When you plan a trip to a place like Spiti valley; you know that you cannot just bring your car the way it stands in your garage. I am not saying that you will have to make major modifications to it but will need to pay close attention to its current condition and get it ready for the tough journey ahead. Spiti is a place where even something as simple as a flat tire can prove to be of big hassle if you were not prepared for it. You are planning a trip to a place that is notorious for its terrible roads; and you need to certain that your car can take all the beating. In this article, I will provide a few tips on how to prepare your car for Spiti valley; some general basic information that you can use as a check list.
One of the most frequent questions that I get asked is whether or not a car is good enough for Spiti valley. To be quite honest; this question is difficult to answer from the point of view of the brand. No one can claim that a Renault is better than Maruti; or that a Tata car is not good enough for Spiti. They are all good in their own ways and can definitely be used for a trip here. Which car will be better depends on the type.
Without a doubt, a 4×4 SUV is best for visiting Spiti. If not a 4×4, then any other 2×4 SUV will do equally well. The benefit they have over hatchback or Sedan is of ground clearance which is of utmost importance here. You will be passing through some severely damaged roads, climb steep ascents, drive through mud and slush, cross water streams which can be a bit deep sometimes; and to handle all this, your vehicle must stand clear of the ground by a good margin. Otherwise you risk the belly of your car kissing the road underneath over and over again.
Does it mean that you cannot bring a hatchback or Sedan to Spiti, definitely not? As a matter of fact, you will mostly find the locals here driving around in Maruti 800 or Alto; or other smaller cars. You too can bring whichever car you own after a little preparation and keeping a few things in mind which I will cover in this article.
The first and the foremost thing is your experience at the wheel. Remember, it is not the car taking you there but it is you who is driving it to Spiti. You need to have some decent enough driving experience; both in plains and the hills. If you do not then please ensure that you first drive around for couple of months; go up the hills a few times; and then plan your journey towards Spiti. For a successful trip, you really need to know your car. You need to know its limitations and how to maneuver it; especially around sharp turns and steep ascents.
It wouldn’t really hurt to learn a bit of minor repair work yourself. I know it is not really something that you will become an expert on in a single day but things like changing the headlamp, replacing wheels, changing tubes, changing fuses, and adding engine oil, coolant, battery water etc.
This doesn’t really applies towards preparing your car but make sure that you are not over-packing. Carry whatever is really required. Carrying unnecessary things will mean too much weight in the car; please make sure that you are not doing that. This also applies towards stuffing too many people in the same car. Avoid putting anything on the roof but if you must put something there, make sure that is not of too much weight. Heavy weight on the roof will make the vehicle tough to handle around those sharp turns in hilly region; making it prone to a roll over.
How to Prepare your Car for Spiti Trip?
The first thing you need to do here is to test your vehicle. I know you drive it around everyday but then looking for signs of trouble is not exactly on your mind, correct? Take it on the local highway and pay close attention to how your car is performing.
Listen closely for any weird noises, feel any shakes, and watch for signs of trouble in the gauges. Any grinding or moaning sound from the wheels means bad wheel bearing or worn out CV joint. If your car is pulling then there is a problem with wheel alignment or tires. Soft brake pedal means there is problem with the pads or the fluid. If there is a squealing sound while applying the brakes; or your steering wheel or the brake pedal wobbles; it means that either the pads are worn out or the rotors are warped. If your start up is a bit slow than it either means corrosion (white chalky stuff on the terminals) or a dying battery.
Get it serviced
This is the first thing you need to get done and carefully. If your car is showing above 5000 kilometers since last service then it is best to get it serviced completely; even if it is sooner than the schedule. If it has just been a couple thousand kilometers since the last service, then get a complete checkup done. Mentioned below are a few things that you need to pay close attention to while getting your car checked.
By this, I mean to tighten all nuts and bolts on the vehicle. Ensure that nothing is lose and there are no rattling noises anywhere.
Check the wires and connections and ensure that the electrical system is working fine with no worn out wires anywhere. A good practice would be to change the bulbs if they are a bit old. Check the alternator and starter inspected carefully and clean the connectors.
Your battery must be in good condition. If it is over a couple of years old, make sure that the terminals are corrosion free. Make sure to top up the battery water and a check done on electrolytes or output voltage. Clean the terminals and it will be a good idea to apply petroleum jelly to them. Ensure that the positive and negative leads are tight.
Bleed the Brakes
A good practice before starting on the trip would be to bleed the brakes to ensure that they are working at their best. Driving in hilly region means continuous use of brakes and you got to make sure they can withstand the journey. Get the brake pads/shoes checked and changed if needed. If the remaining life of brake pads in under 10,000 kilometers, then it is best to replace them. Also get the brake oil level checked before you set out.
Check bearings for any replacements and get greasing done as well for all the wheels.
Check engine, brake and gear oils. If the last change was over 5000 kilometers ago, then you need another change. If under 5000, get them all topped up.
