So you bought a big ol’ off-road beast and can’t wait to go bump uglies with Mother Nature. With its locking differentials, raised ride height, all-terrain tires, and bright red recovery hooks, your new 4×4 looks like it’s get down and dirty. But there’s a problem. You’re not wearing any protection, and Mother Nature says if you want to play you’d better go find something to protect that toy.

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Sexual innuendo aside, modern off-road automobiles tend to be quite expensive, and the thought of seeing that pristine machine get mangled to hell on its maiden voyage is just too much for some people to tolerate. But being that your weekend wheelin’ adventure in the mountains has already been booked, there’s no way for you to back out now. It’s time to armor-up, and protect that 4×4 of yours with an onslaught of carefully selected aftermarket upgrades.

While the aftermarket 4×4 market has seen strong sales over the course of the past few decades, America’s infatuation with modified off-road machines has seen exponential growth in recent years. That said, regardless as to whether you drive a big-ass diesel truck, a 2-door Jeep Wrangler, or a retired Toyota FJ Cruiser, throwing a lift kit at your vehicle in the hopes that some additional ground clearance will solve all of your problems is not the answer. Although off-road driving skills play a hand in the matter, the 4×4 products you select for your off road vehicle can also spell the difference between having a good time, and realizing you are unable to return home.

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

The following driving tips, product recommendations, and 4×4 facts will help determine what off-road decisions are best suited to your specific needs, and the needs of your vehicle. Getting down and dirty should always be done safely, so armor-up, and let’s get muddy!

How Off-Roading Can Damage Your 4×4 Vehicle

While testing the fifth generation Land Rover Discovery in the deserts of Utah, I found myself wincing when the undercarriage of the vehicle scraped over a rock-strewn ridge or when we came into contact with jagged outcroppings of dried brush or deep mud. One of the reasons why my vehicle was able to emerge from the drive program unscathed, was because a dedicated layer of armor sat beneath the SUV. Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Before we dive into the dirty details of vehicle protection, we must first discuss the various kinds of damage that can be inflicted upon an off road vehicle, and the causes of such maladies. Off-road driving requires more than just picking a trail, slapping your 4×4 into low gear, and hitting the throttle. From rock-crawling over bluffs and near vertical hill climbs, to slogging through swamps and high-speed desert racing, the types of off-road driving that one can experience are plentiful, and so too are the types of necessary preparation.

While images of tree branch scratches and dented oil pans are quick to come to mind when the phrase “off-road damage” is mentioned, there are many other ways of marring that machine of yours. Take sand and silt for instance. For as soft as they may be underfoot, all it takes is a strong wind gust for these fine particles to turn into a glass-etching, clear coat stripping nuisance. Not only does sand and silt pose a threat to paint and glass, but it can also clog key engine components like air filters.

Knowing your vehicle’s limits is just as important as important as having the right off-road gear. After all, there is only so much a vehicle can handle before Mother Nature has her way with it. Photo Credit: MilkTeacoma

Another issue you have to consider when off-roading, is the risk of driving a vehicle with the wrong gearing selected. Driving in 4×4 HI causes the transmission to embrace rapid acceleration and higher top speeds, while still allowing ample amounts of four-wheel-drive traction for control. In contrast, 4×4 LO should be reserved for things like rock crawling and technical trail navigation scenarios, which often require a fair deal of low-end torque. Being that the latter of the two is “geared” more toward slow acceleration and staying surefooted, running a vehicle at high speeds while in this setting may cause components like transfer cases and differentials to overheat. As for running 4×4 HI while navigating a technical section where speed is not of the essence, it may not do any significant damage to the vehicle’s powertrain, but your traction and gearing is going to be crap.

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

And let’s not forget about the belly of the beast, because while it may sport some sort of rubberized coating underneath, this stuff typically offers little protection against things like jagged rocks and scrapes over steep embankments. A vehicle’s undercoating is like the clear coat that sits on top of car paint. It will prevent small debris from embedding, but hit it hard enough with a large object, and it’s going to scrape right off. 

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Quick Tip: NEVER wheel alone. If there’s one thing that you need to remember, it’s that you should never go off-road on your own unless you absolutely have to. Having someone along for the ride goes well beyond having a co-pilot. You need someone with a well-equipped 4×4 to serve as a spotter in tight technical situations, and winch you out or call for help when Mother Nature decides that she wants to be on top.

Skid Plates and Other Attachments to Protect the Undercarriage of Your 4×4 While Off-Roading

A close-up of the OEM skid plate beneath the front of the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. Photo Credit: Toyota USA

Now that we’ve established the fact that you have more to worry about than just a few sticks and stones damaging your 4×4’s bones, it is time to turn toward under-armor options. While most people agree that the protective ceramic properties of AvalonKing’s Armor Shield IX help deter things like surface scratches, outfitting a 4×4 vehicle with a skid plate or two and rock sliders on both sides will do wonders for keeping that undercarriage devoid of damage.

