By now you've heard the whispers around camp about bead-lock wheels. Everyone is saying that you just have to have a set or you're not a serious four-wheeler. We're here to tell you that for some, bead-lock wheels are a must. But they are not for everyone. Here's why: First off, bead-lock wheels are only needed for low-speed trail use when you plan on running your tires at very low inflation pressures. Many people are hesitant to lower tire pressures below the 18-psi mark, and if you're one of them, you likely don't need a set of bead-lock wheels. The fact is that unless you have a very heavy rig and drive it really hard, you're unlikely to unseat a tire bead if the tire pressure is over 18-20 psi. On the other hand, if you like running pressures below 12 psi on the trail, your need for bead-lock wheels likely is quite high. If you're wondering why anyone would run tire pressures this low, consider this: At lower air pressures, the tire has a larger footprint. This means more rubber on the rocks and therefore, more traction. In addition, a low tire is better able to conform to uneven surfaces, which also improves traction. And in mud, a bigger footprint can mean increased flotation.
The concept behind bead-lock wheels is simple. A bead-lock wheel clamps the outer tire bead in place, rather than relying on an inner safety bead and air pressure to hold the tire on the rim. By clamping the tire securely, you ensure that the outer bead can't be pushed off the wheel in rough terrain with low tire pressure, resulting in an instant flat. Notice that we said the outer bead. Generally speaking, bead-lock wheels only lock the outer bead, and the inner bead retention system is of the standard design. This is done for two reasons. First, the stress of turning, cornering, and climbing over rocks is more likely to push against the outside bead than the inner one. Second, a dual bead-lock wheel makes it virtually impossible to center and balance the tire.
Now we know that the upside of bead-lock wheels is the ability to keep the tire on the wheel, even with extremely low tire pressures. So what is the downside? First, bead-lock wheels are complicated things that take a lot of time to build and put into use. This means that bead-lock wheels are more expensive than standard wheels, and you'll pay more to have tires mounted and balanced on them. Bead-lock wheels also require a lot of maintenance. You can't just mount your tires and forget them. The fact is that before and after every trail outing, you'll need to check the torque on the bead-lock ring-bolts. Further, if any of the bolts are broken, you'll need to replace the entire set. Did we say broken bolts? Yes, we did. You see, the bolts that hold your bead-lock ring in place are handling the load of keeping the tire on the rim. This load is concentrated on the bolts rather than all around the rim edge, as on a standard wheel. After a while, these bolts reach their stress limit and break. This is why more bolts are better. This is one of the reasons that bead-lock wheels are not DOT-approved for highway use. This means that you'll need two sets of wheels if you plan on driving your trail rig on the street. Bead-lock wheels are great for rockcrawling, but are not suitable for street use.
But wait. What if you like that cool look and really want to install a set of bead-lock wheels despite the disadvantages? Well, consider a set of faux bead locks. These wheels have the look of a bead-lock, complete with bolt heads and outer rings, but are standard wheels in every other way. As a bonus, the outer ring adds some strength to the wheel’s outer edge. This makes faux-bead-lock wheels somewhat more durable than standard wheels in the rocks.
Here you'll find a short list of the manufacturers of both real and faux bead-lock wheels. Whether you're into hard-core wheeling with single-digit tire pressures, or simply desire the rugged look, you'll find something here for you.