Going off-road usually means airing your tires down and up—a lot. Onboard air compressors, such as this OB2 100-percent duty cycle unit from Air-Zenith (www.air-zenith.com), are an inexpensive and compact way of having air with you. For rigs with additional cargo space, an air tank can be fitted with your compressor for faster service and help with powering low- to moderate-volume air tools.
A good suspension system will increase wheel travel, ride quality, and off-road performance. There may be some give and take between on- and off-road manners, so do your research before investing in a kit. Modern 4x4s have pretty competent suspension systems that can work well in stock form. Don’t worry so much if your rig doesn’t have a huge lift kit or ultralong travel. Often good driving can outperform a fancy long-travel kit on the trail. We suggest starting basic and moving up from there. Don’t be afraid to change out components and build your suspension a little at time. Understanding the why and how your suspension works will help guide you in upgrading the right pieces and parts. Upgrading your shocks with high-performance units from companies like King Off-Road Racing Shocks (www.kingshocks.com), Bilstein (www.bilstein.com), and Fox (www.foxracingshox.com) can make a huge difference. Many aftermarket shocks can be rebuilt and tuned specifically for your vehicle. This means you can have an
Fitting your 4x4 with front and rear locking differentials is a sure way to grab traction off-road. Locking your vehicle’s differentials allows all four wheels to turn at the same speed. For rigs that spend most of their time on the street, a selectable locker (one you can turn on and off) is a great option. Automatic lockers (ones that automatically engage) are generally more cost-effective but can have quirky handling characteristics and take a little getting used to. If you’re building your rig up one axle at a time, then we suggest starting off with a locker in the rear. Limited-slips can also work well for mild trail wheeling but will never replace or be equal to a locker. Keep in mind that lockers will also affect your steering. For example, a selectable locker, such as an ARB Air Locker, acts like a spool when it is engaged. This no-slip locked action can make turning the steering wheel off-road extremely difficult and sometimes impossible when the locker is engaged. An automatic locker, such a
Regearing your 4x4 to compensate for larger tires is not cheap but well worth it. Upgrading to numerically higher differential gears will place your power and rpm’s back to where the factory intended them to be. This will also alleviate some of the added strain on your transmission and give you more control and power both on-road and off. Regearing can also grab back a little fuel economy.
Off-road your wheels will be subjected to a lot of abuse. Steel wheels in general are extremely tough, but they are very heavy compared to their aluminum counterparts. On most of our extreme and dedicated wheelers we use aluminum beadlocks almost exclusively. The aluminum beadlock is a lightweight wheel that allows us to run single-digit air pressure without the risk of the tire breaking free from the wheel. Though steel beadlocks can work just as well as aluminum, they add weight. Your initial wheel investment may be more, but for dedicated wheelers the reliability and performance advantages will pay for themselves almost instantly.
Don’t be the guy who borrows tools on the trail—be the guy who lends them. Before you go and spend money on an obnoxious sound system or a “Mississippi mud monster” windshield banner, buy yourself a quality tool kit. Both Craftsman (www.craftsman.com) and Kobalt (www.kobalttools.com) make affordable entry-level kits that can get you moving in the right direction if you break down off-road. Toss in a couple of adjustable wrenches, a few screwdrivers, a roll of duct tape, electrical wire, a hammer, and a set of vise grips, and you are well on your way to having most of the tools you need on the trail. Is this all that you need? No. The more time you spend on the trail the more you’ll learn about your rig and what tools are most important to carry.
If you’re building your first 4x4 and you want a ton of power under the hood, buy something that already has a high-output engine. Engine swaps are not easy or cheap. The “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy is one to live by when it comes to power-adders. Most wheeling, especially on your average trail, doesn’t require a lot of ponies under the hood. Unless you’re heading for the dunes, monster mud pit, or Baja 1000 we say stick with the basics (cold air intake, programmer, exhaust).