If you are new to the 4×4 scene, it’s worth noting that most of the external armoring components found on an off road vehicle feature self-explanatory titles. Skid plates are metal shields that typically bolt into various OEM frame holes beneath a vehicle in order to allow crucial undercarriage components like the fuel tank and oil pan to “skid” over rocks and tree stumps. Sliders on the other hand, are mounted along the lower portions of the rocker panel, so that when bottoming-out the vehicle can “slide” over a sharp incline or boulder face without inflicting significant damage to the frame or paint.

Rock Slide Engineering’s “Slider Step” for the modern Jeep not only protects the underside of the chassis, but it also provides a practical way for you to get in and out of the vehicle. Photo Credit: Rock Slide Engineering

As for those of you who own a Jeep Wrangler, and are intent on outfitting it with some serious skid plate armor, Utah’s Rock Slide Engineering is a great place to start. Over the course of the past few years these guys have played a pivotal role in shaping the face of the aftermarket Jeep 4×4 community, and their award-winning “Step Slider” is a shining example of how this company’s Jeep parts have given the brand one of the best names in the biz. 

Crafted out of 7-gauge high-strength steel, and packed with aluminum and stainless components in key areas to cut-down on corrosion, these slider steps are a must if you own a modern Jeep JK or JL. There’s also an optional skid plate attachment for when traversing trails that are rated 6 and above, earning the patented Step Slider a runner-up award at SEMA 2019 for the “Best New Off-Road/4 Wheel Drive Product.”

And while all of this additional armor will certainly impact MPG numbers, chances are that off-road rig of yours isn’t getting great mileage to begin with, so we can toss this concern out the window along with all of those ceramic coating myths people are needlessly fretting over.

Quick Tip: Selecting the right brush guard, skid plate, and rock slider attachment for an off-road vehicle really boils down to intended purpose, personal preference, and pocketbook depth. Just beware of counterfeit foreign-made products, and remember that the best options are oftentimes on the higher end of the price range.

Bumpers, Fender Flares, Snorkels, and Other Accessories to Protect Your 4×4 While Off-Roading

Vehicle armor doesn’t always have to be over the top. Sometimes the best options are the most streamlined. Photo Credit: MilkTeacoma

When it comes to off-road vehicle protection, there are a plethora of different directions you can go with your vehicle. From giving your pickup a body lift, truck bumper guards, and mud-slinging all-terrain tires, to rocking a tire carrier atop your roof rack and packing skinny rubber underneath for increased traction in sand and snow, the options are endless. Just note that there is no all-encompassing off-road package, and while one aftermarket upgrade may offer certain benefits, these perks do not cover every situation.

So think about where you’ll be wheelin’, what your vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses are, and then weigh the impact of these upgrades against your on-road driving habits. If these mods make daily driving an impractical pain in the ass, you might want to reconsider your options, because if you are like the rest of us, the majority of your windshield time is still spent on the blacktop.

Retro styling, modern powertrain and performance mods, and a whole bunch of off-road armor make the ECD Auto Project S² an absolute gem in our book. Photo Credit: ECD Auto

Disclaimer complete, we turn toward some core accessories that might help you and your 4×4 conquer all those rugged landscapes you want to explore. Think you’ll be diving nose-deep into swamps or fording rivers? If you don’t own a new Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, chances are you’ll need to look into ordering a snorkel to keep that air filter from sucking in water. Plan on camping out, but don’t want to run the risk of waking-up next to an ornery grizzly bear? Consider purchasing a roof-top overlanding pop-up camper, many of which can be affixed to Jeep tops or truck bumpers. These and many more components can all be ordered from the comfort of your couch, thus leaving just one question to ponder: What should you order, and from whom?

BODYGUARD manufactures modular bumpers for a wide array of platforms, all of which are extremely well made and brilliantly designed.
Photo Credit: BODYGUARD

In the increasingly competitive world of off-road accessories, few companies provide the same level of craftsmanship, creativity, and commitment to quality as BODYGUARD. With their extensive line of truck, SUV, and Jeep components, the Texas-based brand is one of the world’s most respected names when it comes to vehicle armor and off-road accouterments.

