Off-roading is more than splashing a little bit of mud up onto your bonnet. It is churning sand, throwing mud, climbing rocks, skirting around trees, and fording streams. Going off-road is a way of life, a mantra, a means of being. In a way, you must commune with the terrain around you and know the capabilities and limitations of your ride.
Often, regular vehicle maintenance will help you avoid breaking down while enjoying a weekend off-road and warn you of an impending repair before it becomes critical or damages other areas of your car. With this, here are 9 maintenance tips for going off-road that will help you keep your 4×4 out of the repair shop and in the dirt where it belongs.
1. Keep it Clean
There is something respectable about a 4×4 covered in the day’s terrain. It shows that you have accomplished something that day. If you aren’t careful, though, all that vanquished mud, sand, or whatever is going to exact its revenge. Mud and sand are particularly damaging. Each is gritty and will wear down suspension parts, brake pads, dust boots, bearings, and so on.
Leaving it on your vehicle is like stuffing every open space with sand paper. A good washing is in order after every trip off-road, so be sure to wash underneath and within the engine compartment as well.
2. Know Your Limits
The surest way to destroy your off-road vehicle is to bite off more than you can chew. You’re never going to tackle any serious terrain with a small engine and a four-speed automatic for a powertrain. You also need to know how much ground clearance you have. Trying to tackle tall terrain features with a low-riding (low is a relative term here) base will lead to cracks in your oil pan, differentials, and gearbox.
Any of these issues can leave your ride sitting in the middle of nowhere. Trucks like the Toyota Hilux offer plenty of ground clearance, large engines, and tough gearbox options.
Your 4×4 goes round and round… on its tires. Do a walk around your vehicle. Look for obvious cracks or gouges. Look for any foreign objects stuck in each tire. The most common problem is when the tire is sealed around a nail and then put under any kind of stress, like going off-road frequently.
Be sure that all of your lug nuts are tightened. Make sure to double check your spare. While looking over the spare, make sure the spare tire carrier is free from damage. Wouldn’t want the spare to fall off at an inopportune moment, would we?
4. The Gearbox
When you are off-roading, the automatic gearbox can overheat. Repeated overheating breaks down your gearbox fluid and can cause it to fail. Overheating isn’t as much of a problem with a manual gearbox because a heavier lubricant is used inside. The solution is to regularly change the fluid inside. With an automatic, you should change the filter as well. Drain the fluid through a filter paper or cheesecloth to catch any metal pieces.
A small amount of fine shavings is acceptable, but large pieces or an excessive amount of shavings can be a sign of impending failure. The same goes for your transfer case. While it may not overheat, it can get overworked. Change the fluid every time you change gearbox fluid. Again, check for metal shavings as a means of troubleshooting.
5. Diff Check
The differential (diff) can take a lot of abuse in certain terrain. That is why many avid off-roaders install heavy-duty covers to protect them. With or without those covers, however, your diff can get dented or cracked—thus, leaking fluid.
If you spend any time in deep water that covers your diff, you need to check the fluid right after. If the fluid is a milky white, that means it’s been mixed with water and needs to be changed immediately.
6. Keep an Eye on the Shocks
Have you ever been driving along and hit a rut in the road and felt as if all of your teeth have just shattered from slamming together? Well, that means the shocks on your vehicle were shot. Worn or broken shocks can cause your steering to be off, ruin your driving experience, interfere with the function of your tire, or (worse case) break through the body of your 4×4.
Check your shocks after every ride. Look for deep dents or leaks. That includes looking around the bushings and mounts for structural integrity.
7. Check Your Brakes
Earlier, we mentioned getting the muck and grime out of your brakes by washing your vehicle, now you need to look at the pads, calipers, and brake lines. If you pads are getting thin, you should replace them before going off-road again. Check the calipers for any cracks or other signs of damage. This is most easily done while changing the brake pads since the caliper will be in your hand anyway.
After that is done, inspect all of the lines leading into the brakes on all four wheels. This is especially important if you have raised your 4×4 without adding longer brake lines. Under those conditions, a line can snap or rupture at any minute.
8. Spool Your Winch
If you used your winch on your trip, you may not have had time to respool it properly. Do so as the last thing on your list. Run the cable all of the way out. Inspect it for damage, then carefully respool it.
9. Regular Off-Road Vehicle Maintenance is Key
If this is your first off-road vehicle or you’re not much of a mechanic (maybe you just don’t like to wrench around), don’t let this list keep you from enjoying a great deal of time in the grime. When you start out, ask someone who is familiar with maintaining off-road vehicles. Hopefully they’re nice enough to walk you through these maintenance tips and, over time, you’ll get to know your vehicle well enough to do it on your own.
If turning a wrench isn’t your thing, most off-road shops and repair centers can perform a safety inspection for you. No matter how you get these jobs done, it is vital that they be performed on a regular basis to keep your next 4×4 vehicle in top condition and help prevent unexpected problems.