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Vehicle Modifications for Long-Distance Travel

Written by Kobus on March 20, 2011

Long distance international road travel requires a lot more from of your vehicle than normal driving. Some vehicle modifications are necessary to make your life on the road safe, convenient and more comfortable.

Vehicle Security System

As much as we’d like to believe in the goodness of people, it just isn’t always so. Spend the time and the money to ensure your vehicle and its contents stay secure. At minimum install a kill switch. When activated a kill switch shuts off the car, completely bypassing the ignition system. This will prevent thieves from making off with the vehicle even if they have the keys. Kill switches are inexpensive and easy to install by any mechanic.

Many other types of alarms with varying sensitivities and results are available and may be worth your consideration.


If road conditions are less than ideal, or you’re planning to go off road, considered upgrading your suspension. Hauling lots of gear for an extended amount of time over bumpy roads will place your suspension under constant strain. At a minimum your vehicle shocks should be replaced with high quality endurance shock absorbers. If your vehicle has leaf springs you should inspect them for cracks.

Auxiliary Power

If you need power constantly, but aren’t positive you’ll have access, consider adding a way to generate your own power. There are a few of options on the market, such as solar panels, small generators and spare batteries. While solar panels are environmentally friendly, they are expensive, inefficient, fragile and require sunshine. Solar panels have come a long way in recent years, but we’ve been wary to invest in them as a reliable alternative to energy production.

Our preference is to install a second 12 volt battery and use a power inverter to supply 110/220 volt power to our electronics and appliances. A battery separator or solenoid installed in a circuit between the two batteries prevents draining of the starter battery. This means you can safely run your electronics with the car off without fear of draining your starter battery. A second battery also gives the benefit of being able to jump start the vehicle in case the starter battery dies.

License Plates

Spend $5 and buy a set of tamper proof screws and use them on both front and back plates. Some people love to collect license places from faraway places. There have even been reports of scams involving “police officers” removing plates and waiting up the road to issue a fine. Carry a color copy of your plates, if yours are stolen you can always have temporary replacement stickers printed.

Tinted Windows

Tinting windows keeps the inside of your vehicle cooler and helps protect your belongings by keeping them out of sight. Be aware that high levels of window tinting can be illegal in some places. If tinting isn’t an option, make curtains to keep wandering eyes off your belongings.

Roof Rack

A well constructed roof rack will provide you with the additional space to keep fire wood, a spare tire, jerry cans, water, a hi-lift jack, shovel and fishing rods. A roof rack can make the vehicle top heavy, be careful adding too much weight. Roof racks are also prone to theft, make sure you lock any items of value.

The roof rack we had built in Africa also included an awning and while we used it only a few times, the shade was much appreciated. Here are the basic plans for the rack we used in Africa. Custom Roof rack in Africa


There are many storage options ranging from Rubbermaid bins to custom built storage units. At the end of the day it’s about what works best for you. Consider how often you will be camping with your vehicle, visibility through the back window, and how you will accommodate extras you collect on the road.

A web search will give you an idea of what other overlanders with your specific vehicle have done.


Before you set out on your trip, do some research on tires based on your destination. In some places you can find tires that fit on 15 and 17 inch rims but 16s are virtually impossible to find or are twice the price.

Wheel Nuts

Invest in an anti-theft wheel nut set that requires a special key to remove the tires. It will help keep your wheels where they belong.

Running, Spot and Fog lights

Brush guard, spotlights and seed net

Whenever I absolutely have to drive at night, I like to have as much light as possible. Running lights and fog lights help draw attention to oncoming traffic, but nothing beats a set of spot lights. A decent pair will illuminate even the smallest pair of eyes in the road, not to mention any other obstacles you might encounter.

Seed Nets

A seed net is designed to keep insects and small grassland seeds out of your radiator. Small dry plants in your engine compartment can cause your vehicle to overheat and potentially catch fire. These are normally used when driving in open plains, and are especially necessary during the dry season.

There are many after-market nets available, but you can easily make one from a old shade netting.

Brush Guards

Brush guards, also known as bull bars, roobars or nudge bars, are more than just decoration. They are used as a safety feature to keep the vehicle from being damaged when hitting small movable objects such as wild animals. You should consider your vehicle’s safety features such as airbags and crumple zones. Brush guards could adversely affect these features, making the vehicle less safe than originally designed.

Long Range Fuel Tanks

long range tanks

If you plan on driving in areas known for fuel shortages and don’t want to mount a half dozen jerry cans to your roof, you should consider adding a long range fuel tank. They are designed to have the largest fuel capacity given the available space without compromising ground clearance or handling. Unfortunately, they often take the place of your spare tire. Personally, I’d rather have a spare tire on my roof than 20 gallons of fuel.


Winches come in all shapes and sizes and are not usually necessary for an overland trip unless you’re planning to go off road in very muddy or snowy conditions.

To install a winch you will have to select a mounting system winch rope able to handle the pulling capacity of the winch. To calculate the winch pull rating you need, multiply your gross vehicle weight by 1.5. Unless you have experience, be safe and have the system professionally installed, snapping a cable under strain will do serious damage.


#1 Tim 2013-05-27 06:21
Regarding power- a lot of electrical stuff(especiall y electronics) runs on DC these days (and has a power adapter to convert from 110/220 to something like 17 or 19 Volts. It is very inefficient to convert your 12 DC to 110AC and then back to 19V DC. (Drains your dual battery system quickly). Much more efficient to power your laptop directly with a DC step up transformer that steps up the 12 volts DC to 19 volts DC directly. Cheaper too, You can get one for under $15 vs. hundreds for an AC inverter.

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