Holidays are all fun and games until something goes haywire. Flat tyres, blown fuses and mouldy canvas are just a few examples from the long list of devilish pranks gear can pull on unwary consumers. Australia’s hot, dusty and occasionally water-logged environment is its malicious accomplice in this.
Fortunately, a little bit of preparation before, during and after a trip can forestall considerably worse inconvenience down the line. In this article, we’ll skim the surface of the potentially endless topic of pre- and post- trip preparation, suggesting a few crucial ways in which you can ensure your car, tent and camper are in working order so that you can pursue your travels freely.
PRE-TRIP VEHICLE CHECKS
Ideally, your car will have had a service recently, within the last 7500km at least, and the number of kilometres you plan to travel will not push you over the recommended kilometre count for your next service. Having had a recent service ensures any outstanding issues will have been identified by a professional and nipped in the bud.
Opening the bonnet and checking fluid levels can ensure your car has what it needs or point to potential problems. Perform the classic dipstick check on engine oil, wiping away oil and re-dipping to check levels are between the two markers. Check coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and windscreen water levels (you’ll need plenty to clear away dust and bugs). Many fluid levels can be gauged by markers on the side of transparent tanks; low levels may point to leaks or merely indicate that a refill is due. Note that oil needs to be drained before refilling and that it’s best to change the oil filter while you’re at it; consult your car’s manual to see how to achieve this if you wish to tackle it yourself.
Turn the keys in the ignition and make sure any warning lights — such as the airbag or battery light — turn off after the car has run its diagnostic tests. If they stay on, resolve the issue prior to departure. In the case of a battery, have a free test at a battery shop to gauge how long it has left and replace it if necessary. For the airbag light, check under your seats to see if you’ve accidentally unplugged any connections by jamming your thongs or jumper leads under there and, if not, consult your manual or a mechanic to resolve the issue. Your car manual should advise on the course of action whatever the warning light.
For both the vehicle and camper, check the air pressure of tyres to ensure they are at desired levels. If they are alarmingly low, take them in for puncture repair (which usually costs around $40); but do remember they will be about 4psi lower when cold (ie, not driven on recently). Ensure your spare is in working order, that your car jack will be able to elevate the tyre off the ground (not a given if the jack has been replaced at one point), and that you have sufficient leverage to remove firm wheel nuts (such as those that have been drilled tight; I use a breaker bar with a socket to this end). Most importantly, assess tyre wear against treadwear indicators to gauge whether it is time for a new set (aim for no more than 50 per cent wear for offroad work) or for a wheel alignment (a good idea if wear is uneven on individual tyres).
In anticipation of something going wrong, curate a list of essential spares, such as fuses and lights. In Litchfield, I blew a fuse by accidentally nudging a bit of metal down my 12V cig point charger and had to make a trip to Darwin that I could’ve spared myself by having the correct 15A fuse at hand. Also check your toolbox is fully stocked, with spanners, a ratchet and socket set, Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, duct tape, electrical tape, WD-40 and so forth. Air and cabin filters are other items the average DIYer can easily check and either clean or replace if necessary.
PRE-TRIP CAMPER AND TENT CHECKS
Plug your trailer up to your car’s seven-pin or other plug and run through the standard but unavoidable check of hazards, headlights, indicators and brake lights with the help of a mate. On the topic of power, use your in-built voltmeter or apply one to the camper’s battery to gauge its state of charge. AGM batteries shouldn’t be allowed to linger below 50 per cent charge, as this shortens their life. If the volt reading indicates a low charge like this and the battery is struggling to reach full capacity after you’ve attempted charging, consider forking out for a new battery. If you don’t, the risk is that the battery will cark it during the trip and your fridge/freezer will lose power. Farewell to those T-bone steaks…
On a more mechanical note, it’s worth servicing the wheel bearings before heading off on any sizable trip. To assess if this is necessary, jack up a tyre and ideally support the axle with a stand. Hold the tyre and shake it back to front and side to side to see if there is play in either direction or whether there’s a knocking noise. Either symptom may mean it is time to repack the bearings with grease or to retighten components — or worst case, to replace bearings completely. Even if everything is in tip-top shape, it’s still wise to service bearings pre-emptively.
Remove the dust cover, the split pin and the castle nut before carefully removing the hub, with the bearings inside, from the spindle. Proceed to remove the outer and inner bearings, using a hammer and punch if necessary. Examine them for wear and tear, corrosion, or bluing from intense heat; you’ll be able to do a more thorough job if you clean them in a solvent first. Hold the inner runner still and spin the outer to ensure it is spinning freely.
Repack the existing bearings or new bearings with bearing-specific high-temperature grease by wearing gloves and forcing grease between the inner and outer runners with your palm until it emerges on the narrower end. Examine the spindle for scoring or other damage while the hub is off; consider cleaning it with kerosene or a solvent to get a better view, before subsequently applying new grease.
Finally, reinstall the components in the reverse order, making sure to use a new seal and a new split pin to lock the castle nut in. To ensure correct tension on the castle nut, tighten it up fully and then back it off a touch before inserting the pin. During your holiday itself, every two or so days, reach down and touch the hub with the back of your hand after you’ve stopped driving; if the heat is painful, consider checking out your bearings at camp that night.
