Before You Modify Your Vehicle For Off-Road Travel

Don’t modify your truck!  No, I mean it! Don’t MODIFY Your Off-Road TRUCK!

Ok, let me explain. No showroom vehicle is perfect for serious off-road adventures so depending on your adventure you will most likely need to make some modifications to your vehicle.  However, before you start, be clear on why you are making the modification, what you are looking to gain and what effect it will have on the entire vehicle.  Based on our experience, we put together a few thoughts to consider before modifying your off-road vehicle.

Suspension plays a critical role on and off-road. Suspension is responsible for handling in normal driving, emergency situations and maneuvering through obstacles on the trail.  It is important to keep in mind the manufacturers geometry ideals when deciding how you will achieve increased lift and articulation.  Good quality suspension component upgrades in the right configuration will improve off-road performance and allow your vehicle to drive down the highway as well mannered as it did right off the showroom floor.  It won’t do you any good to be able to crawl up 18 inch rock shelves if you cannot swerve to avoid hitting a cow on the road in Baja.  Your goal should be to increase lift and wheel travel while keeping the center of gravity as low as possible and maintain on road handling performance.

Keep the tires sized right.  Suspension provides lift but tires give you ground clearance.  Larger tires add weight, which in turn puts stress on steering components, reduces gas mileage, strains performance and often contributes to broken axles.  The ground clearance difference between 33″ and 35″ tires is less than an inch and it decreases more as you air down.  If you absolutely need 37″ tires for your adventure, make sure all your steering and suspension components are matched to safely drive highway speeds and still perform emergency maneuvers.  Choose a durable, high quality tire, with strong sidewalls and tread matched for the terrain without over sizing it. We ran 33.5″ (according to the tape measure) tires for both adventures through Rubicon and ground clearance was never the problem.

A big part of keeping the center of gravity low is to avoid putting weight on the roof.  It’s easy to pack a large roof rack with fuel cans, storage boxes, spare tire, roof top tent, awning and even a kitchen sink.  But all that weight becomes a liability in off camber situations or in an emergency maneuver to avoid the cow.  We’ve watched several trucks easily drive through a tight trail section only to see an identical truck with a heavily packed roof rack take a ding as it leaned into a over hanging tree or rock face everyone else slipped by.  Additionally all that wind resistance up top has a very negative affect on your fuel mileage and highway driving manners.  Select a light weight roof rack and use it sparingly, limited  to lighter items such as a shovel, camp chairs or duffel bag of cloths.  If you cannot pack all the items you need for your adventure in the back of the rig, you may have the wrong off-road adventure vehicle.

Recovery gear is extremely important and an often overlooked modification.  A good winch can be an invaluable tool for getting you unstuck or pulling a fallen tree clear of the trail.  A winch should be considered in conjunction with an aftermarket bumper.  Select a bumper that gives you a clear view of and easy access to the winch.  Like any tool, it is very important that you know how to use your winch properly before you need it and follow all the safety precautions.  There are situations that will not require a winch or a winch it not appropriate.  The right tool for the recovery may be a shovel, hi-lift jack, snatch strap or traction device such as Maxtrax. When your stuck, a good situational analysis and well developed recovery plan is far better (more productive and safer) than hastily grabbing your favorite item without a thought.

When it comes to electrical modifications, keep them on separate circuits using properly sized fuses and relay switches.  To make troubleshooting and maintenance easier, clearly label the wires and auxiliary fuse box for your CBs, off-road lights, HAM radios, compressors and fridges.  Poorly wired electronics can cause fires, drain batteries or damage other electrical components including your vehicles engine control unit (ECU).

Weight is the enemy.  Heavy bumpers, sliders, full skid plates, winches,  and steel guards of all kinds add a lot of extra weight.  This weight effects handling, performance and reduces the carrying capacity for your other stuff.  A fully loaded truck ready for an adventure should not exceed the manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating.  Ideally it should be less than 90% GVWR.  We’re always looking to pair down the weight while still maintaining the right level of protection.  We run a skid, but only for the engine.  Our Metal Tech tube bumper is significant lighter than a shell style bull bar.

