There's nothing so constant as change. Today's big news is tomorrow's yawner.
Change isn't always for the better. There are times when a big "innovation" makes life more complicated or even dangerous. Need an example? Anti-lock brakes. While ABS makes for arguably safer driving on slippery pavement, it makes for significantly less braking power in the dirt.
On the flip side, we can point to several new products, organizations, and events that have changed off-roading for the better. Thanks to these game changers, life in the dirt will never be the same. And that's a good thing.
King of the Hammers
King of the Hammers started as an underground trail run, but has grown not only into a high-profile race, but into a complete racing series: Ultra 4. KOH has also spawned a new style of race vehicle: It's able to crawl the toughest trail, but also to fly through wide-open sections. Some new KOH rigs are sporting custom long-travel IFS, but many still use solid front axles. Every competitive KOH rig has desert-racing style shocks on board. Perhaps the best way KOH has changed the game is that the event has shown the economic benefit off-roading offers to local communities. KOH is helping preserve access to the Johnson Valley OHV area.
Wish list for the future: We want KOH to continue and thrive, and we'd also like to see the Johnson Valley OHV area remain intact as-is. The threat of invasion by the 29 Palms USMC base isn't over.
The Azusa Canyon Obstacle Course
The Azusa Canyon Obstacle Course makes the game changer list because it's one of the very few examples of a new off-road opportunity being developed. This obstacle course shows while it's difficult to jump through all the required hoops, it is possible if you persevere. Opening day saw representatives from local communities, the U.S. Forest Service, and local government. Many groups, not just off-roaders, benefitted from the Azusa Canyon Obstacle Course. Mike Bishop, president of the Azusa Canyon Off-Road Association, has just reason to be proud of his creation. The course itself is tough, and it's legit. In the trail photo, the Jeep on the left is high-centered and about to get a friendly tug from a helpful soul on the right.
Wish list for the future: More new opportunities, and preservation of existing ones.
CORVA, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, isn't a new organization, but it belongs on a Game Changer list because it continues to fight for OHV land access and sets an example for like-minded organizations all over the country. Off-roaders are naturally individualistic, but we've learned we need to be united in our fight for land access. Part of this fight falls on each of us, showing that we can be good land stewards by driving and riding where it's legal, hauling out our own trash (and that of others), and generally using off-roading as a healthy, wholesome activity. CORVA gives us a voice, and it has been making a difference. We're going to keep harping on this: If you live in California and go off-roading, you should be a member of CORVA. If you live elsewhere, find a similar organization and join it.
Wish list for the future: More CORVA members!
So custom axles have been around for several years now. However, as of late there's been a proliferation of options for the Ford 9-Inch. The 9-Inch is popular because it's easy to weld to the all-steel housing, and axleshaft, brake, and third member options are numerous. Currie Enterprises, one of the pioneers of custom 9-Inch axles, offers 9-Inch axles compatible with OEM ABS and traction control systems. The housing end shown works with the Toyota FJ Cruiser and 4Runner electronics. The 9-Inch also offers several axleshaft options, so you're not stuck with something too light, too heavy, or too pricey. Mix and match to fit your application and budget.
Wish list for the future: Those with vehicles too big, heavy, or powerful for the 9-Inch often need something even beefier. Custom axles based on the GM 14-Bolt and the Dana 60 are beginning to appear. We think the market is ripe for more axles like the Super 14 and the JRat Sixty9.
Home-Builder Fabrication Tools
This is a growing category. Several new tools on the market give home fabricators the ability to produce professional-quality results, even with a smaller budget. Swag Off-Road has hit a couple of home runs with its tubing bender power conversion and its tabletop band saw conversion kit. Both involve smart use of existing products, such as the Harbor Freight air/hydraulic ram and the Milwaukee portable band saw.
Wish list for the future: While we think the new, compact CNC plasma systems are great, we'd like to see more optical tracer-style plasma cutting systems. Optical tracers only require a paper pattern (no computer needed) and produce impressive results—perfect for home builders.
Ready-Made Builder Parts
Like the fabrication tools previously mentioned, this is a growing category. Pre-made tabs, brackets, and pivot joints save time and help produce better-performing, safer results. Currie's Johnny Joints are ideal for suspension projects because the urethane pivot inserts help damp vibration and shock, cut noise, and are cheap and easy to rebuild when needed. This cadre of tabs and brackets was found in the RuffStuff Specialties booth at the 2013 Off-Road Expo. Yes, this photo was also in that story. Sorry about that!
Wish list for the future: We like what we see. Keep it coming.
Tablet-Based GPS Navigation
There's still a place for a dedicated GPS unit, but more and more we've seen tablet computers being adapted for GPS use. A variety of software allows users to download highly detailed base maps, and the proliferation of tablet computers means it costs significantly less to buy in. You can build a table mount into your custom console, or use a stick-type mount, such as the Joy Factory unit shown.
Wish list for the future: A remote-mounted, cable-connected, hard keypad would be a valuable addition with some key GPS commands like zoom out/in. A touch screen is tough to use on the fly when you're bouncing around in the dirt.
Capable Vehicles Straight From the Factory
We're sure the proverbial bean counters shuddered when a handful of engineers at Ford and Jeep presented the ideas for the SVT Raptor and the Rubicon-model Wrangler. Why not just let the aftermarket take care of the upgrades? It turned out, there is a big demand for off-road capable rigs ready to go straight from the dealer lot, and the sales figures back that up. Of course, that doesn't mean Raptor and Rubicon owners leave their rigs as-is. Far from it! However, it's nice to begin with such a capable starting point.
Wish list for the future: More OEM's should jump on this bandwagon, but they need to do it with more than just tires, fender flares, and special badging. Ford's Raptor offers built-in Off-Road Mode that gives the driver complete control of the vehicle by shutting off the ABS and other electronic babysitters. The Raptor also comes with real bypass shocks, a selectable locking rear differential, and a limited-slip front differential. The Rubicon comes with selectable locking differentials front and rear, and a 4-to-1 low range in the transfer case. These tailor-made off-road electronics and hard parts are what make the difference.