12-volt Air Compressor Guide

We Test 'em to Help Find the Best One for You

Trent RiddlePhotographer, WriterManufacturersPhotographer

OK folks, here’s something we all know: The standard air pressure recommended by the manufacturer of your truck’s tires is fine for the pavement, but it’s way too high for off-road use. Out on the trail you’ll need lower air pressure for added traction in sand, mud, and rocks. Those conditions, as well as your choice of tire and wheel, will determine just how low you need to take your tire air pressure when you’re off doing what your vehicle was born to do. In sand you might need to run as little as 10 pounds of air pressure for the best flotation. But whatever air pressure you run, the real question is not if you’re going to get down to that pressure, but how you’re going to air back up once you hit the pavement again. (See Four Wheeler, May 2001, for more on air pressure, tires, and trails.)

There are several options for airing up at the end of the day. These include: a hand pump, compressed air or CO2, engine-driven compressors, and the ol’ reliable 12-volt compressor that runs off your battery. This latter choice is by far the easiest, as you can either clip the power leads to the battery or hard-wire it to your truck’s electrical system. The smaller units can even be plugged into your rig’s cigarette lighter. Unlike an engine-driven compressor, a 12-volt unit can be mounted anywhere you have space. They also have the advantage over compressed gas sources because, obviously, they don’t become empty. For the average ’wheeler a 12-volt compressor is definitely the best choice.

With this in mind we’ve tested some of the best and most available 12-volt compressors on the market. We’ve put nine of these blowhards up against the wall and beat them until they revealed their secrets. The result? As expected, the more you spend on a compressor, the more air you get. But wait, there also were some surprises. Take a look and see which of these 12-volt compressors is right for you.