How And Why We Dashed Across The Simpson Desert In A Week From Melbourne With A Haval H9 And Great Wall Steed. This week we look at packing for a big trip.

PACKING MY OWN 4X4 is easy. There’s lots of space and purpose-built holders for things. I already know where everything goes, it’s got two roof-racks, a built-in water tank, long-range fuel tank and lots of tie-downs in the service body.

Packing a stock-standard 4×4 by comparison is a pain in the backside as you have none of that, so packing becomes an art and science. Most experienced off-roaders pride themselves on their ability to pack a car, and I’m no exception.

So how do you pack a 4×4? Everybody has their own routine, but having talked to and travelled with many others we all follow the same basic principle of really thinking through the pack rather than just bundling things in.

The first thing we did was to put everything we were going to take in a big pile in the garage, two weeks before we were due to set off. You do not want to be packing the night before a big trip, particuarly a vehicle you’re not familiar with. I used my well-worn camp checklist to ensure we had evrything from tent pegs to sunglasses to tyre plugs. I’m a massive fan of checklists as camping can be ruined by forgetting something small and simple like the tent poles, or spare gas canisters. The item doesn’t get checked off till it’s actually packed either.

With all the gear in one place, it was time for Tetris – what would go in first, last and where? I wasn’t going to build a storage system for this trip, so pretty much everything would need to come out every night we camped. That mean boxes and bags, rather than lot of smaller individual items – there’s a useful packing tip.

The basic rule for packing I follow is that stuff you don’t need until camp setup gets stowed far away, and frequently used stuff is made more accessible. Heavy stuff goes central and low, and dirty stuff goes outside. I knew we’d be taking a sixth tyre (see story here), and that tyres are big, bulky, smelly and dirty so I didn’t want it inside. Fortunately, they’re relatively light and easy to strap down, so I asked Haval for some roof crossrails for the H9, and strapped our second spare tyre to them. 

Also up top went the Maxtrax, on the basis they need to be qucikly accessible, are bulky and can get dirty. The shovel laid easily on the Maxtrax, another item that you need quick access to for recovery sometimes, and toilet more frequently. And it gets dirty too, so outside the car it goes. On top of the Maxtrax was a handy place for the disassembled sandflag. The Maxtrax were strapped down, and the shovel strapped seperately on the Maxtrax – the reason for that is additional security, and less effort to get to the shovel.  And the final item on the roof was the mount for the sand flag. I made that from a length of wood secured to the crossrails, with a bit of metal square edge at the end.  

A full-length roofrack would have been nice, and if we had one I’d have put up top the canvas tourer tent, the chairs and maybe the camp table, but I kind of wanted to see how we’d go with just crossrails. I’m a big fan of light, strong alloy roofracks, but never heavy steel, I hate what it does to the car’s dynamics and stress on the sills.

Even if you have plenty of room inside roofracks are so handy for bulky, dirty items, but never overload them. It is dangerous to put up say a rooftop tent, spare tyre/wheel, four jerries of water and two of fuel…sooner or later something will break or you’ll roll. Oh and the final touch was a combination lock around things to dissuade thieves. 

Inside the car I tried a couple of different options for storage space, laying the second row as flat as it’d go, or leaving it upright. In the end I opted for leaving it upright, making the seatbacks as vertical as possible, and sliding the seats as far forward as they’d go. That opened up a handy additional 100mm or so of boot space, and gave access to a deep space just behind the second row where I stored our camp stretchers, tent pegs and the smaller of two water jerrycans. The vertical seatback also acted to some degree as a cargo barrier – I also raised all three headrests as high as they would go, and put a cargo net over everything once packed, secured to the rather decent tie-downs Haval put in the boot. When I’ve owned wagons I’ve always fitted a metal mesh cargo barrier for safety and easier packing, but you have to make do with what you get in press cars.

A good packing system makes a world of difference to your ability to stop, quickly set up camp, and move on again.

On the second row itself I had my camera gear, snack bag, satphone and the like, all light stuff we needed to access quickly, and secured by the seatbelts. In the second row footwell we had a 55L water bladder, which wasn’t going anywhere as with the second-row seats slid forwards it was nicely jammed in. The satphone was also in the second row, important as in the event of something like a fire we’d want to grab it and run.

The H9 has a pretty decent centre console and that’s where the handheld radios and multi-tools went, plus tyre pressure gauges and various lights. I also put a couple of other tools in there like a medium sized shifter, which did need to make an appearance to fix driving lights. I like the idea of having two sets of tools – the basics easy to hand like a Leatherman, shifter, hex key set and sockets, then a bigger toolbox that’s harder to access with things like hacksaws, a full spanner set and eye protection.  That can be harder to get to on the basis if that’s needed, you’re going to be there a while.

Under the front seats we had things like boxes of bolts, cableties, tyre repair kits, a bridle, duct tape, string and a wheelbrace. Basically, I work on filling all the little spaces with the small gear, so the high-quality big space is left for the big items. So, in the boot I first laid down a tarp to protect the car as best I could – normally you’d get a rubber mat made to suit, often off eBay, but a tarp would have to do. Then the 1m square canvas tent went in, then the heavy and bulky toolbox, then the cooking box, food box, table and all the other gear. Last were the personal duffel bags as those are soft and easy to squish down, and often needed en-route. The principle was heavy stuff low, and camp stuff first as you don’t need it until you stop for the night. The survival box (see previous story) was also positioned so it was easy to grab. Stuff we’d rarely need, such as the extra gas canisters and the emergency 10L jerry of fresh water went into less-easy-to-reach places too.

Once everything was packed, I made a note of where the smaller items were located. Didn’t want to be pulling everything apart just to find the cableties for example, or the AA batteries. That list lived in the front centre console.

All up, I spent a complete Saturday afternoon assembling all the gear, and trying different permutations of packing. I then unpakced it all, and repacked it a few days later, making a few adjustments. As ever, this time invested was well and truly repaid when on the trip it was easy to pack and unpack.  I was also pleased to discover I had enough room for my TRX-4 (see review here), as I had a special mission in mind for it.

One final tip – always bring tarps. You’ll need to put your gear somewhere while you pack and unpack, and a tarp of about 2m by 3m is ideal. It can also be used as a floor for working on your car, saving you the pain of losing critically important nuts and bolts, and even emergency shelter. 

I realise we’ve now managed five parts and not even started the car’s engine yet, but the fact is trips like a Simpson crossing are a lot of preparation and any corners cut at this early stage spell trouble later on, so this series reflects the reality of a successful long-distance trip plan. 


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