To Go Long Or To Lock It Up
In its infancy, the 4x4 hobby was a pretty easy one to get into. For the most part, if you had a four-wheel-drive truck or SUV, you simply slapped on the biggest set of mud tires you could find and went off-road. The idea that you needed a slew of aftermarket mods to survive off-road didn’t come until much later. Over the past two decades our industry and hobby has grown tremendously. We’re pushing our 4x4s to new extremes and components that were once thought of as race-only, are showing up on daily-driven vehicles across the globe.
While we are seeing more segmenting on the competition side of off-roading, the core of our hobby continues to be trail riding. Trail riding can differ greatly depending on what part of the world you call home, but the fundamentals of building a trail rig are generally very similar throughout. One hot topic of conversation for guys building their own trail rig is whether to invest in a set of traction aids like locking differentials or invest in a long-travel suspension.
The term long-travel refers to the vertical wheeltravel of a suspension system. Typically, wheeltravel is measured in inches. Most methods of measure use the suspensions upwards stopping point (generally a bumpstop or collapsed shock) and measure to the farthest point the suspension can extend vertically. Anything over 10 inches of vertical wheeltravel is often put under the category of long-travel. Long-travel is not the same as a long-arm suspension, although long-arm suspensions often allow for more wheeltravel over stock.
On the surface lockers and long-travel suspensions may seem like they are worlds apart, but the reality is that both are designed to help your rig maintain traction off-road. Sure, it’s easy to say “why not go with both?” For some it boils down to budget, for others, it’s more of a matter of need versus want. As odd as it may sound to some, there are areas of our hobby where lockers aren’t necessarily as essential as having lots of wheeltravel and vice versa.
Decades ago, a long-travel suspension required lots of custom fabrication and big coin. These days, you can get a long-travel suspension system for a variety of makes and models just by picking up the phone and calling one of the dozens of aftermarket-suspension manufacturers. Many of the long-travel kits are easy bolt-on upgrades, while some are extremely expensive and more complex.
While a long-travel kit will help keep your rigs tires planted in the dirt, a set of locking differentials will ensure that all wheels are turning at the same speed. Even if one, or all, of your tires lose contact with the terra firma, so long as you have power (throttle) going to the axles, the tires will continue to spin in unison. Both lockers and long-travel suspension systems play an important role under your rig. Picking what type of traction aids and suspension is right for your rig often comes down to the terrain you wheel and how much you are willing to push the limits of your 4x4 and budget.
Collectively, we have over 60 years of studying each side of the coin. And over the years we’ve learned that sometimes building your rig for what you actually need is easier (and cheaper) than building for what you think you need. To help fuel the campfire debate, editors Cappa, Brubaker, and Mansour have each weighed in on the topic. Think they have fallen off of their rockers? Join the online debate at www.fourwheeler.com.
I used to think I needed a ton of articulation, vertical wheeltravel, and traction-adding devices like lockers to do the kind of off-roading I preferred. In the past, like many people, I sacrificed suspension reliability and proper axle control to get more wheeltravel and articulation. I’ve since experimented with a lot of different suspension and differential setups. So today, with only one exception, I’ll take traction-adding devices like lockers over complicated long-travel suspensions.
A 4x4 that’s used on typical off-road trails really only needs 8 to 10 inches of properly-tuned vertical wheeltravel (measured at the axle bumpstops). Anything more is generally overkill and, for most people, just for show. Quite often it can result in an unreliable, noisy, high-maintenance suspension design. Sure, those wacky and flexy suspensions look cool and can keep all four tires on the ground, but who cares? With a locker I’m still moving forward even with two tires hanging in the air.
I’ll often compensate for my 4x4s lack of monster wheeltravel with larger tires. This helps smooth the ride off-road. I can get several inches of extra travel from a properly aired-down tire in the 35- to 40-inch size range, even more if the tire is bigger. Of course this balloon-tire technique does result in some interesting undesirable handling characteristics at speed.
And as a side note, those wacky, complex long-travel suspensions often drop tires down into holes you don’t want them in and make your vehicle unstable to boot! So what’s the one exception to my rule? If I’m hauling ass across the desert I want a tuned and stable long-travel suspension. In that environment I almost don’t need a locker at all because I don’t plan on slowing down enough to get stuck.
I appreciate wheeltravel. The benefits of a flexy suspension can’t be denied when blasting over whoops or crawling over boulders. Thing is, I rarely blast my truck across rough terrain, and here in northern Illinois rockcrawling isn’t on the menu. What is on the menu is uneven, rutted terrain that is often coated with mud and snow. For this reason, if given the choice between a long-travel suspension or a pair of lockers, I’ll choose the lockers. Yes, tires in the air get no traction, but tires on the ground do, and lockers will make sure that the tires on the ground are getting power. Oh, and in most cases, it’s also quicker and less expensive to install locking differentials in a rig than it is to install a long-travel suspension. I’ve spanked some brutal terrain in locked, but limited wheeltravel, rigs.
I’m a big fan of long-travel suspension systems, but that hasn’t always delivered me great results. Long before I was a magazine editor and just a mere freshman in college, I was dead-set on getting the most amount of wheeltravel out of my Jeep Grand Cherokee. Unfortunately, at the time, there was little in the way of aftermarket support for the SUV platform. When the first long-arm kit came along, I bought it. I was so stoked to have more wheeltravel and get off of the short-arms that I didn’t care about the odd-ball geometry, which I would later have to completely re-engineer.
It was pretty expensive, but at the time, I convinced myself that it would be an easier and more cost-effective investment over trying to swap in a set of junkyard axles that could survive me and the lockers. For a short while I was happy with the increased travel and smooth ride of the suspension. The extra articulation helped keep the tires on the ground and improved the Jeep’s performance tremendously over dry and twisty terrain. This was all great until my first rain-soaked wheeling trip in the mountains.
It’s not that I underestimated the off-road performance benefits of lockers; I just put a little too much faith in the suspension kit. All the travel in the world doesn’t mean much when you only have two clay-soaked tires grasping for traction that isn’t there. After pinching my pennies, I finally swapped in a stronger pair of axles, along with a set of locking differentials. Having the locked axle set immediately improved the Jeeps capabilities and made it a more enjoyable wheeler. As my wheeling progressed, I continued to look for ways to make the Jeep lower and more stable. Eventually, my suspension travel was a drastically abbreviated version of the long-travel kit that I once thought I needed.
Though, I’ll save the long-arm versus short-arm debate for another time, the fact is, I didn’t really need a large amount of suspension travel then, and still, really don’t. This doesn’t mean that I am no longer a fan of long-travel suspensions, only that it is harder for me to justify them. It’s difficult not to enjoy the ride and articulation that comes with a long-travel suspension. The complexity associated with them doesn’t bother me either as I enjoy tinkering-on and maintaining my rigs. As long-travel kits become more affordable and lockers continue with steady pricing, I believe it’s realistic for people to have both. But if I can only pick one, I’ll choose lockers every time.