How to: Outback Driving Part 4 – Desert Driving

ByDean MellorDecember 1, 2020
How to: Outback Driving Part 4 – Desert Driving

In Part 4 of our series on Outback Driving we’ll look at how to drive in desert country and what gear you’ll need for your outback adventure.

In ‘How To: Outback Driving Part 4’ we’re going to look at the specific requirements for desert driving, as well as cover off how to best equip your vehicle for outback travel. If you’ve just happened upon this article, here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Desert driving

Before you point your four-wheel drive at a desert crossing, you’ll need to make sure it’s up to the task, and you have the appropriate skillset, enough supplies and the right equipment for desert driving.

Thoughtful trip preparation is the key to any successful desert crossing. Grab a big map and plan your route, highlighting supply points and refuelling points. Once in the desert you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient, so calculate how far you’ll need to travel and how much fuel you’ll need, and bear in mind that your vehicle will use much more fuel in slow off-road driving conditions than it will on the highway. You’ll also need to calculate how long you’ll be in the desert so you’ll have enough water and food.

No matter where you’re going and what route you take, plenty of people will have done it before you, so look at trip guides, atlases and websites and magazines to get an idea of how much fuel you’ll need and how long your journey will take. Figure on the worst-case scenario and carry extra fuel and supplies.

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It can be a long way between fuel stops and other supplies.

Desert country can be particularly hard on vehicles and if something breaks you’ll need the right spare parts and the tools to fix it. Make sure you pack ‘consumables’ such as filters (air, oil and fuel), coolant hoses and accessory (fan) belts. You’ll also need extra coolant and oil, and a stocked tyre-repair kit.

Think about how you will carry extra fuel (jerry cans or a long-range fuel tank) and how you’ll carry all the water you’ll need.

You’ll need appropriate communications equipment, too. A UHF radio is great for vehicle-to-vehicle comms and to scan for local traffic, but you’ll need a satphone, satellite communicator or HF radio to stay in touch with the outside world. At the very least, carry a PLB (personal locator beacon) or EPIRP (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).

You’ll need a comprehensive recovery kit and a first aid kit, and the knowledge to use them.

Once you’re in the desert, drive with a degree of mechanical sympathy… you’re a long way from help if you break something. If you amble along at a comfortable pace it will be easier on your vehicle and its occupants, and you’ll have more time to experience your surroundings. Of course, there will be times when a bit of gusto driving-style is called for, such as when trying to climb steep dunes or drive through muddy sections, but don’t go crazy.

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Occasionally you’ll have to use your right boot…

Other tips when it comes to desert driving include erring on the side of caution when approaching the crests of dunes, because there could always be someone coming the other way. Keep an eye out for the telltale sign of a sand flag, and monitor UHF transmissions so you’ll know if there’s another convoy of vehicles in the vicinity… and if so, ask them where they are and in what direction they are travelling.

Keep an eye out for sticks and roots protruding from the sides of wheel tracks that could cut open tyre sidewalls and, as mentioned in Part 1, make sure you’re running the appropriate tyre pressures for the conditions.

Once you’re out of the desert, off the dirt and back on to sealed roads, make sure you re-inflate your tyres to suitable road pressures and, while doing so, have a good look around your vehicle to inspect for any damage, and make sure your headlights and taillights are clean and that your licence plate is visible.

Gear you’ll need

The best way to make sure you have a fun (and safe) time on an outback adventure is to be prepared (as mentioned above) and to have a vehicle that’s up to the task at hand. Here are some of the more important items you should equip your 4X4 with for outback driving.

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The right aftermarket gear can transform your rig into an outback expedition vehicle.

Bull Bar

A bull bar is one of the most essential upgrades you can make to your vehicle if you want to head to the outback. Even in rural areas, the chance of an encounter with wildlife or roaming stock in Australia is high, particularly when driving at dawn, at dusk or at night. An animal strike on an unprotected vehicle can cause a lot of damage to components such as the cooling system, steering and suspension. In the best-case scenario, this can lead to inconvenience and expense, but in the worst-case scenario it can leave you stranded in a remote location.

Light Truck Tyres

For outback travel your vehicle should be fitted with tough Light Truck (LT) construction tyres. Built more heavily than Passenger (P) tyres, LTs offer better puncture resistance in both the tread area and the sidewalls, as well as more load-carrying capacity.

If you’re travelling on formed gravel roads then an all-terrain tyre pattern will be more than adequate, but if you expect a tough off-road slog in wet conditions then a more aggressive open-block mud-terrain tyre will offer more grip in slippery conditions. The trade-off is a mud-terrain tyre won’t offer as much on-road grip, and it will be noisier on the road than an all-terrain tyre.