Ensure that your car’s coolant is topped up and check for any leakages. A trip to Spiti means that your car will be on the road daily, driving at high RPM, traveling in a region that is bound to put stress on it. You cannot risk the engine heating up there. As a matter of fact, inspect the entire cooling system closely. Check all the hoses, hose clips; ensure they are properly tightened and replace if there is any wear or tear. Also get the radiator tubes and fins washed and cleaned with high pressure water jet.
You will be climbing up several high altitude passes and need to ensure that your vehicle’s clutch plates are not worn out. If you notice any grey smoke, noise while you press the clutch, or poor pick then it is time for you to change them. Another check you can do yourself is to fully press all the brakes, put your car in first gear and slowly release the clutch. Notice how soon the engine stalls. An early stall means worn out clutch plates. If none of this occurs, you probably do not need to change but still ask the mechanic to test the clutch plates at the time of service.
Check all the shock absorbents and leaf springs tightened. While your vehicle is parked on a flat ground, look closely for any possible tilt on any side. If there is a tilt, you must get it corrected before heading towards Spiti.
Check condition of all the 5 tires (including the stepney). If they seem worn out, get a new set. Steep high altitude passes, numerous water crossings, bad broken roads and sometimes no road at all requires good sturdy tires to withstand it all. A good way to check would be the old “One Rupee Test”. Take a one rupee coin and put it in the tread. See how deep the coin goes. If it didn’t go deep enough and the head of the Ashoka symbol is visible, then it is time to change the tires. Along with the tires, also check the rims for any possible bents or unevenness.
Get the alignment of both the wheels checked and corrected if needed. The one rupee test I mentioned above can also be done for wheel alignment. When you put the coin in the tread, the depth it gets buried in should be equal for all tires. If the coin is going a bit deeper in a particular tire, then the alignment is not right and that one particular wheel is eating more rubber. As a thumb rule, if it has been over 3,000 kilometers since last alignment, then best to get it checked and corrected a couple of weeks before the trip.
Replace the existing belts with new ones if they are over 3 years or 50,000 kilometers old. Also check pulley bearings and replace if necessary.
Check wiper blades and replace if required. Also check the wiper motor to ensure that it is working fine. Clean the wind-shield cleaner nozzles if required.
Get both the Air and fuel filter changed before you start on the trip and get a check done again after you arrive in Leh. Spiti is a cold desert and there will be a lot of dirt on the road, easy to clog the filters.
Check the belly of your car for any possible leakages or anything lose or hanging. Ensure all nuts are fastened and look for any traces of oil. If you see black oil, then your engine oil is leaking. Red would mean brake or clutch oils while a bit yellow would mean that your gear oil is leaking.
If you are traveling in a Sedan or hatchback with low ground clearance, installing an aluminum plate underneath can prevent damage to the belly of your car. It is actually available for all cars but in my opinion, it is a must if you are bringing a low GC vehicle to Spiti.
Check everything inside the cabin and ensure all is in place. Check all the gauges, switches (headlamp, indicator, and wipers), handbrake, pedals, window rollers, lights, locks (door, gear and remote) and doors.
Once you have gotten the above mentioned things taken care of, next in line is to get the some spares that you must carry with you. In Ladakh, you may find a mechanic but finding a spare part can sometimes still be troublesome. Mentioned below are a few items that I recommend you carrying.
I know that a tool kit usually remains in the car for most people but still though to add it to the list. Ensure that all the necessary tools that came with the car are in there.
Engine Oil / Coolant / Battery Water
Carry about a liter of all these fluids. Check the level at regular intervals and top up when necessary.
This can really be a life saver if you have a flat tire or start to lose air pressure. Carry either a foot pump or electric one.
Puncture repair kit
A must have item for both, tires with tubes or tubeless tires.
Carry a set of spare bulbs for headlamp and tail lights.
M-Seal / Electrical or Scotch Tape
Carry an electrical and scotch tape, can come in handy not just for car but at several other occasions as well. M-Seal can help fix small cracks or holes and prevent leakage.
Jump Start Cable
A jump start cable can be of great help if you car’s battery dies or if it refuses to start up early in the morning.
Screw Driver set
It is a good practice to carry another set of screw drivers, apart from the ones that came with the tool kit. Look for a screwdriver set that has multiple attachments; possibly also includes a set of Allen keys.
Wooden Plank & Towing Rope
A small wooden plank will come in handy if your car gets stuck in lose dirt, mud or slush. A towing rope will be useful if your car dies on you and needs to be towed to nearest mechanic.
Not exactly a part of car tool kit but though to add it here nonetheless. Carry a good powerful torchlight, will come in handy at several places.
Spare Key / Documents
Keep a spare key handy and keep it in your wallet. If you get locked out of your car and the spare key too was in the luggage, then it is of no use at all. Ensure that you are carrying all your necessary documents with you inclusive of your driving license, RC, PUC and Insurance certificate.
I am not really a car expert and my knowledge is pretty much limited to the basics; which I am sure anyone who owns a car will have. Information I shared above was a mix of my own knowledge and stuff that I read over the web. If you have any other useful tips, please feel free to share. Any information on how to pack, how to prepare, or even how to drive in the hills will be of great help to other travelers. In case of any questions, please do ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum and I will be glad to answer.