Tales from the Trails: What to Do When Things Go Wrong
From minor mishaps to major vehicle catastrophes, we’ve all been through them. Some off-road enthusiasts, like us, have had to grin and bear it several times.
My husband and I navigated through many messy misfires together. Although some were due to a vehicle’s age or parts that gave up, others were new product failures while traveling to (or at) major off-road events. We may have cursed or felt defeated but we learned a lot. Navigating vehicle failures can be tricky, but they can also be rewarding and enrich your overall experience with your rig.
Upon returning back from Overland Expo West in Arizona, our 1995 Suzuki Sidekick (aka The Teal Terror) started notably losing power in California (while en route to Portland, Oregon). My husband, Andy, checked the newly replaced fuel filter but it was clean. We troubleshot a bit more and finally noticed the catalytic converter was plugged up.
So, after deliberations, we pulled it off and drove eight long hours with it off, and a broken driver's side window stuck in the up position—not fun. This seemed to help a bit with power. It certainly sounded like it helped. However, once we returned home and replaced it we noticed it felt sluggish again, even around town. Even more lethargic than its 95hp self usually was.
A month later, we cautiously departed for the NW Overland Rally in Plain, WA. We hooked up our little Dinoot trailer and headed out, deciding to gamble on this several hundred mile on-road trek. There were some early signs that it might not make it; the Sidekick could barely make it up the on-ramp to Interstate 5 as we left. But, so be it—we decided to go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? We were committed to be at the event and only had one off-road vehicle at the time. Plus, that was the only rig with trailer hitch that allowed us to sleep in our rooftop tent.
We noticed a big power loss about a quarter of the way there. Long story short, we literally coasted to our end destination because we had almost zero power. The Teal Terror was toast. There was no driving it back home, or even out of the event. Thank goodness for awesome friends and flexible attitudes. Because of them, we were able to line up a flatbed trailer to cart our Sidekick back home. It’s amazing how many people will work for beer, gas money or even dinner!
After much research and tearing into the engine, Andy found the culprit. The woodruff key, which is used to center the timing gear on the crankshaft, had broken. This threw off the engine timing, so it was not making enough power. Fortunately for us, this was only a five dollar part. To fix this, he got a new one at the hardware store, along with high-temperature metal-bonding epoxy to reseat the key. Once reseated, it was as good as new. It turns out there was a TSB (technical service bulletin) that required mechanics to re-torque the bolt on the crankshaft pulley to a higher specification to prevent this issue, but our Sidekick never received this fix.
A couple years ago, we drove our not-so-trusty 2001 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) from Portland, Oregon down to Las Vegas for an off-road drive event that would eventually get us to Easter Jeep Safari in Moab. Somewhere in Nevada, we smelled something burning. We stopped at an exit, took a second to check the Jeep out and low and behold, it was us giving off the stench! Andy opened the hood and the air conditioning compressor's bearing was destroying itself—complete with shards of metal jettisoning themselves from the unit. Since the compressor is run via a serpentine belt, we couldn't just pull that accessory belt and move on. We were dead in the water.
We had half an hour to go before we arrived at our destination. It was critical for us to be at this event the next morning. There, we’d drive off-road from Vegas all the way to Moab. Several cars passed and didn’t stop. Out of nowhere drives up this pristine teal painted semi-truck and flatbed trailer. “What seems to be the problem?” asks the driver. We told him the issue and showed him where it was. “Well, let’s load her up on my flatbed and go back to my house,” he says. Random thoughts of murder or theft and harm filled our heads but we had no choice. We didn’t have time for AAA to tow us to a mechanic’s shop to fix it the next day. “I got a shop at home and we can get her fixed up for ya.” Andy and I looked at each other and nodded yes. Either this was going to end with a mechanically-inclined Saint on our hands or we’ll be calling 911 in an hour. Thankfully, he was a Saint!
It was an omen: His semi cab was the same shade of teal as our Sidekick. We loaded the Cherokee on his flatbed. Luckily, the local auto parts store in Henderson, Nevada had the parts available and Daron, the driver, knew how to fix it.
