Off-Road Check List: Rig Inspection (aka Did I Break Anything)

Whats the difference between wheeling a local 4×4 trail and an epic off-road adventure?  You check your rig the day before you wheel a local trail and fix it when you get back home, on an epic off-road adventure you check your rig every morning and fix it every night.

OK, so Conan has nothing to worry about from my stand-up, but there is a lot of truth in that joke.  Pilots know that you live and die by your check lists: prior to take-off, during flight and prior to landing.  The same is true in wheeling, especially if you will be dependent on your rig for a number of days, with no support in sight.

Sometimes with all the excitement and work of an off-road adventure it is easy to forget something (trust me, I’ve forgotten more than my share).  In order to reduce the chance of missing a potential problem, we now keep a laminated memory jogger checklist to help us stick to our inspection program before, during and after a day on the trail.

Pre-Trip / Daily – Rig Inspection

  1. Axles & Differentials – bolts, boots, clips, u-joints, grease points.  Check to ensure everything is tight and look for leaks or drips.
  2. Battery – clean terminals, check for damaged, corroded wiring. Check for loose connections.
  3. Brakes – drums, rotors, pads/shoes, fluid, hoses, leaks, check parking brake, brake lights.  Helps to have a second person pressing on the breaks while checking.
  4. Belts & Hoses – look for cracks or bulges. Ensure spares are packed in the parts bin.
  5. Body/Frame – look for cracks and rust.  Remove any sticks and debris caught up in the frame.
  6. Cooling/Heating system – look for leaks, fluid levels, clean and repair fins, check hoses and clamps, thermostat, radiator cap. Ensure leak repair kit is packed in parts bin.
  7. Communications – CB / ham radio, antenna broadcast and receive.
  8. Driveline/Transmission – inspect case and shifter, leaks, fluids, universal & CV joints, skid plates
  9. Engine – carburetor, fuel injectors, spark plugs, wires, PVC valve, pumps, distributor & wire, check for leaks and cracks, air filter (clean or replace).  Keep an eye out for loose wires and hoses.
  10. Exhaust – muffler, tailpipes (rust or holes or hanging). Check all hardware holding tailpipes in place.
  11. Fluids – oil, transmission, brake, radiator coolant, gear oils, wipers, power steering (check levels and color).  Ensure extra fluids packed in rig.
  12. Lights – headlights, brake lights, auxiliary lights; make sure they’re aimed properly.  Verify turn signals.  Ensure extra bulbs packed in parts bin.
  13. Steering – check alignment, fluid level, belts and hoses, pump and reservoir.  Look for leaks.  Check tie-rod boots for tears or rips.  Check all joints for play.
  14. Suspension – coil overs, springs, shocks, alignment, wheel bearings, steering linkage, control arms, pan bars.  Notice unusual play in components.
  15. Tires – tighten (torque) lug nuts, air pressure, tread wear (including your full-size spare), look for cuts and missing chunks, torque beadlock bolts.  Ensure auxiliary air pump or CO2 tank is operational and packed in the rig.
  16. Winch – free spool rope and inspect, rewind onto drum.  Check for loose connections and look for frayed rope or wires.
  17. Wipers – check for wear, fluid level.

Trail Head – Rig Inspection

Before you take off for the trail start the engine and inspect the following with while the rig warms up:

  1. Fuel level – check fuel gauge ensuring level is on full (plan for next fuel stop if necessary).
  2. Voltage – check voltage gauge for proper level.
  3. Oil pressure – check oil pressure gauge for proper pressure.
  4. Engine RPMs – check tachometer to ensure smooth maintained engine idle speed.  Listen for misfires and unusual engine noise.  (you should know your rig’s personality including how its engine sounds normally)
  5. Temperature – check temperature gauge to see proper operation and coolant temperature.
  6. Transfer case – ensure transfer case engages in 4 wheel high and 4 wheel low as well as disengages smoothly.
  7. Traction control – test that the rear locker engages correctly. Test A-trac (or front locker) for proper engagement.  Make sure the disengage as well.
  8. Load – ensure load is properly secured.  Check hi-lift jack, shovel and any exterior mounted items.
  9. Walk around – make one last walk around the rig.  Look for any item left out.  Ensure valve stem caps are screwed on after airing down.  Check that nothing was left resting on the spare, bumper, hood or roof.

If you are on a multi-day off-road adventure stop early enough so that you can fully inspect your rig for damage while the sun is still out.  Stopping early also gives you enough daylight to see what you are doing if repairs are needed.  Tip: remember fluid levels change based on the engine temperature always read against the appropriate level marks.

While a checklist wont prevent breakage, it will go a long way to lessening potential problems.  By catching leaks, tears and loose bolts early on, you can hopefully avoid finding yourself trying to reconnect a break line while standing in axle deep mud.  But just in case all hell breaks loose… carry lots of duct tape.

