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Our 10 Favorite First Off-Road Truck Upgrades

Posted in How To on September 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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Where the heck do you start? You have a stock pickup or SUV and you want to make it more capable on the trail, but wow, there are so many products available in the aftermarket, your head is spinning faster than your stock tires in greasy mud.

To help point you in the right direction, we've assembled 10 upgrades that we think should be considered first. Which items you put at the top of the list may depend on what region of the country you live in. For instance, if you live in the Rocky Mountains and enjoy boulder-strewn trails, you'll probably want to consider rocker and underbody protection. If you live in the fertile farmland of Iowa, you'll probably be more interested in a set of mud tires. Of course, finding the parts can also be a challenge, so we've included contact information for aftermarket suppliers that can help you get what you want. Finally, to show we practice what we preach, we've included photos and information about those products that we've actually installed on our own project vehicles.

Narrowing this down to 10 items wasn't easy, but these are the things we consider first when building up a stock rig.

1. Better Tires
The lowdown: Most truck and SUV manufacturers put street-biased tires on the vehicles they produce. They know full well that these vehicles will spend 99 percent of their time on the paved road, so they typically fit 'em with tires that have soft sidewalls (for a good ride) and a mild tread pattern (for quietness). Problem is, off-highway travel puts a whole array of stresses on these tires. Those soft sidewalls can be more susceptible to cuts from rocks or intrusion by branches, and the mild tread doesn't make enough traction and can easily load with mud to become useless.

The upgrade: Upgrading to a more aggressive tire will typically get you a stronger carcass overall. This translates to less chance of tire failure. You'll also get better traction, which means you'll get places you couldn't go with the stock tires. One of the first upgrades we did to our project Power Wagon was a set of more aggressive tires. We chose the Mickey Thompson ATZ in a size a bit wider and taller than stock. This tire gave us a wider footprint, beefier siped tread lugs, and a self-cleaning tread with built-in Stone Kicker rock ejectors. Even if you choose to stay with the same size tire, but in a more aggressive design, you'll improve your rig's off-highway capabilities.

The 411: Discount Tire Direct, discounttiredirect.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; Falken Tire, falkentire.com; General Tire, generaltire.com; Mickey Thompson Tires, mickeythompsontires.com; National Tire & Wheel, ntwonline.com; Nitto Tire, nittotire.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Tire Rack, tirerack.com; Toyo Tires, toyotires.com; Truck Accessory Liquidators, tal4x4.com

2. Shock Therapy
The lowdown: Like tires, in most applications the shocks under your rig are designed for street use. When we hit the trail, these shocks are asked to do things that they weren't designed for in an environment they weren't designed for. For instance, in sustained high-speed use over rough terrain, the oil in these shocks can heat to a temperature that is so hot, the oil foams and the shock loses its dampening ability. We've had this happen, and it's not pretty. Additionally, most stock shocks are designed for use with the factory-sized tires. When shocks are designed for a vehicle at the factory, vehicle weight and tire and wheel weight (among other things) are factored. This determines the shock size and valving. If you plan on fitting your rig with larger tires and/or heavy accessories, you could be exceeding the design parameters of the shocks. This will not only cause them to heat up faster, but also adversely affect the vehicle's handling.

The upgrade: Swap those stock shocks out for some beefy aftermarket units. There are a zillion different shocks available in the aftermarket, but typically, they have several things in common. They tend to be larger in all regards than stock shocks, and this includes a larger piston rod and piston. They tend to dissipate heat better, too. As a bonus, many use velocity-sensitive valving, some offer manual adjustment, and some are valved specifically to each type of vehicle. If you plan on running your rig hard, there are also a number of remote-reservoir shocks on the market, and these tend to run cooler yet and often they're rebuildable. When it came time to upgrade the shocks on our project Trailhugger H3, we used a set of nitrogen-charged Fox Racing-manufactured Rod Hall Racing piggyback-reservoir shocks.

The 411: ARB USA, arbusa.com; BDS Suspension, bds-suspension.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; King Shocks, kingshocks.com; National Tire & Wheel, ntwonline.com; Offroad Design, offroaddesign.com; Performance Accessories, performanceaccessories.com; Pure Performance, pure-performance.biz; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Rancho Suspension, gorancho.com; Rocky Mountain Suspension Products, rockymountainsusp.com; Rough Country Suspension, roughcountry.com; Rubicon Express, rubiconexpress.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Skyjacker Suspension, skyjacker.com; Spidertrax, spidertrax.com; Teraflex, teraflex.biz; Tom's Bronco Parts, tomsbroncoparts.com; Tuff Country, tuffcountry.com

3. Go Ahead, Inhale
The lowdown: The gas or diesel engine in your rig needs air to operate. Not only does it need air, but that air needs to be super clean. If an engine doesn't get enough air, performance and fuel economy will suffer. If that air is dirty, the dirt particles need to be filtered out otherwise they can be sucked into the combustion chambers where damage can ensue. From the factory, vehicles are equipped with an intake and filter that will accomplish the basics, but like anything else, there's room for improvement.

