An in-depth look at why and how to up-armor your off-road vehicle
The body armor, skidplating, and protection your truck or SUV needs will depend on several factors, including the make and model of your 4x4, the types of off-roading you plan to do, the amount of ground clearance your vehicle has, your driving style, personal preference, and more.
Of course, there are some basic protection improvements that every 4x4 needs. Enthusiasts with longer-wheelbase vehicles like four-door pickups will need to pay more attention to potential problem areas than drivers of short-wheelbase vehicles like the two-door Wrangler. There is simply more real estate that needs to be protected on bigger vehicles.
If you spent any time at all under your 4x4, you quickly realized there are many vulnerable areas and components. Some are protected by thin stamped steel, aluminum, and even fabric skidplates, while others are left hanging out in the rocks. The 4x4s with factory off-road packages usually offer slightly more protection than the standard trim levels. Moving up, the rockers and bumpers of your 4x4 are also vulnerable. Most of these areas are delicate, painted surfaces made from body metal or plastic. They are not designed to rub on trail obstacles, so they need some extra protection or a complete replacement. Read on to find out what off-road armor your 4x4 might need.
The OE underbody skidplates found on most 4x4s are adequate for very light off-roading, but some are completely worthless in the dirt. The factory skidplates from the off-road trim levels are typically more robust and can often be added to the less off-road-worthy versions of the same model 4x4. These OE skidplates can usually be found under the fuel tank, transfer case, independent front suspension assemblies, and sometimes under the engine oil pan and transmission. They will generally protect the underside from flinging debris and usually survive sliding over a dirt berm.
However, if you add large rocks to the mix, the factory skidplates under most 4x4s will crumple like tin foil under the weight of the vehicle. Some might even tear off, and understandably so. Vehicle manufacturers spend millions of dollars developing lightweight technologies to decrease the overall weight of a 4x4, which results in increased fuel economy, among other things. Adding weight back onto a 4x4 in the form of a heavy-duty skidplate would be counterproductive. Think of the OE off-road package skidplating as the bare minimum. It's just enough to protect your 4x4 in light off-roading. More extreme off-road excursions where the skidplates regularly makes contact with terra firma will require more extensive aftermarket protection.
When your off-road adventures take you into the rocks, over logs, or even up ledges and through deep ruts in hard-packed dirt, you'll likely want to step into steel skidplates that are more heavy-duty than the stock pieces. A multitude of companies such as ARB (), Artec (), Dethloff (), Evo Manufacturing (), GenRight (), Rock Hard 4x4 (), Rough Country (), Rubicon Express (), Rugged Ridge (), Synergy (), and Warn (), among others, offer steel aftermarket skidplates. In most cases, aftermarket chassis skidplates are made from 3/16-inch-thick steel plate, although some can be thicker depending on the application. They are typically reinforced with bends, gussets, and backbones to prevent the steel plate from folding. These can make the assembly quite heavy.
For those looking to save weight, there are some aftermarket skidplates made from aluminum or a combination of aluminum and steel. They are available from companies like Artec, Asfir (), CST (), GenRight, Rock Hard 4x4, Quadratec (), and SDHQ (). Aluminum skidplates are about 30 percent lighter than their all-steel counterparts, but they are generally not recommended for extremely rocky conditions. The aluminum doesn't slide over rocks as smoothly as steel, and in most cases, it's not as durable.
Deciding what to protect first under your 4x4 will take a bit of research and investigation. Crawl under your 4x4 and see what looks exposed and what has a weak-looking skidplate under it. Closely examine all of the factory skidplates and see if there is already damage done to them. The lowest-hanging items should be protected, but anything that contains fluid should be considered a skidplate priority. The most vulnerable components are usually the fuel tank and the transfer case, but keep an eye out for low-hanging engine and transmission oil pans as well as exhaust components, all of which can be costly to repair or replace.
The most damage-prone part of the body on any 4x4 is the rocker area just under the doors. Longer-wheelbase vehicles and 4x4s with less ground clearance are even more vulnerable. And it can be one of the most difficult and expensive areas to repair. Fortunately, it's also one of the easiest and least expensive areas to protect. So there really is no excuse for leaving the rocker area of your 4x4 vulnerable. The factory side steps offered on many 4x4s provide some trail shielding, but these steps significantly decrease ground clearance, and they cannot support the weight of the vehicle. If they contact a trail obstacle, they can bend, break, or tear off of the 4x4, sometimes causing collateral body damage.
