Earlier this week, I got an email from a reader. Meena writes: “I am looking to build out an adventure rig for some South Florida fun and camping…$10,000 budget including the truck. What should I buy and what do I need to do to it?”
That’s a great question and a reasonable budget. Any vehicle you plan to take off-roading stands at higher-than-usual odds of being damaged—and often damage that occurs off-road won’t be covered by insurance. Taking an expensive new car off-road is an easy way to find yourself underwater on a car loan, on a car that's actually stranded under water. And, as Ty Brookhart detailed last year, $10,000 is all you need to build a truck that’s both reliable and capable.
But that truck is also going to be slow, unsafe compared to modern vehicles, and a gas guzzler. If it’s a vehicle you plan to drive regularly, it’s going to be a nightmare to live with.
My response to Meena was to ask her what she really planned to use the truck for. Like her, if you simply plan to travel off-road to reach remote camp sites and support other hobbies, you probably need way less vehicle than you think you do. In all likelihood, all you really need is a set of tires.
There’s Off-Roading and Then There’s Off-Roading
Fire up the Internets, visit any popular forum, Instagram account, or Facebook page devoted to anything 4x4, and you’re going to see some absolutely epic off-road action. Fields of VW-sized boulders will be crossed, rivers will be forded, 60-degree slopes will be climbed, and winches will be employed to drag broken cars off the trail.
Playing in off-highway vehicle (OHV) parks is a fun hobby, and something I’ve enjoyed off and on over the years. But it’s not an accurate picture of what it’s like to travel off-road. Honestly, it’s not even a realistic picture of what those OHV parks are like.
Take the the slick rock trails in Moab, Utah, for instance. The most notorious of which is Hell’s Revenge (above). On it, you can tackle off-camber climbs, huge stairs, and even deep potholes from which all but only the most capable vehicles will need to be winched out. Better bring a highly-modified Jeep, right? Well, I took a bone stock Toyota Tacoma through it a couple years ago, without any issues (top). Turns out the emphasis on Hell’s Revenge is that you can choose to tackle the tough stuff. You can also choose to simply drive around those obstacles.
The reality of most off-road travel—away from dedicated OHV parks and designated 4x4 trails—is that most of the terrain you’ll cross is so simple, a 2WD vehicle will often have no problems, so long as the terrain's dry.
Last year, I crossed Australia’s Simpson Desert in a convoy of highly-modified old 4x4s. That’s considered one of the most challenging off-road journeys in the world, but I’d say the vast majority of the terrain we crossed would have been easily handled by pretty much any stock truck on decent tires. The remaining 10 percent or so that was very difficult, and did require the aftermarket modifications our trucks were wearing. (We also largely could have avoided these areas by detouring five, ten, or 20 miles out of our way.) We got stuck in the mud because we wanted to, not because we had to.
Knowledge Goes Further Than Equipment
Determining which obstacles your vehicle can safely make it through, and how you should get through them, is entirely a function of knowledge and experience. It doesn’t matter how big your tires are, how many of your diffs lock, or how many pounds your winch can pull—it matters how you use them.
A month or two ago, I took a fully-built Nissan Titan—lift, big mud-terrains, bumpers, sliders, locking diffs, winch, the works—into a remote hot spring 35 miles from pavement down in Baja, Mexico. It rode nicer and carried more stuff than the beat-up old Honda Civics the locals were driving, but the beat-up old Civics still made it in without issue.
Last summer, the guys who designed the new Chevy Colorado ZR2 took it across the Rubicon Trail—one of the most challenging 4x4 trails in North America—without incurring significant damage. Conventional wisdom states that unmodified trucks should never attempt the Rubicon, but those engineers were so familiar with their truck’s angles, equipment, and capabilities, that they made it through, even in something that’s ultimately not all that capable, even as stock trucks go.
If you want to spend money on off-roading, you’ll be able to go further, in more safety, if you take classes, read books, and solicit help from experienced friends.
What Modifications Do and How They Ruin Your Truck
Let’s walk through the most popular modifications people make in pursuit of off-road capability and talk about what they do.
Note: A common theme you'll see below is added weight. Weight is the enemy of performance, fuel economy, braking, handling, and ride quality. A vehicle with all these things on it will be very capable off-road, but on pavement, it’ll ride poorly, have less grip, be much slower, handle poorly, be so loud it becomes unbearable to spend much time on the highway, and be unsafe in multiple ways, from increased braking distances to a propensity for rollovers.
Pros: Larger tires roll more easily over large obstacles.
Cons: Larger tires effectively reduce your gear ratio, which reduces the amount of force your engine can apply to the surface it’s driving on. This necessitates expensively re-gearing your vehicle, which ruins fuel economy. Larger tires are also heavier tires. Because the engine needs to work harder, through less effective gearing to accelerate that tire, they will make your truck slower. Because your brakes will have to work harder to decelerate that tire, your brakes will become weaker. Because your tires are heavier, they will also make your suspension work harder as they move up and down, ruining your ride quality. Large tires also deflect more on-road, as you take corners, spoiling your handling as your truck bobs around on the huge sidewalls. They’re extremely loud at highway speeds.
Pros: You lift your truck to clear your big tires, so lifts make it possible to fit larger tires. Looks cool parked outside Piggly Wiggly.