Lower gears, after market transfer case, beefier third member, air lockers,  or super charger can increase your truck’s off-road capability but it comes at a very high price.  For us these items take you across a very real line in the sand.  By modifying your engine or drive train you now have a maintenance intensive truck that will require a significant amount of work to keep running smoothly.  You also go from carrying a basic tool set to hauling a full mechanics chest and a host of spare parts in order to make adjustments and repairs in the field.

Stronger is not always better.  For example we’ve talked about how the half shaft on an IFS vehicle is a weak link.  However if you opt for beefier CVs with stouter axles you have now moved the breaking point from an easy to fix IFS field repair into the differential gears which were never design for field repair.  The same is true for beefing up tie rods that than pushes the weak point into the rack and pinion.

A poor quality modification component is worse than no modification at all.  For example: if you attach thin walled, flimsy sliders that cannot carry the weight of the vehicle, you run the risk of significant damage on the trail.  On the trail your spotter, who assumes your sliders are more than looks, will guide you through an obstacle that may involve using them. Better to not have them and take an appropriate line than drive with a false sense of security.

One of the best investments you’ll ever make has nothing to do with your off-road vehicle.  Spend as much time as you can driving off-road.  Start out on easy trails learning how your vehicle behaves and build your skills as you progress to more complex off-road adventures.  A good off-road driving course  such as Bill Burke’s 4-wheeling America, can also help jump start your adventures, better than most vehicle modification.  Nothing beats seat time, the more experienced you are behind the wheel, the less modifications it will take to safely complete your off-road adventure.

Modifications are part off-road vehicles.  Every modification has both positive and negative effects on your vehicle’s performance. To get the most from your modifications it is important to understand their full impact in order to choose the ones that are right for your next off-road adventure.

1,000 Mile Turn Around – The Road Trip

Why take a road trip from Tigard, Or. a little suburb of Portland, to the northeast corner of Idaho, turn around and drive back?  Why drive a thousand miles in two days?  Because we can… and this is where Kevin found a tool needed for his bamboo fly rod making company.

For people who enjoy the open road, a road trip seems to uncrinkle the mind and give the brain room to breath.  It’s been awhile since my brain has had the space it needs to stretch out and consider the meaning of life.  This is my chance.

It’s Friday noon.  Kevin has the Land Rover packed and a little utility trailer hitched up for the long journey.  One last look around the rig, double check the trailer and lock the garage before pulling out into traffic and starting this road trip adventure to a place well off the beaten path.

It always seems the longest part of any road trip is getting out of town to where the road opens up and traffic melts away.  This road trip is no different.  The flashing traffic sign reads accident nine miles ahead. A mile later we’re at a stand still on the interstate. Cars, trucks and 18 wheelers packed tightly, turning the highway into a parking lot as far as the eye can see.  Every once in awhile we roll a few feet before applying the brakes again.  We could bitch, honk the horn and pound the steering wheel like a few around us or we can relax, chat and accept the fact that we’ll be on the road a couple of extra hours tonight.  Avoiding the road rage option we choose the latter and settle into our seats for the wait while we catch up on each others life.  An hour passes as we finally crawl past the wreckage, tow trucks and clean up crew.  Once again we are at cruising speed as our journey starts its ascent of the Cascade mountains.

The Cascades divide east from west and the Columbia River defines the line between Oregon and Washington state.  1,243 miles long and pushing millions of gallons of water from Canada to the Pacific the Columbia cuts a long, wide, meandering path.  Interstate 84 follows the Columbia river through little towns long forgotten by the timber industry, past huge hydro power plants, along cattle ranches and over some of the richest salmon and steelhead rivers that feed into the Columbia.  The gorge cut by the river over millions of years is now creating a new kind of farming community.  Miles and miles of giant, white, streamlined windmills towering above the road with100 foot blades reaching out to grab the wind as it rushes down the gorge.  The propellers spin hypnotically as we continue on our way east.

West of the Cascades the scenery is wet and green with tall Ceders and lush farm land.  As we drive further east the land becomes drier and brown, covered in wheat and scrub grass. Crossing the Columbia into Washington state we’ve adjusted our heading to a more northerly direction.  While our compass heading may have changed the only visible difference is the maximum speed limit as the long flat highway take us closer to Coeur d’Alene, ID., our destination for the night.

