performing thorough assessment of used overland vehicle prior to purchase of cheap used overland truck

 

Purchasing any used vehicle can be an incredibly stressful process, and if you’re looking to purchase one for overland travel it’s even more critical that you know what condition the vehicle is in and what you’re getting yourself into.

You want your used overland rig to be mechanically sound and capable of providing you with as many stress-free and maintenance-free miles as possible, both on and off road.

This is a process we’ve gone through several times over the years – having purchased and used multiple 20+ year old used vehicles for long-distance travel.

So in this guide we wanted to share our strategy for assessing a used vehicle for overlanding prior to purchase, and how we address getting mechanical service up-to-date prior to hitting the road – in an effort to help you find the best possible used overland vehicle or overland truck for your own future adventures.

 

*(This post contains affiliate links. This means we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See our full disclosure.)

 


What to Know Before You Start Looking For A Used Overland Vehicle

First, let’s start by narrowing your search a bit, and performing a used-vehicle-fear-setting technique to help calm your nerves about the process of finding your dream overland vehicle.

What to Look for in a Used Overland Vehicle

We dive into this subject in detail in our Definitive Guide to Overland Vehicles but the takeaway is that, while literally ANY vehicle can be an overland vehicle, some are better suited to the task and more capable than others.

Knowing how a vehicle’s engine, 4wd, ground clearance, approach angle, departure angle, breakover angle, suspension, and center-of-gravity (among other things) impact its performance and handling on and off-road will help you make the right choice for your needs.

Used Overland Vehicle Recommendations

We put together a list of 15 of The Best Budget Overland Vehicles for Cheap Off Road Adventures that can help give you some suggestions for when you begin your search for a used vehicle for overlanding.

Keep Your Expectations in Check

  • Come to terms with the fact that every single used vehicle will require initial, and ongoing, mechanical maintenance (we’ll dive into this in more detail below).

    You will need to factor in the initial maintenance costs into your budget when purchasing any used overland vehicle. These costs can range wildly depending on the condition of the overland vehicle at the time you purchase it.

  • Anticipating the big expenses will prevent future disappointment.

    A complete engine replacement (or rebuild) and a complete transmission replacement (or rebuild) are two of the most expensive mechanical repair/replacement costs on any used vehicle. Researching these costs prior to purchase can help you mentally prepare for the “worst-case scenario.”

 

Where to Find a Used Overland Vehicle

There are tons of great places and resources for finding used overland vehicles, but these are our favorite spots to check:

Finding Used Overland Vehicles on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist

  • Facebook Marketplace – this is probably one of, if not the most, popular places to find deals on used overland vehicles. Pro Tip: Perform your searches from a laptop or desktop browser. This will allow you to expand your search radius to 500 miles from any given geographic location, unlike the app which limits you to a 100 mile radius.

  • Craigslist – while not as popular as it once was, it can still be a good place to find deals on used vehicles for overlanding.

Vehicle Specific, Overlanding, and Off Road Forums

Nearly every vehicle-specific (e.g. Tacoma World), overlanding, and off road forum has a classifieds section where users can buy and sell used overland vehicles. While there are literally thousands of forums out there to search for cheap used overland vehicles, these are two of our favorites:

  • Expedition Portal Classifieds – chock full of awesome used overland vehicles, as well as parts, trailers, and accessories too!

  • IH8Mud Classifieds – If you’re a Toyota fan (like us) there are usually TONS of awesome used rigs for sale here. They also have an “other vehicles” section with great options from other manufacturers, as well as used parts, equipment, and gear too.

Overland Expos, Events, Groups, and Rallys

Overland Expos, Events, Groups, and Rallys are an excellent place to find used overland vehicles for sale – take time to stroll around the parking or on-site camping areas looking for ‘for sale’ signs! Plus you can find (and get educated on how to use) some of the other overlanding gear you’ll need as well.

Online Auctions

If you’re hunting for a specific, rare, or classic make and model of vehicle to use for overland travel, an online auction site may be the place to find it. The two most renowned online auction sites are Bring a Trailer and eBay Motors.

 

Initial Used Overland Vehicle Mechanical Assessment

While this list is by no means exhaustive and components vary widely from vehicle to vehicle, following this assessment will go a long way toward ensuring you’re aware of most potential mechanical issues when test driving a used vehicle for overlanding.

