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Off Road Safety - Build In Protection

Posted in How To on April 1, 2001
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Photographers: 4-Wheel & Off-Road archives

Reading this magazine while hanging in traction from your hospital bed makes you a captive audience, but it is not where we want you to be when you’re flipping through the pages of 4-Wheel & Off-Road. It’s our job to show you how to build your truck better and where to test your driving skill, but we also want to show you how to protect yourself and make sure that you are still here a month from now for our next issue.

We know you’d rather be planning that new engine swap and adding lockers to your rig than thinking about safety, but keep in mind how much more enjoyable it is to wheel with your fingers, toes, and head still attached to your body in their original locations. Have you ever tried flipping through these pages using just your tongue?


Rarely, if ever, is the idea of improving your brake system given a second thought. Most ½-ton trucks have 10½- to 11-inch rotors with rear drums that are borderline adequate in stock form. Throw a set of 35s on the axles with heavy cast aluminum or steel wheels and you may be wearing that Volkswagen Rabbit in front of you in a panic stop situation. Those heavy tires with tall flexy sidewalls that work great off-road are the enemy of high-performance on-road braking, and will increase the distance it takes to bring your rig to a complete stop. The most effective way to increase your stopping performance is to slow down. Like all systems on our trucks, the brakes can be improved upon.

Want proof? In “Discs vs. Drums” (May 2000), our own Christian Hazel’s ’85 Ramcharger was upgraded to 12-inch rear discs and improved the 60-0 mph to an average distance of 152 feet compared to 180 feet with 12-inch drums in the back. That’s more than two whole Ramchargers of braking room!

Rear disc brake kits are now available to mount OEM front calipers or Cadillac or Lincoln rear calipers with integrated parking brakes on just about any rear axle. Larger front rotors, softer brake pads, or bigger rear drums will all improve brake performance when building in more stopping power for the larger tires.


Seatbelt safety is simple. If you wear the seatbelt it will work to protect you in the event of an accident. The first thing you have to do though is to train yourself to wear your seatbelt whenever you are driving, and insist that all passengers do the same. Factory seatbelts are not the ultimate setup, but the best five-point racing harness is worthless if it is too cumbersome to put on every time you hop in the driver seat. We know that some people feel that seatbelts are too restrictive when on the trail, but we also know that those same people will not be able to hold themselves behind the wheel when their truck starts bouncing or decides to roll over.

Upgrades in this department mean new seatbelts or upgrading to a five-point harness used in many forms of motorsports. When mounting your new belts or harness, choose mounting locations that are strong enough to support the force your body will exert if you are in a collision. Depending on the collision we could be talking a force 10 times your body weight! That means don’t mount the belts to your rusty floorboards or to a rollbar that your brother-in-law made with his first welder. Safety equipment is not the place to practice your fabrication skills, and mistakes made here will not save your butt.


The function of a rollcage is to provide a safety cell that you and your passengers will be surrounded by and protected by if your truck flops on its side or decides to go drivetrain-side up. A competent welder, not your buddy that got a MIG-welder for his birthday, should build your rollcage. When building your own cage, use commonly available 1¾- or 2-inch-diameter drawn over mandrel (DOM) tubing with a wall thickness of 0.120 inch to give you the strength you need. Bolt-in cages are also available, but are often called “light bars” for liability reasons because the manufacturer has no control over your installation, or how rusty your floor is. If you are mounting the cage to the floor of your rig you have to realize that the cage will only protect you as long as the floor supports the weight of the truck. If you have a steel body that is thinning like a middle-aged man’s hair, think about attaching the cage to the frame. Or consider building the cage with bars that connect the driver and passenger-side hoops with bars that straddle the frame. This adds strength to the cage, and if you mount your seats to these lower crossbars, the cage would have to pass through the perpendicular framerails to crush you in the event of a rollover. Those of you with fiberglass bodies should consider it mandatory to design your cage with these crossbars, or tie the cage right into the frame.

