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Basic Differences in Vehicle Setup Depending on Types of Off-Road Driving

Photo by 1000kbps via iStock

To the non-trained eye, every off-road vehicle looks the same. Big tires, lift kit, winch on the front bumper, and so on. Those are the people that think that every new SUV is also good off-road, which means that those are the guys that will get stuck taking their front-wheel-drive family carrier on the trail. 

However, real all-terrain enthusiast knows that you need a specific type of vehicle set up to tackle different types of off-road driving. Today, we will explain the general guidelines for setting up your 4×4 if you want to experience off-road driving fully. 

Types of Off-Road Driving: Rock Crawling

Rock-crawling is one of the most popular off-road disciplines today. The term itself is pretty self-explanatory, and you are basically crawling on the rocks, climbing your way up the mountain. This is a low-speed discipline and requires a lot of skill and technique and knowing your vehicle and what it can or cannot do. 

If you want to successfully rock crawl, you will need the lift-kit vehicle since the ground clearance is vital. We suggest you put big rock-crawling or mud tires since the deep tire threat is essential. Also, skid plates are crucial since your undercarriage will be exposed to constant bumping on the rocks. You don’t want your oil sump getting cracked while you are in the middle of the climb. Also, mounting the winch is useful but not necessary. 

rock crawling

Photo by avid_creative via iStock

Since the speed factor is irrelevant in type of off-road driving, it is smart to concentrate on adding gears to your vehicle, as we explained in this article (add link). The numerically higher differential ratio will provide you with a sharper throttle response. It will utilize the engine’s torque better, which is precisely what you need to climb the obstacles. 

The most important thing to do if you want to have maximum grip on the rock-crawling course is to detach your sway bars. Some modern off-road vehicles like Jeep Wrangler Rubicon have automatic systems, but you have to do it manually on older vehicles. Disconnecting sway bars will loosen your steering on on-road driving, but when your 4×4 is on the rocks, it will allow the suspension to sit on a different angle and better adapt to the terrain. On most challenging courses, you will need every single inch of available grip, and the only way to obtain it is by detaching the sway bars. 

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Types of Off-Road Driving: Desert Running

If you are mesmerized by the Baja 1000 racers and fast off-roads that are running through the desert, leaving clouds of dust, we totally understand. This off-road discipline combines the sheer speed of the NASCAR with Paris-Dakar rally driving skills. It is completely opposite of rock-crawling’s slow and technical driving, and that is why the vehicle setup is totally different. 

desert running

“2007 Baja 1000” by Mark Hintsa is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

First, you will need a 4×4 with enormous suspension travel and shocks with big reservoirs for this type of off-road driving. Imagine driving fast on a bumpy and dusty road, if you had stock suspension, it would pretty soon bottom-out, and the vehicle will start bouncing. The reason is that stock vehicles have limited suspension travel and medium shock stiffness, and at high speeds, the capacity and rebound is just not enough. 

However, if you have soft shocks with enormous capacity and travel, the high-speed driving will be smooth. If you look at how the Baja 1000 racers look while going 100 mph through the desert, you will notice that the vehicle’s body is relatively stable and does not bounce a lot, while the suspension is working hard maintaining speed and grip on the rough surface. 

For brute speed on any kind of terrain, the horsepower takes advantage over torque. Having that in mind, you are looking at different drive train specifications with a numerically lower differential ratio in order to achieve higher speeds on the trail. 

The winch is not obligatory in terms of additional equipment, but the skid plates and bull bars are just in case you hit something at speed. 

Types of Off-Road Driving: Mud, Deep Water, Sand or Snow

The “usual” off-road circumstances include one of those four elements, and the vehicle setup is pretty much the same with slight differences. First, it is essential to have a vehicle with proper mud or all-terrain tires. The snow tires are slightly different in tire tread and compound and designed to work best on low temperatures. The higher ground clearance is a plus, especially for driving through water. 

types of off-road driving: mud

Photo by njmcc via iStock

When driving on sand, snow, or ice, the most common trick is to deflate the tires significantly in order to extend the tire marks on the surface. Wider tires marks provide less pressure to the ground, which is crucial not to fall through the ice or dig-in in the sand. You will not damage the tires, driving them inflated if you drive at low speeds and for a limited time. Some off-roaders come with systems that allow inflating and deflating automatically from the cabin. 

Driving through the body of water requires special attention regarding the engine. It could be hard to determine exact depth from the driver’s perspective, so lots of off-road enthusiasts are unpleasantly surprised when they find themselves submerged with the dead engine. In order to avoid getting stranded while crossing the river, it is highly recommended installing a snorkel kit, which will provide your engine with fresh air from the highest point of the vehicle (usually just above the roofline). 

When you go driving in mud, sand, water, or snow, the winch will come very useful, and we suggest you mount it on your front bumper. Skid plates are not necessary since, in most cases, you will not encounter big rocks that can damage your underpinnings.

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