Can you solve this puzzle?

The title image looks like a jigsaw but is not a puzzle.

Well, whatever it is, the solution is simple. Don’t make the false economy of buying sub-standard gear. That’s easy to say, so let’s get a bit more specific.

Traction ramps are frequently used in offroad situations to aid traction, flotation or to fill out ruts. At about 4pm one Saturday that set in the picture were brand new, not a mark on them, never used. At 4.15 they were broken, snapped, smashed and comprehensively destroyed having served no useful purpose other than to provide me with something to write about here.

How so? All we did was lay them down in ruts for clearance and traction, which is what they’re designed for. The hill in question was so slippery we needed as many of these ramps as we could get, and mustered eight in total, four of these yellow ones from a friend and four orange ones from a different manufacturer that I owned. The yellow ramps simply shattered under the weight of a 4WD, but the orange ones held up, as they have done for many years now over hundreds of recoveries.

This is just one example of poor quality gear either breaking or just not being able to do the job it was bought for, making it a complete waste of money. Here’s some more from my experience:

  • Compressors that struggle to air up three tyres before melting on the fourth
  • Bullbars that don’t fit without bringing out the power tools
  • Tent pegs that bend when hammered into even boggy ground
  • Tents that come apart at the seams, zips that don’t work in wet or dusty conditions
  • Sand flags that snap in a high wind
  • Camper trailers that leave a trail of components along a corrguated dirt road
  • Offroad wheels that lose caps and retain mud insider the rim

It’s worrying stuff, and no matter how good the deal it’s a waste of money if the product fails.

So, how can you tell what gear is quality, and what’s not? Well, your first clue is if it’s half the price or less than the well known competition. Fact is, there’s not a huge amount of margin in car products because no product is unique. Ask youself how the other guys can manage to do the job for half the money, and pretty much all the time the answer is that the product or service isn’t as good.

In the case of these ramps, the cheapies were $200 for four, compared to $5-600 or so for the real deal. But when you consider costs  you also need factor in more than manufacturing costs. Quality products have undergone a lot of design and testing, significant expenditure which has to be recouped so while the cost to build may be low, the cost to create is high. And decent warranty with support doesn’t come cheap either.

Interestingly, cost isn’t always a direct indicator of quality. I have a set of handheld UHF radios that are cheap, over ten years old and going strong even though they have been dropped in mud, used in rain and generally abused. Contrast that with a set of expensive radios with a fiddly interface that isn’t intuitive, and lacking things like easy belt clips. Field testing, anyone? And I’ve tested super-expensive windscreen wipers that made no difference whatsoever, and I know because I ran both cheap and pricey at the same time on different blades on the same car.  I think that while they look nice, aftermarket wheels don’t offer any functional advantage over factory, and significant disadvantages in some cases. There’s any number of overpriced products offering benefits that you don’t have a hope of seeing in reality.

Now this might be a bit confusing – cost is mostly an indicator of poor quality gear, but not always. Sorry if this isn’t clear, but despite what the average pollie says, the world is not black and white. And what is ‘quality’ anyway? I’d define it as a product that effectively does what it’s mean to do, is easy to use, doesn’t fail under real-world operating conditions and has a useful service life.

It would be nice to have top-quality products in every aspect of our lives, but fact is, it’s not necessary even if we could afford it. If you’re looking at driving lights and just want a bit of extra illumination you don’t need to spend top dollar on an array of LEDs, and if you barely do any camping an el cheapo camp chair will be fine. None of those products are so bad they break on first use because there’s no point buying that level of quality – they’re just below average quality and therefore cost. Working out what quality you need is a question of priortisation, and that’s actually quite easy, because the one area you must not compromise is safety.

The safety-related equipment is anything that if it fails will hurt or injure someone, directly or indirectly. For roadcars, that’s things like brakes, tyres and servicing. For 4X4 tourers, add onto that recovery gear and the basics like shelter (camp) and food (cooking gear and the like). For towers consider the brakes, tyres and the hitch. Only after you get the safety gear done should you think about spending up on non-essentials, such as cosmetic enhancements.  Oh, and setup and training is just as important as buying the gear.

The question of gear quality isn’t simple, but if you wanted one piece of advice then you could just follow the time-honured cliche of “if it looks too good to be true it probably is.”

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is the editor of PM4x4, an offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com