One of the problems with shopping for a car or truck that can go off-road—colloquially known in these parts as adventure mobiles—is that the actual specifications that add up to genuine capability have become muddled by automaker marketing. Judging by the ads, both all-wheel-drive crossovers and four-wheel-drive trucks are capable of the same feats, but in reality, one would get stuck before the other even broke a sweat. Why is that? And, how can you objectively determine the relative abilities of a vehicle simply by looking at its spec sheet? This is my attempt to explain it all in one place.
When the urge to explore arises, few drivers ever find their way off the pavement. And really, they don’t have to; most popular U.S. campsites, landmarks, and panoramas can be accessed via roadway. But to access more original vistas and tell more compelling stories, you’ll need to go off-road.
Thankfully, doing so is easier than ever. No longer do you need to sink years of effort into modifying your rig; several automakers will happily sell you a brand-new vehicle with more off-road goodies than you’ll likely ever need. And if you still prefer to do your own modifications, the aftermarket community is packed with options at all price levels.
Off-roading is a national pastime. If you’ve got a Jeep, an off-roading SUV, or a truck, the chances are that you love taking it out on the many off-road trails around Winnipeg, and elsewhere in Manitoba.
But off-roading comes with its own set of challenges. Even cars that are designed for heavy off-roading use can be damaged after a day-long expedition – either by nature or by improper use.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common car problems you’ll face after off-roading so that you can recognize them and take the proper steps to have them repaired at Ride Time.
If you’re looking for a top quality service body then give our experienced team a call to see how Ridgeback Service Bodies can make your business, fleet or recreational service bodies make your life on the road easier and safer.
Problems Caused By 4-Wheeling On Moderately Difficult Terrain
As you can imagine, driving up, down, and around multiple obstacles is going to add special wear and tear to your transmission than would normally occur otherwise. This is especially true for people with manual transmission and even more so for those that don’t know how to shift properly when going off-road. Oftentimes for manual transmissions, people will constantly keep the clutch pushed in to regulate speed and power output. But if this continues for an extended period of time for a difficult trail, your transmission is going to begin to heat up, and damage can be caused to gear teeth and various other components.
Be sure that you only use the clutch when shifting, don’t use it as a coasting mechanism. If you need to slow down, use the brake. Similarly, when going uphill, people typically gun it to ensure their momentum is kept up. But this is not only excessive but puts a strain on your transmission while at the same time ruining your tires. You want to keep a constant RPM where your tires are not spinning out. If you feel you need momentum to get up a hill because your tire tread is not holding or your vehicle doesn’t have the power, think twice before gunning it. Because if you don’t make it to the top, there is only one other direction for you to go, and chances are it will be more out of your control than you would be comfortable with.
Perhaps the most typical and common problem caused by 4-wheeling is throwing your vehicle’s alignment off. Just imagine how many ruts and rocks you’ve romped over, chances are good that things won’t be points as true and straight as they should. In the short term, so long as the jostling is not too severe, there won’t be much of an issue. But if you’ve done some heavy 4-Wheeling, and do it often, you are going to want to check your alignment frequently. It will save you a lot of money in the long run by extending the lifespan of your tires, and making any further alignment issues less of a problem because they won’t be compounded.
Tires are generally made for specific purposes in mind, whether that be for racing, 4-wheeling, or generally commuting around the city. As such, Off-Road tires are probably the best route to go for 4-wheeling, mainly because that’s what they are designed for. They are heartier, thicker, with deeper treads and generally a longer life span for off-road conditions. This helps to keep the tires from being punctured or losing air due to constant driving on uneven ground. However, no matter how sturdy the tires are, they are still going to be taking a pounding. Driving over sharp jagged rocks, with uneven vehicle weight distribution all put tremendous stress and strain on the tires, which makes flat tires a frequent problem. Driving on flat tires, or even tires with a low level of air can further ruin your tire rims. So ensuring your tires are ready for the task of going off-road is paramount.
