How To Prepare And Maintain A Car For A 50,000 Mile Road Trip Around The World

From a man who quit his job and hit the road...for years

Image for article titled How To Prepare And Maintain A Car For A 50,000 Mile Road Trip Around The World
Photo: Dan Grec

Setting out to drive across continents is nothing like hitting your local off road park or exploring Death Valley for the weekend. In the last decade I’ve driven over 100,000 miles through 55 countries, so I have some experience in these matters. Careful preparation and regular maintenance of my Jeeps meant I was able to pull-off my overlanding expeditions without any major mechanical issues — not even one. How did I manage that? Read on.

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Before we dive in, let’s back up a bit. I’m Dan Grec. In 2009 I realized sitting at a desk wasn’t making me happy, so I quit my job and drove 40,000 miles from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina through 17 countries in a $5,000 Jeep Wrangler.

Torres Del Paine in Southern Patagonia
Torres Del Paine in Southern Patagonia
Image: Dan Grec

I became addicted to overlanding and the freedom it brought, so I saved like a madman and did it all again. In 2015 I quit my new job and built my ultimate Jeep house-on-wheels, which I drove 54,000 miles all the way around the coast of Africa through 35 different countries. That trip took three years and was a thousand times more adventure than even I knew was possible on planet Earth.

Here’s me crossing the Congo — an intense week I’ll never forget:

Unlike your weekend off-road trip, on a multi-month or multi-year expedition to the far corners of the globe you won’t have friends and other vehicles for support. You’ll be tens of thousands of miles from the nearest NAPA, and you’re not likely to find diagnostic computers or four-post lifts at the village mechanic. In fact, it’s much more likely you’ll find oil-stained dirt floors and few tools more than vice grips, baling wire and, if you’re lucky, maybe even be a stick welder. What you will certainly find is friendly locals with plenty of ingenuity to overcome problems.

Waiting at the border from Morocco into Mauritania after driving through an active minefield.
Waiting at the border from Morocco into Mauritania after driving through an active minefield.
Image: Dan Grec

All of that means you’ll have to be smart about how you prepare.

Don’t Over-Build Your Vehicle

On both of my major expeditions — from Alaska to Argentina on the Pan-American Highway and around the entire African continent — my goal was tens of thousands of miles of reliable travel on the worst roads on the planet. When battling endless mud in the Congo I really did want traction to be the first (and only) thing I broke. I’d much rather pull out the winch line or even slog away with my shovel for a few hours than deal with broken driveline components. With that in mind I don’t consider 37 inch mudders, superchargers or anything else that compromises reliability appropriate for long-term expeditions. Factory reliability can only decrease with each modification, so I never modify the driveline, engine and other key systems.

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The Jeep Wrangler “TJ” I drove to Argentina was bone stock, and with a ground tent, camping stove, a box of food and a bag of clothes I hit the road on what turned out to be the biggest adventure of my life — up until that point.

I love camping, though living in a ground tent for two years through Latin America got a bit old, and now I can’t stand the sight of ramen noodles and oats thanks to eating them literally every single day.

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Laguna Verde in the Atacama Desert, Boliva
Laguna Verde in the Atacama Desert, Boliva
Image: Dan Grec

With that in mind I added a lot of creature comforts to the Jeep Wrangler “JK” I drove around Africa, though it’s important to point out that none of them are actually essential — they simply meant I thoroughly enjoyed the years on the road rather than just tolerating them.

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My house on wheels for three years around Africa
My house on wheels for three years around Africa
Image: Dan Grec

A popup roof provided interior living space and a warm, dry and comfortable bed out of reach of hungry African carnivores. A fridge and kitchen meant I could cook and eat much fresher food, and a drinking water tank, filtration setup and UV treatment gave me an endless supply of safe drinking water - essential to any African adventure.