If you’re unfamiliar with vehicle mechanics, principles, or any of the mechanical terms or components discussed throughout this guide we highly recommend:

  1. Picking up the book How Cars Work*, which provides a great introduction to general vehicle mechanics.

  2. If possible, bring a friend who is mechanically inclined, even if you yourself are mechanically knowledgeable, as a second set of eyes to spot potential issues and offer advice is always nice.

  3. Refer to the items in the mechanical assessment below, and take it with you to a certified mechanic to ensure they inspect the items discussed on any used overland vehicle you’re seriously considering investing in.

DISCLAIMER: We are NOT professional mechanics nor do we represent ourselves as such. This guide and the information contained within does not represent, replace, or supplant the knowledge and proper assessment of a certified professional mechanic. This guide is provided as reference only without warrant or guarantee; as such you should consult a certified professional mechanic prior to any and all recommendations herein.

example of assessing engine motor oil in a used overland vehicle

Check the Primary Automotive Fluids

Motor Oil

  • Remove the oil-check dipstick, wipe it clean, reinsert it, remove it and check the level to ensure it falls between the high and low marks on the dipstick, If the engine oil is low and the vehicle has been driven, there’s potential for significant engine damage.

     

  • If the oil is black or smells burnt (or like fuel) it likely hasn’t been serviced recently (or regularly) and there could potentially be compression issues.

     

  • If the oil is cloudy or milky, then coolant is present, an indication of a head gasket failure or a cracked cylinder head or block. This would likely require an engine rebuild or replacement.

    • If there is a thick milky deposit under the oil fill cap (created by excessive moisture in the engine crankcase), this can also be an indication of a blown head gasket or cracked cylinder head.

example of oil in the engine coolant of a used overland vehicle

Coolant

  • Check that the radiator is full of coolant by removing the radiator cap (only when the engine is cold), also make sure there is no engine oil present in the coolant.

  • Check that the overflow reservoir level is between the min and max marks, and that no oil is present in the coolant in the reservoir (as pictured here).

  • Check if there are signs of overflow around the fill cap that could indicate past overheating issues which can warp/damage the engine cylinder head.

     

automatic transmission fluid assessment chart for used overland vehicles or overland trucks

Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF)

  • How to check the ATF level correctly:

1. Check level while cold to establish fluid is present. Drive vehicle 20-30 minutes to allow fluid to reach normal operating temp.

*Checking ATF levels while cold is not an accurate level assessment, and only indicates that fluid is present.

2. At idle, with foot on the brake, cycle transmission shifter slowly through all gears

3. While the engine is still at idle remove the transmission dipstick, wipe it clean, reinsert it fully, remove and check that level is in between the “HOT” marks and is a translucent pink color.

 

  • If the vehicle’s automatic transmission fluid is milky or very light pink, this is an indication that coolant is present, likely from a radiator-integrated transmission cooler and that a rebuild or replacement of the transmission may be needed

  • If the vehicle’s automatic transmission fluid is dark brown or black, this indicates that it has not been maintained or serviced recently or regularly.

Manual Transmission Oil

  • Check by removing the manual transmission fill plug (typically located on the side of the transmission) to ensure that it’s sufficiently full of manual transmission gear oil.

    • If the oil level is low (cannot be felt inside of the fill plug) there could be damage to the transmission’s internal components.

    • If the oil is black it has not been serviced/maintained recently or regularly

    • If it is milky, water is present which could have damaged internal transmission gears and/or bearings requiring a transmission rebuild or replacement.

Differential Oil

  • Check both front and rear differentials by removing the fill plug to ensure they’re sufficiently full of gear oil.

    • If the oil is black it has not been serviced/maintained regularly

    • If the oil is milky, water is present which could have damaged internal differential gears and/or bearings. This may also indicate an axle seal failure.

assessing automotive brake fluid and clutch fluid in a used vehicle for overland travel

Brake Fluid

  • Check that the brake fluid reservoir indicates a fluid level that falls between the min and max level indicators

  • Brake fluid should be clear and free of debris, if the fluid is dark or cloudy it should be flushed and replaced. This could also be a sign of a worn brake master cylinder.

Hydraulic Clutch Fluid

  • Checked similarly to brake fluid, ensure that the clutch fluid reservoir indicates a fluid level that falls between the min and max level indicators

  • Clutch fluid should be clear and free of debris, if the fluid is dark or cloudy it should be flushed and replaced. This can also be a sign of a worn clutch master cylinder.

how to assess the condition of a used overland vehicle’s power steering fluid

Power Steering Fluid

  • Remove the cap on the power steering fluid reservoir and ensure that the fluid level is with in the cold range (if the vehicle has not been driven recently) or the hot range (if the vehicle has been driven recently).