Better protection is offered in the form of aftermarket rocker guards, also called rock sliders. Several different designs are available for the more popular 4x4 models. These range from bolt-on body- or frame-mounted components to hefty weld-on frame-mounted rockers. Less popular 4x4 models can often make use of weld-on universal sliders or by modifying rocker protection designed for another vehicle. Companies such as All-Pro Off-Road (), Evo Manufacturing, and Trail-Gear () offer sturdy tubular rock sliders that can be modified and welded to the frame of many different 4x4s. Vehicle-specific rocker protection is available from Fab Fours (), Poison Spyder (), SDHQ, and many other companies listed elsewhere in this story.
Innovative companies like Rock Slide Engineering () have even combined hidden automatic electric steps into durable rocker protection for those that need a step and high-clearance rocker guards. When rock slider shopping, keep in mind that rocker protection that attaches directly to the frame or ties into body mounts is generally much more robust than rocker protection that only bolts to the body.
Let's face it, the bumpers of your 4x4 are located low enough that they will eventually hit something off-road. The original front and rear bumpers found on most 4x4s are not designed to make contact with anything on the trail. Most are flimsy enough that they will be completely torn off of the vehicle if they even rub a rock or tree. They simply are not designed to take a hit like a beefy aftermarket bumper.
The great news is that aftermarket bumper designs vary as much as the tastes of off-road enthusiasts. You can find anything from heavy-duty, chunky bumpers to smooth, sleek bumpers and everything in between, all of which will be far more durable than the stock pieces. We've become particularly fond of the less chunky, low-profile fullsize truck bumper designs with hidden winch mounts. They are offered by companies such as AEV (), CBI Offroad Fabrication (), and Mercenary Offroad (), among others. More aggressive, industrial-looking, and extra-beefy bumpers are available from companies like Fab Fours, Smittybilt (), and countless others.
If you're looking to replace your OE bumper, you might as well use it as an opportunity to make other off-road upgrades as well. Look for bumper replacements that feature sturdy recovery points, built-in winch mounts, and off-road light mounting tabs.
Bolt-on body armor is almost exclusively available to only Jeep vehicles. The reason is simple. Jeep models like the CJ and Wrangler have flat body panels that are easy to mold armor around. Most other 4x4s have panels with complex bends and forms, making it nearly impossible to fabricate body armor in a cost-effective manner. Body armor can be found for the rocker areas and rear corners of popular Jeep models. The bolt-on rocker protection and corner guards typically come formed in 3/16-inch-thick steel plate for abusive applications. Sometimes, 1/8-inch-thick steel plate and even plastic is offered for light-duty use.
For those looking to save weight, aluminum is also available. The aftermarket formed corner and rocker guards are also a great way to hide unsightly body damage caused by unprotected trail outings that didn't go so well. Companies such as Evo Manufacturing, GenRight, Poison Spyder, Rugged Ridge, and Synergy offer body armor for popular Jeep models.
The axles under your 4x4 are some of the heaviest components on your vehicle, so it stands to reason that you wouldn't think they need any kind of skidplating. This couldn't be further from the truth if you frequent rock-strewn trails. The kind of skidplating your axles will benefit from will depend on your axle design. Stamped steel axlehousings, such as the Ford 9-inch and many axles found under Land Rover, Toyota, and Suzuki 4x4s feature relatively vulnerable areas. A hard rock strike can penetrate the stamped steel housing and cause an oil leak or worse. A bashed-in housing could keep the gears from spinning freely. The loss of oil will eventually lead to axle gear and bearing failure.
Companies such as Currie Enterprises (), RuffStuff Specialties (), and Trail-Gear offer aftermarket heavy-duty formed steel axlehousings with optional heavy-duty, weld-on differential protection. Front Runner (), Low Range Off-Road (), Trail-Gear, and Wild Horses () offer add-on differential protection for the popular factory original stamped steel axlehousings. Traditional axlehousings with cast centersections will benefit from aftermarket differential covers. These can be found with armor protection of up to 1/2-inch-thick steel. ARB, Dynatrac (), G2 (), Poison Spyder, RuffStuff Specialties, as well as many other companies offer heavy-duty replacement differential covers for popular 4x4 axles.
Axles with removable pinion supports, such as the GM 14-bolt and Ford 9-inch have the ability to retain a bolt-on pinion yoke skidplate. These are available from companies like RuffStuff Specialties. They protect the pinion yoke, U-joint hardware, and the base of the driveshaft from rock rash and impacts that could otherwise sideline your 4x4 on the trail.
There are some bolt-on axlehousing skidplates available for many of the common axles, but they significantly decrease ground clearance so their benefit is debatable. More abusive drivers that bash through the boulders will want to look into axle suspension bracket gusset skidplates. These are specially formed weld-on plates that reinforce the OE suspension brackets and keep them from getting torn off when beaten in the boulders. Companies such as JCR (), Rock Jock (), and Synergy offer weld-on control arm bracket skidplates.