Turns out Daron also had a Cherokee. It was fully built to rock crawl, and he had a huge shop with tons of tools. His wonderful wife Joy cooked us dinner and we worked until 1:00 a.m. together to get us back on the road. Placing trust in strangers and working through the night saved that trip!
Not So Rad Radiator
More Jeep woes. On the way out to a Jeep Jamboree event in Colorado, the temperature spiked in our Cherokee. We rolled the windows down in 90 degree heat and cranked the heater. It turns out the radiator was old and simply needed to be replaced. This time we could drive ourselves to an auto parts store to get parts.
Thankfully, the off-road community came to the rescue after seeing our Facebook SOS post. After purchasing a radiator and hoses, we met up with Greg, who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. He let us use his garage and helped us install a new radiator.
While draining the old fluid, lots of metal particulates came out, proving our original radiator was slowly disintegrating.
Leaf Spring Letdown
After installing a new set of leaf springs in our Cherokee, we drove to Moab for Easter Jeep Safari (same trip as the compressor issue). After our first day on the trail, we heard a noise from the rear end. Our friends helped us inspect the issue in our hotel’s parking lot, and we determined it had terrible axle wrap due to failed spring packs. They would have to be removed in order to drive it again—ugh.
Amazingly, we quickly obtained a new set of rear leaf springs and swapped them out (along with new rear brake drums and shoes) in our hotel parking lot in Moab. It was there we met Ben, another Cherokee enthusiast, who, along with a few other key people, helped us get our rig fixed.
Parking lot fixes are fairly common during Easter Jeep Safari. Although we missed driving the Cherokee on Moab’s slick rock for a few days, friends, strangers and the off-road community came together to get us get up and running—again.
Broken Brakes: Shoe Adjuster
We drove our 1989 right-hand-drive Mitsubishi Delica down a tricky off-road section on Lippincott Grade in Death Valley, California. After navigating the trail, Andy noticed the brake pedal feel was soft, and he had to pump the brakes to get good pedal feel. Once we got back to Oregon, he pulled off the right-rear drums and found the brake shoe adjuster had completely snapped in half. We still don’t know how that happened. The rear brakes still worked, but they needed to be pumped to get full power. Being an uncommon vehicle, Andy had to order parts from Japan to fix it. Thankfully we completed our Death Valley trip successfully. While pumping the brakes was inconvenient, we worked around the issue until we fixed it when we got home.
Quick fixes or work-arounds may be necessary to navigate vehicle failures. You may need to chat with strangers or reach out to others, too. Here are some tips/tricks we’ve learned along the way:
- Keep an on-board emergency kit: vital tools, a Leatherman, zip ties, duct tape, ratchet straps and multi-purpose repair tape (at a minimum)
- Obtain a roadside service plan like an AAA membership. It’s cheap insurance for you, as well as those you travel with. For instance, AAA’s membership provides benefits to the actual member, not the vehicle. If you are with someone else who is having car problems, you can use your card to get service for their vehicle.
- Tell a few key people about your trip before you leave. Give them your route and dates of your trip, if known. In the event of a breakdown, they can be your backup for help.
- Join online forums that cater to your vehicle (whether via websites or Facebook groups). Forums may be hugely helpful in case you run into vehicular problems (they’ve helped us in a multitude of ways). Talking to like-minded folks can unveil solutions in as little as a few clicks.
- Create a vehicle fund. Whether a piggy bank or a savings account, saving bits of cash can add up over time to help you with vehicle woes.
- In the event of a failure, remember to BREATHE. As our good friend Ray says, “Get out, access the situation, and put on a kettle of water for tea as you figure out what to do next.” Essentially, slow down, relax and then figure out next steps.
- Facebook SOS posts can help. We’ve reached out online before, and a friend of a friend was able to help us. Use your network of friends to your advantage. People are happy to help, if you’re willing to ask them.
You never plan on your vehicle breaking down, and these failures seem to happen at the worst moments, but with some planning, prep and know-how you’ll likely turn disastrous despair into a great learning experience and an awesome adventure. Heck, you may even meet great new friends along the way like we have!