Cons: Raises your center of gravity, making it more likely that your truck will roll over both off-road and during evasive maneuvers or high-speed corners on-road. Messes with your suspension geometry, often requiring thousands of dollars in additional modifications to fit correctly, and decreasing the life of crucial components like bearings. Destroys your fuel economy.
Steel Bumpers and Sliders
Pros: Protect your bodywork from low-speed off-road impacts. Add the ability to mount a winch, spare tire, lights, jerry cans, Hi-Lift jacks, and other accessories.
Cons: Weigh a ton and may reduce your vehicle’s crash worthiness on-road.
Pros: Give you more room to carry more crap. Look cool parked outside Sheetz.
Cons: Add weight in the worst possible place—on top of your car—worsening the problems created by lifts. Carrying stuff on the rack then makes that problem even worse. Destroys your fuel economy.
Drawers, Fridges, and Other Interior Modifications
Pros: Enable you to store your recovery gear and camping equipment more conveniently. Look great on Instagram.
Cons: Eat up interior volume, destroying your truck’s versatility. All this stuff gets in the way of both passenger and cargo room, while adding weight.
Pros: Enable you to self-rescue a stuck truck or help another vehicle to safety.
Cons: Hugely dangerous in inexperienced hands, the weight and tension created by a 5,000+ pound vehicle is simply massive. Adds weight.
Modifications That Actually Help
Light All-Terrain Tires
Keep them the same size as stock or something very close to it, and you’ll add both puncture-resistance and off-road traction. Punctures are no joke off-road, and are why a set of light all-terrains are the single best modification you can make. Consider these essential. They’ll still increase your unsprung weight, and therefore will have a small impact on performance, braking, fuel economy, and ride quality, so look for an option like the Maxxis Bravo 771 or Yokohama Geolander that are as light as possible. If you drive a larger, heavier vehicle, then a heavy duty all-terrain may be a better option. The BF Goodrich K02 remains an excellent option.
An Air Compressor and Plug Kit
You can fix a flat on the side of a road in about 10 minutes, almost for free. You'll want a good compressor that will fill tires quickly and reliably, without blowing your fuse. A quality plug kit will permanently seal punctures and deal with other common tire issues.
Snatch Strap and Shackles
Much safer and easier than winching, carrying an appropriately-rated snatch strap and shackles will enable you to tow another car out of an obstacle or get towed yourself. ARB just released a new kit that’s affordable and targeted at casual off-roaders.
Even safer and easier, these heavily textured nylon boards allow you to simply drive out of pretty much any obstacle. They double as shovels.
A Basic Tool Kit
Unless you’re pretty experienced at wrenching, you’re not going to be able to tackle major mechanical problems. But you’d be amazed at how many small problems will arise due to the vibrations and bumps of driving on dirt. Just carrying a basic set of pliers, wrenches, a ratchet with bits, some zip ties, super glue, duct tape, and other basics will empower you with the ability to effect these minor, but potentially critical repairs.
An Easy Tire Deflator
Fitted all-terrains? Great! Now you need to learn how to use them properly. For safety and fuel economy, you should run stock tires pressures on-road, as listed on the sticker inside your driver’s door jam. Off-road, you’ll want to drop down to between 20 (firm surfaces) and 8 PSI (very soft sand or mud, no hard obstacles) to maximize traction and reduce the potential for punctures. An easy deflator makes this process much faster, while that air compressor you already bought makes it quick and easy to re-inflate once you’re back on pavement.
Most of the dangers your vehicle will face off-road don’t come from the front, rear, or sides—they come from underneath. Drive over an unexpectedly pointy rock, and you risk damaging essential, relatively fragile components like your oil pan, transmission, differentials, or exhaust. Skid plates can easily be bolted on, and they add a massive amount of protection, don't impact your fuel economy or safety, and can be easily removed. Consider them cheap insurance.
So What Should You Buy?
I’m a big proponent of leasing affordable new cars, instead of buying something fancier, but used. The reality today is that most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the predictable expenses of leasing help avoid financial disasters caused by unexpected repairs. This isn't to say that you should lease a new Grand Cherokee instead of buying a three-year old one, it's that you should save money by lease a $200/month Subaru Crosstrek instead of purchasing that more expensive, but older Jeep.
With a lease, you’re still able to make simple bolt-on/bolt-off modifications like skid plates, and can fit all-terrain tires. Just return the vehicle to stock before you swap it out for your next ride.
Simple off-road camping excursions are totally fine to do with new vehicles. Use some common sense, don’t go farther than the vehicle is capable of, and you’ll appreciate the ice-cold A/C, cushy ride, and excellent fuel economy.
Is most of your driving on-road, with occasional weekend camping trips on dirt roads or snow? Whichever Subaru is the right size for you will be perfect. Just fit all-terrain tires, maybe some skid plates, and you’ll be good to go.
Want to go a little farther, and tackle some more challenging trips? There’s not much a stock Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Cherokee from the 1990s or early 2000s can’t handle. Have a mechanic give it a once over, fit a set of all-terrain tires, and you’re all set.
Don’t want to risk messing up your daily driver? Rent something with real four-wheel drive, then throw that tire repair stuff and those MaxTrax in the back before you set out. Often a weekend in a full-size truck will be as cheap as $200. Split that four ways, and it’s probably cheaper than adding miles to your own car. And definitely way cheaper than modifying it.