Scraps, scratches, dings, and dents. These are the war wounds of off-road vehicles. Marks and mars that should be worn proudly proving your vehicles 4-wheeling ability. But some people don’t like their vehicles to have such character and obvious marks. If that is the case, you mine as well leave your vehicle at the trailhead because they are inevitable. Driving off-road inherently means your vehicle is going to get dirty, and chances are good. It’s going to take some hits. Just be sure you’re ready for your baby to get beat up a little.
Ridgeback Ute Bodies provide expert service and repairs for four wheel drive vehicles and can also advise you on the best way to look after your off road vehicle.
Damage To The Undercarriage
As you would imagine driving over uneven and loose terrain, the bottom of your vehicle is going to be taking some damage. Stones will be kicked up, and you’ll scrape the bottom over protruding rocks, and may even high centre or bottom out causing your vehicle to become stuck. All of these can cause damage to various parts under your vehicle.
Your gas tank can be dented, causing gas level sensors to read incorrectly and may even reduce the total amount of gas that it can hold. Mufflers and exhaust pipes can be bent or completely ripped off if the circumstances are right. Your suspension can be compromised, which is more likely caused by it flexing more than it can bear, but damage can also be caused by running into rocks too hard.
Finally, you can ruin the chassis structural integrity of the vehicle. This would mean your vehicle has taken a big hit, but your vehicle’s chassis is literally the skeleton of your vehicle. If you had a broken bone, anywhere on your body, wouldn’t it be noticeable and needing immediate attention? The same goes for your chassis. Any cracks or dents need to be immediately fixed because the longer it’s postponed, the worse the problem can become, and beyond that, it can cause other problems to occur.
Better Parts = Longer Life for Your Truck
When you’re building your off-road truck, take into consideration the quality of your parts. While it might be a lot cheaper to buy certain parts, it sometimes pays off to spend a little extra and buy higher quality mods.
If you’re going off-road in a stock vehicle, you might want to think twice. While some vehicles, like the Jeep Wrangler, are great starting points for an off-road car, the truth is that their parts just aren’t up to the standard for trail use.
The most important thing to spend your money on here is tires and suspension. Regular street tires won’t get you through any trail other than a dirt road, and more extreme terrains will definitely cause them to go flat. If you want to make it home with all four tires intact, invest some money in better tires.
Your cars stock suspension is also probably not quite good enough for trail use. Going over rocks, through mud, and up and down hills does a number on your suspension. Using your stock parts here is a great way to break something. To summarize all of this, if you want to avoid breaking your car, spend a little money and upgrade from stock parts.
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Treating Your Vehicle The Right Way
Off-roading can be bad for your vehicle if you aren’t driving the right way. Here, there are a few steps you should take to make sure you’re off-roading the right way:
Ride With an Experienced Off-Roader
Before you go off-roading yourself, you should ride with someone that knows what they’re doing and ask them about the proper techniques. Going out on the trail just by yourself for the first time can be dangerous to you and your truck, so make sure you get all the knowledge you can. After you’ve ridden with someone else for a while, have someone ride with you while you drive so that they can give you some additional advice. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.
Use a Spotter While Driving
Using a spotter while you’re on the trail can save you, as well as save your truck. A spotter will help you get down the trail, as well as help you avoid obstacles that could cause your car to break. A spotter is one of your most valuable assets while off-roading, so use them to your advantage.
Take Things Slow
Anytime that you drive fast, you put stress on your vehicle. This stress is even worse while you’re off-road. If you hit a sharp rock while going 5mph, you might be fine. This being said, if you run over that same rock going 20mph, you might pop a tire and get yourself stuck. Driving slowly and paying attention to the trail can save the lifespan of your truck and its parts.
Do Regular Maintenance
On any vehicle, regular maintenance is a must. If you aren’t taking care of your vehicle and its parts often enough, it can be disastrous. When you get off the trail, be sure to check over all of your parts, clean your truck, and make sure that everything is in order.
Doing this is a great way to prevent breakdowns on the trail, save you money, and catch potential problems before their problems. If something on your truck doesn’t seem right, get it looked at right away. If something is already clearly broken, get it fixed before the problem becomes even bigger.
