If you spend a good deal of time off the pavement, you’re going to need to spend extra time in the garage.
Every off-road-ready vehicle requires some tender loving care. You can abuse it on the trail, but at home you’ve got to take a more nurturing approach. Otherwise, it will take its sweet revenge by crapping out on you in the middle of nowhere or in a particularly sticky situation.
But where do you start? That’s where this article comes in. Here, I’ll provide some basic guidance on maintaining vehicles used for overlanding and off-road vehicles.
While you’ll need to consult your owner’s manual for the specifics on any given model, these are general principles that should apply to every vehicle – or at least any that I can think of. (If you own a full electric rig, the parts related to gas-powered engines obviously don’t apply.)
Types of Maintenance
While maintaining a vehicle used for off-roading and overlanding is an ongoing task, it helps to think of it in terms of different cycles, each differentiated by how often it needs to be repeated. Please note the terminology below is mine, and not necessarily what you’ll hear used in the automotive industry.
Each month (or before a long trip)
It’s good to lay eyes on certain things every month and make adjustments as needed, and to do these things before every long trip or trail run. These include:
- Checking your fluid levels: engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, coolant levels, and power steering fluid. Top up as necessary.
- Checking your tire pressure and looking for damage or unusual wear.
- Keeping an eye out for trail damage by inspecting your suspension and undercarriage after every off-road adventure.
Every 6 months (or so)
Gas-powered vehicles, still the most common, will need an oil change every 3-6 months (every 5,000-10,000 miles), depending on how much and how hard you are driving it.
The regular oil change (the timing of which on modern vehicles is often announced by the vehicle itself) is also a good time to deal with some other tasks. The six-month routine includes:
- Engine oil and oil filter change. Vehicles that use synthetic oils can go longer between changes.
- Tire rotation and alignment to keep your tires wearing evenly and your rig steering aligned. I find I need an alignment more often if I’m driving particularly punishing trails. Also, if you see signs of wear on your tires during the monthly check, rotate and align immediately.
- Engine air filter check. Air filters can last longer than 6 months, but they are easy to check and replace if they are dirty. If you drive in a dry, dusty place like the desert, as I do, you may need to replace air filters more often.
- Battery performance check. I like to get my battery checked at the local auto parts store every 6 months, especially after they are a couple of years old. I can’t seem to get more than 3 years out of a battery, and I really don’t like being caught in the backcountry with a dead battery.
- Inspect hoses and wires. It’s worth snooping around your engine to make sure all of your wires and hoses look snug and intact. If you find one that’s damaged, consider replacing it.
- Inspect suspension components. The suspension of a vehicle used for overlanding and off-roading takes a lot of abuse. I like to get under my rig every six months and check that everything is snug and intact. This includes control arms, shocks, springs, sway bar and sway bar links, etc.
- Replace your windshield wipers
Every Year (and Beyond)
The longer-term cycles of vehicle maintenance can be more difficult to keep track of – at least for me and my attention-challenged brain. A car or truck is made up of many systems and those systems all have parts and/or fluids that should be inspected and replaced at regular intervals.
The easiest way to track this is to bring it to a knowledgeable mechanic for these long-cycle regular services. You can also do these things yourself if you feel qualified. A schedule for these should be provided in your owner’s manual, along with the list of things that need to be replaced or checked at each interval.
For instance, my Jeep Wrangler manual tells me that at 30,000 miles or three years (whichever came first), my model needed to have the transmission fluid replaced (if off-roading or driving in the desert) and my transfer case fluid inspected. My manual provides detailed guidance up to 15 years or 150,000 miles, at which point I will circle back to the start.
If you plan to keep track of your major services yourself, it’s helpful to have a spreadsheet of some sort. One option, which I prefer, is to do some of the tasks yourself and bring your vehicle to a mechanic for the things you don’t have the skill, tools, or time to handle. But again, it means keeping track of who’s doing what.
