Are you ready to begin off-roading as a serious hobby? There’s a lot to be excited about, but there’s also a lot to prepare for. Off-roading requires more foresight than jumping into your 4×4 and going full speed towards the dunes (or bog or trails or whatever).
Before you leave home, you must outfit your rig with the gear you’ll need to get unstuck. The fact is, off-roading is about getting stuck. If you don’t get hopelessly stuck at least once, you’re probably not doing it right. At the very least, you’re probably not challenging yourself or your vehicle.
Here’s a simple guide for those who are just starting out in the off-road community.
Essential Gear for the Off-Roading Beginner
This is a no-brainer — if you don’t have the right tires, forget about taking your truck or Jeep off-road.
- If you’re doing a mix of off-road driving and back-road traveling – a common scenario for off-the-beaten-path campers and hunters – a good set of all-terrain radials will probably be sufficient.
- If you’re going to somewhere extraordinarily muddy, you’ll probably want a set of mud tires, as a standard all-terrain tire won’t have much bite.
- If you’re rock crawling or tackling some other sort of major off-road obstacle, some very aggressive off-road tires are the way to fly.
By the way, if you’re using your daily driver as your primary off-road vehicle, it might be good to consider mounting your aggressive off-road tires to a second set of wheels. That way, you can use standard radials to get to and from work, then just swap your rims before an off-road trip to maximize the life of your off-road tires (which wear very quickly on paved streets).
A Fire Extinguisher
Most off-road clubs require that member vehicles each have a fire extinguisher. Many local governments also require off-road vehicles to each be equipped with a fire extinguisher. The reason for these rules? No one wants an off-road adventure to start a major forest fire.
If there’s one item on this list that every off-roader absolutely must have, it’s a Hi-Lift jack. Designed for off-road use, a Hi-Lift is the ultimate tool for off-roaders. You can use it for all kinds of stuff:
- Recoveries in many conditions – you can use them to get your vehicle off high-center, out of a rut, etc.
- Winching. (It’s a lot of work, but it works.)
- Making emergency repairs in the field.
- Holding your wheel on your vehicle when you break an axle shaft.
Be sure to purchase the hi-lift base and/or bring along a large sturdy piece of wood to stabilize the jack whenever you need it.
As required by most local governments and off-road clubs, a recovery strap will come in handy more times than you’d think. First, recovery straps can be used in place of a winch when there’s another vehicle available. Just hook your stuck vehicle up to an unstuck vehicle and ask for a pull (while being ready to drive your vehicle as it starts to move).
However, unlike tow straps, recovery straps are designed for a hard, jerking pull. They’re actually a little bit elastic, which means the pulling vehicle’s force is temporarily amplified during the initial jerk. This elastic force is considerable, and can often get a vehicle unstuck.
While most vehicles have little use for CB radios nowadays, many off-roaders still rely on them. Personal FM radios are popular with smaller groups as well. They’re great for communicating about obstacles and recoveries, as it’s often hard to hear over the sound of a revving engine and exhaust system.
Extra lighting is essential when going off-road. Your stock headlights won’t cut it at dusk, dawn, and even in the middle of the day in shady areas. While a massive roof-mounted LED light bar would be cool as heck, a couple of quality fog lights should be enough to provide lighting when combined with your existing headlights.
A Trail Kit
Before you go off-road, you’ll need a handful of tools and some survival gear for those “just in case” situations. Some ideas on what to include in your trail kit:
- Work gloves, a small shovel, and some scrap wood to help you build up the road under your vehicle whenever you get stuck
- A first aid kit plus enough food and water for a few days (in case you get lost or stranded)
- Basic hand tools to repair vehicle damage, or at least to try and get things functional
- GPS, map, and compass
- Jumper cables (which should be in your vehicle anyways, right?)
Recommended – But Not Essential – Gear
Rock Sliders, Heavy Duty Bumpers, and Upgraded Skid Plates
If you’re going off-road in a place with lots of rocks, rock sliders are a very good idea. They’ll protect your vehicle from rocks you have to drive or “slide” over to clear an obstacle. The same goes for heavy-duty bumpers, which will provide protection as well as a great mounting point for winches, jack lift points, etc.
Most 4wd vehicles have skid plates protecting the fuel tank and oil pan from damage, but these factory skid plates a) don’t protect everything and b) don’t always stand up to off-road abuse. A good set of after-market skid plates is never a bad idea.
I can imagine some of you are reading this and thinking “Wait – what? You can off-road a vehicle without a lift kit?!” – you sure can. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. The simple fact is, a lot of pickups and Jeeps are perfectly capable of tackling serious off-road obstacles with the stock ride height.
Does a lift kit make things better or easier? Usually…only it depends on the specific kit you install. If you put a cheap spacer kit on a small pickup, you’re usually trading ride height for reduced travel, as well as putting some additional stress on your stock suspension. Likewise, if you put a giant bracket lift on a large truck, you might find that your vehicle is harder to take off road, not easier.
Frankly, choosing the right lift kit is a completely separate topic. But suffice it to say, you don’t need a lift kit to go off-road. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise either.
What About A Winch?
Some off-road clubs require that members equip their vehicles with a winches, and there are plenty of reasons for this requirement. Winches are incredibly handy, especially when a vehicle is stuck in a place that makes pulling with another vehicle difficult.
However, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a winch to get unstuck. Winches are nice to have, but they’re also a substantial investment, especially if you get the right size (you need a winch rated at an amount at least twice your vehicle’s weight) and a good mounting solution (like a winch bumper).
If money is no object – or if you’re frequently off-roading on your own – a winch is a great idea. If money is tight, you can skip the winch (at least for now) and save up for something awesome (like this Warn 16.5ti).
Just for Winch Owners: Snatch Blocks and Trunk Protectors
If you own a winch, you definitely want to invest in snatch blocks and trunk protectors. Snatch blocks are heavy duty pulleys that make it possible to double the power of your winch. You can run your winch rope from your stuck vehicle to the block (attached to something like a tree), then back to your stuck vehicle. By running the winch rope all the way to a block and back, you effectively double the power of your winch.
Speaking of trees, it’s often illegal to winch against a without utilizing a trunk protector. This is really just a nice thick strap that can support a lot of force without damaging a tree trunk. It’s not too expensive, it’s often legally required, and it can literally save a tree’s life. No good reason not to have a couple in your rig.
NOTE: A lot of the gear mentioned above is available in kit form, which is often less costly than buying each component separately. Warn offers a nice variety of winch accessory kits. Learn more here.
A self-described “car nerd,” Jason is a automotive columnist who has written for the eBay Motors blog, Motor Car Digest, as well as his own sites TundraHeadquarters.com and AccurateAutoAdvice. With an engineering degree, a full-time job in the automotive parts industry, and a decade of experience working in auto dealerships, Jason brings an interesting perspective on all things automotive.