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Safety Tips for Remote and Off-Road Travel

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Safety Tips for Remote and Off-Road Travel

When you travel to remote or off-road areas, it is important than you plan your trip properly. The one item you leave behind is inevitably the one you need most in an emergency, so pack your vehicle carefully.

Getting ready

Driving in remote regions demands careful preparation. Choose the right time of year to go. Midsummer driving in the Red Centre is uncomfortably hot and the top end of Australia is best explored in the dry season between April and October. Check average temperatures and rainfall in the area for the time you plan to travel, taking note of nightly minimums too.

Check average temperatures and rainfall in the area for the time you plan to travel, taking note of nightly minimums too. In arid Australia the difference between the hottest part of the day and the cold hours before dawn can exceed 30°C.

In arid Australia the difference between the hottest part of the day and the cold hours before dawn can exceed 30°C.

A great way to learn about driving off road is to enrol in a course through your State Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs or Motoring Association. A basic vehicle maintenance course is also advisable before going too far afield. Four wheel drive clubs organise regular trips for drivers of all proficiency levels, where you can learn from experienced drivers in the safety of a group.

Everyone has their own ideas about ‘the ideal 4WD’, but from a safety standpoint there are some important considerations. Manuals are superior to automatics for hill work and towing, but automatics are handy when ploughing through deep sand where manual gears can’t be changed quite as quickly. When choosing a 4WD, the most relevant questions are “What will I be using the vehicle for?” and “How readily will I be able to get spare parts in remote towns?”

Make your accessories count

Every accessory you add to a 4WD has some effect on the vehicle’s performance. A heavy bull bar weighs down the front end, a long-range fuel tank changes the centre of gravity and an electric winch puts extra strain on battery power. It’s not hard to spend over $10,000 to outfit a 4WD for off road use, so talk to those who live and work in the bush before you splash out on something you can easily do without. A 4WD is heavy enough on an expedition with water, food and extra fuel supplies; you don’t want superfluous weight dragging you into every bog along the route. Be selective with accessories.

A dual battery system is advisable if you have extra electrical gear to run: electrical winches, radios, mini-fridges, etc. A small fire extinguisher (specifically designed for vehicle use) is also a good idea. A well shaken can of lemonade, cola or beer makes a good emergency substitute – just shake, pop the top slightly and point the spraying foam at the fire.

Long-range fuel or water tanks are popular with some travellers, but their drawback is that if they spring a leak, you can lose all the contents as you’re bumping down the track. Several separate water containers are safer than just one – if one breaks it’s not such a drama. Store water upright in sturdy plastic containers, packed to prevent jostling. Metal jerry cans full of spare fuel should never be stored inside your vehicle – this is very dangerous. Store fuel cans on the outside of the 4WD on metal racks fitted to the rear bumper.

Winches and recovery equipment

MudRoad

Getting bogged in sand or mud is usually avoidable with caution and an understanding of how your vehicle handles in various conditions. When you get stuck you should have the gear to get yourself out: a winch, approved D-shackles, snatch strap and large diameter pulley block.

Winches come in four types:

  • Hydraulic: The winch motor is powered by your vehicle’s engine through a pressure pump
  • Electric: Permanently mounted on the front of the vehicle and runs off the car battery
  • PTO (Power Takeoff): Runs off the engine via the gearbox or transfer case
  • Manual: Operated by hand

Each type has its pros and cons. An electric winch puts added load on your battery, but this can be offset by installing a dual battery system. PTO and hydraulic winches are heavier than electric winches and don’t work if your engine fails.

Hand-operated winches are the cheapest and simplest option. They work even if motor or battery are dead and can be attached to the rear of a vehicle to pull it backwards. Physically they’re more demanding than other winch types but the effort can be reduced with a pulley block. A pulley block (snatch block) is used to multiply a winch’s pulling power. With power-operated winches they slow down winching speed but provide more power.