With no trees in the way, we can see for miles as the line between grey overcast sky and brown land blurs at the horizon. We pass field after field of recently plowed rich earth with small sprouts of green that foreshadow the bounty to come in the next few months.  Into the darkness we drive, approaching Spokane followed by the Idaho boarder. Sometime around 9:00 p.m. we find a home for the night.  An economically oriented (nice way of saying cheap) motel with the basics and several dining choices within easy walking distance to stretch out the cramps in our legs.  The trailer and rig secured, our gear all stowed in the room, we eat and drink joining the locals playing pool and darts at a uniquely Irish sports bar.

It’s morning and driving in northern Idaho is an extremely rewarding experience.  Ponderous Pines,  snow covered hill tops, lakes, flowing creeks and wild life everywhere.  Years ago little towns like Sandpoint may have only had a  gas station, local grocer, bar, local hardware store and a Sears. These days art galleries, antique shops and Starbucks fill the main drag through town. Stopping the coffee and free WiFi at Starbucks is an oasis offering a chance to top off our caffeine levels and check emails before the final push north.

The reason for this road trip is to pick up a 1940, Sheldon 11″ thread cutting metal lathe.  500 pounds of metal tooling love perfect for turning bar stock into fly rod ferrules and custom real seats.  Northern Idaho is a place where self-reliance is highly prized so the people there take care of the tools that take care of them.

When we arrived in Moyie Springs, a stones through from Canada and a few miles from the Montana boarder , George was holding court behind the gas/laundry/grocery store.  George is the king of Moyie Springs when it comes to buying and selling stuff for his friends and neighbors in northern Idaho, including an old lathe.  Gathered around George, several of his followers hang on his every word and do his bidding as he sends them off to fetch tools, or have them pick through boxes, cataloging items that could be sold on eBay.  All the while George pontificates on what’s wrong with city people, how no one should pay taxes, or that government is taking away your rights and your ammo.  But give George credit he is a survivor.

With the help of a tractor,  tow straps and a few of George’s minions, a piece of Sheldon history is now resting securely in the little utility trailer.  Of course there are still a dozen or so stories to listen too as George continues to negotiate and up sell us an antique lamp, case of .22 ammo, the odd tool and of course handmade pipes made from deer and elk antlers.

Aiming the Land Rover onto the highway we begin the long journey back to Portland.  Each time we stop, we check the trailer and straps to ensure the 500 pounds of iron love hasn’t shifted.

Until now we’ve been ahead of the rains.  Looking into the sunset we see thick grey haze ahead, watch as the outdoor temperature falls and start to count the rain drops hitting the windshield.  Like a precision Indie pit we pull off to the side, engulf the trailer in a plastic tarp and secure it with countless bungee cords of all shapes, sizes and colors.  The storm can’t dampen our spirits no matter how many state lines remain to be crossed.

The rain is hitting the windshield in sheets as we come down off the Cascades in the dark.  Glare makes it impossible to see the dividing lines and the rig hydroplanes as Kevin hugs the shoulder of the Interstate.  Although this nerve-wracking section does dampen the conversation we quickly pick it back up as the highway leveled off and the street lights of the big city bring back visibility to the dividing lines.

Kevin and I talk about the things most good friends do: family, kids, jobs, our last big fishing trip together and our next big fishing adventure together.  We’ve known each other forever. Of course over the years life has taken us our separate ways.  He served in the Air Force and raised a family. I moved my family all around.  But we’ve always manage to come back together every so often and pick up our friendship as if the miles between us and years on the calender don’t matter.

I recently learned about Dunbar’s number and how people only have five to seven relationships that can be counted on no matter what.  The are the relationships where the other person will drop everything to help you out.  You can stop by without notice and they set an extra dinner plate and make the bed without asking why.  You’ll lend them money and never ask for it back…  those kinds of relationships.  Kevin is definitely one of the guys in my Monkeysphere.

It’s a little after midnight as we pull into the driveway, disconnect the trail and unpack the Land Rover.  A 1,000 miles in two days to retrieve a piece of equipment older than either of us and a long over due chance to catch up.  Oregon, Washington and Idaho are amazing areas to explore even if it is done looking out the windshield on the interstates. As long as it’s done with a friend.