Along with just checking out your parts, take your truck into the shop once in a while for a tune-up. Running out of oil, coolant, or any other fluid, which any shop would fix, is a surefire way to break your car. Taking care of your truck can make it last a long time, and it’s the reason we still see cars from the ’50s on the road today. If you do regular maintenance and take proper care of your car, it’ll see off-road trails for years to come.
Be Prepared for Breakdowns
Even if you do all of the above steps correctly, you can still hurt your vehicle while you’re off-roading. Some problems are unavoidable while off-roading, and taking precautions can’t always stop them.
Because of this, you should always be prepared for a breakdown. If you’re far out on the trail, bring food and water, as well as a way to get home if you can’t drive your truck out. Bring a spare tire, as well as a tire patch kit, just in case you get a flat. If you have the money to spend, a winch for your car or truck can be indispensable for any tough off-road situation.
Let someone know where you’ll be before you head out on the trail, or even better, bring someone with you. Off-roading with a few buddies is not only more fun but safer as well. As I said, you can’t prevent every issue with your vehicle while you’re on the trail. While you shouldn’t be too worried about this, just make sure to be prepared.
Knowledge Goes Further Than Equipment
Determining which obstacles your vehicle can safely make it through, and how you should get through them, is entirely a function of knowledge and experience. It doesn’t matter how big your tires are, how many of your diffs lock, or how many pounds your winch can pull—it matters how you use them.
A month or two ago, I took a fully-built Nissan Titan—lift, big mud-terrains, bumpers, sliders, locking diffs, winch, the works—into a remote hot spring 35 miles from pavement down in Baja, Mexico. It rode nicer and carried more stuff than the beat-up old Honda Civics the locals were driving, but the beat-up old Civics still made it in without issue.
Last summer, the guys who designed the new Chevy Colorado ZR2 took it across the Rubicon Trail—one of the most challenging 4×4 trails in North America—without incurring significant damage. Conventional wisdom states that unmodified trucks should never attempt the Rubicon. Still, those engineers were so familiar with their truck’s angles, equipment, and capabilities, that they made it through, even in something that’s ultimately not all that capable, even as stock trucks go.
If you want to spend money on off-roading, you’ll be able to go further, in more safety, if you take classes, read books, and solicit help from experienced friends.
What Modifications Do and How They Ruin Your Truck
Let’s walk through the most popular modifications people make in pursuit of off-road capability and talk about what they do.
Note: A common theme you’ll see below is added weight. Weight is the enemy of performance, fuel economy, braking, handling, and ride quality. A vehicle with all these things on it will be very capable off-road. Still, on the pavement, it’ll ride poorly, have less grip, be much slower, handle poorly, be so loud it becomes unbearable to spend much time on the highway and be unsafe in multiple ways, from increased braking distances to a propensity for rollovers.
Pros: Larger tires roll more easily over large obstacles.
Cons: Larger tires effectively reduce your gear ratio, which reduces the amount of force your engine can apply to the surface it’s driving on. This necessitates expensively re-gearing your vehicle, which ruins fuel economy. Larger tires are also heavier tires. Because the engine needs to work harder, though less effective gearing to accelerate that tire, they will make your truck slower. Because your brakes will have to work harder to decelerate that tire, your brakes will become weaker. Because your tires are heavier, they will also make your suspension work harder as they move up and down, ruining your ride quality. Large tires also deflect more on-road, as you take corners, spoiling your handling as your truck bobs around on the huge sidewalls. They’re extremely loud at highway speeds.
Pros: You lift your truck to clear your big tires, so lifts make it possible to fit larger tires. Looks cool parked outside Piggly Wiggly.
Cons: Raises your centre of gravity, making it more likely that your truck will roll over both off-road and during evasive maneuvers or high-speed corners on-road. Messes with your suspension geometry, often requiring thousands of dollars in additional modifications to fit correctly, and decreasing the life of crucial components like bearings. Destroys your fuel economy.
