Check it and Check it Again; Make it Home Safe
You probably do a good job of inspecting your vehicle before each 4WD outing. After all, you’re concerned about possible breakdowns while on the trails. But does your vehicle get the same level of attention at the end of the trip? Drivers often are anxious to leave. They figure they’ll inspect it once they get home.
Fact is, you should inspect your vehicle after every trip. Short and long routes. Easy and challenging trails. It’s important to verify that your vehicle is prepared to make the journey home. The goal is to get home safely: not to make repairs best done in your shop at home.
The two major things you want to know is that you can steer and stop the vehicle. (Cover pictures is a result of a broken track bar at 60 MPH on the highway.)
Use a methodology for your inspection. That is, a systematic approach or process. It should have specific duties, ensure the vehicle receives a thorough inspection, and is repeatable. Use a checklist if you feel more comfortable.
My process is to divide it into three major steps:
- Walk around the outside (do the “360”). Inspect the outside and underneath.
- Look under the hood.
- Inspect the inside of the vehicle.
Develop a pattern you follow – top to bottom, front to back, and/ or left to right.
Go through this entire process often. While this article is in response to a recent question “What should I inspect after a trip”, it is a great process to follow before the trip. The goal is to burn the vehicle into your memory; create muscle memory. The goal is to be so familiar with the vehicle when it’s in good working order you’ll notice even the smallest issue.
Understand that it will take dozens & dozens of inspections to become really familiar with your vehicle. If it’s a newer vehicle, it could be awhile before you see a problem. But be patient. Follow these steps religiously, and each post-trip inspection will be done properly. Have you done it 100 times & found nothing? Keep doing it!
Inspect the outside, top to bottom
Begin with the 360 walk around. You’re looking for significant issues and damage. Look for anything loose or hanging down, particularly under the vehicle.
Smashed tail pipe had to be cut off after prying it opening twice.
Check that the tail pipe is not crushed flat.
Watch for a puddle or dripping under the vehicle. If the liquid has a pink or green color, smells like oil or gear oil, you’ll need to take a closer look under the engine. Don’t be alarmed if you see clear liquid. It’s probably condensation from the air conditioning.
Not good – Rear control arm is missing some metal.
Now get down to ground level and closely inspect underneath.
Look behind each tire. Any liquid running down? You could have a cracked brake line.
Inspect the tires for cuts or bulges.
Broken lug nut probably a result of loose lug nuts.
Test the lug nuts. Tighten any that are loose.
Missing nuts and bolts will jump out at you after many inspections but loose or slightly loose will be difficult to see. You need hands on and a wrench to find these problems.
Legendary four-wheeler Del Albright wrote a great article about inspecting your vehicle after a trip. You can read it here.
Have someone wiggle the steering wheel and look at each tie rod end for play. Be sure to check the connection to the pitman arm and don’t forget to check the sector shaft for bent or twisted. Check the bolts to the steering gear box.
Check the nuts and bolts on the suspension system. Tighten any loose nuts. It’s not uncommon for nuts to fall off shock absorbers. Replace missing ones from your supply of spare parts.
Have you been playing in the mud? When mud splashed onto the radiator dries, it plugs up the cooling. Blow the dried mud out of the fins with your compressor on the trail and power wash it at home.
If you drove in snow or in a muddy/dirty environment, clean the windows, brake lights, and headlights.
Look specifically at the bottom of the differential cover (on solid axles) for leaks or seeps. If the bottom cover is bent, hammer it back and check the fluid level. If it is a seep, tighten the differential cover bolts and check the fluid. In both cases, make a full assessment and repair or replace the diff cover and seal at home.
Finally, inspect the gear on the top of your vehicle. Make sure the tool boxes, firewood, camping gear, and everything else are latched and secured.
Pop the hood for a look
What is all this stuff?
You don’t need to be a mechanic, as you’re looking for obvious problems. Check fluid levels in the master cylinder and radiator overflow tank. Most vehicles now have clear bottles, so it is easy to make a quick visual check of fluid levels. Carry a few bottles of each critical fluid. A very low level, requires additional inspection for possible root cause.
Use a hands-on approach. Put your hand on each cap. Give all tank caps a light twist. Inspect the battery and cables. Try to lightly twist each clamp and gently pull up. The cables should be tight to the terminals, and the battery still secure in its carriage. Inspect all the hoses and belts. Are they in good shape and attached firmly?
Make sure the vacuum hoses are still connected. That’s one of those items that jumps out at you if you inspect your vehicle repeatedly. A quick glance will tell you whether they’re still on the nipples.
On a very dusty trail, shake out the air filter.
Clear the inside of the vehicle
Test the foot brake. If you recently drove through water, the brakes and rotors will be a little slippery. As you depart, tap on the brakes a couple times to dry them.
Make sure everything is put away and secured. In a difficult recovery, lots of gear is moved and pulled out. Your vehicle might have been off camber and difficult to access all storage areas. Now take the time to stow it properly where it should be. And that it’s secure. You don’t want this stuff flying around during the drive back.
If need be, properly rearrange the navigation equipment, communication equipment, safety equipment, recovery equipment, and food. Check your fuel, too. Do you have enough to get back?
A thorough inspection is important after every 4WD excursion. You will notice problems before you hit the road. But even if there aren’t any problems, the regular inspection builds that muscle memory – the detailed familiarity with your vehicle that is so useful.
Use a methodology for your inspection. That is, a systematic process that can be followed dozens and even hundreds of time. You can use Del’s and my methodology if you like.
This is not a substitute for a thorough inspection at home after you clean it removing all dirt and mud. A clean vehicle and engine allows a better inspection.
But remember that some issues can’t be seen. No external inspection, for example, will detect metal fatigue that’s about to happen somewhere. Therefore, problems can and will occur while four-wheeling. But a process like this keeps you a little ahead of the curve.
Coil spring broke. No inspection would find the start of that dark spot.
Make it home safe; check your vehicle (again, and again).
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