Always carry a tyre repair kit and, if possible, two full-size spares. If you do need to purchase a new tyre out in the scrub, you’ll have a better chance of finding a perfect match if you’ve fitted one of the more popular brands/sizes to your vehicle.

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Your vehicle will need to be fitted with LT (Light Truck) rubber.

Aftermarket suspension

Once you’ve loaded up your rig with accessories and packed it full of gear for the big outback trip, the standard suspension on your 4X4 won’t cope with rough outback roads and off-road tracks.

A quality aftermarket suspension system can cure your ride, handling and load carrying woes, but you’ll have to do a bit of research before selecting the right kit for your vehicle.

Many suspension manufacturers/suppliers offer a range of different suspension options to suit specific vehicles and the gear they will be carrying, taking into account accessories fitted, such as a bull bar or a bull bar and a winch combination, as well as how much other equipment you usually carry on your vehicle.

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Aftermarket suspension can be tailored for heavier vehicle loads and rough outback conditions.

Once the correct springs have been chosen, you’ll want to fit a matching set of shock absorbers. Again, most suspension companies will offer matched spring and shock absorber kits.

Another benefit of fitting a good quality aftermarket suspension kit is you’ll end up with increased ground clearance, by up to 50mm, depending on the vehicle model and the suspension kit chosen.

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A long-range tank is the best way to carry extra fuel.

Long-range fuel tank

The standard fuel capacity of all but a few 4X4s is inadequate, so you’ll either have to load up your vehicle with jerry cans or fit a long-range fuel tank. The latter is preferable as transferring fuel from jerry cans to your vehicle’s fuel tank can be messy and hazardous.

Another advantage of long-range fuel tanks is that fuel is carried down low in the vehicle where the added weight won’t adversely affect vehicle handling.

There are several long-range tank options available to owners of most four-wheel drive models, whether by fitting a replacement long-range tank or an additional auxiliary tank.

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The obvious benefit of fitting a snorkel is it raises your vehicle’s air intake, allowing you to cross bodies of water without fear of your engine ingesting water, but a snorkel is also beneficial in dusty conditions such as when driving through bulldust or when travelling in convoy on unsealed roads, as the engine’s air intake is up much higher where the air is cleaner.

When choosing a snorkel make sure it’s made from quality materials, such as UV stable polyethylene, and that it’s supplied with quality fittings. (Read: don’t buy cheap crap off the internet).

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OE headlights just don’t cut it…

Driving Lights

Even if you don’t intend to drive at night, chances are you will at some stage simply because the outback is so vast and you’ll probably experience at least some unexpected challenges along the way. When this happens, you’ll soon find the standard headlights on most 4X4s are woefully inadequate.

A pair of quality LED driving lights and/or an LED light bar fitted to the front of your vehicle will make it much easier to spot wildlife, which in many cases is the same colour as the surrounding environment. Before selecting a lighting system, ensure it will fit on the front of your vehicle and that it comes with tough mounting brackets that will survive harsh outback corrugations. Also get a set-up with a quality wiring harness, good water resistance and a tough polycarbonate lens (or lens covers). And remember, some of the best driving lights and light bars available are designed and manufactured right here in Australia.

Dual Battery

You’ll need a dual-battery system to power accessories,

Dual-battery system

The portable fridge in the back of your vehicle, along with all of your other electrical equipment (camp lighting, satnav, phone and camera) all need power to run, so you’ll need a sufficient electrical power supply such as a dual-battery system fitted to your vehicle. This will consist several components: the vehicle’s charging system (alternator); the starting battery; the auxiliary battery; a battery tray or battery box; a wiring loom; and a battery isolator. Some modern vehicles also require a DC-to-DC charger to ensure correct charging of the batteries. You can also charge via external power sources including solar panels.

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Other stuff

There are plenty of other 4X4 accessories that can make your outback adventure easier and more fun, and there’s a lot of gear you’ll need to pack to. If you drive a ute you’ll want to fit a canopy, tonneau, hard-lid or tub-topper of some type, and ensure it’s set-up to keep dust out. And whether you drive a ute or wagon, a drawer system can make it easier to stow and access gear while a fridge slide will make it easier to access chilled items. A roof rack will allow you to carry more gear, but then you might need a GVM upgrade.

With the number of “must-have” 4X4 accessories on the market, it’s not hard to go overboard when it comes to kitting out your rig for outback travel, but remember, the most important thing to do is to just get out there and have a good time.