A look at a BODYGUARD rear bumper for a Ford Super Duty pickup.
Photo Credit: BODYGUARD

Take BODYGUARD’s truck bumpers for instance, which are an ideal option for those who want their armor to have a more uniformed look. Packing a low-profile appearance, heavy-duty 10-gauge steel construction, and a deluge of customization options, these aftermarket bumpers are an awesome alternative to the clunky OEM slab that your pickup truck or SUV came outfitted with from the factory. As with all BODYGUARD products, these rugged bumpers are all engineered, assembled, and welded in-house at BODYGUARD’s manufacturing facility in Texas, and are never outsourced. 

On the flip side, if you are a Jeep enthusiast, and are looking for a brand that caters exclusively to this iconic brand, you will probably want to start with Lancaster, South Carolina based Fab Fours, and its affordable bull bar style front bumper upgrade. Retailing at an extremely modest $499, this “Stubby Bumper” provides extreme levels of clearance and durability, all while offering outstanding value. Designed to be used on Jeep JK, JL, and JT Gladiator platforms, these bumpers feature an ultra narrow grille guard design that allows maximum tire clearance, all while remaining completely winch ready when affixed to an optional winch plate.

The tolerance levels of the Fab Fours rear fenders for the Jeep Gladiator is absolutely bonkers. Go ahead and stand on it. That’s what it’s tolerances have been designed to handle. Photo Credit: Fab Fours

As for fender flares, contrary to common belief, these bulging bolt-ons aren’t just for appearances. Ignore all of the posers parking their pristine 4×4 machines like nincompoops at the local shopping mall. Fender flares aren’t designed to just make your vehicle look like it lifts, bro. These external attachments should be purpose-built to keep mud, rocks, water, sand, and any other form of debris that might get kicked-up by a tire where it belongs: underneath the vehicle. The wider the tire, the larger the fender flare needs to be, so keep that in mind when selecting your rubber.

While there are countless inexpensive options out there for you to choose from, the best fender systems are always made from metal. Take the Fab Fours fender flare kit for the Jeep Gladiator for instance. This product is sturdy enough to hold the weight of a full-grown adult, therefore providing an additional perch option for when safe rear bumper footholds are not available.

Quick Tip: Looking to install some accessory upgrades over the weekend in preparation for a bit of off-road driving and need something straightforward? A well designed roof rack or cargo box is a great way to add protection and practicality to your rig, and the best part is most of them can be installed in a jiffy with the help of a buddy. Adding a universal roof rack will not just give you an extra place to stow cargo, it will also help keep low-hanging tree branches from gouging your 4×4’s topside, and provides a prime mounting point for additional lighting. 

Best Ways to Clean Your 4×4 Without Damaging the Paint After Off-Roading

The sliders on the Colorado ZR2 were put to good use that day, as they allowed me to “slide” over steep embankments without issue while protecting the lower rocker panels from terrain. Photo Credit: Micah Wright

So now that we’ve covered some of the key armor oriented bolt-ons for your off road vehicle, we turn toward a concern that not everyone thinks about when modifying their 4×4. How do you protect your vehicle’s paint when off-roading? Even with the best armor imaginable affixed to your 4×4’s exterior, all it takes is one swipe of a tree branch and that paint is going to be gouged to hell and back. Leaving a bunch of dried mud or desert silt caked onto your pickup or SUV isn’t going to help your clear coat either, especially if allowed to sit for extended periods of time. You need to properly clean and coat your rig, and most of the off-the-shelf options aren’t going to do squat for protection.

Oh, you threw a coat of spray wax on that beast before going on a rock crawling adventure? That’s like wrapping your naked ass in plastic wrap and then going for a frolic in a brier patch. Neither of these things are going to protect you or your 4×4 vehicle’s exposed epidermis, so skip the wax and go with something far more resilient.

Note the OEM skid plates and under armor on the Land Rover Discovery. Plating like this is your first line of defense when off-road driving. Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Before heading out on that next off-road adventure, give that mud-covered machine of yours a thorough spray-down with the pressure washer, followed by a two-bucket system wash session with a high quality car shampoo and a well-made wash mitt. This process will safely dislodge any stubborn debris strewn across the truck or Jeep’s hide, and the two-bucket method will prevent the spread of mud and whatnot. After that it’s on to a thorough microfiber towel wipe-down and a coat of Armor Shield IX ceramic coating for unrivaled paint protection.

Another shot of the heavily armored ECD Auto Project S², because it really is that gorgeous.
Photo Credit: ECD Auto

Throwing a layer of ceramic coating on afterward not only brings forth a glossy shine, but it also gives your mud machine’s exterior industry leading 9H levels of hardness, which once fully cured, will repel mud, dust, dirt, and that bitch Carole Baskin. Hardness levels of this caliber also help prevent surface scratches from forming, thus making Armor Shield IX the ideal option if you wish to protect your off road vehicle’s clear coat and paintwork. 

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