are a very poor choice if you want to make a habit of off-track work, I can’t say this strongly enough. I'll go through some of the drawbacks in point form, forgive me for being blunt.

Logistics

    Fuel & Water volumes - an expedition will normally require upwards of 250-300Lts of fuel and no less than 100-140Lts of water to be carried. How much is that comfortable wagon with the Bluetooth & cup-holders rated to carry? (Utes, Troopys and 130 Defenders are the vehicle of choice for this type of weight.)

Independent Front Suspension

    Quite simply the IFS vehicles have serious drawbacks for off-track work. There are a number of rubber boots in the front end that have the very real chance of being damaged doing extended off-track work, (+300kms). If this happens dust and sand can damage bearings etc. Anyone with IFS in the desert looking at off-track work needs to be very careful and should carry a couple of old tyre tubes and some serious zip ties so they can at least have a crack at rubber repairs if they need to.

Split Rims for late model (modern) vehicles

    In a nutshell, split rims may not fit, or may not be able to be fitted legally. Apart from physical issues almost all vehicles do not have split rims (6.0/16 or 5.5/16) listed on the ADR 23 sticker (the one with the tyre & rim sizes etc and axle weights), legally then you are not allowed to fit them. If you did I have no doubt your insurance company would walk away from you in the event of a serious claim.

Why Split Rims?

    The best tyres for expedition work are thick heavy duty All Steel Radials & Bias or "rag" tyres. These cannot be fitted to tubeless rims at all for two reasons; firstly you have to be very strong and very adept at tyre work & that eliminates 99.9% of the travellers I’m aware of. Secondly tubes will need to be fitted as the heavy duty tyres are not tubeless and in many cases the tubes will fail as the shape of the tyre bead and the shape of the rim is incorrect giving sharp edges that the tube may rub on while running at low pressures for off-track work (I hope this makes sense). Split rims are the only alternative.

Cleaning Radiators

    A problem most will never really encounter but off-track work causes clogging of radiators with fine vegetable-type dust. It's a real problem and can bring on overheating in a matter of days. Unfortunately these days radiators are difficult to get at to blow out with a compressor. The Japanese vehicles are woeful for access and I spend a lot of time on my back blowing them out from underneath which is a great way to get covered in itchy rubbish....Land Rover Defenders on the other hand are brilliant in this regard, they are built for it as the fan cowl is in two halves and the fan removes quickly with a large spanner allowing great access for a compressor hose & wand. During our commercial expeditions I blow out our radiator every morning, as we are leading we get the worst of the conditions.

 

Mick's Pick

  The best vehicles for off-track & heavy work are the few remaining with old fashioned live axle/solid beam front suspensions.

 

    If you have any questions drop us a line and we’ll do our best to answer you promptly.

Mick Hutton
Copyright : May 2013

 

 

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