After a long, adventure-filled day of off-roading for work or play, it’s always best to give your four-wheel-drive vehicle a thorough inspection before getting back on the road. This is important to ensure your safety and the vehicle’s reliability—after all, at the end of the day, we all have to get back home.
Quick note first: Do understand that this article is written for owners of real 4WD off-road vehicles, not for those whose SUVs are car-based crossovers. These days, many true 4x4s need not have ladder-frame chassis anymore. Such is the case with the all-new Land Rover Defender, but that vehicle has been designed from the ground up for off-road use. It’s not a sedan-based high-riding crossover pretending to be a 4x4.
On to the main feature now. Here’s a list of things to be checked on your 4x4 after an off-road jaunt:
Look into the condition of your brake lines. Normally, these rubber or steel lines where brake fluid passes through are tucked from harm’s way, but as you’re trail bashing, the retaining clips or tie-downs keeping them in place could get broken. The lines may snag on rocks or brush, resulting in a slow leak. A fast leak will be noticeable immediately, whereas a slow one will give you a false sense of security and may get you in trouble at the most inopportune time.
2) Engine compartment
In the engine compartment, check for leaks from the power-steering pump and hoses (if your vehicle’s power steering is a hydraulic system). Look for slow leaks, too, in the cooling system—undetected, they may cause a catastrophic engine failure due to overheating.
If you have not installed a wading kit, it’s always best to inspect your engine and transmission oil for contaminants. If you’ve just done some really serious water crossing or if you’ve been driving through fine sand—or, in our case, volcanic dust—have the differential axle lubricated as soon as you can to avoid bearing failure. Drain and replace fluids as soon as possible.
3) Electrical wirings
For older vehicles that have seen a lot of trail time, it is best to check electrical wirings regularly to see if their insulation coating has not been rubbing on steel body parts. If an electrical fire breaks out because of this, you might end up walking home minus your 4x4.
Always inspect your tires for sidewall lumps immediately after an off-road drive. This means the sidewall carcass is already broken, and it’s just a matter of time before the tire bursts.
5) Unusual vibrations
Pay close attention to any vibrations that weren’t there before you hit the trails. These shakes and shudders could have been caused by a number of things: broken engine or transmission supports, misaligned wheels (especially on vehicles with independent front suspension setups), damaged propeller shafts, or unbalanced tires due to balancing weights getting knocked off the wheels. Mud buildup inside the wheels will definitely get your wheels and tires unbalanced, too, and cause some mild to serious wobbling when you’re back on the road.
6) Rubber components
Especially on high-mileage vehicles, inspect the rubber components used to insulate the undercarriage components to ensure there is no metal-to-metal rubbing.
If this article is beginning to make you think twice of going off the beaten path in your relatively new 4x4 that you’re still paying off, remember that rough conditions are what this type of vehicle is designed for. Scratches and dents on the finish are part of the game, and despite the most diligent driving, they can only be minimized, not avoided.
Failure to accept these risks may indicate that off-roading may not be the kind of recreational activity for you. Do understand that a lot of people subject their four-wheel-drive vehicles to this kind of use, not abuse, because it’s part of their job in fields like mining, surveying, and so on. If you do have to use your vehicle in difficult conditions and are concerned about the warranty, read your owner’s manual and understand the limitations of your vehicle’s warranty.