When it comes to off-roading, everyone has a view on what is most important. From tires to suspension to the gears used, there is no shortage of opinions on what is most important. The truth is, however, that there isn’t just one thing that makes for a great off-roader, but rather an amalgamation of things that makes a truck win in the mud. There are hundreds of upgrades and changes possible, but this list is the five that will give you the most benefit and bang for your buck. 1. Tires (photo credit: igotphotos)
When starting to off-road, the first step should be tires. Street tires are great on pavement and some are even good in the rain or snow, but when it comes to dirt and mud, street tires just won’t do. Upgrade to a tire with deep treads and tough sidewalls. These will wear out quickly on the road, so if you’re using this as a daily driver, you should probably get used to switching tires out at home. If you’re using the same tires on and off the road, lower the pressure for the trail, it’ll help you grip better. 2. Differentials (image source: R. Harvey)
Most off the lot vehicles have open differentials. This means that the wheel that has the least traction gets the most power. When dealing with less than optimal substrate like mud and loose dirt, this isn’t what you want happening. Rather than this loss of power, you want your wheels to all have the same level of power, no matter the traction they are getting. This can be done with a locking differential. This is different than trucks with 4WD systems, mind you. Here we’re talking about both wheels on a given axle having the same power no matter what. There are different ways of doing this
, but the result is the same. If one wheel slips, the other makes up for it, instead of giving its power up. 3. Suspension and Lift (image source: Lifted Trucks USA)
For the sake of off-roading, suspension means a few things. First, it refers to the shock absorption aspects of the suspension, very important so you don’t bounce over a hill by mistake. A good off-road suspension can keep you from flipping over and rolling down the very hill you’re trying to climb. Here you want a solid axle that limits independent suspension and travel. You gain more wheel articulation but lose comfort. When lifting a truck you get two options. The first is a body lift, which is great for adding larger wheels and tires, but does nothing for your angles or ground clearance. For those you need a suspension lift. This type of lift raises you up on your suspension instead of just the body, giving you better approach, departure, and breakover angles all while making sure you have enough ground clearance to get through ruts and up hills. 4. Skid Plates (image credit: Halfshaft)
A good set of skid plates won’t do much to make you go faster of climb better, but they will make sure you don’t destroy your gas tank or suspension when the inevitable rock comes knocking from below. The main points of protection are the gas tank, transfer case, differentials, and oil pan. The more you can protect the better. Having good skid plates has nearly no negative impact on your driving but will help make sure your ride makes it back off the trail. 5. Gearing (image courtesy of Kecko)
Just like with differentials, most vehicles meant for the highway have more conservative gear ratios to make for smooth sailing on the open road, but when you want to go nice and slow with tons of torque, they aren’t the best option. You can look for a truck with a very low first gear (the good ole granny gear), but if you’re really hard-core about your off-road rig, an entirely new set of gears might be in order. There is actually math involved for getting the sweet spot of gear ratios, especially if you’re changing wheels and tires. Check out this site for more on gear ratios
While there are hundreds of ways to upgrade your truck, if you start with these five you’ll be on the road to off-road fun as soon as possible. These are also the areas you can focus on to take your off-roading to the next level, too. The one thing this list doesn’t touch on is safety equipment. This is one of the most overlooked and yet most important pieces of off-road equipment you can have. Look for a future post on safety equipment like a winch, first-aid kit, and even train horns.