Fire Extinguishers

It took primitive man thousands of years to master the art of making fire, and now we are so good at making those flickering flames (inadvertently) that we have to prepare for ways to put it out. It will be hard to put out that unexpected electrical fire with your hands when a battery comes loose and the electrical system goes crispy- critter. Even worse is walking back to camp because your Jeep Cherokee turned Jeep Chernobyl on the trail.

Everyone’s trail rig should have an onboard fire extinguisher. Yes, that means you too. Ask your mom to buy you one if you can’t afford it. You may think that your truck has no chances of spontaneously combusting, but what if the guy’s F-150 in front of you flares up? It’s either grab the fire extinguisher or reach for the marshmallows! It’s not worth the risk. A fire extinguisher that you never have to use is your best bet.


If you can’t steer your rig you won’t be able to avoid obstacles or attack them. Although you may be able to hit them slower. Steering failures are annoying on the trail, but even worse at highway speeds. You can be the best driver in the world, but if your tie rods stop tying your front wheels together, or your drag link stops dragging, you might as well brace for impact.

Every part of the steering gear takes a beating any time you are driving terrain that requires four-wheel drive. You should inspect the front end of your truck regularly for damage and wear, especially if it takes you and your family down the street Monday through Friday. Frame cracks near the steering box are common on most trucks with larger-than-stock tires, and especially on Chevys. Tie rod ends and ball joints will usually show signs of wearing out long before they let go, but they are not as strong as high-quality rod ends. If you are tweaking your front-end parts on the rocks or in the ruts every other weekend, become their parole officer and check in with them after every outing.

Also remember not to curl your thumbs around the steering wheel when you are out crawling around your favorite trail. If one of your tires hits an immovable object it could spin the steering wheel so violently through your hands that it will feel like someone took a ball peen hammer to your hitchhiking equipment.


Medieval knights had their shields and armor to protect them from attacks, and so can you. Front and rear bumpers come in so many forms now that someone out there makes one for your truck to fend off the kind of nasties that you come across. Pushbars, prerunner bumpers, and even grilleguards all served a utilitarian purpose long before ending up on your wife’s Escape. Bumpers are made to take the abuse of obstacles that would otherwise crunch thin sheetmetal, puncture your radiator, or blacken the headlight assemblies on your rig.

But don’t go thinking that you can bolt on a new front bumper (even one of the real spendy units) and go out and ram things. You’ll find that even the best bumpers will show signs of impact and abuse. Or worse yet you’ll get to see first-hand what your airbag looks like. Think of your bumpers as sacrificial parts that are out there in front protecting the rest of your truck, and make sure the model you buy is up to the kind of use that you have in mind. A lot of aftermarket front bumpers look like you could use them as an anchor point for your tow strap, but very few are actually rated for that type of use. The same goes for rear bumpers with a hole for a trailer ball. You may be asking more of the equipment than it was designed for. Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations, and remember you get what you pay for.


One of the scariest occurrences out on the trail is a failed winch cable. If a 3/8-inch cable under the tension of a 5,000-pound truck stuck behind a rock were to snap, it could whip back with a tremendous amount of energy, and have potentially deadly results. We’re talking far more painful than any rat-tail your older brother ever gave you with a wet towel. Fortunately this type of failure rarely happens, but with old cables the potential is always there.

The key here is to take precautions, think about your anchor points and make sure they are up to the loads that winching can produce. Clear away unnecessary people from the winching area. If something goes wrong there is no reason to expose more people to the possibility of a cable breaking. Put a jacket, a blanket, or something of substance over the cable to dampen the energy of the line should it break and try to recoil. Think about what you are doing. If you feel that there is a high risk of cable failure, pop open the hood on the winching vehicle, or use multiple winches.

Find ways to reduce the risk to people in the area, and limit the damage whenever possible. A winch is a tool and, when used properly, is a safe and effective aid in off-road recovery.

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