Essential Upgrades for Your Off-Road Truck or Jeep
If you are new to off roading or just thinking about sticking your toes in the mud, you may wonder just how much modification your rig will need to safely leave the asphalt and hit the trails. By first considering what type of off roading you want to do, you can then focus like a laser on those all-important first upgrades. Whether you are mudding or rock climbing, here are the first upgrades you need to get your truck or Jeep ready for off road adventure.
Different Terrain Has Different Needs
So, the first thing you need to know is that the big rigs and monster trucks you see at the 4 x 4 jamborees are for show and competition. They may be seriously modified, but they aren’t for serious off roading. Fun to watch; not practical outside of the closed course where you see them run.
To transform your daily driver into a righteous off roader, you’ve got to decide where you are going to go when the pavement ends. Are you into mud and water? Will you be rock crawling? Are the desert sands whispering or are the mountains calling and you must go? Where you’re heading drives your specialized mods.
For example, water and fine sand can both choke your engine. If your game plan includes water or desert sand, you’ve got to have a snorkel. If you’re going to be rock climbing, you’ll need skid plates for most trucks and some Jeeps (plates for the transfer case and gas tank are standard on Wranglers). You get the general idea. No matter where you’re going here are the first upgrades to get you rolling.
The best way to protect the undercarriage is to get it out of the way. A lift kit raises the suspension of your truck or Jeep by accommodating larger wheels and tires that will keep it from bottoming out on rough terrain. In an effort to make newer trucks more fuel efficient and meet government-mandated standards, trucks ride lower than they did in the past. A stock suspension was fine in the 70’s and 80’s and even into the 90’s, but not anymore. Medium-duty trucks were added to the CAFÉ standards calculations starting in 2012 and it shows in the suspension.
Even if you just lift the suspension 2 to 3 inches, you clear the way for wider wheels and tires without removing the fenders (keep reading to learn more about that) and you’ll have better visibility behind the wheel. That’s important when you are just starting out because visibility will give you confidence. Speaking of visibility, a lift improves the looks of your rig too, but those are just bonus points.
Lifting changes the geometry of your truck, so don’t get carried away. As you lift your truck or Jeep, you raise the center of gravity. This can make your truck less stable when you are on the road and travelling at high speed. Keep in mind you’ll roll over much easier as the center of gravity moves up. You can get a basic do-it-yourself kit for most trucks for under $500. It will cost more if you want to include upgraded shocks and installation can run another $300. Those prices are comparable for a 3” lift on a Wrangler. A 3” lift is just what you need to make room for those larger wheels and tires.
Off Road Wheels
Now that you’ve lifted the suspension it’s time to swap out those OEM wheels for off road wheels.
Most off road wheels are made of corrosion resistant alloys. You might think you want a steel wheel, but you don’t. Alloys are generally aluminum-based. That makes them lighter and unsprung weight is important if you are thinking about going with larger tires. The goal is to increase mass of the wheel and tire without putting unnecessary strain on the bearings. Wheels with either a negative or a neutral offset will help protect the wheel from damage by the frame or suspension when the wheel is turned on rough terrain. If you aren’t sure about wheel anatomy or offsets, get up to speed with this complete guide to wheel anatomy before you go shopping.
Several wheel manufacturers have crafted entire wheel lines just for off roading. For example, MHT Luxury Alloys makes the Fuel Off-Road line of wheels. They are designed for performance off road and cast in one piece of a proprietary alloy that can withstand the rigors of off roading. Wheel Pros offers the KMC XD Series for off road racing and Moto Metal for all around off road fun. Like the Fuel Off-Road wheels, the KMC XD and Moto Metal are designed and manufactured for the unpaved environment. It’s really just a matter of finding a wheel that you like and that fits your wallet.
Price really varies on wheels. If you shop around you can get a set of KMC XD Series wheels for your truck for around $900, a bit more if you upsize. Fuel 1-Piece rims for your Jeep will run about $50 less.
Off Road Tires
Now that you’ve got off road wheels, it’s time to wrap them in oversized all terrain or mud terrain off road tires. You want tires that are taller (hey that’s why you laid out the cash for that lift) and wider. This is important for riding on unpaved terrain. You want a bigger tire to wheel ratio than the guys that only cruise the pavement. The aspect ratio is distance from the ground to the wheel compared to the width of the tire. For extreme off roading, you want tires with a very high aspect ratio to give you more sidewall surface and flexibility. That’s what improves traction. The tire better conforms to the crazy surface geometry you find when the road ends. Once you decide how wide you want to go, pick the type of tire based on your destination.
For most off roading, all terrain (AT) tires will do. They have aggressive treads that extend to reinforced sidewalls. Their block and groove tread pattern gives good grip on rocks, gravel, dirt and mud. They are generally made of softer rubber than street tires so the ride on pavement isn’t as smooth or quiet as with street tires. But you aren’t buying these tires for pavement, are you? Mud terrain (MT) tires are specifically manufactured for driving in mud and on muddy surfaces. Like AT tires, they have very deep, aggressive treads that extend to the sidewall. However, the channels are wider, so mud doesn’t pack into the tire as you drive. They are self-cleaning. That means mud channels out through the grooves just the way a street tire channels away water. That’s important because mud is slick. MTs are louder and rougher than ATs when riding in town or on the highway. Whether you go with ATs or MTs you must make sure that those bigger tires fit your rims. Use this offset to backspace calculator or ask the tire and wheel seller to check your fitment.
Now, not only do you need more tread off roading, you need more force to move that tread over the terrain. The problem is bigger tires produce less force. Because the torque produced at the wheel creates a force at the ground equal to the torque divided by the tire radius, bigger tires yield less force. You must compensate by adjusting your gear ratios, speedometer and onboard computer at a minimum. This is not a do-it-yourself job, but you should read up on the math behind crawl ratios and off road gearing to understand why this is crucial.
How much you spend on tires will depend on exactly how big you go. You can spend close to $400 per tire for Toyo MTs or as little as $130 a tire for Falken Wildpeak ATs. This does not include regearing or reprogramming for the new, wider tires.
Your lift kit may or may not include upgraded shock absorbers. If you don’t upgrade your shocks as part of the lift, you’ll probably want to do it after one or two rides on the trail.
Shocks work with your springs as part of the suspension system. They dampen the impact of obstacles you run over and they help keep the tires on the riding surface. A good set of shocks protects your wheels, your tires and you. If an off-road ride leaves you feeling whipped, time to upgrade those shocks. Not only will you feel better, you’ll have better control and more stability when off road. Remember, off road, stability is important.
For off road shocks, you’ll want either monotube shocks or reservoir shocks. Monotube shocks have one cylinder and are pressurized to about 200 – 350 psi. They have two inner chambers. One holds nitrogen gas and the other hydraulic fluid. The chamber with the fluid is where the piston and shaft move. The gas chamber is separated by a floating piston and seal. The floating piston valve never lets the gas and fluid mix. This eliminates foaming and gives better damping. Monotubes are the least expensive form of shock upgrade. KYB MonoMax shocks go for about $50 each.
Reservoir shocks are for really rough going. All shocks work by transferring the energy of kinetic movement generated by the rig’s motion into heat energy. So, if you’re really moving on rocky terrain, shocks can overheat. That’s where reservoir shocks come in handy. Reservoir shocks basically work like a monotube shock, but they have an external reservoir for additional fluid. Some are even customizable so you get just the right compression for your rig. A single rear Bilstein reservoir shock for your Jeep will set you back about $200 or $400 for the pair.
After you complete these essential upgrades, then you can start thinking about customizing with body armor, upgraded bumpers and wenches.