  • If the level is low, or not visible at all, there could be damage to the power steering pump, rack & pinion, or power steering box.

 

example of a worn serpentine belt on a used overland vehicle

Check the Engine Belts

  • Serpentine Belt / Other Operative Engine Belts – check belts for cracking, and replace as needed prior to driving long distance.

  • Timing Belt – timing belts typically need to be changed religiously every 60-90k miles on average depending on the particular vehicle make/model (check the owners manual or online for the vehicle’s specific service interval).

    Try to determine when the timing belt was last replaced by consulting any available service records. If unknown, close to, or beyond the maintenance interval replace it ASAP. This is especially crucial if the vehicle has an interference engine (most do, and a quick google search of the specific engine model will confirm). If the timing belt breaks on these engines, the valves and pistons will “interfere” with one another and the engine will be toast.

  • Timing Chain – timing chains last significantly longer than timing belts (normally the average life expectancy of the engine) and a break is extremely rare, but if the vehicle is high mileage it may be a good idea to have the timing chain replaced as the chains can stretch over time (which can negatively affect the engine’s timing).

Check the Drivetrain

  • Test U-joint Play – holding firmly onto one side of each u-joint, try gently rotating the opposite side against the holding pressure, checking for play in the joint. If there is significant play it’s likely that the U-joints are worn and will need to be replaced.

  • Test Wheel Bearing Play – with wheels off the ground (and all wheel lug nuts properly tightened/torqued) grab the tires at the 12:00 and 6:00 position and rock top to bottom several times. If there is significant play, the wheel bearings may need to be replaced. The center hub of the wheel may also be hot to the touch after a test drive, indicating improper preload on the bearing causing it to overheat.

  • Test Steering Play – with front wheels off the ground (and all wheel lug nuts properly tightened/torqued), grab the front tires at the 9:00 and 3:00 position and rock side to side. If there is significant play the tie-rod ends, drag link ends, or rack & pinion may need to be serviced or replaced.

  • Check Power Steering Function – if the steering wheel is difficult to turn, requires a lot of rotation to make the vehicle turn, or there is squealing coming from the engine compartment while turning the vehicle at low speeds, there could be an issue with the power steering pump or the power steering pump’s drive belt may be worn or loose.

  • Upper and Lower Ball-joints – check that upper and lower ball-joints are intact (no cracked/leaking grease boots) and tight – there should be no upward or downward play in the ball joint and it should rotate smoothly but not loosely.

  • CV Axles and CV Joints – check that CV axles are free of excessive play and visually inspect the rubber boots protecting the joints to make sure they’re not split, which can allow dirt and moisture into the CV joints causing excessive wear, weakening them and leads to failure of the joint.

  • 4WD – if applicable, check that 4WD freely engages and stays engaged in both forward and reverse, and in both HI and LOW gear (be sure to test 4WD on gravel or loose terrain, not on pavement). In overland vehicles with manual locking hubs, ensure that the hubs lock/unlock freely and that they are in the locked position when assessing 4WD function.

  • Differential Lockers – if applicable, check that any Differential Lockers freely engage and disengage

example of a severely rusted frame on a used overland vehicle

Check the Vehicle’s Frame

  • The frame should be solid, unbent (requires a shop visit to assess accurately), and free of significant rust/scale.

  • Note that while some small amounts of light surface rust are normal in used vehicles, any frame that shows signs of significant rust, scaling, or is soft (an indication of rust inside of the frame) can pose a significant safety risk and would need to be replaced.

    Replacing a vehicle’s frame is a significant expense, and likely you’d be better off to walk away from any vehicle with frame issues.

Check for Body Damage and Rust

  • Dents can often be repaired (or ignored), but rust is far more difficult and costly to repair correctly and permanently – though not impossible.

  • Consult a reputable body shop prior to purchase if your dream rig is a rust bucket to see if it’s worth your while. However we’d generally recommend walking away from any vehicle with significant rust issues.

Engine Assessment

  • Assess Check Engine Lights – if the vehicle is equipped with an OBD2 port, use an OBD2 scanner (we recommend the user-friendly and highly effective OBDlink MX+ bluetooth scanner* that pairs with the OBDlink app on your phone) to diagnose critical vs non-critical Check Engine Lights (CELs), and any recently cleared CELs.