Transfer Case Oil Change How To

On an off-road adventure in a 4WD vehicle, the transfer case distributes the power front and back.  The 2007  Toyota  FJ  Cruiser  maintenance  schedule, shows that Toyota recommends changing the gear oil in the transfer case every 30,000 miles depending on usage.

Sure you can bring your rig into the local shop but changing the transfer case’s gear oil yourself is an easy maintenance activity that can be completed by any back yard mechanic. Besides saving money, you will also learn a little more about your 4×4 adventure vehicle which can only help when your on the trail.

We checked our 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser owners manual and found we would need 1.5 quarts of Hypoid gear oil API GL-5 (Toyota Recommends oil viscosity: SAE 75W-90).  We went with Amsoil Severe Gear SAE 75W-90 synthetic extreme pressure lubricant, formulated for sever duty applications.  If you are curious why we picked Amsoil, read this gear oil comparison.

We also grabbed new gaskets for the fill and drain plugs as well as a funnel with flexible tube (Hopkins FloTool 10704 Spill Saver Measu-Funnel) for getting the thick gooey oil into the transfer case.  The only tools needed are a oil catch pan, 24 millimeter socket, ratchet and a torque wrench.

Start by putting the rig on a flat, level spot to ensure good draining and proper refill. Tip: clean around the transfer case with soapy water and a scrub brush to remove the road and trail gunk.  This will prevent any dirt from falling in to the case while changing the oil.

Using the 24mm socket remove the fill plug located in the middle(ish) of the transfer case.  By removing the fill plug first, the housing will be able to breath allowing the gear oil to drain more quickly.

With the oil catch pan in place remove the drain plug, located on the bottom of the transfer case, using the same 24mm socket. If your going to use gloves, this is the time to wear them.

Once the oil is fully drained, wipe the area clean and re-insert the drain plug with a new gasket and hand tighten.  Set the torque correctly on your torque wrench and tighten down the drain plug.  The Toyota maintenance manual states the torque specifications for both the drain and fill plugs as 27 foot pounds for our 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Remember that funnel with flexible tube?  Getting the oil out of the bottle and into the transfer case through that little hole can be tricky.  One of the advantages of the Hopkins FloTool 10704 Spill Saver Measu-Funnel is that the flexible tube funnel cap will screw directly on to the Amsoil quart bottles.  The cap has an open and close position preventing spills as you position the bottle and hose into place.

Squeezing out thick gear oil through the tube takes awhile.  It works best if you give the quart bottle a few long squeezes and than allow air to flow back into the bottle followed by a few more good squeezes.

The transfer case on our 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser holds 1.5 quarts.  Checking the fill level on flat ground is easy.  The oil should begin to run out or be just about to run out (within 5mm of the fill opening).

Hand tighten the fill plug with a new gasket followed by torquing down the plug to Toyota specifications (27 ft./lbf for the 2007 FJ Cruiser).

Once everything is buttoned up, give the plugs one more wipe down and check for leaks followed by a drive around the block.  Double check for drips and leaks when the test drive is complete.

Keeping the power distributed to the front and rear axles in key in a 4×4 vehicle.  Ensuring the transfer case continues to do its job takes only a little maintenance in the form of an oil change.  Changing the gear oil in the transfer case of a Toyota FJ Cruiser is a simple maintenance job anyone can do with a few tools, a little know how and about 60 minutes.

Don’t forget to change the oil in the rear differential too while your at it. You can learn how with our rear differential oil change how to video.

Off-Road Adventure Christmas List

What would the Christmas season be without lists of cool off-road adventure stuff we hope to find under the tree when we come running down the stairs.  Like a giddy teenage boy on prom night believing anything is possible, we checked all around, asked friends and searched out the Internet for cool gifts and this is our ultimate 4×4 adventure Christmas list.