Snatch straps are used between a bogged vehicle and a towing vehicle. They’re made from sturdy webbing that stretches to supply extra pulling power when the towing vehicle accelerates. Always attach the snatch strap to a solid part of the bogged vehicle’s chassis and the other end to a towbar solid enough to do the job. Serious injury can result if a snatch strap breaks free from either end and you’re standing nearby. Never use a snatch strap with a pulley block.

Winching Basics

  • Wear sturdy gloves for all winching
  • Always pull straight rather than at an angle from the vehicle
  • Keep winch cables and straps clean
  • Don’t let the winch cable cross over itself on the drum
  • Keep everyone well clear of cables during winching
  • Drape a blanket or similar covering over the cable to dull the recoil if it should snap
  • To slow battery drain when using electric winches, increase your engine’s idle speed
  • Trees used as winching anchor points should be protected from damage. Use wide webbing straps rather than cable, and pad them if necessary
  • Vehicle recovery can be difficult and dangerous when improperly performed. Learn how it’s done before you go bush. 4WD clubs offer useful practical courses on winching, towing, etc. They can also provide handy lists of the spares you should take when going bush

Communication in remote areas

Effective communication saves lives. In an isolated area, a two-way radio or other communication device ensures you can get help when needed. Mobile phone networks are fine for more settled regions but should never be relied on in remote areas, which are normally out of their range.

Mobile phone networks are fine for more settled regions but should never be relied on in remote areas, which are normally out of their range. Satellite telephones are a more expensive but very effective alternative, allowing communication to and from anywhere in Australia (and the world).

Satellite telephones are a more expensive but very effective alternative, allowing communication to and from anywhere in Australia (and the world).

An HF radio lets you talk to other vehicles or contact the Royal Flying Doctor Service in an emergency. The RFDS hires out HF radios if you don’t want to buy one. To operate an HF radio you must obtain a license and be allocated a registered call sign. When calling the RFDS, leave the set open so they can relay messages or tell you if you need to switch to another channel. It can’t be stressed enough that the Royal Flying Doctor Service is for real emergencies. Minor injuries that can be dealt with by driving the patient to the nearest town medical centre do not constitute an emergency. You don’t want to tie up a plane that may be needed for someone in a more serious situation.

Maintenance

In urban areas a vehicle breakdown is an inconvenience, but in the bush it can be a real problem. If you have plenty of water and traffic isn’t too infrequent, you can just wait for another vehicle to come along (and try not to think about the movie Wolf Creek!). Maybe they can help you then and there, maybe not. A flat battery 250 kilometres from the nearest town is serious. Your mobile phone won’t work, assistance is unlikely and your HF radio (which operates off the battery too) is no help.

If you’ve let people know your plans (and stuck to them) then a search will likely get underway in a few days. Take stock of water and other essential needs and relax. If you have a reasonable supply of water, food, suitable clothing and a tarp for shelter then you’re not in any immediate danger. Get your signalling devices ready and stay calm. Save any strenuous activity for the cool of the night.

Preparation can help avoid these situations. Have your vehicle checked by a mechanic prior to long trips. A more conscientious approach to maintenance is needed away from the city – you must constantly check all parts of the vehicle to keep a step ahead of potential problems. Regularly look underneath the car for leaks. Make daily monitoring of oil, fuel, water, tyres and fan belt a habit. Keep an eye out for loose wheel nuts, cracked hoses, corrosion on battery terminals, worn parts or anything that ‘doesn’t look or sound right’.

Small mechanical faults can become major if they’re not detected and rectified in time on the road. Know your vehicle, drive at a safe speed for the conditions, carry essential spare parts and tools and take the time to inspect your engine periodically as you travel.

Listen for unusual rattles and noises. Stop to periodically remove Spinifex grass that accumulates in the exhaust pipe – it catches fire easily. Have a thorough read of your vehicle manual before departure, especially the troubleshooting section.

An adult education course on vehicle maintenance is much cheaper than paying thousands of dollars to get a 4WD towed out of the bush and repaired. Small mechanical faults can become major if they’re not detected and rectified in time on the road. Know your vehicle, drive at a safe speed for the conditions, carry essential spare parts and tools and take the time to inspect your engine periodically as you travel.