Steel Bumpers and Sliders
Pros: Protect your bodywork from low-speed off-road impacts. Add the ability to mount a winch, spare tire, lights, jerry cans, Hi-Lift jacks, and other accessories.
Cons: Weigh a ton and may reduce your vehicle’s crashworthiness on-road.
Pros: Give you more room to carry more crap. Look cool parked outside Sheetz.
Cons: Add weight in the worst possible place—on top of your car—worsening the problems created by lifts. Carrying stuff on the rack then makes that problem even worse. Destroys your fuel economy.
Drawers, Fridges, and Other Interior Modifications
Pros: Enable you to store your recovery gear and camping equipment more conveniently. Look great on Instagram.
Cons: Eat up the interior volume, destroying your truck’s versatility. All this stuff gets in the way of both passenger and cargo room while adding weight.
Pros: Enable you to self-rescue a stuck truck or help another vehicle to safety.
Cons: Hugely dangerous in inexperienced hands, the weight and tension created by a 5,000+ pound vehicle is simply massive. Adds weight.
Modifications That Actually Help
Light All-Terrain Tires
Keep them the same size as stock or something very close to it, and you’ll add both puncture-resistance and off-road traction. Punctures are no joke off-road and are why a set of light all-terrains are the single best modification you can make. Consider these essential. They’ll still increase your unsprung weight, and therefore will have a small impact on performance, braking, fuel economy, and ride quality, so look for an option like the Maxxis Bravo 771 or Yokohama Geolander that are as light as possible. If you drive a larger, heavier vehicle, then a heavy-duty all-terrain may be a better option. The BF Goodrich K02 remains an excellent option.
An Air Compressor and Plug Kit
You can fix a flat on the side of a road in about 10 minutes, almost for free. You’ll want a good compressor that will fill tires quickly and reliably, without blowing your fuse. A quality plug kit will permanently seal punctures and deal with other common tire issues.
Snatch Strap and Shackles
Much safer and easier than winching, carrying an appropriately-rated snatch strap and shackles will enable you to tow another car out of an obstacle or get towed yourself. ARB just released a new kit that’s affordable and targeted at casual off-roaders.
Even safer and easier, these heavily textured nylon boards allow you to drive out of pretty much any obstacle simply. They double as shovels.
A Basic Tool Kit
Unless you’re pretty experienced at wrenching, you’re not going to be able to tackle major mechanical problems. But you’d be amazed at how many small problems will arise due to the vibrations and bumps of driving on dirt. Just carrying a basic set of pliers, wrenches, ratchet with bits, some zip ties, super glue, duct tape, and other basics will empower you with the ability to affect these minor, but potentially critical repairs.
An Easy Tire Deflator
Fitted all-terrains? Great! Now you need to learn how to use them properly. For safety and fuel economy, you should run stock tires pressures on-road, as listed on the sticker inside your driver’s door jam. Off-road, you’ll want to drop down to between 20 (firm surfaces) and 8 PSI (very soft sand or mud, no hard obstacles) to maximize traction and reduce the potential for punctures. An easy deflator makes this process much faster, while that air compressor you already bought makes it quick and easy to re-inflate once you’re back on pavement.
Most of the dangers your vehicle will face off-road don’t come from the front, rear, or sides—they come from underneath. Drive over an unexpectedly pointy rock, and you risk damaging essential, relatively fragile components like your oil pan, transmission, differentials, or exhaust. Skid plates can easily be bolted on, and they add a massive amount of protection, don’t impact your fuel economy or safety, and can be easily removed. Consider them cheap insurance.
If you’ve spent time daily driving your vehicle, you understand some of its characteristics like turning radius and fuel economy, but off-roading requires deeper knowledge. Approach, departure, and break over angle deal with the level of clearance you have beneath your front and rear bumpers, and the space between axles. Off-road, retaining a mental picture of the space beneath each of these sections of your vehicle will help you avoid getting stuck on rocks, inclines, or ruts that you should have taken at an angle (or skipped entirely).