There’s Probably No Reason to Modify Your Vehicle for Off-Roading
Heading to a remote campsite or faraway trailhead? Your stock SUV can get you there.
Americans are obsessed with SUVs. If you need any proof, consider the fact that pickup trucks and SUVs together account for 70% of the current auto market. Or that 10 years ago, one in five cars sold was a sedan while today that number stands at less than one in 10. If it’s big, rugged, heavy-duty or overpowered, chances are an American wants to drive it.
Some of this demand can be attributed to practicality. We buy SUVs and trucks for their cargo space, high-capacity seating and versatility. But a fairly new and ever-increasing faction of SUV owners are not just investing in big rigs, but also spending conspicuously to modify them under the guise of necessity. I’m here to tell you that in reality, an SUV can get you pretty much anywhere in exactly the condition in which it rolled off the factory floor.
Sorry to let the air out of your tires.
A lot of the after-market SUV interest derives from an audience mirroring what they see online. Like the crowd we recently called out for buying into the rooftop tent craze, truck and SUV owners are emulating the 4×4 icons of social media that tackle boulder fields, swift rivers and steep slopes, assuming any unpaved surface they encounter in their own adventures will require the bells and whistles they saw on Instagram. Very few of these people will ever have to traverse conditions that require extra equipment; many of them won’t even leave urban and suburban environments (there’s even a road for this latter genus of souped-up SUV owner: mall crawler).
That’s not to say you won’t take your truck or SUV into the mountains. Like you, I too enjoy driving my 4Runner off-road, whether I’m taking a scenic way home or searching for a dispersed campsite. But while I initially assumed my truck would require a series of upgrades to travel on rocky, unmaintained roads, I quickly learned that a stock truck or SUV (even one that’s decades-old like mine) is generally fit for the job. A lot of the off-road imagery found online comes from OHV (off-highway vehicle) parks where drivers purposefully head for difficult obstacles, and it’s important to understand that distinction before assuming your vehicle needs aftermarket upgrades.
In reality, it’s not your mods that matter so much as it is your knowledge. Years ago, I was driving off-road in Oregon for the first time when I came upon a washout that created a steep, sizable trench in the road. Fearful of shifting into 4WD for the first time, I crept down the embankment and up the other side before getting stuck. That’s when I worked up the nerve to shift into 4Lo and give it gas from the base of the hill, a simple maneuver that allowed me to crawl out. Sure, the experience was foreign and stressful for someone new to off-roading, but it supplied me with insight that came in handy the next time an obstacle presented itself, proving that it’s not what equipment you have, but how you use it.
Modifications That Could Be Actively Hurting Your Driving Experience
The fact that you don’t need to modify your vehicle isn’t necessarily a reason not to. But unless you plan on joining a local OHV club or tackling the Rubicon Trail, there are also reasons you explicitly shouldn’t modify your vehicle. Let’s take a look at the most common modifications to understand how they could impact your car.
A lifted suspension provides your car with the clearance it needs to fit larger tires, but it also raises your center of gravity, thus making it more likely that your vehicle will roll over on the road. A lifted suspension can also require modifications to brake lines, sway bar links, shocks and other parts of your suspension to maintain proper vehicle geometry. There’s a good chance you’ll also notice a decline in fuel economy.
Big tires would look great on your off-road vehicle, but rubber that increases significantly in diameter will require you to swap out your stock ring and pinion gears for lower ones, effectively hurting your fuel economy. Big tires also require the engine to work harder, which slows down your vehicle, and they ruin ride quality, as your suspension works harder through ups and downs. Not to mention the deafening noise you’re likely to experience at high speeds.
Upgraded bumpers protect your vehicle from low-speed impacts, but the added weight (and these weigh a lot) can take a toll on your engine and weaken your vehicle’s ability to protect you during a crash.
A winch allows you to recover your stuck vehicle, but the massive load placed on the cable is incredibly dangerous. If you don’t have experience operating a winch, don’t install one without understanding basic safety guidelines and, more importantly, how to actually use it.
Roof racks collect added weight in the exact place your vehicle doesn’t need it — on the roof. Sure, there’s more room to carry gear, but the weight can weaken your suspension, increase the risk of rolling over and destroy your vehicle’s fuel economy.
There are very few instances in which modern headlights can’t provide you with a clear picture of your surroundings, not to mention you probably won’t be off-roading at night. Sadly, all of these aftermarket installations also make your rig a target for theft.
Modifications That Are Worth the Investment
Let’s say, despite my pontificating, you’re still in the market for modifications that could help your vehicle on the rare occasion you travel off-road. Consider these upgrades and additions that will aid performance without damaging your car or impacting its performance.
A set of all-terrain tires will drastically improve your SUV or truck’s performance off-road, but be sure to choose a tire that’s the same size or close to the same size as stock. The added heft and durability of an all-terrain tire reduces punctures and damage, but it may slightly impact performance due to the weight. Our preferred ATTs include the General Grabber AT/X, Cooper Discoverer AT3 4S and the BFGoodrich T/A KO2 for larger, heavier vehicles.
Air Compressor & Tire Repair Kit
The unforeseen flat tire is a reality when off-roading, which is why a reliable air compressor and tire repair kit should be kept in your vehicle at all times. The ability to repair your tire could spell the difference between getting quickly back on the road and waiting hours in a remote location for help.
While we don’t recommend installing a winch without previous experience, a set of tow straps can help you tow another vehicle — or your own — out of a stick situation.
A simple automotive toolkit will come in handy as your vehicle shakes, bumps and vibrates over uneven terrain. Maybe you’re not an experienced mechanic, but there’s a lot you can repair on the fly that even your favorite multi-tool can’t handle.
While we often find ourselves concerned with protecting the front, rear and sides of our vehicle from damage, it’s the underside that needs protection when driving over jagged, unforeseen off-road obstacles. Skid plates are an affordable, easy-to-install modification that won’t impact fuel economy or performance, and can easily be removed.
WeatherTech Floor Liner
Floor liners aren’t what many would consider an off-road modification, but you might as well keep your new truck or SUV’s interior free from dirt and debris while you’re having fun in the backcountry. WeatherTech Floor Liners are the cream of the crop thanks to a laser measuring process that scans the dimensions of your interior for a perfect fit.
Hit the Open Road
As the world recovers from a global pandemic and automakers unveil next-gen trucks and SUVs, there’s never been a better time to go off-roading. It’s a thrilling, socially distant activity that’s widely accessible across the country. But before you decide to equip your truck or SUV with every available modification, consider how often you’ll spend time off-road and where you’ll be going when you do. If most of your driving is on-road with the occasional backcountry camping tip, a stock SUV with all-terrain tires, skid plates and maintenance tools will be more than enough to get you from point A to point B in one piece.
Not interested in getting your daily driver a little dirty? Consider renting an SUV with the necessary add-ons, or — if you’ve got the time and money — invest in a second-hand car that you don’t mind using in less-than-ideal conditions. No matter how or why you choose to get out there, enjoy the bumpy miles to come.
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