If you are a regular Mumbai to Pune driver or to that matter you have been driving to Delhi or Bangalore, then your car is in a good state for a cross country road trip. The first question you should be asking yourself is if your car is ready to take you places you really want to “explore” and not just “go”. I can assure you that 8 out of 10 first-time-travelers to these mountains will be surprised to learn that the car is running a Highway Terrain (HT) setup. While its not the must to have Mountain Terrain (MT) running on your car, I would highly recommend a good quality All Terrain (AT) as a must have. A worn out HT is a strict NO NO.
The Spiti Valley brings in its own challenges. It is by far the most treacherous road to drive on that I have known. When you plan a trip to this valley; you should be sure that you cannot drive the car out of your garage and hit the roads to the mountains. This valley can can complicate a smile flat tire procedure and it can land up to be a hassle for the entire journey.
Driving in the mountain and on the flat land is completely different experience. if you have never driven in mountains at least couple of times, then I suggest few short trips in the hills. Understanding your car an how to maneuver it well; especially around sharp turns and steep ascents, is the key factor for a happy an successful trip. Few point to keep in mind
- Know your car
- The Engine
- The Under-body
- The Brakes
- The Tires
- Learn how to check engine/brake oil
- Learn an practice how to replace a spare wheel
- Fix a puncture and change tubes
- Where are the fuses and keep few spare
- How to replace headlamp bulbs
- How to fill fuel in the car
- How to change and check the coolant level
- Understanding every light on the cockpit panel behind the steering wheel
It is not needed for anyone to make heave modifications to the car to enjoy a event free trip across Spiti or to that matter in Ladakh but it is advised that close attention is given to the state of your vehicle and prepare yourself for a tough & a difficult journey ahead
Said that, I can assure you no car is good enough to complete the treacherous journey thru Spit, at the same time even many older well maintained car have seen this thru multiple times. I was warned about the need of a 4×4 when I drove across this circuit, I completed this circuit in my Scorpio which is not a 4-wheel drive and we went thru with minor incidents like engine heating 😀 – of course pun intended.
READ: The Destroyed Hope. On one of the trips to the base camp, my right wheel pulled of from the axle arm. Tied it up with some barb wires and drove about 58 Kms with the car in this state from the 17th Ghata loop to the Pang Camp where we could get some assistance for the car and to the body that was already tired
The benefit of driving an SUV over hatchback or a saloon is the ground clearance which is of utmost importance here. Given that one will witness some severely damaged roads, steep ascents, a drive through mud and slush, deep crossing streams, your vehicle must have a good ground clearance. One would regardless experience the car belly kissing the road multiple times. To your surprise you will notice that the locals are driving small and low ground clearance cars across Lahaul, Spiti and Ladakh. The way I look at it is their experience and knowledge about the landscape that makes them more comfortable driving these cars without a damage.
How to get the car ready for a trip into the Himalayas
There will be many reasons for one to think that the car is in the best of its state. Nevertheless, it is important to run a reality check and confirm the thought. these are few must to do items that one should take care of before embarking on trip as this
Servicing the Car
First step in preparing a car is to get it services from a good known mechanic. I would recommend a service regard less of service not due on the car. The service should include a complete and a thorough electrical check up, changing all bushes, Tightening all nut and bolts, ensuring there are not squeezing noises etc..
Wheel Alignment and Balancing
Check the condition of the tires and if they are worn out or near reaching their age, please replace them with good AT tires. Consult a tire technician to understand the life of your tire. One should also check the wheels to ensure there are not damages to it
It is a good idea to get the alignment on your wheels done prior to the trip. The idea of rotations of the wheel is also a good idea. Correct wheel alignment is will help reduce the ware and tear on the tire and the tires will last longer and help experience a better quality of the drive
Check bearings for any replacements and get greasing done as well for all the wheels.
Check all wires for wear & tear and ensure that all electrical systems are working properly. I specifically recommend checking the wire connections for the head lamps, cooling fan and the alternator. Replace all worn out wires and clean the connections. All additional light fittings should also be checked.
Check the function if the horn. While I am strictly against the usage of horn on a normal drive; I highly recommend a reliable loud functioning horn on your car when you are out in the mountains. one will experience many sharp and blind turns where there is a need to warn the oncoming traffic
Battery Service and Charging
Your battery must be in good condition. Have it checked for proper charging capability. Top up the battery water and have the battery charged externally. Make sure that the terminals are corrosion free and apply the battery gel on the terminals.