The upgrade: Modest performance gains can be seen by simply replacing the factory intake and filter with one from the aftermarket. Most of these, like the K&N Fuel Injection Performance Kit (FIPK) pictured here on our project Fiery Redhead F-150, reduces intake restriction by smoothing and straightening the path of the airflow to the intake. This particular FIPK kit includes a free-flowing washable and reusable filter and is said to offer a 9.33hp improvement over the stock air intake system.

The 411: Banks, bankspower.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts Wholesalers, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Truck Accessory Liquidators, tal4x4.com

4. Now Exhale
The lowdown: Your rig's stock exhaust may be choking your engine and hurting performance and fuel economy. Most factory exhaust systems are typically designed to quiet exhaust noise. They're quite successful at that, but they aren't designed with performance in mind.

The upgrade: After-cat exhaust systems are a quick and easy way to reduce backpressure and turbulence, and that means more power. One of the ways they do this is by reducing the number of bends in the system compared to stock. This, along with the technology they incorporate into their free-flowing mufflers, often results in more power and better fuel economy. An after-cat system was one of the first upgrades we did to our project Trailhugger H3. This particular system from MagnaFlow Performance Exhaust increased the diameter of most of the exhaust tubing by 1/2 inch, and it offered a more consistent tubing diameter and fewer bends than the stock exhaust. It also offered a freer-flowing resonator and muffler. We went with a split rear exit exhaust and we had the tips powdercoated black. Oh, and it gave the engine a nice sound, too.

The 411: Banks, bankspower.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts Wholesalers, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; K&N, knfilters.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Truck Accessory Liquidators, tal4x4.com

5. Suspended Animation
The lowdown: Limited ground clearance spells trouble on the trail. Truck and SUV suspensions are typically designed with more ground clearance than cars, but due to handling, fuel economy, and other concerns, they're kept as low as possible. This adversely affects overall ground clearance as well as approach and departure angles. It also causes a bit of a problem when trying to fit larger tires.

The upgrade: Installing a suspension lift provides instant relief. Naturally, the increase in approach, departure and ground clearance is directly related to the amount of lift. All suspension manufacturers give a maximum recommended tire size for each kit, so there's no mystery as to what size rubber you can fit. Most kits are all-inclusive, meaning they come with everything you need to lift your truck. Leveling kits are another option, and they're often very affordable and easy to install. Because they only lift the front of the vehicle, the approach angle will benefit the most. Most leveling kits do allow for a mild increase in tire size. When we built our project Fiery Redhead, we used a Rancho 4-inch suspension lift. This lift gave us the room needed to fit 33-inch tires, and the combination significantly enhanced our F-150's approach, departure and ground clearance.

The 411: ARB USA, arbusa.com; BDS Suspension, bds-suspension.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; King Shocks, kingshocks.com; National Tire & Wheel, ntwonline.com; Offroad Design, offroaddesign.com; Performance Accessories, performanceaccessories.com; Pure Performance, pure-performance.biz; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Rancho Suspension, gorancho.com; Rocky Mountain Suspension Products, rockymountainsusp.com; Rough Country Suspension, roughcountry.com; Rubicon Express, rubiconexpress.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Skyjacker Suspension, skyjacker.com; Spidertrax, spidertrax.com; Teraflex, teraflex.biz; Tom's Bronco Parts, tomsbroncoparts.com; Tuff Country, tuffcountry.com

6. Digital Performance
The lowdown: Unless you're rockin' an older rig, your engine probably has an engine control unit (ECU). The ECU is the computer that controls your rig's engine, and it was programmed at the factory. It was calibrated to allow your engine to perform well in daily driving, and it does just that. However, if you're interested in wringing more performance out of your rig, the factory programming just stands in the way.

The upgrade: Reprogram your rig's computer. There are a number of companies that offer programmers, and these machines literally reprogram your rig's ECU to make more power. Well actually, they do far more than that. For instance, we used the Hypermax Max Energy Power Programmer (shown here) to reprogram the ECU in our project Power Wagon, and it allowed us to change the top speed settings and rev limit as well as read and clear trouble codes. This is in addition to the two performance settings that boost performance by as much as 13 horsepower and 16 lb-ft of torque. Best of all, the Hypermax programmer is easy to use, and takes just seconds to return everything to the default stock settings. If you have an older vehicle with a computer "chip" or module, Hypermax has replacement units that increase power for those engines as well.

