Steven Merrill reveals his extensive preparations for a long-term, off-road, and off-the-grid truck camping experience. Step one, serious preventative rig maintenance.
Have you dreamed of taking your truck camper rig out for a long term adventure including off-pavement travel? Do you know how to prepare for a multi-week or even multi-month trip that goes beyond the asphalt? Here’s a hint: there’s a lot more to it than weekend campground stays. A lot more.
Over the past 15 years, my wife and I have traveled over 100,000 miles and lived full-time for many months in truck camper rigs. Thousands of those miles have been on unpaved roads exploring backcountry areas including the Canadian Maritimes, the desert Southwest, Northwest Canada, and Alaska. During these experiences, I have made my share of mistakes and learned some very important lessons.
There is an old saying that goes, “When you go on a trip; you either have great times or great stories”. While breakdowns and disasters may make for an entertaining stories for friends when you return home, they are not fun when you are in the midst of them.
With this article, my goal is to help you keep your stories about the great adventures you had rather than the calamities you survived. If you’re well prepared, you’ll have the confidence to not only enjoy the backcountry with confidence, but return safely. Let’s get prepared.
Step 1: Preventative Truck Maintenance
You need to go through your truck thoroughly before you leave on your extended trip. Start by looking at your preventative maintenance schedule including engine oil and filters, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, tire wear, tire pressure, tire rotations, and brake system inspection (hoses, pads, fluids).
Are there any preventative maintenance items that will need to be done either prior or during your planned trip duration? For example, if you are near a service interval for your transmission fluid, change it ahead of time. This is better than attempting to find a service center on the road, or neglecting to get this important service done on time.
My most recent trip was over 17,000 miles. Before the trip, I checked my preventative maintenance schedule and changed the transmission fluid, transfer case fluid, fuel filter, air filter, and serpentine belt. I also greased the chassis and U-joints and checked all other fluid levels.
The only maintenance items my truck required during the trip were tire rotations and oil changes. I usually rotate tires and change the oil at home, but I didn’t want to carry the messy equipment with me.
Change Your Serpentine Belt
You can have all of the above preventative maintenance items done by a local mechanic, but I strongly recommend folks change their serpentine belt themselves no matter what the age of the serpentine belt. The serpentine belt drives your water pump and alternator and you will not get far without one.
The difficulty of changing serpentine belts varies by vehicle but pickup truck serpentine belts are easier than most. My advice is to change your serpentine belt at home so you’re not doing it for the first time on a dirt two-track in the mud. I then recommend bringing the old serpentine belt (or a new replacement) with you.
I don’t carry many spare filters and other things for my pickup, but I always carry a spare serpentine belt. Other items, like a fuel filter, are not likely to break while you are out, but even the toughest belt may fail at an unexpected time.
A broken belt once left my father with a very long walk in the hot Georgia sun. I have also seen a new pickup break a serpentine belt in the Arizona desert 90 miles from any kind of service. Knowing how to replace your serpentine belt and having a spare serpentine belt ready is a simple and essential way to be prepared to take your pickup into the backcountry.
Don’t Leave Home Without Checking Your Hoses
You should also take a close look at your coolant hoses. Are any of the hoses swollen or soft to the touch? Are they more than five years old? If so, you should change these hoses before your trip. If you are not sure how to do this, Gates has an excellent online resource to help you with this.
A broken coolant hose will strand you as surely as a broken serpentine belt. Changing coolant hoses ahead of time will help prevent a breakdown, and give you an opportunity to check out the rest of your cooling system, and refill the system with fresh coolant.
If your radiator is marginal, this is also a good time to replace it or have it flushed. You will be traveling with a heavy load and may be going up long steep grades. This will challenge your cooling system to the max. I have been fortunate to not lose a hose in the backcountry, but I have changed them on the roadside a few times.