1. home
  2. how to
  3. Tips for Improving the Brakes on Your Truck

Tips for Improving the Brakes on Your Truck

Stopping on a Dime

The ManufacturersPhotographerTrent RiddlePhotographer, Writer

Stock trucks stop fairly well. But add a lift, bigger tires, and several hundred pounds in bumpers, tools, and a winch, and your stopping distances increase dramatically. The reasons for this increased stopping distance involves the added weight of your truck’s wheels, tires, and other gear, along with the increased rotational inertia of those bigger, heavier tires, and the greater weight transfer your lift has created.

First, about that rotational inertia. Did you ever play with tops when you were a kid? If so, you may have noticed that larger tops, those that weigh more, would tend to spin for a longer time than smaller ones. Your bigger, heavier tires act the same way. They want to keep spinning, or rotating, rather than come to a stop when you want them to.

Now, weight transfer: The taller your truck, the more weight is shifted to the front suspension, and thus to the front brakes, when you attempt to stop. At some point, your truck’s front brakes are working to their limit and its rear brakes are just along for the ride. Improving your truck’s braking system is something that is easy to do in small steps, and you can expect small gains from each small upgrade. Or, if you prefer, you can make one large leap and install a completely new brake system that will allow your truck to stop better than it ever did when it was stock.

The first step in improving your brake system, assuming that it is in good condition to start with, is to upgrade the brake pads and shoes. The compounds, or friction materials, that a brake pad or shoe is made from have a dramatic effect on how your truck will stop. Friction materials generally come in four types: organic, semi-metallic, metallic, and composite compounds. Organic compounds are the cheapest to make but have some drawbacks when used for severe-duty applications. Organic compounds tend to heat up easily and glaze over. When the surface of the compound has glazed, braking forces are greatly reduced. Metallic compounds usually are composed of iron or copper compounds.

They offer great heat resistance, low glazing tendencies, and long life, but often accelerate wear of the rotors or drums. In the case of semi-metallic pads, the metal is blended with organic friction materials to improve stopping while reducing the abrasive qualities of the metal component in the friction material. Composite-friction materials are just making their way into the marketplace. They offer the best properties of metallic and organic friction materials but are expensive and hard to find. The bottom line with friction materials is to try different types until you find the one that works the best for your driving needs. In most cases they are relatively inexpensive and are, especially in the case of pads for disc brakes, easy to install.

The next step after upgrading your pads is to upgrade your truck’s brake rotors. By installing slotted or cross-drilled rotors, you increase the cooling of the front brake system. A cooler brake is a more efficient brake. Besides upgrading your rotors, you also can upsize them. Brake kits that offer larger-than-stock rotors, calipers, and even rear drums all contribute to better braking. The idea is simple: The more area a brake pad covers, the more pressure it can apply to the rotor; and the more pressure it applies, the faster it can slow your truck. The larger surface area will offer a larger friction surface and a larger area in which to dissipate the heat generated by braking. In addition to more surface area, a larger-diameter brake rotor or drum has more leverage to help the stopping process. Care should be taken when considering a big-brake kit upgrade, however. Many of the bigger systems require a 17-inch or larger wheel to fit the massive rotors and calipers.

In addition to upgrading to larger rotors and calipers, you also can upgrade to multi-piston calipers. Oftentimes, the calipers in stock brake systems use just a single piston. These are called floating calipers, and exert pressure on both sides of the rotor, even though they have a piston on just one side of the caliper. They work by applying pressure directly to a pad on one side of the rotor, and indirectly to the pad on the other side, through the caliper’s floating design. You can upgrade to two-, four- or six-piston calipers. Many of the latter are non-floating designs and, by virtue of that distinction, apply full brake-line pressure to the pistons on both sides of the caliper. Floating calipers don’t do that.

By increasing the number of pistons, you increase pressure applied to the brake pad. Another way to increase the pressure at the wheels is to increase the size of the brake booster. The larger the diameter of the booster, the more pressure it will apply to the brakes. Dual-diaphragm brake boosters effectively double the booster’s internal surface area and output pressure without increasing its diameter. If you find that even the biggest vacuum booster isn’t enough for your needs, you can upgrade to even more assist by installing a Hydroboost system. With this system, the power steering pump is used to help increase brake pressure.

One final thing to consider is upgrading to a booster or disc brakes if you don’t already have them. Owners of older trucks often can swap on the factory brakes from a later-year model truck by the same manufacturer.

Additionally, there are many aftermarket disc-brake conversion kits available, both for the front and rear axles. The options you have for brake system upgrades are almost unlimited, but one thing is certain: No matter what you do to make your truck stop better, you’ll be glad you did.