The 411: Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4 Wheel Parts Wholesalers, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; Hypertech, hypertech.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Superchips, superchips.com

7. Stop That
The lowdown: Your rig's brakes were designed to stop your vehicle safely within certain parameters. Engineers factor the brake system design, including rotor and pad size, on criteria related to the specifications of the vehicle, but larger wheels and tires and the added weight of accessories can tax the stock brakes. This is a safety issue as well as an inconvenience.

The upgrade: If you have rear drum brakes, you can upgrade to rear discs. It is said that the swap can provide up to 30 percent more brake force to your braking system. If you already have disc brakes all around, you can upgrade to aftermarket rotors and calipers. We installed the Stainless Steel Brake Corporation Force 10 system on our Chevy Tahoe to counter the effects of larger 35-inch tires. The kit upgraded the front calipers from single- to two-piston units (shown) and it added rear disc brakes with single piston calipers. Additionally, it included slotted rotors. This system produced results. It shaved 20.5 feet off the stopping distance of our Tahoe from 60 mph.

The 411: 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Stainless Steel Brake Corporation, ssbrakes.com; Teraflex, teraflex.biz; Tom's Bronco Parts, tomsbroncoparts.com

8. Light Up Your Life
The lowdown: Those factory headlights in your truck or SUV do an acceptable job at night in the city, but fail miserably off-highway at night. Besides, you need more than just forward-facing light. You need to know what's lurking in the dark off to the side of your rig. And what about when you have to back up? You think those tiny, weak factory backup lights are going to help light the way?

The upgrade: Add aftermarket lighting. There are kits that replace the factory headlights with more powerful lighting and there is a mind-boggling array of bolt-on lights that you can install to throw light in any direction you wish. "Full perimeter lighting," as we call it, was one of the first upgrades we installed on our project Trailhugger H3, shown here. These 10 PIAA lights gave us the option of throwing light in any direction we wished, and we used them a lot. What lights you install depends on how much money you wish to spend. The aftermarket offers everything from halogen to HID to LED in a variety of sizes and shapes.

The 411: ARB USA, arbusa.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com

9. Traction Action
The lowdown: One of the most frustrating things on the planet is when you're out wheeling and your rig is struggling because only one wheel per axle is putting power to the ground. Sad part is, many four wheel-drive vehicles come from the factory with open differentials, so this is just what happens.

The upgrade: Install a locking or limited-slip differential. Either of these will significantly improve your rig's performance off-highway because they will send power to both wheels on an axle. Lockers can generally be categorized as manual or automatic. Limited-slip units require no driver interaction. When we built our project Fiery Redhead F-150, we installed a rear selectable locker that was a limited-slip unit until it was manually locked in. It was the best of both worlds. Up front, we used a Detroit Truetrac limited-slip (shown). This helical gear-type unit is awesome and extremely durable.

The 411: ARB USA, arbusa.com; Auburn Gear, auburngear.com; Desert Rat, desertrat.com; Eaton, eaton.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4xHeaven, 4xheaven.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; National Tire & Wheel, ntwonline.com; Quadratec, quadratec.com; Randy's Ring & Pinion, ringpinion.com; Spidertrax, spidertrax.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Superior Axle & Gear, superioraxlegear.com; West Coast Differentials, differentials.com

10. Protectionism
The lowdown: Most stock rigs don't have a lot of underbody protection. When you're on the trail, rocks, stumps, and other hazards seem to reach up and grab the underneath of your rig. This can stop you cold. A larger problem is that the unprotected underbelly of your rig is susceptible to damage from said rocks, stumps, and other trail hazards. If a major part like an oil or transmission pan is damaged, you could be stranded. Another vulnerable area of your rig is the rocker panels. Rocks and other protruding obstacles can do horrible things to your rig's sheetmetal. While it probably won't leave you stranded, it can strand your wallet at the body shop.

The upgrade: The aftermarket offers a variety of underbody and rocker protection. Some are very basic, and some are all-encompassing. An example of the latter is the skidplating we installed on our project Trailhugger H3. This incredible system came from DeFelice Offroad Innovations, and it's called the Up Armor Skidplate System. It protected our H3 from the very front of the rig all the way back past the transfer case. Not only did it protect the underbody components, it smoothed out the underneath of the rig and eliminated the "grab points" that rocks and stumps could've latched onto.

The 411: Desert Rat, desertrat.com; 4Wheel Drive Hardware, 4wd.com; 4 Wheel Parts, 4wheelparts.com; 4x4 Parts, 4x4parts.com; Rocky Mountain Suspension Products, rockymountainsusp.com; Rugged Ridge Offroad, ruggedridgeoffroad.com; Summit Racing, summitracing.com; Teraflex, teraflex.biz

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