How to Be a Round-the-World DIY Mechanic

I was raised by my mom and sister. That sentence alone should give you an idea of my mechanical abilities. A tooth-deprived ex-boxer taught me how to change a tire and I sold him a rope to hang himself with, he returned the rope but I did not give him a refund. Hey, twenty bucks bought a lot of sweets in the late 1980s.

When I met my wife Luisa, the role of vehicle maintenance became mine. We had a mechanic down the road from where we lived but he was expensive and had a knack of programming unprogammable parts to self-destruct within a week of leaving his workshop. Eventually I had to man up and learn how to fix my own vehicles. My mouth would dry at the thought of doing even minor repairs. I did a ton of research before even the most menial jobs and worked methodically. I still overthink the process but have been able to keep our Landy running smoothly over the last six years.

In 2009, we were inspired to take a leap into the unknown and pilot our Land Rover to farflung places. Eventually we decided to commit completely, sold our business and most of our possessions, and shipped the truck to Uruguay, from where we launched headfirst into a brave new world and lifestyle as long-term travelers. We had so much to learn! After 100,000 miles we found that we had driven through 29 countries, across Southern and East Africa, circumnavigated South America, and driven from Argentina to Alaska and back down to Mexico. That’s #vanlife on steroids!

We’ve learned a lot, and here are my top tips for keeping the rig rolling while overlanding.

02b Replacing worn engine mounts with the assistance of a borrowed engine hoist. French Guyana.

– Prevention is infinitely superior to cure. Get to know your truck before you leave, identify common faults with your type of vehicle and either pre-repair or prepare for those failures by carrying the relevant spares and repair manuals.

– Don’t be lazy. It is easy to ignore that wobble or grinding or leaking when you are in a nice sunny camp with a cold beer beckoning and a welcoming hammock swaying in the breeze. Start with a small job and work your way to the bigger jobs, Overland vehicles take a beating and there is always something that needs a bit of TLC. Start with the squeak and work your way up to the wobble or grind.

– Lube, lube, lube. Metallic auto parts get hot and when they overheat they lose structural integrity, resulting in failures and breakdowns. Oil and oil filters must be checked and changed regularly and religiously. Prop shafts must be greased with every service, wheel bearings checked, swivel grease and differentials topped up. Use the highest quality oil and lubrication you can source and afford and try to adhere to the manufacturer’s specifications. Take care of your chassis. Give it a good high pressure wash once a month, then coat it with a good thick spray of lubricant. You can use old engine oil or WD40. The chassis is the spine of your beloved truck’s body, take care of it and it will take care of you.

03b Sub quality parts suck.

– Stop, drop, and roll. When the inevitable breakdown sneaks up on you halfway up a mountain, as the sun is setting, in the middle of bloody nowhere, you will need to remain calm, assess the situation, and do your best to get the wheels rolling again without the help of mechanics and tow trucks. Don’t scream out expletives, don’t pound the steering wheel and do not kick a rock and break your toe. These things are not helpful.

– Memorize the road features as you travel. You will not always know what lies on the road ahead but you do know what lies behind you. A truck stop, emergency parking area, shady tree, or farmhouse can offer a safe, secure place to return to for your running repairs.

– The mighty internet is your greatest resource. When faced with a mechanical fault, find an internet connection and log onto a forum that’s vehicle-specific. There are an equal number of gurus and orangutans out there dishing out pearls of knowledge and steaming piles of dung, so you need to sift through the one true democracy to find your solution. Search for parts, arrange a courier or find a fellow traveller headed your way, transfer money and upload a bunch of breakdown photos to your blog. Your followers, friends, and family love you and admire your travels and wonderful photos but what they really want to see is you up to your neck in grease, covered in red ants, in a muddy hole with a chunk of twisted metal in your paws. That will teach you for being a tough guy, tough guy.

04b Repairing a ruptured oil cooler in the Atacama desert, Chile.

– Carry a good range of spares and tools including special, vehicle-specific tools, and be prepared to be creative. I once had to change a fan bearing in Tupiza, a little city in Bolivia that had 20 small hardware stores but no 12mm Allen keys. I had the special fan tool to remove the fan but found out that I needed two special tools not just the one. Under a searing high altitude sun, I ripped the skin off my knuckles trying to get purchase with an improvised tool made out of two spanners, nuts and bolts and duct tape. Little ratcheting spanners will save you hours of frustration and, if you drive a Landy, try to carry extra 10s, 13s, 15s and 17s. There are two types of spares-service and repair. Service includes all regular service items, filters, etc. Repair spares are those that you predict you will need. I carry a CV joint, a clutch, a spare water pump and pipes, oil seals, brake master cylinder, etc. And because I run larger than normal tires, I carry a lot of Timken bearings. Landy drivers-don’t use the Blue Brand with A Bad Name for anything mechanical. Plastic stuff sure, but nothing else. Use Bearmach, dammit!

– Work slowly and methodically, do not rush. Keep all the parts clean and free of moisture and dirt, clean each part and take pride in your work. After years on the road, doing all the maintenance and repairs roadside or in a campsite, a flat, level concrete surface is a joy for us. You always drop the little bastard nuts and bolts and when working over dirt or grass, that can mean wasted time lying on your belly digging around. A little magnetic nuts ‘n bolts dish can be a great metal detector and helps keep things organized.

– Take a slow test drive and be sure that your repair is good before leaving the safety of your repair area. Keep the old part if it is still semi-usable and only discard when you have run the new part for long enough to be confident. We once changed some bad wheel bearings in Brazil, but luckily kept the old bearings in the spares crate. A thousand kilometers down the road, the new Blue Brand bearings imploded. Had I not kept the old bearings we would not have been able to limp back to the nearest town.

– Clean your tools and pack everything in its correct place. This you can do while sipping on a well-deserved beer while your significant other is preparing the meat for the fire. Breakdowns are a great time to spoil yourself; it keeps morale high and you can justify the expense by calculating how much you have saved by not using a mechanic. Beer and meat and fire and grease. This is an adventure, right?

Be brave, be bold, get out there!

Graeme Bell is a full time overlander and author. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but considers Cape Town home. He is currently traveling the planet with his wife Luisa and two children, Keelan and Jessica, in a Land Rover Defender 130 affectionately known as Mafuta. Follow their adventures at


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