  • Check for Overheating – ensure the engine maintains normal operating temp and does not overheat during a test drive. (Note that the engine temp can be monitored much more accurately via the OBD2 scanner if the vehicle is equipped with an OBD2 port).

  • Perform a Compression Test on All Cylinders – A compression test should be performed on each cylinder of the engine using a compression testing guage. Compression should be between 100-150psi (depending on the vehicle) and shouldn’t vary dramatically between each cylinder (+/- 15% or so). If compression is low in any cylinder, an engine rebuild or replacement will likely be required.

  • Check for Burnt or Sticking Valves – while this can often be more accurately indicated with a compression test, a neat trick for assessing whether a vehicle has burnt or sticking valves is to hold a piece of paper up to the exhaust tailpipe while the engine is running at idle; it should be consistently blown away from the tailpipe. However, if the paper is intermittently sucked back against the tailpipe this can indicate a burnt or stuck valve.

  • Check for a Cracked Engine Block – while typically evidenced by a compression test, another indicator of a cracked engine block is if there is excessive white smoke from the tailpipe and the engine is losing coolant but there are no obvious signs of coolant leaks. A cracked engine block will require engine replacement.

  • Check for Excessive Oil Leaks – the valve cover gasket(s), oil pan gasket, and front and rear main crankshaft seals are the most common sources of excessive oil leaks. If leaks are present these seals and gaskets will need to be replaced (sooner rather than later) and you’ll need to monitor the engine oil levels closely and frequently until then.

 

Get a Vehicle History Report

Before you purchase any used overland vehicle, always get a vehicle history report and title check from a reputable source.

A vehicle history report uses the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) often found in the door jamb or on a driver’s side dash plate to perform a detailed records check.

The resulting report will provide a ton of valuable insight into your used vehicle’s past – such as: title condition (clear/salvage/rebuilt), title transfer history, accident reports, flood damage, odometer tampering, outstanding factory recalls, current market price averages, and even some mechanical service records, among other things.

We recommend and have personally used these vehicle history reporting services for all of our overland vehicle purchases:

  • CarFax – while it costs a small fee to use this service, the report is very detailed and guaranteed to be accurate

  • VINcheck – this is a great free service, and although not quite as thorough, it will check for the most critical items

When Should You Walk Away from a Used Overland Vehicle Purchase?

This decision is unique to you, as a used overland vehicle buyer, since only you can determine how much money and/or time you have to dedicate to a vehicle’s repairs and maintenance – or how BADLY you want a particular vehicle.

Personally, if there are 1) significant vehicle title issues, 2) significant rust issues on the body or frame, or 3) if the mechanical assessment indicates that the total repair or replacement costs of worn items on the vehicle will greatly exceed your budget – I’d walk away.


How to Get Your Used Overland Vehicle’s Maintenance Up To Date

Once you’ve found, assessed, and purchased your used overland vehicle, it’s time to get it road worthy and ready for long-term travel.

Though some opt to just “send it” and fix things as they break, we highly recommend a thorough mechanical refresh when planning to travel at distance with any used vehicle – no matter how diligent a used overland vehicle’s service records are.

While the below list is not exhaustive, it should cover the majority of potentially neglected maintenance items and consumable components on most vehicles.

We also recommend purchasing a Factory Service Manual for your overland vehicle, even if you don’t intend to do the maintenance yourself. It’s a great resource to have on hand while traveling in the event of a mechanical issue in a remote location or region where the local mechanics may not be familiar with your particular overland vehicle. Plus it will list all suggested factory service and maintenance intervals.

Personally, we feel that getting familiar with and confident in working on and repairing your own overland vehicle is a fun and rewarding process. Plus it can save a TON of money that can then be put towards other Overlanding Gear and adventures!

Between the Factory Service Manual, Youtube, and the collective knowledge found throughout online forums and vehicle-specific Facebook groups – there is almost always a means for any DIY mechanic to tackle repairs and maintenance themselves with the right tools and enough time.

Replace ALL Fluids

  • Engine Oil & Filter

  • Transmission Oil or Automatic Transmission Fluid & Filter

  • Front & Rear Differential Oil

  • Transfer Case Oil

  • Antifreeze/Coolant

  • Power Steering Fluid

  • Brake Fluid

  • Hydrolic Clutch Fluid (if manual transmission/applicable)

  • Grease any Serviceable Fittings (such as the driveshaft, u-joints, ball joints, tie-rod ends, drag link ends, etc.)