Coolant, Oil & Filters
Check engine, brake and gear oils. Request the technicians to replace the oil during the service. There is a tendency that the technicians will just top up the oil stating the oil is good. If your car has run near to the schedule of the service, I recommend a complete flush and refill.
Similarly, ensure that your car’s cooling system is in the top notch state. Top up the coolant check for any leakages. A trip like this means that the car will be running daily at high RPM causing the engine to heat very easily. If the Cooling system has not been serviced in the near past its is a good idea to inspect the entire cooling system closely. Check all the hose for leakages, change them and replace the clips; ensure they are properly tightened and replace if required. An Acid wash on the radiator is also sometimes a good idea. The radiator tubes and fins can also be washed and cleaned with high pressure water jet.
Change the air and fuel filter before the start of the trip. While the Manali to Leh is mostly a tar road now a day, the Spiti still gives an opportunity to drive on the gravel and rocks and lets you enjoy the thrill of crossing water stream. Spiti is a cold desert and there will be a lot of dirt on the road, easy to clog the filters.
Brakes and Pads check
Get the brake pads/shoes checked and replaced, if needed. A common response from the technicians is that the pads will run few 1000 kilometres easily. This is a sign in itself to get the pads changed immediately.
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 one needs to make sure they can withstand the journey.
Check for leakage in the shock absorbents and have the springs tightened. I suggest going under the car yourself and taking a look at the leakage. Change the shock if there is a smallest sign of leakage.
Clutch Plates & Master Cylinder check
The use of your clutch is much more than normal when you are driving over rocks and crossing rivers and water streams. One should be 100% sure that the vehicle’s clutch plates are not worn out. Symptoms like visible smoke, squeaking noise when the clutch is pressed, or poor pick up are some signs when your clutch or the clutch plates need your attention. Go under the body and check if there is any oil leakage from the Gear box area where the clutch plates engage with the gears. This is also a sign for bad clutch cylinder
If not done in a ling time it is a good idea to replace the existing belts with new ones. Also check pulley bearings and replace if necessary.
Top up the wiper fluid adding windscreen shampoo as a mix. Check the wipers and replace the blades if worn out. Clean or replace the wind-shield cleaner nozzles
Under the car
I would also suggest inspecting the under body of your car for any rusting or loose equipment. Given the chances of the car scrubbing off the road are very high, one needs to be absolutely sure of no loose fittings below the car. There is a possibility of crossing water streams; few deep enough for the water to seep inside the car in case there is a rusted panel below. Get it fixed.
Fuel can should be inspected thoroughly for any leakages and or damages. The new cars come with a plastic / fiberglass fuel can. It could be a good idea to add a under body metal sheet to protect delicate parts from damage
Top up the stock tool kit that comes with the car. In Ladakh, you may find a mechanic but finding a spare part can sometimes still be troublesome. In Spiti, Finding a mechanic itself could be difficult. Mentioned below are a few items that I recommend you carrying.
- Size 10 wrench
- Philips screwdriver set
- Air pump
- Puncture repair kit
- Scotch Tape, fast Araldite Glue, M-Seal
- Jump start cable
- Towing rope & Sand tracks
- Spot light and Torch
- Identify common issues you would have faced in your car in the last few months while out on trips, carry the spare parts for these common issues as far as possible
Spare Key / Documents
Last but not least, keep a spare key handy in a place that is not inside your car. You will need to use the spare key in case you get locked out of the car or loose the original. If travelling in group exchange your spare keys with other drivers.
Ensure that you are carrying all car documents along with you. Keep few self attested photo copies. Critical Paper work …
- Your driving license
- Registration card of the car
- Pollution under Control certificate
- Insurance certificate
- Your ID proof
- If you are driving a car registered to someone not travelling with you, then it is a good idea to carry a “Authorization Letter” (with necessary documents identifying the owner) stating the legitimate use of the car by you
- Inline permits
- Hotel confirmation with address and phone numbers
It is always a good idea to have at least the drivers Name, Blood Group and emergency phone number imprinted on the car or on the dashboard. In case of an unforeseen event, these details will come handy for the rescue party.