In the past year I've gotten the bug for off-road driving. Fortunately I've been privileged to be able to borrow some fantastic vehicles from manufacturers including Jeep who have indulged my hobby. However, as I look around at the people I meet on the trails I realize that not everyone is driving the latest and greatest models. In fact, most people have an older model truck, Jeep or SUV that has been lovingly updated to serve their desired purpose. In fact, this makes a lot of sense since who wants to dent some brand new body work? I'm still going to wince a bit if I dent the door or get a crack in the headlight of any vehicle but I'd rather it happen to something that was already a bit worn. So the trick is figuring out where to start and how to get your truck off-road ready so you don't waste time and money in the process.
While it's getting more and more difficult to update cars and trucks with each successive generation, these fundamentals should hold true whether you choose an old beater or decide to take the beloved family SUV to the next level for some weekend warrior action.
Have a Goal In Mind
The first step in getting your truck off-road ready is to figure out what your goal is. Do you want to create a monster to crawl large rocks, ford creeks, tear through sand dunes, or a mixture of all of the above. Likewise, you need to decide if this project is going to ultimately result in something you can drive off-road only and be towed to the trails, or if it will be something street legal. Finally, you need to decide if this is still going to be useful as an everyday driver or if it's just a weekend toy to play with.
By answering these questions, the rest of your project should fall into place.
Decide What Platform You Are Going to Build From
Now that you have a goal in mind as to what you want the vehicle to do, you'll be able to pick the right platform. For those seeking the ultimate off-road beast, an old Jeep wrangler that's easy to modify would be perfect. However, for most of us, we will want the truck to still be useful as something to drive around town, at least to haul stuff like lawn and yard supplies back from Home Depot. As such, in many cases it makes sense to start with a used mid-sized pickup truck such as a Toyota Tacoma that is sturdy, reliable and compact so that it can maneuver around obstacles. For those looking for something to take on more established trails where mud and sand are the primary obstacles, a larger vehicle might be a better choice.
Personally, I would advise that you should start with a platform that already works well and that you can add upgrades to incrementally.
Prioritize Off-Road Upgrades
Now that you've secured the platform to build your off-road truck from, it's time to prioritize those upgrades. Key areas to consider include: Ground Clearance, Skid Plates, Wheel Articulation, Suspension, Tow Points, and Tires. There are clearly a LOT more elements to consider, but these areas are probably the easiest to upgrade. On the other hand, issues like differentials, axles, visibility, and low-end torque are things you should look at having been already built into your platform before you acquire it. For instance, make sure that your truck already has sufficient engine power and 4x4 ability rather than buying something that doesn't. You can upgrade those areas obviously, but it might not be the right first steps for getting your truck off-road ready.
Improve Ground Clearance
The first part of your off-road rig that needs to be upgraded is ground clearance. While your standard 4x4 truck may already have more clearance than other's out there, you can always use more to protect your vehicle and allow you to avoid obstacles. The first place to start is with a lift kit to add some extra inches. Unfortunately, as with any fundamental change to the suspension, you may need to evaluate other upgrades as well to compensate for the raised body. While you are evaluating lift kits, you might also consider a leveling kit for your truck. If you already start with a truck that has high clearance but was designed for hauling heavy loads, you may notice that the back of the vehicle is significantly higher. Whereas a lift kit raises all four tires, a leveling kit flattens the rake of the truck. Since most manufacturers assume your truck is designed for hauling stuff, they've designed the rear tires to be slightly higher when unloaded.
Protect with Skid Plates
While raising your truck is going to help avoid most obstacles, there are still plenty of rocks and other debris out there waiting to attack your undercarriage. To help protect your investment, it's critical to install ski plates to harden important areas of the truck including: engine, transmission oil pans, fuel tank, and steering. Go for strength here when shopping for the skid plate and remember that no one is going to say "but it was a damn good looking skid plate!" when you are broken down on the side of the trail.
Get a Grip with Good Off-Road Tires
Chances are that the truck already has "ok" tires if it was already a 4x4 rig. However, now that you've raised the body with the lift kit and you are getting ready to hit the trails, it's important to buy tires that match your new truck. Do research before buying the tires and pick the right ones for the terrain that you are going to be focusing on.
Once you've made these core upgrades, the sky is the limit and the hobby can get expensive fast. Don't over invest initially though and spend time to learn how to make the modifications on your own if possible. This will not only save money but when something goes wrong, you'll know exactly what to do to fix it.