Playing dirty

  • Image credit: Honda
  • Image credit: Land Rover/Quickpic
  • Image credit: Suzuki
  • Land Rover/Quickpic
  • Image credit: Ford
Date:31 January 2009 Tags:, , ,

From power to puncture repairs, there are many ways of making your off-road excursions more of an adventure and less of an ordeal.

Membership of the 4×4 club used to be restricted to people who didn't feel threatened by the thought of performing a clutch overhaul blindfolded and knee-deep in mud. Now, going off -road means climbing a kerb.

Yet there’s still plenty of scope for real adventure on the trail. And why not, when modern SUVs make it so easy for us? Off -road driving skills often seem entirely superfluous in the face of even the average SUV’s sophisticated abilities.

Of course, you wouldn’t just set off along the nearest dry watercourse without some forethought. If you’re planning an expedition, your shopping list will include racks, upgraded suspension and powered add-ons such as lights, refrigeration and winches. But the weekend off -roader really doesn’t need much more than a few carefully chosen accessories to ensure peace of mind – to say nothing of a degree of extra comfort. After all, playing dirty doesn’t mean having to do things the hard way.

Current affairs
When a modern-day 4×4 enthusiast talks about self-sufficiency, he doesn’t mean living off the land or reshaping a suspension member over a makeshift forge. He’s more likely to be talking in terms of amp-hours, watts and voltage. Quite simply, when you’re two days’ drive from the nearest plug point, efficient portable electrics are essential.

Thanks to recent developments in thin-fi lm technology, solar panels are becoming an increasingly popular way of ensuring that your batteries remain charged with minimum impact on the environment. Nobody wants to idle an engine for ages just to maintain charge.

Flexible panels are a sensible alternative. Originally designed for boating, they have turned out to be equally suited to African off-road conditions, varying temperatures and environments. Modules from Solarflex have a three-layer construction that allows absorption of the red, green and blue components of sunlight. The panels themselves are encased in UV stabilised polymers and bonded and stitched on a cushioned backing with integrated lashing eyelets. So, besides being flexible they’re also resistant to water and dust, and although lightweight are quite durable – just don’t roll them up or puncture them. Thanks to bypass diodes connected across each cell, the modules continue to produce power even when partially shaded.

Rated at 32 watts, they typically deliver around 2,2 amphours at 15 volts. Naturally, you’d have to match your appliance’s power requirements to the unit’s output. Used as a charger, the panel will usefully extend battery life (about 18 amp-hours a day, with 8 hours of sunlight). More than one panel can be daisy-chained for greater output.

Keep it cool
There’s nothing like a refreshing, cool drink to erase thoughts of the day’s painful slog from the thirsty traveller’s memory banks. Well-heeled overlanders on an extended trip will have set themselves up with a portable fridge, of course. Engel seems to have cornered the market at the top end, with National Luna a worthwhile alternative for even more money. But for those weekends away when all you want is to keep the frosties cold effectively, a cool bag or box makes a budget-friendly alternative. And it just looks so much less intimidating at a picnic.

Not just any old cool bag will do, though. A collapsible soft-shell bag that promises to keep ice frozen for two days has to be something special. Leisurequip’s IceCold range is a “collapsible performance cooler”, available in several sizes from 11 to 30 litres. The coolers are designed to keep ice frozen for up to 60 hours. The bag’s multi-layer casing “sandwich” design is PVC and leadfree, and incorporates an exterior shell, radiant heat barrier and high-density insulation. It’s treated with Microban, which provides a lifetime bacteria-growth inhibiter to avoid mouldy stains and smells. The unusual lid design has a normal zip-open top for loading up, but for access during use it has in the centre a separate small hatch opening that incorporates a reflective barrier.

Under lock and key
Most SUVs have plenty of cubbyholes for storing oddments. Some of them even have latching lids. Few of them, though, have securely locking compartments. So what? Many cars don’t have locking gloveboxes, either.

The difference: when you’re off on a long trip in your SUV, you tend to have to carry more stuff with you than when simply tootling around town. Inevitably, that stuff includes more valuables. You also might have to leave your vehicle unattended for longer than the average shopping run, in a place with a distinct lack of CCTV and security guards. The solution? “We’re doing lots of built-in safes,” says Johan Kellerman of Safari Centre.

A typical installation in a Land Rover Defender runs to R1 000. The safe is housed in the centre console, between the two front seats. There’s no outward indication that a safe has been installed, either. However, it does involve some surgery. “It takes about an hour,” Kellerman says.