Engine Maintenance

  • Replace Timing Belt (or chain if applicable)

  • Replace Serpentine Belt or Other Operative Engine Belts (water pump, A/C, power steering, etc.) as applicable

  • Check and replace tensioner pulleys/idler pulleys as needed

  • Replace Water Pump, Thermostat, Radiator, and Coolant Hoses

  • Replace Valve Cover Gasket(s)

    • This is also a good time to check valve clearances and adjust the valves if needed (not all vehicles have adjustable valves)

  • Replace Oil Pan Gasket (if leaking)

  • Replace Front & Rear Main Crankshaft Seals (if leaking)

  • Alternator – test/replace/upgrade to high-output if available and desired

  • Battery – test/replace/upgrade if desired

  • Replace Air Filter

  • Ignition System: Check that coil packs are functioning (or cap & rotor if applicable), replace spark plugs, plug wires, as needed

  • Check for vacuum leaks using a vacuum gauge* and replace old or leaking vacuum lines (we recommend using silicone vacuum lines)

  • If Fuel Injected: clean the Throttle Body & Mass Airflow Sensor (controls air/fuel mixture), inspect injectors – clean or replace as necessary

  • If Carburated: clean or rebuild the carburetor, ensure throttle linkages turn freely and that there is no binding, ensure the engine timing is properly set, and adjust idle and air/fuel mixture (we’ve always used Weber Carbs due to their simplicity and the lean-best tuning method on our carbureted engines)

Replace Steering Components (as needed/applicable)

  • Inner & Outer Tie-rod ends

  • Drag link ends

  • Pitman Arm

  • Idler Arm

  • Rack & Pinion and Rack & Pinion Bushings

  • Power Steering Pump

  • Power Steering Box

  • Power Steering Hoses

  • Steering Dampener(s)

  • Steering Shaft Bushings & U-joints

  • Control Arms

Replace Other Consumables (as needed)

  • Brakes: pads, shoes, rotors, calipers, and master cylinder if needed. Inspect and replace any rusted, cracked, or dry rotted break lines

  • Swaybar bushings & end-links

  • Driveshaft U-joints

  • Ball joints

  • Wheel bearings (front & rear) – or repack if applicable and bearings are in good condition upon thorough inspection

  • CV axles (replace if they have excessive play or torn boots)

  • Axle Seals

  • Differential Pinion Seals

  • Driveshaft Center Support Bearing – on vehicles with a two-piece rear driveshaft, check the driveshaft for play/vibration and replace the center support bearing if needed/applicable

  • If Manual Transmission: replace clutch master cylinder, slave cylinder, clutch, flywheel, pilot bearing, and throwout bearing as applicable/needed

Replace Tires

Unless the tires on your used overland vehicle are new and you’re satisfied with the type of tire, it’s best to replace or upgrade the tires to a quality set of overland tires.

If you’re changing tire size this must be considered in conjunction with suspension or lift decisions as well.

Tire choice is a crucial decision on any overland build, and we have an entire guide covering How to Choose the Best Overland Tires for your new overland rig to help you with this process.

Replace Suspension

This would be a good time to upgrade the suspension to improve the handling and off-road performance of your overland vehicle. At minimum, replace any worn factory suspension components such as Springs, Coils, Shocks, Torsion Bars, Bushings, etc.

Get an Wheel Alignment from a Reputable Shop

After replacing worn steering components and/or upgrading suspension it’s always a good idea to have a professional wheel alignment performed to ensure safe steering, even vehicle tracking, and proper tire wear.

Consult the Factory Service Manual (and the Internet)

Refer to the Factory Service Manual to check for any other vehicle-specific maintenance or service items that may have been overlooked or neglected by previous owners.

We also recommend searching online for common mechanical issues with your specific overland vehicle’s make, model, year, and engine/drivetrain combination; consider performing any parts upgrades or replacements other owners have found to help circumvent these known issues.

We hope that this guide – both the methods we use for assessing used vehicles for overland travel, and how we’ve addressed getting mechanical service as up-to-date as possible on our used overland vehicles – can help you feel more confident in the process of finding and purchasing your own used overland truck or overlanding vehicle.

If you’re interested in more camping, overlanding, and family travel tips and guides, be sure to SUBSCRIBE to receive our blog updates right in your inbox.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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