Where To Start
We've spotted, pushed, pulled, and dragged every known vehicle up the trail, and the thing to remember is that no matter what vehicle you start with, there is a trail out there you can walk through and another you'll be stuck on for days. Whether you go lightweight Suzuki style or giant four-door fullsize, you can have fun. The smaller you go, the lighter all your parts can be (and the less fuel you'll use), but sometimes wheelbase can make up for that extra mass. Just remember you need room for anyone and anything you want to bring along, and if that includes your 200-pound twin brothers and all their food and camping gear, then a Samurai might start looking a bit cramped.
Steering And Stopping
Full hydraulic steering is all the rage these days and we have to admit it's pretty darn impressive. In fact it would be our choice for a dual-sport trail rig, as long as it never sees the street. We know many who have driven on the asphalt with full hydro, but we like the security of a hydro-assisted steering box for those rigs that are on the same roads as busloads of little kids.
Drivetrain choices are going to be debated until we're all red in the face and out of beer, but there are certain things that work better. First, when it comes to engines, stock is hard to beat for long-term reliability. Race parts are cool, but when you want it to run cool, find parts at any backwoods parts' house, and be fixable with a rock and a hammer, then bank on stock. With the price of fuel many of you may cringe, but having a V-8 is really the best way to go with this buildup. They have torque, they have power, and they can run great off road over a variety of terrain, plus the current V-8s are getting great fuel economy. Find one with easy-to-install factory fuel injection and hopefully you'll never need to open the hood.
Gearing is the great wild card-the more options you have the more places you can go. We're huge fans of doublers and multispeed transfer cases for an all-around vehicle. This allows street and trail gearing as well as wheel spin for mud and sand and creepy crawly rock gears. We don't see many factory 2:1 low ranges in the best-performing all-around trail rigs. Gearing is like limbo; you need to go lower to win.
No matter what terrain you hit, certain items should be on your required driver safety list. A rollbar is better than a steel or rag top (we've seen rigs roll on flat ground); a first aid kit to patch up boo-boos; at least two fire extinguishers, as gas and electrical flames can be hard to put out; and quality tie-downs for everything from driver and passenger to batteries, tools, and spare parts.
Here is another area of undying discussion-automatic versus manual transmission. We've seen both work and both fail so we're leaving this one up to you. If you go auto, install a big cooler and a temp gauge. If you go manual, make sure you're full of lube, have a fresh clutch, and if possible get an Overdrive.
This Week's Dream
Like any gearhead we are constantly dreaming up new wheeling rigs that we may never build. Here is what we would build this week if money were no object and we had all the time in the world: Find an early Bronco and cut it off behind the doors and make it a pickup cab. Maybe narrow the tub depending on your favorite trails. Behind the cab we'd add a 4- to 6-foot aluminum pickup or Australian-style flatbed. A GM 5.3L LS engine out of a late-model GM truck, a C4 automatic with Advance Adapters shorty tailhousing kit, and a four-speed Atlas would supply reliable power and gearing galore. Front axle will be a full-width Dana 60, rear would likely be a 9-inch, maybe a 70 depending on cost, and gears would be 4.56 or 4.88 since the Atlas makes up for the higher gears. Wheelbase would be about 103 to 110, tires would be 37s or 40s, depending on what type of deal we could find. Front coilover shocks, rear leaf springs. This truck would be fast, streetable, narrow enough for tight stuff, yet roomy enough for long trips. It would be convertible for fun summer wheeling and have a bed so it could be useful any time of the year. Plus the same recipe could be built out of a Land Cruiser, Jeep, Rover, or Scout. Of course next week we'll have a different all-around dream build.