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Replace Common Wear Parts Before You Leave Using Quality Components

A new starter is always a good idea
A new starter is always a good idea
Image: Dan Grec
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Before leaving home I replace common wear items so I won’t need to think about them again. Ball joints, alternators, starters and hoses should easily last 100,000 miles, so by replacing them before the trip even starts I don’t have to think about them on the road. Quality tires can be hard to source around the world and can be astronomically expensive, so I always start out with five new ones and plan ahead for a country where I’ll be able to replace them.

Don’t Bring Spares Of Parts That You Can Easily Avoid Breaking Or That You Can Rebuild

It’s important to remember that serious failures like breaking an axle shaft are exceedingly rare on a long expedition — after all vehicle preservation is much more important than conquering the biggest rock pile. Given the choice, I’ll drive around that rock pile or the deepest mud pit ten times out of ten when far from home. Axle shafts are also big and heavy, and eat up precious payload I’d rather use for food, water and camping equipment so I will enjoy my adventures into the wild.

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In terms of spares, I always have to remind myself that many items can be re-built quickly and cheaply by crafty locals. An alternator or starter will work as good as new after a few hours of cleaning and re-building, so I’ve never been tempted to carry one. Instead I prefer to carry only essential parts that are relatively small and light, easy to replace and would be complete showstoppers in the event of a failure. I carry radiator and heater hoses, clamps, fuses and relays, a serpentine belt, an assortment of wires, u-joints and plenty of oil and fluids.

Steel Wheels Over Aluminum Ones

Of course no vehicle can move without four round tires, so I carry tools and spares like valve stems, lug nuts and even wheel studs so I can be sure wheels and tires won’t let me down. Along those same lines I’ve never considered lightweight aluminum wheels a good idea - if they crack it will be virtually impossible to repair them in remote locations. Instead I run steel wheels because they’re virtually indestructible. In the event of damage I could beat them back into shape with a sledge hammer, or even have them welded with any old stick welder.

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All my vehicles have an ARB Air compressor hard mounted under the hood so I can easily air up repaired tires. This has the added benefit of being quick and easy to use, which encourages me to air down when needed to make corrugations easier on the vehicle and all my equipment.

Bring A Good Tool Set, Get To Know Your Vehicle Before You Go

I also spend significant time accumulating a good sized tool kit. Of course I have socket sets in multiple drive sizes, crescent wrenches, pliers, cutters and all the generic stuff, but the part that is really important to focus on is the odd-ball tools specific to your vehicle.

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To change the oil in my 6-speed standard Wrangler I need a huge 17mm Allen key that has been cut down to fit around the exhaust. Similarly, to remove the front hubs I need a massive 35mm socket. These are the kind of tools that would be impossible to find in certain parts of the world, so it’s important to spend the time and do all the work and maintenance on your vehicle before you leave home so you can accumulate all these tools in your bag.

For the only time in 100,000 miles of expedition I took out the tools and worked on the Jeep on the side of the road - removing the front driveshaft after the joint failed.
For the only time in 100,000 miles of expedition I took out the tools and worked on the Jeep on the side of the road - removing the front driveshaft after the joint failed.
Image: Dan Grec
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Maintenance on the road is also very different from what you’re probably familiar with. With no access to my usual driveway to complete simple tasks like oil changes, I’ve had to improvise many times. From Colombia to Angola, Kenya to Alaska, I’ve changed engine oil on the side of the road, in workshops, gas stations and campgrounds. Of course there are vehicles in every country, so it’s never difficult to buy the oil you need. Even with a language barrier it’s always easy enough to see ‘10W30’ written on a container, and car people are car people all over the world, so they’re always happy to help however they can.

These guys had been waiting a week for parts to arrive - they had broken a con rod
These guys had been waiting a week for parts to arrive - they had broken a con rod
Image: Dan Grec
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Image for article titled How To Prepare And Maintain A Car For A 50,000 Mile Road Trip Around The World
Image: Dan Grec
The troublesome con rod in question. They were planning to reinstall that clutch after scuffing it with a rock.
The troublesome con rod in question. They were planning to reinstall that clutch after scuffing it with a rock.
Image: Dan Grec
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In much of the world, stores that sell oil also have facilities to change it, usually a pit or concrete ramps. More often than not the price of the oil includes someone to change it for you. I much prefer to do my own work to ensure it’s done properly, and mechanics at gas stations all over the world have been happy to play with their cell phone while I climb around under my Jeep.

