A guide to maximizing your off-road performance
Off-roading is challenging to define, which makes the topic of modifications for off-road vehicles even harder to explore. One person might think of off-roading as driving down a well-maintained gravel road, while another individual believes that it's not proper off-roading unless the vehicle is covered in mud, dents, and scrapes at the end.
This brings us neatly to the first questions you need to ask yourself: what do you want to do with your 4x4? Will it be your only car, and used for multiple applications? Does it still have to function daily? Or is it exclusively to be used off the beaten track? The answers to these questions will guide your modifications and determine what off-road parts you need. Luckily, no modifications are required for light off-roading: pick any SUV or truck with an all-wheel-drive or part-time/permanent four-wheel-drive system, and you're good to go.
The most common mistake people make when it comes to car or truck upgrades is starting at the wrong end of the spectrum. It's also worth remembering that every modification comes with a penalty, ie: increasing the ride height affects the center of gravity, creating havoc with a modern truck's traction control systems. So, when it comes to car and truck modification for off-road duty, do your homework or get professional input when deciding what you want to change.
The best place to start is with a set of off-road tires, including a spare tire or two. The increase in ground clearance will be minimal, but clearance is worthless without grip. Fitting an off-road suspension or a lift kit means absolutely nothing if you're still running a set of all-terrain tires. So, when thinking about how to make a car off-road ready, step one is to look at tires. For this guide, we'll look at three main categories of tires (be sure to read our full breakdown on all things tires, here):
As the modern SUV is expected to fulfill many roles, most are equipped with all-terrain tires as standard these days. An all-terrain tire is perfect for regular dirt road driving, but it's quickly defeated in more severe conditions. The tread soon fills up with mud, essentially leaving you with a slick tire with zero grip.
Snow tires are related to the season. They're made of a special rubber compound that remains flexible below a specific temperature. Standard tires will simply freeze, like everything else.
Most modded trucks will be equipped with either rock- or mud-terrain tires. Both have a lot in common, such as big tread blocks, reinforced sidewalls, and a deep tread depth. The bigger tread blocks provide grip in extreme off-road conditions, and the reinforced sidewalls will stop punctures from happening. On the downside, these tires offer appalling grip on-road.
As we mentioned earlier, everything comes at a price. In the case of single-purpose tires, you have to sacrifice on-road stability. Using them daily is not just annoying, but both costly and dangerous. So, while our first tip is to start with the tires, we don't recommend fitting them permanently unless you're building an off-road performance machine with no other application. A better idea is to buy a separate set of steel rims and tires.
As a general rule of thumb, any vehicle with 4WD, low-range gearing, a locking rear differential, and a set of off-road tires should be a competent machine. But some adventurers like to take things to the extreme, testing the limits of what their purpose-built machines are capable of. This can be on a technical off-road track like the Rubicon Trail, or a multi-day overland adventure. This is the next level up from a simple tire upgrade, which, as previously mentioned, should be good enough for most.
The more severe mods that affect off-road performance include the following:
Once again, there's a misconception that we need to address. It's not a question of either-or, but most people go the lift route because it's a more affordable off-road mod. A set of two to 2.5-inch spacers cost around $100, and it increases the ride height and allows you to fit bigger tires, but the ground clearance stays the same.
A suspension-based lift is more expensive and more complex. It makes it possible to fit larger tires, increases the ride height and ground clearance. On the downside, the ride and handling of the vehicle will be dramatically different.
So, what is the best off-road suspension setup available? While a truck with an 18-inch lift looks cool, it's not practical unless we're talking about the best mudding trucks. The best compromise is a full suspension kit with adjustable damping. It costs a lot, but you can do more with it.
One of the most critical 4x4 off-road parts is a basic steel plate. Underbody protection is integral because not all sharp rocks can be avoided. You might have chosen the perfect line through a rocky section, but then the rear wheels lose traction and the car's angle changes by 45 degrees in a second. Suddenly you have multiple sharp rocks underneath the vehicle, but it's okay because you have an inch of steel between said rocks and the differential.
Steel bumpers not only look cool, but they serve multiple purposes. They're one of the best truck mods, not just from a style perspective, but also usability. A truck's standard bumpers are meant for low-speed impact in the city. A steel bumper will likely take a chunk out of the pillar. The primary purpose of a steel bumper is to take the kind of abuse a regular bumper can't.
An aftermarket bumper comes with a better recovery point, too. Most off-road vehicles have a recovery point, but you'd be surprised how easily said point disappears under a foot of mud or sand. Recovering a car from the bumper is much easier and just as safe as using the OEM recovery point. A decent replacement bumper is mounted to the frame, which is the most substantial part of the car. This makes it the perfect place for latching a recovery strap.
If you're going hardcore off-roading, you will get stuck at some point - it's not fun if you don't. One of the ultimate off-road modifications is a winch, which is helpful for helping others out and for self-recovery. When shopping around for a winch, take a careful look at the specifications and buy according to your car's modified weight and not the curb weight as claimed by the manufacturer.