The P.E.T.R.O.L. check

A basic daily maintenance routine is essential for safe outback driving. A super-easy way to remember what to check is the acronym PETROL. This check only takes a few minutes – do it at least once a day:

P – for Petrol. Check fuel level
E – for Electrical. Check battery terminals and levels
T – for Tyres. Check pressure; check sidewalls for cuts
R – for Radiator. Check coolant level
O – for Oil. Check oil level
L – for Lights. Check all vehicle lights are functioning

Tyres

In the bush, always mend punctures as soon as they happen. On rough tracks it’s not uncommon to get two or more punctures within a short time, even with new tyres. Having a flat tyre hanging off the vehicle doesn’t help you. Always carry at least two spares, one spare inner tube and a puncture kit that includes an inner-sleeve.

Pack a large rubber mallet and a quality tyre lever. To break the bead, a ‘tyre-plier’ or similar tool is very handy. When replacing the rim, a bit of liquid detergent on the tyre bead and rim makes it slippery so it goes back on more easily.

Select tyres suited to the conditions. For example, wide tyres aren’t a good idea on wet roads but work well in sand. Keep records of the air pressure that works best in different conditions. You can buy electric air pumps that are quick and easy to use, but a hand pump should also be packed. Carry a plank base (at least 3 centimetres thick) to put underneath the jack when changing tyres.

Be a safe driver

OutbackRoad

Most accidents relate directly to speed or not knowing enough about what the vehicle can and can’t do in certain track conditions.

Corrugations, wandering cattle, protruding rocks, fallen branches, hopping kangaroos, sudden washouts and other hazards are the rule rather than the exception on bush tracks. The best advice is to slow down. You’ll enjoy the trip more, put less strain on your vehicle and have a better chance of coming home safely.

With creek crossings, standard practice is to slowly walk through the crossing first to gauge depth and work out the best places for tyre grip. Obviously this doesn’t apply to crocodile habitats! If the walk-through tells you the water is going to be up over the tops of your tyres, you should seriously consider if crossing then and there is worth the risk.

Corrugations, wandering cattle, protruding rocks, fallen branches, hopping kangaroos, sudden washouts and other hazards are the rule rather than the exception on bush tracks. The best advice is to slow down. You’ll enjoy the trip more, put less strain on your vehicle and have a better chance of coming home safely.

Making camp nearby and waiting for water levels to drop overnight could be the sensible option. For deep crossings, a tarp should be wrapped right around the radiator area at the front of the vehicle to keep water from flowing into the engine and drenching it. Disconnecting the fan belt is also a good idea to reduce splash on the engine. Use low-range second gear or high-range first gear to get through and keep going until you’re well clear of the opposite bank.

Deep, dry sand is common on outback roads. The key to getting through is to keep up a decent (but not excessive) speed in the highest gear you have. Reduce tyre pressure to about 15-20 psi for better traction. Just remember to re-inflate to normal pressure once you’re back on hard roads.

Other bush hazards include corrugations, road trains and bulldust. Corrugations are handled simply – by slowing down. The prudent option if a big road train is approaching is to get right off the track (when there’s sufficient room), stop and let it pass.

Bulldust is a fine, powdery road dust. You can keep it out of your car to some extent by rolling up windows and turning up the air conditioning (in the end, of course, bulldust always wins). Take care in bulldust areas – a deep pothole full of dust is well disguised and can do real damage if you plough into it too fast. In bulldust country, check your air filter regularly. If it’s getting blocked, remove it and give it a few knocks against a tree to shake the dust out. Then blow through it from the centre toward the outside, rotating it to clean out the entire circle. Never clean air filters by washing them with water. The combination of dust and water will dry like concrete, ruining the filter.

Dusk can be a tricky time to drive because of difficult light and the activity levels of animals near the road, so take care. Wherever you go in the great Australian outback, always respect Aboriginal Lands, obey National Park rules and look after our natural environment so future travellers can enjoy it too.

If you’d like more outback travel tips, please check out our slideshow here.