Embarking on a road trip that will last weeks, months or years, and during which they will cover tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of kilometres is no small undertaking for grey nomads … and planning and preparation are key to a successful and safe trip. When travelling for extended periods on unfamiliar, often flood-damaged roads  is a certainty and driving on gravel or dirt roads regularly a high probability, the importance of choosing the correct tyres cannot be overstated.

Most grey nomads opting to tow a caravan or camper trailer on their travels will be driving a 4WD. The best tyres to use here will depend largely on the sort of trip being planned. Most new 4WD vehicles are fitted with Highway Terrain (HT) tyres designed for use on sealed roads … and if you’ve got a hankering to venture down the Oodnadatta Track, or the Gibb River Road or the Birdsville, then these are not for you.

The HT tread pattern tends to be shallower and less aggressive than the alternatives and therefore does not perform as well in dirt or mud. Of course, for those nomads who are more interested in the greater comfort and performance delivered by HT’s when chewing up the kilometres on Australia’s long bitumen highways than getting better grip on the occasional short trip down a well-graded dirt road at a popular national park, then all is well and dandy.

They should be aware though that the sharp stones often encountered on dirt roads naturally means a far higher puncture risk with HT tyres. The majority of punctures on tracks begin life as a stone cut through the tread area, and this is not always picked up by the driver to begin with. Things start to get really interesting – and dangerous – when the ‘flattening’ tyre gets hotter and hotter until it ‘pops’ and tears into pieces. A drive down any well-used gravel road will soon reveal evidence of those who have gone before … and lost a tyre or two along the way! Another big danger is a rock or branch piercing the sidewall of the tyre.

At the other end of the tyre spectrum are Mud Terrain (MT) tyres which are primarily made for hard-core off-road driving. They are not really suitable for grey nomads – even those who like to get their vehicles dirty – as the aggressive, knobly, deep tread design, means a noisy, uncomfortable journey for normal highway trips.

Okay … is there a happy medium? Yup.  For those grey nomads (the vast majority) who want comfort on the highway and the ability to take on the odd track, All Terrain (AT) tyres offer the perfect compromise. The tread pattern is more aggressive than the HT, but AT tyres are designed to be used on-road without any adverse effects. Hooray! The extra aggression in the All Terrain tyres means they are also able to handle the rough stuff as well … but only up to a point. Serious, heavy-duty 4WDing requires serious heavy duty Mud Terrain tyres.

Most grey nomads expect to drive thousands and thousands of highway kilometers on their Big Lap but they also want to have the ability to explore some off-road destinations. AT tyres deliver a decent off-road performance and a quiet ride and grip on the bitumen. It’s all good!

The main problem with good 4WD tyres in general is that they can seem pretty expensive, especially if you are used to buying tyres for the little Echo you used in your working life. An easy way to cut costs is to buy second-hand tyres or re-tread, but manufacturers and motoring organisations almost unanimously warn strongly against this. Buying a good tyre that offers you peace of mind and tens of thousands of safe kilometres could be said to be money very well spent.

New South Wales motoring organization the NRMA, doesn’t recommend retreads or second-hand tyres for a number of reasons – the primary one being safety.

“It’s not possible to know what sort of life a second-hand tyre has already lived,” says Jack Haley, NRMA Vehicle Safety Expert.

The organsiation says that retreads, where a new tread is bonded to the tyre case, are better suited to speeds less than 100km/h. At higher speeds, as the tyre warms up, it’s possible for the new tread to separate from the case, leading to a blow-out and loss of vehicle control. Also, retreads often don’t meet the manufacturer’s specifications for speed and load-carrying.

Your tyres are going to take you to places you have only previously dreamed about visiting, potentially to all corners of this wonderful country, and they will be your constant companion for weeks,months and years through adventure after adventure. Choose wisely. And once you have bought, the NRMA recommends you follow these simple steps to keep your tyres in good condition:

  • Check the pressure weekly, and don’t rely on the service station air pump for an accurate reading. Quality tyre pressure gauges are inexpensive and available from motor accessory stores. Remember, it’s best to check your tyres when they’re cold. Refer to your owner’s manual for the correct pressure for your car.
  • Check your tyres are roadworthy. Look at the tread (you can turn the front wheels out to make this easier) and you will see some small bars of rubber running across it at several places around the tyre. If the tread is worn down to any of these bars, you should replace the tyre.
  • Rotate your tyres regularly to even them out and lengthen their life span. See your owners manual for guidelines, or check with a tyre specialist or your service centre as some tyres are directional front to back only.

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