Sometimes the best way to see where you are is to see where you’ve been. The world is not the same place it was at the turn of the 21st century. The same goes for the off-road world. While some things in the off-road world are worse than they were, most have gotten better since the dawn of the year 2000.
In the spirit of self-assessment, we’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of 10 standout products and trends that have helped to shape the off-road world as we know it today. Some began before Y2K but have gained strength and prevalence as time has marched forward. Other items on this list simply didn’t exist prior to 12 years ago. Disclaimers and background dispensed with, here’s the list:
Off-Road Prowess Straight from the Dealer Lot
Enthusiasts have always and will always modify their vehicles to suit off-road needs, styles, and tastes. Even so, it’s better yet when the factories take notice and build what we like on the assembly line. The Ford Raptor (seen below), the Dodge Power Wagon, and the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon are proof that the OEMs can build awesome stuff when they’ve got their collective fingers on the pulse of the off-road world.
Bolt-on Long Travel
Unless you’re purchasing a Dodge Ram 2500 or 3500 HD 4x4 or Ford Super Duty 4x4, you’ve probably got A-arms under the front of your late-model truck. That means you’ve got limited suspension travel and suspect durability when your truck leaves the dealer lot. It doesn’t have to stay that way. Bolt-on long-travel suspension systems let you ditch the factory A-arms for replacements that are longer and stronger. Couple these with high-quality coilover and bypass shocks, and you’ve got something that’s genuinely ready for the dirt. Bolt-on long travel systems existed in Y2K, but there are more offerings today, more companies producing them, and the off-roading public has a better appreciation of their features and benefits. Most require some welding to install, for instance to install a shock hoop or bumpstop can, but heavy fabrication is seldom required.
Hardcore Axles, New Applications
The Ford 9-inch and the Dana 60 are time-honored hard hitters in the off-road world. New-school electronics using wheel speed sensors, and multi-link suspension requiring complex bracketry made axle swapping a tough proposition for newer vehicles, but the aftermarket has figured out clever ways to integrate time-honored axles and late-model vehicles. Your engine computer and suspension won’t know the difference, but you’ll hit the backcountry with extra confidence knowing your axles are up to the task.
LED bulbs have been around for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until the last few years that LED lighting has become bright enough to safely light up the night for off-roading. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) run cooler, use less power, and are more shock- and vibration-resistant than other types of off-road lights. The future is bright (pun intended) for LEDs.
One fact in the life of a truck owner is that trucks have more difficult ingress and egress than cars do. They’re taller. As truck owners, we don’t mind the extra effort to get in and out, but our friends, family, and significant others often do. Get rid of your truck for something lower? Never! Retracting steps fold down automatically when the doors are opened, and then retract up and out of sight when the doors close. Keep your truck and keep your friends and family happy all with one product.
Off-Roaders Get Politically Active
There are several forces that would like all of us to lose access to public land, even the established OHV areas and established trails that many of us enjoy. By our very nature, off-roaders are largely individualistic, but we’ve been forced to unify in order to preserve our off-roading opportunities. Participation and membership in off-road advocacy organizations is on the rise, and it’s making a difference. We think every off-roader should be a member of at least one off-road advocacy organization. After all, the trail you save might be your own.
Synthetic Winch Ropes
A winch is one of the best trail tools you can own. It can save your rig and save your life. It can also injure or kill you. Traditional steel winch ropes (AKA cables) build up considerable energy when under tension and can snap back with deadly force if the rope breaks or the winch hook gets loose. Synthetic winch ropes do not store energy the same way their steel counterparts do. If a synthetic winch rope breaks, it falls limp to the ground instead of whipping through the air the way a steel rope will. Synthetic winch ropes are also lighter than steel cables, reducing winch weight and the load on your suspension. Synthetic winch ropes are also much easier on the hands compared to steel.
Easy Install, Self-Learning EFI
There are diehards who will cling to their carburetors forever, but most of us freely enjoy the benefits of EFI. Who wouldn’t love all-altitude, all-angle drivability and effortless cold starting? Throw improved fuel economy on top and it’s a combination made in heaven. Converting an older engine to run with an EFI system used to require a laptop, an involved installation, and lots of tuning time. Today there are easy-to-install EFI systems from several sources. Critical sensors are housed in the throttle body, wiring harnesses are pre-made and clearly labeled, and the system self-learns and self-tunes as you drive.
New Role for RTI Ramps
In the late ‘90s it seemed that everyone wanted to build an RTI ramp champ. Bragging rights were reserved for those whose rigs scored 1,000 or came close. It turned out that having an ultra-flexy suspension didn’t equal off-road performance all by itself. Shackles with hinges in the middle, pried-open leaf spring clamps, and “buggy spring” (3/4 elliptical) leaf arrangements are among the mods performed in the name of RTI scores. While those suspension mods are mostly gone, the RTI ramp is here to stay. What do RTI ramps do these days? They’re an excellent tool for cycling suspension and checking tire, steering, and suspension component clearance. Yes, some still use them to get bragging rights.
Flared Fenders and Fender Flares
Bigger tires, lower ride heights (for better handling), and more wheel travel are all desirable features to build into trucks. There’s one big hang-up, though, and that’s the factory sheet metal. Thanks to the proliferation of flared fiberglass fenders and bedsides, it’s possible to make the mechanical things happen without the body panels getting in the way. Urethane fenders are offered for limited applications. We would love to see more urethane fenders on the market. Some enthusiasts’ needs are better served by retaining their factory fenders and bedsides and installing extended flares instead. Jeepers benefit from steel tube fenders that add rock defense on top of tire clearance. What do body mods have to do with handling and suspension? As it turns out: quite a bit!