Off-Roading and Overlanding Vehicle Considerations
The framework I presented above covers most vehicles, but vehicles used for off-roading and overlanding often require a more aggressive maintenance schedule (not to mention repairs from things broken on the trail). While it’s difficult to say exactly how much more frequently you need to perform certain tasks, here are a few areas to keep in mind:
When you’re using a jeep or truck for off-roading, there are several components that will typically require more frequent inspection and maintenance than on a street vehicle due to the harsher conditions and greater strain. Here are some of them:
Suspension and Alignment
Off-road driving can put a lot of stress on a vehicle’s suspension system, which includes parts like shock absorbers, struts, and springs. Regular checks and adjustments are necessary to prevent premature wear and maintain handling and comfort. The alignment can also be thrown off by rough terrain, which can cause uneven tire wear and reduced handling ability.
Off-road tires are subjected to more abuse than street tires. Regular inspection for cuts, punctures, and general wear and tear is necessary. Tire pressure should also be checked frequently, as it may need to be adjusted based on the off-road conditions.
The underbody of an off-road vehicle is susceptible to damage from rocks, stumps, and other obstacles. Components such as the oil pan, differential covers, and skid plates should be checked regularly for damage.
The demanding conditions of off-roading can lead to faster brake wear. Regular inspections and timely replacements are necessary to maintain stopping power.
The drivetrain, which includes the differentials, transfer case, and transmission, often sees heavy use during off-roading. Fluids should be checked and changed more often than in a street vehicle, and components should be inspected for damage.
Safety and Environmental Concerns
Turning wrenches can be a nasty business–both for your health and for the environment. When conducting maintenance and repairs on your vehicle, keep the following in mind:
When it comes to DIY auto repair and maintenance, personal safety is paramount. This begins with wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment such as gloves, eye protection, and sturdy clothing.
Elevating a vehicle should never be done lightly, and a jack alone can’t be relied upon. Instead, make use of jack stands or a professional-grade hydraulic lift to secure the vehicle in an elevated position. Also, make sure the vehicle is in the park and the emergency brake is on before you climb under it. If you aren’t sure your setup is safe, check with someone who will know.
The work environment also plays a significant role in safety. Working in a well-ventilated area helps to prevent the potential buildup of harmful fumes, which can be toxic and dangerous to inhale. Also, while fire may not seem like an obvious risk, automotive work can involve flammable substances such as oil and gasoline. Thus, it’s a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach.
Before tinkering with a vehicle’s electrical systems, disconnect the battery. This simple step can help prevent unintended shocks or sparks that could cause injury or start a fire.
The fluids and other consumables used in cars and trucks can be very bad for the environment. The disposal should be done responsibly. Auto parts stores and recycling centers often accept used oil, coolant, and other fluids for proper disposal.
Vehicle batteries contain harmful substances like lead and acid. Rather than discarding old batteries in the trash, take them to a recycling facility or auto parts store that accepts them. Similarly, tires should be disposed of correctly due to their size and the materials used in their construction. Many tire shops will recycle old tires for a small fee.
When cleaning parts, consider the impact of the cleaners you use. Environmentally friendly cleaners are often as effective as their harsher counterparts, and they’re gentler on our planet.
Lastly, aim to recycle as much as you can. Many metal and plastic car parts can be recycled, helping to reduce waste and conserve valuable resources.
I realized this is a very basic intro to vehicle maintenance. If you want to learn more about basic automotive mechanics, there are many good books on the market. How Cars Work is a good place to start, and Auto Fundamentals is a deeper dive into learning automotive mechanics. Also, check if Haynes makes a guide to your vehicle and buy it. Haynes repair manuals go far beyond your owners manual in providing information on different vehicles and how to maintain and repair them. They are well worth the money.
Local off-roading and overlanding clubs can also be a terrific place to learn more about maintenance and repair.
In future articles, I’ll detail the various off-road-related components and systems and how to maintain and repair them. But hopefully, this should give you a basic sense of how to keep your rig up to snuff.