If you're new to off-roading and considering a lift kit for your truck or SUV, this article is for you. We'll cover some basic concepts everyone should understand before they buy a lift kit, as well as go into detail about each type of lift kit available on the market.
Why Are You Lifting Your Vehicle?
Common reasons for lifting a truck or SUV are:
Increasing the maximum size of tires you can mount
Increasing the vehicle's overall height and/or changing the vehicle's appearance
Increasing suspension travel
These are all good goals. Each type of lift kit serves certain purposes better than others, and each has their own pros and cons. There are the six types of lift kits available to off-road enthusiasts, as well as some notes about each type of kit that can help you make a selection.
1. Body Lift Kits
Body lifts increase the distance between the vehicle body and the vehicle frame. This allows for larger tires to be mounted (only trimming is often required), and it also gives a vehicle a taller, "bigger" appearance. Body lift kits are typically inexpensive, and on many vehicles they are the only lift kit option available.
Body lifts come with a few downsides:
They can be difficult to install
Even though the ground clearance stays the same (as you're lifting only the body, not the frame), the vehicle's center of gravity rises quite a bit, often making your vehicle less stable
Body lift kits do not improve suspension travel
If your primary goal is to increase the size of your tires and/or change your vehicle's appearance, a body lift is a "win" in that it allows you to put some bigger tires on your rig. But if you're looking for a way to lift your vehicle that also enhances off-road ability, this is probably the last type of lift kit you want to consider.
2. Spacer Lift Kits
Spacer lifts come in a few different configurations, but they all use the same basic principle to lift a vehicle. Essentially, a spacer is inserted between the frame and springs. The spacer adds lift by either a) changing the characteristics of the spring, or b) changing the resting height of the vehicle.
Here's how a spacer lift kit works on each type of suspension system:
On a coilover suspension, the spacer changes the resting characteristics of the coil spring. The spring "sits" higher because it's slightly compressed by the spacer. This changes the ride height of the vehicle, but it does so at the sacrifice of suspension travel. Suspension droop and/or compression are often reduced, which can make it harder to maintain traction on an obstacle.
On a leaf spring suspension, a spacer (or block) sits between the axle and the spring. This increases the resting height of the vehicle, but it does so by essentially lowering the axle. This means the factory travel is unchanged.
Spacer lifts are popular because they're inexpensive and relatively easy to install. While they don't enhance the factory suspension system, they don't completely ruin the factory suspension either. For a lot of vehicles and owners, a spacer lift is just fine.
3. Shackle Lifts
Shackle lifts change the attachment point between the vehicle and the axles, which increases the vehicle's ride height.
Shackles change the attachment point between the leaf spring and the frame.
Of course, because shackle kits are only increasing the distance between the frame and the axles (rather than increasing the distance between the ground and the axles), they don't do anything for suspension travel. Still, these kits are inexpensive, and they don't upset the factory suspension geometry too much. Mounting larger tires is always good too.
4. Bracket Lift Kits
Bracket lifts work by moving the frame of your vehicle lower - you cut your frame, install a bracket that drops down lower than the factory frame, and then mount the suspension to the new lower bracket. In a way, bracket lifts are the opposite of body lifts. Instead of raising the body, they just lower the frame.
The trouble with bracket lift kits is that they have many of the same problems that body lift kits have - they raise a vehicle's center of gravity considerably, they don't increase suspension travel, and in some cases they can even reduce ground clearance, as the brackets you mount to your vehicle can decrease the distance between the frame and the ground.
Bracket lifts tend to be more popular on pickup trucks than on Jeeps or SUVs.
5. Spring Replacement Lift Kits
Replacing the springs on your vehicle comes with several benefits:
You can increase suspension travel (assuming the new springs are bigger)
You can mount a set of shocks tuned to match the springs, allowing for better overall performance off-road
You can increase the quality and durability of your vehicle's suspension, which is a key component
Most coil spring replacement kits include a new control arm and ball joint, which are needed to accommodate the larger spring that's used on these kits. Leaf spring replacement kits should come with a shock that's tuned to match the new leaf springs.
Finally, by replacing the springs, you can increase the vehicle's ride height. Most spring replacement kits have the option to adjust ride height, allowing you to mount larger tires and make your vehicle look "big" too.
6. Mid-Travel and Long-Travel Kits
Last but certainly not least, we come to mid-travel and long travel suspension kits. These kits come in a lot of different configurations, but they generally include new upper and lower control arms (for coil suspensions) and new frame mounting hardware for leaf springs. Sometimes, these kits will substantially alter the frame of the vehicle to accommodate dramatically increased travel.
Mid-travel and long-travel kits can be configured to increase vehicle lift several inches, but mostly these kits are about increasing travel. With greater suspension travel, off-roading becomes easier (and more fun). A long travel kit is necessary when you own an SUV and you want to tackle serious obstacles.
If there's a downside to mid-travel kits and long-travel kits, it's cost. Upgrading a vehicle's suspension system isn't cheap and a mid-travel or long-travel kit is overkill if you're not an avid off-road enthusiast.
Which Lift Kit is Best For My Vehicle?
The short answer is that there is no answer. For some people, the off-road "look" is all they want. They don't need more off-road performance, which means performance upgrades aren't necessary. If this is the case for you, then a body, spacer, or shackle lift kit is just what you need.
For those looking to upgrade their vehicle's performance, the only answer is a spring replacement kit (or better).
Whatever you decide, our best advice: don't go cheap. The more you spend on a quality suspension kit now, the less you'll have to spend later repairing the damage caused by a cheap kit pushed beyond it's limits. At Sam's 4x4, we sell only premium off-road brands. Rough Country, Teraflex, and Superlift are the only brands we trust enough to add to our lineup of lift kits.
If you need help selecting the right off-road lift kit for your vehicle, feel free to contact us. Happy trails!