Heading to Cape York with your 4WD? Here’s how to prepare

By Unsealed 4X4 11 Min Read
Fruit Bat Falls, Cape York © Tourism Australia

Now that the weather is a little cooler it’s time to start ramping up your planning for that long-talked-about 4WD trip to Cape York. As accessible as Cape York is these days, a lot of 4WD owners still haven’t managed to get up there. If you’re one of them, why not? It truly is an amazing part of the world and one of those places that has to be experienced first-hand.


“But Dex, my 4WD isn’t ready and I have no time for a Cape York trip!” I hear you argue. Well, the time thing I can’t help you with. Although I hear faking a pregnancy or major surgery is a great way to get a few weeks off work…or so I’ve been told. However, as for getting your vehicle ready, we’re here to help. Make sure to following these seven tips to get yourself and trusty steed ready for tackling one of the most iconic off-road destinations in the world.

#1 – Snorkels are a cheap and necessary insurance

If there’s one thing that a 4WD trip to Cape York has plenty of, it’s water crossings. Truth be told, there’s really only a couple that will leave you in any real danger of hydro-locking your engine. Fortunately, they’re up the northern end of the Telegraph Track and fairly easily bypassed. Nevertheless, the Old Tele is definitely one of the highlights of the tip, particularly the infamous Nolan’s Brook or Gunshot. You can actually ride the blacktop almost all the way if that option sounds better but where’s the fun in that?

The other big advantage of a snorkel is that they raise the air intake up and out of the dust. This is tremendously helpful, particularly when travelling in a convoy. Sure beats changing the air filter out every few days.


4WD cape york Safari Armax Snorkel

#2 – Tyres and pressures matter

So you’ve decided to hit the road in your 4WD and head to the northernmost point on the continent (aka Cape York). You’re going to need your fridge, camping gear, a comprehensive toolkit, a full spares box including an alternator and CV joints, a generator for powering up the TV; and oh yeah, better throw your partner and kids in too. Of course, by now your vehicle is perilously close to, or over your GVM. Not only that, it’s still wearing the passenger-car-rated highway terrain tyres. These have much thinner sidewalls and a tread pattern that will offer four-fifths of bugger-all traction on anything but smoothly paved roads.

You do the right thing, you drop a bit of pressure out and start driving along the hundreds of kilometres of corrugated roads. The insides of the tyres start to heat up, the sidewalls weaken and a couple of hundred klicks out of Cairns, they blow out in spectacular fashion. Sadly, now you’re probably stranded trackside wondering what went wrong. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

Before you leave for Cape York, invest in some proper Light Truck (LT) designated all-terrains for your 4WD and make sure you keep below your GVM. Yes, you may have to leave the espresso machine at home but your trip will be much smoother for it.

cape york 4WD

#3 – Suspension is more than just springs and shocks

So you’ve realised that a 4WD trip to Cape York will require you to carry a fair bit of gear. You’ve also realised your springs and shocks are now under increased load. Multiply that load over about a billion corrugations, creek crossings, whoops and muddy bank driving and you can appreciate that the chance of the stock gear giving up the ghost is higher than Willie Nelson.


The key here is to talk to a reputable suspension mob. Let them know what you’re going to be doing, what weights you’re expecting to carry and what size tyres you’re planning on running. They should be able to sort you out with a suspension package to suit. For touring duties, the important thing to pay attention to is your spring rate. This is essentially how stiff your springs are and how much weight they can handle when loaded up.

#4 – Bullbars…yes, you need one

There is a lot of uneducated media opinion surrounding bullbars and the danger they represent to pedestrians. However, if you talk to anyone who’s ever driven a couple of hundred kilometres beyond the city limits, they’ll tell you that the probability of an animal strike is not a matter of if, but when. This goes double when driving a couple of hours on either side of dusk or dawn. Roos, emus and feral pigs will travel a fair way into your engine bay if hit at speed without some sort of frontal protection. Not to mention the threat they pose to occupant safety.

Ensuring your 4WD has a bullbar for your Cape York trip also means you can mount extra things like winches, lights and aerials. However, keep in mind that you will need to factor the extra weight into GVM calculations and suspension setup.

Cape York 4wd

#5 – Servicing (4WDs that work are better than ones that don’t)

There’s no getting around it, Cape York is tough on a 4WD. That’s why a full, and I mean full, service is mandatory before you leave. Fluids (yep, driveline too), filters, hoses and belts should all be changed out for quality replacements. It’ll be worth your while to swap in new wheel bearings and closely inspect the brakes while you’re there.

Heavily loaded vehicles can wreak havoc on well-worn bearings and brakes, so make sure you swap them out a couple of weeks in advance. Don’t leave it until the last minute and you’re up until 2 am the night before tightening up the calliper bolts (ask me how I know this sucks).

Once you’re up there, remember to take it easy. Pushing your 4WD hard at Cape York is not going to do it any favours. You’re in one of the most beautiful parts of the world so take your time and enjoy things. Spare yourself the headache that a busted front end will bring. Slow and steady wins this particular race. Besides, why would you want to rush a trip to the cape?

#6 – Although technically not needed, a fridge is damn nice

Look, we all know someone who has done Cape York with just their esky and block ice loaded in the back of their 4WD. We’re not saying it can’t be done. However, having a 12V fridge and dual battery system set up will make your journey so much more comfortable. Food will last longer and drinks will be colder (important when it’s 30+ degrees at night). You’ll be much happier in general with a fridge humming away in the back of the vehicle. While it’s not a necessity, it is a creature comfort that I wouldn’t want to do without anywhere north of the tropic of Capricorn.

Twin Falls, Cape York © Tourism Australia

#7 – Breathers (your driveline isn’t amphibious)

Let’s go back to High School Science 101 for a sec. As you’re cruising along, your diffs, transfer case and transmission are all running faster than Usain Bolt on a party drug. This movement generates heat. While it’s all well within each component’s design parameters, when you drive into a creek crossing they’re all rapidly cooled by the water. My old science teacher Mr Taylor would tell you that this will lead to a pressure differential and the hot air inside the driveline will need to escape somehow.

Now, the clever engineers at the factory have accounted for this and there will be breathers fitted to your driveline. The problem is that they’re positioned directly on top of the diffs, gearbox and transfer case. As the hot air escapes, cold air will be sucked in to replace it. Only the breathers are now underwater so they gulp in mouthfuls of muddy, sludgy creek water to mix with your oils and gears. Not good for your much anticipated 4WD trip to Cape York!

Luckily, breather kits are readily available from just about every 4WD store or website these days. They work by clamping a hose over the breather tube and extending it up somewhere high and dry, often the engine bay. Additionally, most breathers these days come with a one-way filter on the top of the hose to prevent any sort of contaminants from getting where they shouldn’t go.

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