The safe’s keyhole is located under the console’s cupholders. Once unlocked, the console pivots up to allow easier access to the interior of the reinforced metal box.

Stay on track
Hardened 4x4ers will suggest that you haven’t earned your spurs unless you’ve performed a retrieval, or repaired a puncture, or both. They’re probably the same kind of people who believe that, if you aren’t getting stuck, you aren’t trying hard enough. One of the elementary principles of off -roading, particularly on yielding surfaces such as sand and mud, is that lowering tyre pressure aids traction. Effectively, less air pressure (don’t go lower than about 20 per cent below normal on rocks or mud, or below 1 bar on sand) allows the tyre casing to spread out more. This creates a bigger “footprint” – what the experts call improving the tyre’s flotation.

Of course, once back on a hard surface, you’ll need to pump it up again. Running a tyre while partially inflated seriously impairs roadholding and handling. It also generates heat that could lead to catastrophic tyre failure.

If you don’t mind backbreaking work, a hand pump is your cheapest reinflation option. Far better to invest in a portable compressor – they cost as little as a few hundred rand, although high-end models can cost several thousand. A good compromise is the 110 litres/minute PC ultra heavy-duty unit.

If you’re unfortunate enough to have spun your wheels too much and dug yourself into a hole, allow yourself a knowing smirk while your passengers charge off in search of rocks, branches and whatever else they think might provide better traction. You, on the other hand, will have remembered to pack the sand tracks. One of the more compact is the Ease Out from Back On Track. Essentially a pair of heavy vinyl bags, when filled with sand the Ease Out becomes a firm surface to enable you to drive out with minimum fuss. It’s also versatile: you can use the bags as a tree trunk protector and winch cable blanket when winching; as a mat; and as a storage bag. Alternatives include the rigid, rough-surfaced Peak Digger and the appropriately named Sand Tracks – essentially an extended rubber doormat that rolls up when not in use.

Which brings us to the other part of earning your spurs: repairing that puncture. All the bits and pieces you need for plugging a hole in an emergency are contained in the compact Back on Track repair kit (see “Fixing a hole”). Given the bother of making repairs in the field, there’s a strong case to be made for some precautionary measures. Linseed SA’s preventive tyre sealant is a fluid, injected in through the valve, that oozes out through small puncture holes, turns rubbery and forms a plug.

After all, it’s one thing to heed the call of the great outdoors – but you do want to return to the urban rat race sometime, don’t you?

  • The equipment featured in this month’s In Focus is available from Safari Centre, N1 Motor City, Cape Town (021-595 3910). You can find out more online at, or at one of the chain’s several branches in bigger centres.

Fixing a hole
Take it as a given that you’ll always have one puncture more than the number of spare tyres available. So, if a thorn-bush has poked through one of your Super Diggers, it’s a good idea to carry out an emergency repair. Fortunately, it’s really straightforward. The Back On Track repair kit has everything you need to seal up most minor punctures. Individual bits are available separately, though.

First, re-inflate the tyre, locate the puncture and remove the object. Put some solution on the reamer and insert it into the hole, reaming through the tyre with a screwing motion – in and out three times. Centre a plug in the slot of the inserting tool and lubricate it with solution. Now push the tool into the hole (with the ends of the plug showing towards the sides of the tyre), until about 15 mm of plug remains outside the tyre. Pull the tool straight out, inflate, and cut off the protruding seal. You’re good to go, but a permanent repair (a mushroom plug or patch) at a tyre specialist should follow as soon as possible.

Incidentally, it’s advisable to wear protective safety glasses when undertaking repairs.

For bigger holes, you’ll need to perform a dual path/plug two-piece repair. Proceed as for a normal emergency tyre repair, and cut off the plug excess inside the tyre. Buff the area around the puncture inside the tyre, cleaning it thoroughly with a lint-free cloth or brush. Apply a thin layer of solution to buffed area and allow it to dry.

To install a patch, first remove its rubberised backing, and then place it over the damaged area. Squeeze outwards from the centre of the patch to expel air. Finally, remove the cellophane cover strip.

A mushroom plug one-piece repair involves a similar story. After reaming and cleaning the area, including the inside, you’ll need to apply the solution using the reamer. Once it’s dry, remove the backing from a mushroom plug and insert it from the inside of the tyre. Grasping the plug’s protruding tip with pliers, pull it through the tyre and allow it to settle a few minutes before cutting off the excess plug.

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