While the hub is off, it’s also worth checking the state of the brakes, which — if yours is a modern trailer — are likely to be electric. On the drum which you’ll have removed from the spindle, examine for scoring marks or uneven wear. On the brake assembly, which will still be on, eyeball the condition and wear of the linings on the outer brake shoes, and consider replacement if these have worn below recommended thickness. Also examine the magnet to ensure it has not worn such that any wear indicator holes are no longer visible.
Diehards can go a step further by using a brake adjuster tool or a flat-headed screwdriver to adjust the brakes. This involves inserting the adjuster through the rectangular hole and turning the hidden star wheel until the brake shoes contact the drum, and then backing it off to manufacturer specs — which usually equates to seven to 10 clicks back from full lock.
Examine shock absorbers for oil leaks, as this may indicate the shock absorber has blown during previous use and that it won’t be able to maintain the necessary pressure. Replace if necessary, making sure to match with the trailer’s other shock absorbers in terms of size and firmness. Check out the state of suspension bushes at shock absorber and trailing arm mounting points; if they’re at all worn, cracked or chewed out, they’re worth replacing to avoid more expensive damage to components or suspension mounting points. Use a grease gun on any greaseable shackles, connecting with grease nipples to flush out dirt or other gunk. Diehards may wish to check all bolts are still torqued to correct specifications.
Don’t forget the hitch, either. Ensure the mating surfaces are free of any dirt, mud or other junk that may compromise the connection, hosing them down if necessary. If your trailer has a modern hitch with a tightly closed connection, like a McHitch or a Cruisemaster DO35, feel free to apply a dry lubricant to reduce friction. Visually inspect all bolts and torque to specification with a torque wrench, not neglecting the bolt on the tow pin of the towing vehicle. Give all components a wriggle to detect any undesirable play in the bushes and replace these, if necessary. Inject grease into any greaseable nipples your hitch may have until clean grease is coming out the joints.
If you have a rooftop tent, take a lap around the car to ensure it is still rigidly connected to the vehicle (ie that no nuts have rattled part way loose) and open it up to ensure it is in working order.
If the gas struts are failing to lift the camper or if the tent is sagging on one side, consider finding and fitting the correctly sized and weighted struts.
If your tent is new and this is its debut, prime the canvas first by setting it up at home, spraying it with a hose, allowing it to dry, and then repeating the process. This expands the fibres of the canvas and improves the weatherproofing — something you can take to the next level by applying sealant spray and paying particular attention to stitched areas.
Maintenance of the car and camper during the trip will, for the most part, involve carrying out the above pre-trip maintenance checks as the car continues to add up more kilometres. But it will additionally involve paying constant attention to identify any problems that emerge with your car or camper — such as squeaking brakes, engine overheating, or large plumes of black exhaust — and then investigating them before they develop into something worse.
Once the trip is over, you are out of the woods, so to speak. But it’s best to take a few precautions to ensure gear is ready to go for next time. Once you’ve dealt with any acute damage your gear suffered during the trip, the real post-trip threat is that gear is degrading, for example by rusting or moulding, during its down-time.
If the car and camper are covered in mud or sand after 4WDing, take it to the car wash and get down on hands and knees to spray the underside, chassis and camper drawbar with the high-pressure hose. Clean off all surfaces so that dirt cannot degrade the paint over time. This is particularly important after beach trips; salt will, if not cleaned off, lead to corrosion.
Treat canvas with the same level of respect. If circumstances forced you to pack it away wet, set it up at home in the sun to give it ample opportunity to dry; storing it wet will result in the development of mould. It is a good idea to set it up anyway, and to spray canvas down with a hose or even to scrub it down with a soft-bristled brush and tepid water to ensure that no grime can become ingrained. Vinegar and water can be used to kill off mould if any does develop, but bleach and other stronger agents should be avoided as they will only reduce canvas longevity. If the tent canvas has sustained any tears, you have a few options: cloth tape, a bit of sewing and patching with a canvas repair kit, or a visit to a canvas shop or camper trailer repairer.
Finally, consider draining your water tanks and flushing them out after a trip. To this end, you can mix a small amount of bleach (eg. 50mL) in several litres of water and then drive around the block to slosh it around the tank before draining the tanks again. Running water outlets for a minute or two while the mixture is in the tanks will also help to sterilise the water lines (just bypass any water filters). A more natural alternative to bleach and water is a mix of water with vinegar and baking soda. Grey and black water tanks may benefit from an RV-specific chemical solution if they will be left sitting for long periods.
WORD OF WARNING
Certain mechanical operations will be beyond the scope of most DIY specialists, who inevitably lack the know-how to recognise a potential problem and don’t have access to the necessary machinery, training or relationships with parts suppliers to carry out the job. Take, for example, valve clearances on diesel injectors — the risk of botching this highly specialised task warrants the recruitment of a professional. If at all unsure, consult a mechanic, repairer or manufacturer.