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Convert Your SUV for Off-Road (and Off-Grid)

Culture, Lifestyles  /   /  By Nina Russin

We’re only weeks away from the first day of summer, so it’s the perfect time to think about escaping into the wild. Before submitting your request for vacation days, upgrade your sport-utility vehicle or truck with the performance, navigation, and camping accessories needed for those journeys off-road and, if you dare, off the grid.

22-inch LED light bar

LED light bars turn this pink-accented Jeep into an anywhere/anytime off-road vehicle.

A light bar illuminates dark pathways and is essential for nighttime off-road driving.

A light bar illuminates dark pathways and is essential for nighttime off-road driving.

Start with some fun, affordable accessories. A light bar enhances night-time visibility for trails off the beaten path. And when you get there, a satellite phone can provide coverage in areas that cell phones don’t reach.

Talk anywhere on Earth with this Iridium 9505A satellite telephone.

Talk anywhere on Earth with this Iridium 9505A satellite telephone.

Build from the Ground Up

This three-inch front-leveling kit fits 2007-2018 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks.

This three-inch front-leveling kit fits 2007-2018 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks.

Most four-wheel drive vehicles have enough ground clearance for rough terrain. But if rock crawling in extreme terrains like Moab, Utah is your thing, consider a two- to four-inch lift. A good lift kit modifies the vehicle’s suspension rather than simply adding bump rubber. This is important because lifting the vehicle significantly changes the suspension and steering geometry. If you install a lift kit, include heavy duty springs, hardware, and bushings that add durability on challenging off-road terrain. Expect the lift kit to cost about $800 to $900, not including installation.

Whether you lift your SUV or not, we recommend purchasing a set of dedicated off-road tires. The original-equipment tires on most four-wheel-drive vehicles are a compromise intended to give good traction off-road without sacrificing on-road drivability and fuel economy.

A high-quality off-road tire has tread patterns that include large blocks and void areas.

A dedicated mud- or rock-crawling tire will have a more aggressive tread pattern that might sacrifice gas mileage and be noisier on paved roads, but gives the vehicle more grab on challenging terrain. Spending as much as $200 for a high-quality off-road tire, like the BF Goodrich Krawler TA KO, is a great investment in your adventures.

It’s best to mount the tires on a separate set of wheels because mounting and dismounting tires break down the beads over time. If your SUV didn’t come with a full-size spare, buy five tires and an extra wheel—and stash the spare in an area that’s easily accessible.

Added Protection

Bumper skid plate with shackle tabs

Bumper skid plate with shackle tabs

Electric, wireless self-recovery winch

Electric, wireless self-recovery winch

Skid plates underneath the truck protect chassis components such as the oil pan, fuel tank, and transfer case from damage that could result in a breakdown. A bull bar protects the front of the vehicle from damaging branches or rocks that can pop up from the trail.

Other essential accessories include a winch to either pull your own vehicle out of a ditch or help another truck stranded on the trail. You’ll also want a hitch for towing or installing a spare tire, bike, or gear rack. An inexpensive ball hitch usually costs less than $300, while gooseneck hitches for towing larger trailers run upwards of $1,500. See “How to Choose the Proper Tow Hitch.”

For nights under the stars, consider a pop-up camper tent that holds multiple people. These tent mounts on the top of the SUV roof and can sleep as many as five people. Add camping furniture for comfort—and a stove for barbeque duties. See “Turn Your SUV into a Portable Campsite.”

Tuff Stuff Elite Overland roof-top, five-person tent with annex room

Tuff Stuff Elite Overland roof-top, five-person tent with annex room

Staying in Budget

The key to staying within budget is to prioritize. For example, if you don’t need the extreme traction of a rock-crawling tire, consider a good all-terrain tire such as the General Grabber AT2, which costs about $450 for a set of four.

Shopping on eBay Motors allows you to compare gear and prices from multiple sellers—with great deals to be had. Summer is the right time to start, so by the time that vacation arrives, you’ll be ready to hit the road.

About the Author

Nina Russin is an ASE certified automotive technician and writer who has been covering the automotive industry for 30 years. She was a weekly automotive columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for 10 years, and a contributor to AutoWeek, Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, Cycle World, and AAA Arizona Highroads Magazine. Russin is co-founder and president of Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year, an annual competition.

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