  • MSR XGK EX Extreme Condition Stove: This small stove is capable of blast furnace output and will boil water in under three minutes (kerosene fuel).  Easily serviceable in the field, this is the stove to bring along on a three month adventure into the Himalayas or an over night camping trip in the Hundred Acre Woods.
  • Maxtrax Vehicle Extraction: There are times a winch isn’t practical such as alone on the sand or snow field with nothing to anchor too.  Sure you can pull the spare tire, dig a hole and build a dead-man anchor or you can pull out Maxtrax, set them in place and drive on out.  Maxtrax makes vehicle recovery an easy one-man job.
  • Petzl E99 PG Tikka XP 2 Headlamp: You can never…  NEVER… have enough headlamps within easy reach.  Whether you’re making a rig inspection on the trail, gathering fire wood, finishing a late night field repair, trying to find stuff in your tent or looking for the perfect tree to relieve yourself after dark, a hands free light is a must.  And just to be clear, one headlamp is not enough.  Spelunkers bring a light, a backup light and a backup to their backup…  as a minimum.  Keep one or two in the rig, one with your camping gear, one with the cooking equipment, one in the emergency kit…  you get the idea…  Don’t forget lots of spare batteries with each.
  • ARB Fridge Freezer: There is nothing like pulling out a steak for dinner along with a cold drink on day five of an off-road adventure.  And what would single malt scotch be without ice as you sit around the fire with a fine cigar.  The ARB fridge freezer is a 12 volt, low amp draw solution to a cooler full of melted ice sloshing around in the back filled with soggy groceries.
  • Pelican 1630 Case: What better way to be ready to go on a adventure than always having your gear packed in waterproof cases waiting to be strapped to the roof or stowed in the back of the pickup.  These cases will keep everything inside dry and safe from the shocks and knocks of the road.  In the unlikely event of an emergency water landing, the Pelican Case will double as a flotation device.
  • SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger: Hula Betty gets a little anxious when we’re off the grid for several days.  The Spot lets you send an “OK” message telling folks you’re fine and not to worry.  And just in case your not ok, the Spot will let you send out an “SOS” with your exact GPS coordinates to the authorities, alerting them that you need help.  The Spot is satellite based so no worries if cell coverage is non-existence.
  • Gerber EVO Jr. Serrated Edge Knife: Remember how your grandfather always had a pocket knife on his belt.  He was prepared for any task that came up.  We’re not talking about a rebuild your engine multi-tool or a gator skinning 18 inch Rambo saber blade.  No, just a simple pocket knife with a good sharp blade that will effortlessly cut parachute cord, slice cleanly through a wad of duct tape or whittle a good sharp stick.  In the hands of anyone who understands the versatility of a pocket knife, the uses are endless.
  • 12-by-20 Super Heavy-Duty Tarp: What can you make out of a tarp?  How about a brooch, a hat, a pterodactyl… The uses for a tarp are up there with a good pocket knife or duct tape.  Many times when on an adventure we’ve turned a tarp into a makeshift shelter staying dry when the weather turned worse than expected.  A tarp also makes an excellent awning for an afternoon siesta or keeping the camp kitchen dry while cooking up a pot of chorizo chili.
  • Kermit Chair: Sure there are hundreds of camp chairs you can pick up at any supper store.  Hell, just look in the back of any soccer mom’s minivan and you’ll find half a dozen different choices.  But none of them are particularly comfortable.  The Kermit Chair lets you pack tight, without giving up on comfort, design and beauty.  No more slouchy seats and squishy backs that you slump into.  These chairs support your tired body as you relax around the fire.  These guys pay attention to details, the add-on cup holder, it took over a year to develop.
  • Wool Blanket: We always have an emergency kit in the rig where ever we go; work, grocery store, skying, or the Arctic.  And in that kit are two wool blankets.  Unlike cotton, wool blankets keep you warm even when they are wet.  They also make great insulated padding when your sleeping on the cold hard ground.  You can even do your best Clint Eastwood imitation (anyone remember “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”) turning it into a poncho if you have to hike out.
  • Chaser Off-Road Trailer: A fully equipped off-road adventure trail with 46 cubic feet of storage, lots of ground clearance to keep up with the rig, fold out trailer top tent, separate deep cycle battery with solar charging panel for running a fridge and electronic gadgets, fold out kitchen or work area, 19 gallon water tank…  This is roughing it easy.  While it might be a stretch to shove under the tree but you could always leave it in the driveway and set a tree on top.
  • Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter:  If you plan on a long off-road adventure, eventually you will come to the conclusion that you can not carry all the water you need.  Depending on were you are exploring you will find all sorts of nasty critters swimming around in the local water source (even if it comes out of a tap or clear mountain creek).  The Katadyn Pocket Filter will remove all giardia, fungi, parasites, cholera, typhoid, cryptosporidia, salmonella and other harmful bacteria, parasites, and germs by forcing the water through its ceramic 0.2 micron filtration element.  This is the water filter that is standard issue for international Red Cross field workers.
  • Where Is Joe Merchant? A Novel Tale: We all know I’m not much of a speller…  you’ve read this blog right?  Not much of a reader either…  Dyslexics untie!  But for any die hard Parrot Head this one is a must…  Frank Bama takes off on an adventure in his sea plane to find his ex-girlfriend’s brother, the notorious rock star Joe Merchant.  More a collection of short stories that expand on many of the “Fruit Cakes” song lyrics.  If this doesn’t get you in the mood for an adventure nothing will.
  • Danner Quarry GTX 6 Boots:  Hunting down firewood, hustling up hills to take a baring, running out a winch line, digging for buried treasure or kicking down doors to save the Swedish bikini full-contact origami team requires a sturdy set of boots .  More twisted ankles, bruised toes and blistered feet occur because of flimsy footwear.  Out on the trail is not the place to show off your pedicure in flip flops. Traipsing around in the bush with blisters is low on entertainment value and no way to go through life.  A good set of boots will keep your feet cozy, ankles supported and possibly save you from a snake bite.

This list could go on forever, but Santa only has so much room in his sleigh…  I wonder if it has 4WD… Maybe he should get a Defender 110 or how about a Land Cruiser FJ45.

What’s on your list?  Tell us your great ideas for gear under the tree, stuffed into a stocking or sitting out in the driveway.