You can’t just drive out into the desert… preparing for an off-road camping trip
How do you prepare for an off-road camping trip? Here’s what we did to get ready for our recent Jaguar F-Pace test.
ADVERTISING PHOTOGRAPHS AND VIDEOS of people having fun in off-road vehicles tempt others to follow suit. But you shouldn’t just believe the TV adverts and head out into rough terrain, flying over bumps. There’s a lot of thinking and preparation to be done first.
We recently took a Jaguar F-PACE out into Victoria’s deserts, and after the trip I posted a video of the Jag monstering a sand dune on our Facebook page. Here it is:
In response, one comment was:
“Why would you take a vehicle like this Off-Road ? Its not a 4WD, it has no front or rear recovery points, no winch, no UHF. I bet they have no recovery gear.”
So let’s answer that.
The trip is to Victoria’s desert region, an area I know quite well. It is sandy, but not very deep, soft sand like you’d find on a beach. There are trees, but they’re mostly scrub. The dunes are not as steep as you’d find on Googs Track or the Simpson. That knowledge colours my choice of recovery gear; what you take for a sandy desert trip is different from your choice for a forested, hilly area.
The most likely problem would be to get stuck in sand. That’s why we took four Maxtrax and a shovel, plus three tyre pressure gauges (spares) and an air compressor. Given my experience, I feel very sure I can extract the F-PACE from whatever problem I can find anywhere in the desert country, and I’d be pretty upset with myself if I drove badly enough to bog it in the first place. One tip; four Maxtrax is more than twice as good as two.
As for a handwinch, well I do own one, but Maxtrax are far more effective in sand, and anchor points are not easy to find in deserts.
The use of Maxtrax also means recovery points would be unlikely to be needed, as the commenter was correct to note the F-PACE has none, just weak screw-in tiedown points.
Here’s what the back of the car looked like before we set off:
Those four tyres were for a friend and were dropped off in Mildura – on longer trips it’s a good idea to take a second spare, but four is overkill!
Credit due to the F-PACE, there was enough room to fit it all in. Notice the ratchet strap across the tyres to keep them from rolling around – the F-PACE has four strong tiedowns flush with the floor. Also note the use of cardboard to stop the tyres rubbing against the trim, and under all that there’s a big red tarp for protection of the floor. If I owned the vehicle there would be a rubber mat and a shelf system, but I’m not building that just for a weekend.
As the terrain was to be sand, the other important recovery item is a shovel. There’s one pictured, and it’s a special, high-strength 4WD shovel that splits into two so it fits into boots. Avoid the cheap and nasty garden shovels, your life could depend on it working. You’ll also note the first aid kit and fire extinguisher easily available should they be required, and three of us on the trip had current first aid certificates.
However, the bigger risk of immobility isn’t getting bogged, it’s a puncture. You can’t see it, but there’s a tyre repair kit packed away, something I’ve used to repair-plug many a tyre in the bush. And the air compressor of course, to put air back into the tyre. The spare-saver spare wasn’t ideal, but would be better than nothing. We also reduced tyre pressures for the soft sand, and that in turn reduces the risk of a puncture.
You need to think through everything before you leave. I checked that the car had its jack and wheel brace, and even cracked a couple of wheel nuts to make sure they weren’t on too tight. And I packed a strong piece of flat wood to use as a base for the jack, because jacking in soft ground tends to sink the jack into the ground while the car stays level. The tie-down screw-in eye was removed from the boot and placed where it could be more easily accessed if needs be.
For communication there were three handheld UHF radios. Not as good as a 5-watt, large antenna in-car unit, but Jaguar wouldn’t want me fitting one so we made do with the handhelds. We also took a basic toolkit.
Getting lost is always a risk. That’s why we had two different maps of the area on paper, plus two electronic maps, a printout of the maps, and a battery powered hiking GPS receiver. A check of the Parks Victoria website revealed there were no seasonal closures that affected us or other issues, just the Border Track closure and that wasn’t on our route. And while it was light in the evenings, we took several torches.
Every time we go out the Survival Box comes along. This contains all the basics; water purification tablets, compass, hand-powered torch, Swiss Army knives, flint, matches, firestarters, survival blanket…you get the idea. It could easily be the difference between life and death. Never had to use it yet though.
If we were immobilised and needed to wait for help that would be annoying, but not life-threatening. We had two 22L jerrycans of water – important that your water is split across separate containers in case of spill or pollution – and I regard these as last-resort, so if we’re anywhere that we can get water from without using our own supply, we do that. We also took various other drinks, food for three days quite comfortably, and a lot longer if needs be, and the tent for shelter with all the sleeping gear.
So if we were stranded, by the time we got desperate the responsible adults we’ve told about our plans will have raised the alarm, or more likely, got into their 4WDs and found us. It’s handy to have capable mates with capable vehicles who are always looking for an adventure.
And we weren’t alone on the trip:
It’s always best to travel with at least one other vehicle, and preferably one that’s got all the gear and driven by an experienced crew. Whenever you see our offroad test photos it often seems like the car is by itself, but it’s not. There’s a bunch of very skilled offroaders with their rigs and gear standing by to help. And while the Jaguar has no recovery points, we brought straps anyway just in case a gentle tug could have helped.
So that’s the preparation – prior knowledge of the area, navigation, recovery gear, shelter, food and water. Basically, think of what could go wrong, and assume it will, then it probably won’t.
We also filled the F-PACE with diesel before we entered the desert, even though it was more than three-quarters full. It is a maxim of mine that nobody ever finished an offroad trip and said “well, taking ten minutes to top up was a total waste of time”. And at those last-chance servos you often find handy maps, tips and other items that could prove invaluable, plus the operators typically know a thing or two about where you’re going. You also can’t assume that country servos will be open when you need them to be.
So with all the preparation done it was time to head out. The dirt roads were easy, but then we turned onto this:
Now, had I been driving say a Range Rover that would have been no cause for concern. But it was a Jaguar F-PACE, and I honestly didn’t know how well it’d go on sand. I believe this was also the first offroad/sand test in Australia, so there was no trusted source for me to talk to beforehand.
However, I’d done some homework. The F-PACE has 213mm of clearance, what appeared to be a good all-wheel-drive system, and decent amounts of power. Based on experience with all sorts of other cars I was prepared to give it a shot, so we edged down the track, fully prepared to turn around should things get too hard for the car’s transmission – overheating or just plain giving up is a common problem in sand for lighter-duty vehicles. I’ve had cars give up no more than five minutes into rough terrain. And there was also the risk of ruts the low nose couldn’t manage.
As it happened though, the F-PACE had no trouble with the track and I didn’t get close to its capabilities all weekend. But, had that been a problem, we would have gone to Plan B, or C, or made up a Plan D. But that’s all part of the unpredictable fun of traveling Australia off the beaten path. And for that you to find need yourself something that drives all four wheels with a bit more clearance than average, then prepare carefully for your adventure.