A roof rack might seem like an overland-only modification, but it can be useful for carrying spare tires or lifestyle accessories. You will likely damage a tire at some point, especially when rock crawling. Some rocks are sharp and hard enough to tear through three layers of sidewall.
A decent roof rack isn't that expensive, making it one of those cheap truck mods with various applications. We suggest going for a rack that's easy to remove when you don't need it. Apart from the inevitable wind noise, it will also affect fuel efficiency if you're cruising down the highway with it every day.
Truck modifications tend to be expensive, which isn't ideal if you want to make a hobby of this. A cheap 4x4-equipped truck or SUV, purchased for this specific reason, is the best starting point - the whole premise is based on not having any kind of mechanical sympathy, so why would you add expensive parts to it?
There are some parts you can easily equip for less than $100.
If you're handy at welding, you can make your own custom rock sliders. If not, search around for used parts that fit within your budget; find used solid axles that can be equipped with minimal changes. The sixth- and seventh-generation Ford F-150s were fitted with an extremely sturdy rear axle that could easily handle tires up to 40-inches. It easily slots into the rear of multiple old-school off-roaders, including any Jeep with an SJ platform.
You can also just give the engine a basic service. As mentioned earlier, a lift kit is much cheaper than a complete suspension kit. We prefer the latter, but a simple lift kit is a better option when working on a budget.
Some of the best tips for off-roading are actually fairly logical:
Every single modification has its upsides and downsides. Mud- and rock-terrain tires are noisy and have less grip on the tarmac. A roof rack is excellent from a practical point of view, but it's also loud and hurts gas mileage. A suspension lift kit improves ground clearance and articulation, but the higher center of gravity makes it less stable on the road. When you fit aftermarket parts, there's a good chance it wasn't designed uniquely for your specific car. And if you have the option of a component designed for your vehicle specifically, it's always worth paying a higher price over a part that wasn't.
To demonstrate, we'll use some common mistakes from parts mentioned above. Lift kits are cheap, but the kit often includes spacers and no drop-down brackets for the differential. Fitting larger tires messes with the gear ratios and can lead to a decrease in power. The car's speedometer will also be inaccurate, reading slower than your actual speed. Depending on how big the difference is, you might get a speeding ticket while under the impression that you're obeying the limit.
The big takeaway from this is that there is a positive and negative to each upgrade, which is why you need to decide what your truck will be used for. If you intend to use it daily, we'd recommend a lift kit and maybe a tire swap if conditions demand it. Look at the car holistically, and not just at the modification. Do some investigation and determine whether other owners are happy with a specific upgrade or whether it had a dire effect on their vehicle. If it's a project or hobby vehicle, the only limitation is budget and safety. Building the ultimate usually results in showing off, and that typically results in a YouTube fail video.
This is always a good plan. Training is primarily safety-focused, showing you the correct way to use your car without doing any damage to it, or yourself. The theoretical knowledge is also worth it. An instructor will explain the various 4WD systems (AWD, part-time 4WD, full-time 4WD) and when to use each. In addition to all of this, a proper training course will also focus on recovery and basic maintenance techniques. Multiple accessories can do some serious bodily harm, and before you take on the great outdoors, you need to know how to use them properly.
This argument has been going on for generations and will keep on going long after you're done reading this. With all the modern driver assistance systems, it's an even tougher call to make. When talking about factory standard, something like the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon jumps to mind. It has all of the crucial components like 4WD with low range and locking differentials front and rear. The Wrangler also allows you to disconnect the front sway bar for more articulation. Jeep also understands the aftermarket scene, as the Wrangler comes standard with blank active switches on the dash to which you can connect any number of aftermarket accessories. On the downside, it's not an easy car to live with daily.
The best answer to this question depends on your precise needs: a standard 4x4 drivetrain, high reliability score, a strong powertrain, and the correct off-road settings and drive modes are some of the must-haves in the segment. That being said, the Ford Expedition, Land Rover Range Rover, and GMC Yukon all score highly on our list of top off-roaders.
Any kind of truck will also get the job done. The Ford F-150 is a prime example. Since so many are made, many third-party manufacturers develop parts specifically for it. Toyota's Tacoma, 4Runner or Land Cruiser. The all-new Land Rover Defender is also quite good, but it's pricy. The best off-roader is a used beater that you can afford to have no sympathy for.
Yes and no. It depends on how traditional you are when it comes to off-roading. Many folks believe that an off-roader should have a manual gearbox, solid axles front and rear, and manually locking hubs and differentials. They see a brake-based traction control system as the devil's work. Systems like Land Rover's Terrain Response makes it as easy as pie. You simply look out the window and select the type of terrain on a rotary dial. We're in favor of any system that makes off-roading as safe as possible.