Changing the engine oil at a gas station in Cameroon - the attendant played with his phone until the camera came out
Changing the engine oil at a gas station in Cameroon - the attendant played with his phone until the camera came out
Image: Dan Grec
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During my routine 6,000 mile services I also perform a five tire rotation, giving me a great chance to check over the brakes and suspension. It’s reassuring to make sure everything is straight and still bolted together as it should be. While I’m in there I grease the u-joints, balls joins and anything else I can find with a grease nipple.

A tire rotation in remote Angola - sometimes you just have to make do with what you’ve got
A tire rotation in remote Angola - sometimes you just have to make do with what you’ve got
Image: Dan Grec
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If You Do It Right, You Could Go 50,000 Hard Miles Without Any Major Failures

Both of my vehicles performed flawlessly, never once failing to start or leaving me stranded. In Latin America I never once turned a wrench beyond routine maintenance, and with careful planning in Africa I was able to buy worn items at Jeep dealers and aftermarket garages in South Africa, which has significant Jeep presence.

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I replaced the windscreen after it was badly cracked by a huge rock in West Africa, the tires, a tie rod end, brake pads, the cv-style joint on the front driveshaft and the front u-joints because I hadn’t been greasing them properly. I also replaced my 0.5 micron water filter which had clearly been doing a good job, and re-applied waterproofing treatment to the canvas on my popup roof.

Rear pads clearly in need of a change after driving the length of West Africa
Rear pads clearly in need of a change after driving the length of West Africa
Image: Dan Grec
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I pulled the front axle shafts to replace the u-joints in South Africa
I pulled the front axle shafts to replace the u-joints in South Africa
Image: Dan Grec
Replacing the u-joints at a farm in South Africa
Replacing the u-joints at a farm in South Africa
Image: Dan Grec
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A torn boot on the tie rod end necessitated a change
A torn boot on the tie rod end necessitated a change
Image: Dan Grec
Replacing the a joint on the front driveshaft in Kenya was straightforward enough
Replacing the a joint on the front driveshaft in Kenya was straightforward enough
Image: Dan Grec
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Removing the old joint - a lack of grease killed it
Removing the old joint - a lack of grease killed it
Image: Dan Grec

Many people assume an expedition around the world means being entirely self-sufficient, when in fact I’ve found the opposite to be true. Whether they’re in the Congo or Honduras, locals around the world are experts at solving vehicle problems, and will gladly lend any assistance you might need.

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With some forethought and preventative maintenance, there’s no reason to expect a major failure, but even if it happens, it will just be part of the adventure. After all, some of my most memorable experiences around the world happened when everything went wrong.

Buying gas from Containers in Brazzaville, the capital of Rep. Congo due to a country-wide shortage
Buying gas from Containers in Brazzaville, the capital of Rep. Congo due to a country-wide shortage
Image: Dan Grec
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For more tales of far away travels, follow adventurer Dan Grec on YouTube and Instagram @theroadchoseme.
https://www.instagram.com/theroadchoseme/

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DISCUSSION

By
HammerheadFistpunch

Great stuff Dan, all the kinds of practical advice you won’t find from weekend warriors and those new to the sport that equate overlanding with bolting the maximum amount of gear onto an expensive car.

I can’t say I agree on the steel wheel thing, but I know its a popular opinion.  I’ve only broken one alloy wheel and it was crashing into a rock at highway speeds when the driver fell asleep.  I realize the comment about the repairability is true, but I’ve just never actually seen it be a problem.  That is to say that there are a lot of full time travelers who have never broken a wheel in years.  Steel wheels just seem like they would be more trouble to balance, more prone to damage (though repairable) and generally less desirable overall.