Not all off-road vehicles are created equal. If you’re looking to have the baddest off-road vehicle on the block, there are 7 major factors you need to consider. If you can strike the right balance between all these concerns, you'll have a serious off-road performer.
1. Ground Clearance and "Angles"
Your vehicle’s ground clearance matters a lot when it comes to off-roading. More is better, as a general rule. To give you an idea of how much ground clearance your vehicle has - and how that compares to capable off-road vehicles - here's some data about factory ground clearance on a few new vehicles.
2017 Wrangler Rubicon - 10 inches
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road - 9.4 inches
2017 Raptor F-150 - 11.5 inches
While there are some great off-road vehicles with less ground clearance, nearly every good off-roader has at least 9 inches between the ground and the vehicle’s underside. The great off-road vehicles have more, which means you might need to invest in a lift kit to improve your vehicle’s ground clearance.
NOTE: Lift kits don't actually increase ground clearance, at least not most of them. What they allow you to do is mount larger tires. This, in turn, can increase ground clearance.
In addition to ground clearance, angles of approach and departure are important, as is the breakover angle. If your vehicle has a poor angle of approach, you will have trouble getting your tires on larger obstacles. Likewise, if the angle of departure isn't steep enough, your vehicle will 'hit' as it clears an obstacle, potentially causing damage. And if the breakover angle is too small, your vehicle may become stuck on top of an obstacle halfway across.
Angles of approach, departure, and breakover explained. Image copyright Robert W. Kranz.
Again, a lift kit can help here, as can some modifications to bumpers. Larger tires and a replacement bumper can often improve angles substantially. Basically, angles and ground clearance are related. More is better for both.
With a good set of all terrain tires or mud terrain tires, your vehicle will have an easier time tackling different types of terrain. You can opt for another type of tires; anything with an aggressive tread pattern and tough sidewalls is better than a stock tire.
But remember: Tires that are great off-road are often terrible on city streets. If you're trying to build a great off-road vehicle that also does commuting duty, you might want to compromise here.
3. Underbody Protection
No matter how high your ground clearance is, your vehicle’s underside is vulnerable to damage if left unprotected. Your gas tank, differential, transfer case, and other components can get torn up or punctured when they come into contact with rocks, stumps, debris, or anything else on an off-road trail. A good set of skid plates helps with this problem.
Additionally, if you off-road in a place with a lot of big sharp rocks, rock rails can be a great option too. They will protect your body and frame from damage that might otherwise occur during crawling.
What fun is off-roading if you can’t see well at night? With LED lights mounted in front or on top of your vehicle, you can venture out into the darkness or thick greenery with confidence. We offer a variety of premium LED lights for your off-road vehicle.
Lighting is one of those things that you don't appreciate until you need it. Then, you're very glad to have it. If your off-road adventure runs longer than expected, and you find yourself miles away from pavement as the sun goes down, your standard headlights probably won't cut it. A set of after-market LED offroad lights will make all the difference.
Like most things automotive, lighter is better when it comes to off-roading. Weight reduction has a lot of direct and indirect benefits:
Lighter vehicles hustle over obstacles more easily
Lighter vehicles are easier to control on difficult terrain
Lighter vehicles tend to have a lower center of gravity, reducing the odds of rollover
There aren't a lot of easy ways to reduce weight, but there are a few. If you have a Jeep Wrangler, you may be able to remove doors and the vehicle's hardtop. If you don't have a vehicle with these features, you can look at removing accessories that don't have a lot of utility.
Your cool looking roof basket and cargo basket might give your SUV some extra storage space (and look great), but it also raises your center of gravity. If you can live without it (and other accessories like it), you can save weight.
6. A Winch
A good winch is worth its weight in gold if you're stuck in the middle of nowhere without a 'buddy' to help you get unstuck.* And, even if you have a buddy, a winch is often the only way to get a vehicle that's in trouble out of trouble.
A Rough Country Jeep bumper shown with an integrated winch and light mounts.
A good winch will be rated at at least twice the loaded weight of your vehicle. Additionally, you'll have a 'winch kit' that includes shackles, a snatch block, a tree trunk protector, and a great set of gloves. You also want a heavy blanket to throw over your winch cable, so that if it should snap during recovery, the cable doesn't fly back and injure someone.
*NOTE: Never go anywhere off-road without a buddy if at all possible. Trails are much safer when off-roading as a group.
Last but not least, we come to engine power output. While people who like to drive fast usually talk about horsepower, off-road enthusiasts should focus on torque.
In physics, torque is the ability to do work. More torque from your engine means your vehicle can scurry over that big rock just a little easier, or crawl over that tree trunk with ease. Torque is good, and more torque is very often better.
However, torque isn't #1 on our list for a reason. If you increase the torque output of your engine without making other modifications (namely, improving your vehicle's tires), you may find that your extra torque just spins your wheels. Still, all things being equal, torque helps.
There's a lot that goes into building a great off-road vehicle. The trick is to balance all your needs and focus on changes that will do the most good. If you choose a vehicle that has good ground clearance and angles, you'll have an off-road vehicle that can likely outperform a nicer, more powerful vehicle with lesser ground clearance. Likewise, a good set of tires goes a long way towards off-roading compared to something like a winch or lighting.
Finally, if you have questions or would like to bounce some build ideas off one of our experts, just contact us and we’ll be happy to help.