Anytime we get a new (or new to us) rig, we are like a kid in a candy store. We go nuts thinking about all the modifications and great parts we can throw on our new 4x4. All the research and the multitude of options can be overwhelming to our brains. Add up the cost of everything and it can be overwhelming to one’s bank account too. Getting distracted with bling that only adds looks and no performance is also another way to blow money. All of it is enough to make one wonder just what they have gotten themselves into.
Well, don’t trade your 4x4 in for a Toyota Prius just yet as we are here to help. Over the years, we have built plenty of vehicles learning a lot along the way. The best advice we have is to start with a solid plan and prioritize your modifications. You want to get the most bang for your buck, especially if your budget is limited, like the rest of us. So, where do you begin? What modifications are the most important? We are glad you asked because here is our list of the top five modifications we do to every 4x4.
A Better Suspension
Usually, the first modification that we do to any 4x4 we own is to upgrade its suspension. OEMs know that the vast majority of the trucks and SUVs they produce will never touch the dirt. Instead of worrying about performance on the trail, vehicle manufacturers focus on a nice, smooth highway ride. This attention on not spilling your latte means that the vast majority of factory suspensions are on the seriously soft side. Take most modern vehicles into rougher terrain and the results are predictable. That squishy suspension blows through its travel beating your kidneys, your brain, and your passengers into submission.
Cheap factory shocks also play a significant role in sucky stock suspensions. Most factory shocks are on the small side with little shock fluid and small valving pistons. Less fluid volume means that shock fade can become a serious issue as shock fluid aerates as temperatures spike. Those smaller valving pistons also have less surface area, so they can't generate the compression and rebound force needed for harsh terrain. The result is a suspension that is a big, hot mess in the dirt.
Thankfully, there is an easy cure to super squishy suspension. Upgrading to a quality set of shocks and coilovers, like the Fox shocks we offer, will dramatically increase your 4x4's ability to take on rough terrain. Every Fox shock comes in a much larger diameter (2-inches for the Performance Series, 2.5-inches for the Factory Race Series) than the OEM shocks. That bigger diameter allows for more fluid to fight heat and fade. Larger valving pistons are also found inside the larger shock bodies yielding more damping force. Another huge benefit is Fox shocks feature vehicle-specific valving, so compression and rebound are spot on. The front coilovers also add 1-3 inches of lift, clearing the way for bigger tires, which brings us to our next subject.
Bigger tires are a must to gain every bit of valuable ground clearance. Even if you decide to go against our advice and leave your suspension stock, you should still look at getting better rubber for your ride. Just like with factory shocks, most OEM tires are severely lacking when it comes to the dirt. The vast majority of them are high-mileage tires that offer minimal traction and questionable puncture resistance on the trail. As the only part of your vehicle that touches the ground, swapping them out for more dirt-worthy ones will significantly improve performance. And, doing so won't leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire.
Our advice is to avoid no-name budget tires and stick to well-known brands. Tires are not something you want to cheap out on. If you regularly encounter mud or technical terrain, take a look at mud-terrain tires. If you are like us and don’t like cleaning mud off your truck or spend time in the snow, all-terrain tires will serve you better. If you are changing your tires, it is the perfect time to replace your sad-looking stock wheels with something better.
Protecting Your Belly
One of the first things we do after getting a new vehicle is to crawl underneath it. The amount of low-hanging, unprotected parts always amazes us. Anything that can end your day or leave you stranded out in the middle of nowhere needs protection. This list includes oil pans, transmission fluid pans, transfer cases, and fuel tanks. Vehicle manufacturers sometimes leave other random parts, like the exhaust crossover tube on our Tacoma, completely exposed and in harm's way.
Skid plates might not be sexy or are even visible. But punching a hole in your transmission fluid pan is not our idea of a fun time. Most vehicles with a decent aftermarket following have a multitude of skid plate options available to them. Sure, skid plates might not get as many likes on Instagram as that giant light bar you want, but they are a worthy investment.
Another area that needs protection on your vehicle is the rockers. Many people mistakenly think that just Jeeps tackling tough trails need rocker protection, but that is not the case. Even on milder trails, it is remarkably easy to smash in the rocker panels. Most newer vehicles are relatively low to the ground, even with a bit of a lift. Come over a crest the wrong way or take the wrong line crossing a big rut, and a destroyed rocker panel can be the result. Get an estimate for the repairs at a local body shop, and you will quickly wish that you had opted for a set of rocker guards before taking damage.
It is important to note that steps are not rocker guards. Most steps aren’t made out durable enough materials to take a hit on the trail. Steps also don't feature the strong mounting systems that rocker guards do. The result is that steps will simply fold up into your rockers on the trail and do nothing to protect this vulnerable area. Make sure you are purchasing the right products, so you don't waste your money.
Getting Locked Up
A locker makes a massive difference in the ability of a vehicle to take on tough terrain. Open differentials are common on most vehicles and send 100% of power to the spinning wheel. This setup is great on the street as it allows the inner wheel to follow a slightly shorter path around a corner. But, it will also leave that same wheel hopelessly spinning on the trail. The more power you apply, the more wheelspin you get digging you even deeper into trouble. A locker solves this by "locking" a front or rear differential, sending 100% of power to both wheels. With two wheels now receiving power, your vehicle can climb and power its way through a lot tougher terrain.
We were a bit hesitant to put a locker on here as you really don’t need one if you are just poking around on mild dirt roads. However, we have wound up putting a locker into every vehicle we own, so it makes our list. Our advice is to stick with selectable lockers if you are in the market for one. A selectable locker really does offer the best of both worlds by acting as an open differential most of the time and then locking up with the flick of a switch.
Okay, so if you paid attention in math class, you would notice that this is number six on our top five list. Even though we highly recommend one, we decided to throw in an alternate if a locker isn't your cup of tea. Something else that always finds its way onto our vehicles is better lighting. Venture down a dirt road or trail at night and you will quickly realize how little lumens the factory headlights put out. Adding some additional lighting is a must for anyone operating after the sun goes down.
Thankfully, with the advent of LED lighting, there are tons of options in all shapes and sizes. If you stick to high-quality LED lights, there is no need for a giant 50-inch light bar. Smaller LED lights properly aimed with the right beam patterns can be more effective than one large, cumbersome one. Remember, you don’t need the light output of a baseball stadium unless you are a Trophy Truck. Putting light in the right spots with beam patterns matching the speeds you travel is more important.