When you are building a vehicle to take off-road, there are many aspects to consider. Big all-terrain tires and a suspension lift are two of the most important features, and are usually the first thing any adventurer adds to their truck. However, one of the most important upgrades is armor. From skid plates and rock sliders to heavy-duty bumpers, it is critical to protect your vehicle from the many hazards you will find on the trail.
It is always possible that the used truck dealership near you will have something like the Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison sitting on its lot, with a full collection of hot-stamped boron steel skid plates straight from the factory. However, most of us don’t have the budget to buy even a used high-end off-road machine and risk it on the trail. Instead, serious off-roaders tend to focus on finding a reliable platform at an affordable price, then add all of the features they need to turn it into a formidable off-road machine.
There are a lot of different ways to damage your vehicle when you take it into the wilderness. Adventurers do their best to mitigate all of those possibilities. Like a knight in shining armor, a fully-equipped off-road machine will have a collection of rugged additions that shield it from harm in every direction.
Skid plates form the basis of most off-road protection, armoring the underbody of your vehicle to protect it from stumps, boulders, and more. While you might not think about the underside of your truck much, there are a lot of critical components under there that are fully exposed to the elements. Protecting them all usually requires a collection of skid separate plates attached to the frame of the vehicle.
Some of the most important components to armor include the engine oil pan, the transmission, the transfer case, the fuel tank, the steering rack, the differentials, and the suspension. Damage to any of these parts can leave you stranded on the trail. Fortunately, a lot of used trucks already have some basic protection, especially the more off-road oriented models. In general, the best way to determine what skid plates you need is to do some light off-roading and see what gets hung up on obstacles. Then you can add skid plates where you need them before tackling the serious stuff.
A lot of off-roaders go straight for an aftermarket bumper because it will immediately change the look of their truck. However, these are not a purely aesthetic upgrade. A solid bumper, especially a bumper with an integrated brush guard that protects the grille, is a valuable upgrade. Not only will a bumper prevent damage to the front of the vehicle and shield the radiator, but it also provides a great mounting point for a winch. Rear bumpers can also help store large items like spare tires or hi-lift jacks. More minimalist bumper designs can improve the vehicle’s approach and departure angles as well.
Rock sliders are a type of off-road armor that can be thought of as bumpers for the sides of your vehicle. They protrude past the edge of the body and are bolted directly to the frame, protecting the truck from any obstacles you may encounter. While rock sliders may resemble side steps, and some can even be used to help you climb into your vehicle, the two are not the same thing. Side steps are usually much less durable and hang below the body of the truck, reducing your ground clearance. Some steps are also not attached securely to the frame, which means that if they hit something, the impact will be transmitted to the body of the vehicle.
OEM, Aftermarket, or DIY?
The options for armoring your truck are innumerable. Some models, particularly off-road focused models that target the enthusiast market, have OEM options for skid plates, bumpers, rock sliders, and more. Because they are designed to fit with minimal modifications to the vehicle, they will do a better job of maintaining your truck’s resale value and warranties. However, while these are guaranteed to fit your vehicle, they are usually rather expensive and are not always designed for the rigors of serious off-roading. In general, OEM components are best used on new or late-model used trucks that will only see light off-road use.
Most adventurers choose to outfit their trucks with aftermarket components. There are countless companies large and small that produce skid plates, bumpers, and rock sliders. Shopping around will almost certainly turn up something that perfectly fits your needs. You can even mix and match components from different manufacturers to get the exact fit you are looking for. However, the quality of aftermarket parts can vary dramatically, so make sure you do your research before any purchase. The best way to find good options is to talk to other off-roaders who own the same type of vehicle to see what they are using and how well it has worked for them.
Finally, the third option is to DIY. Off-road armor is fundamentally just pieces of metal welded or bolted to a truck, and anyone with the right tools and a bit of know-how can easily fabricate whatever components they need. DIY parts will rarely win you first place at a car show, but they can be perfectly functional and incredibly affordable. You can also design custom parts to solve any problems the aftermarket doesn’t have answers to, which can be very useful if your truck is a less common model to encounter on the trails. Still, DIY parts will usually reduce the resale value of the vehicle and may not be considered road legal in your area, so going this route is best reserved for older used trucks and dedicated off-road machines.
Durability vs. Weight
One thing to keep in mind with any form of protection is that not all parts are created equal, and that “better” will depend a lot on what you are using your truck for. When armoring your truck for adventure, keep in mind that there will almost always be a compromise between strength and weight. Adding the thickest steel skid plates you can find will certainly protect your vehicle from obstacles, but if they exceed your truck’s payload rating they can actually damage the suspension and overload the drivetrain. This is especially important for overlanders to pay attention to. Once you’ve loaded your truck up with camping gear, food, spare parts, tools, some extra gas cans, and yourself, you might have already used up your entire payload capacity.
Most components are available in a variety of grades and materials. Thick steel will be the strongest, but it is also the heaviest, so consider your needs before springing for this option. Aluminum can be nearly as strong as steel but weighs just a third as much. This makes it a popular choice for anyone looking to save a few pounds. However, aluminum is also more expensive and can be difficult to work with if you are taking the DIY route. Most off-roaders will find the best balance of performance, weight, and cost with a lighter grade of steel, but it always depends on exactly how you plan to use your truck.
Protect Your Truck
Off-roading can be tons of fun, but it can also be dangerous, particularly for your vehicle. All it takes is one missed obstacle and your truck could have dented body panels or a busted oil pan. Before you head off to the trail to test out your new truck, make sure that it is armored for the job. Whether that means some light skid plates or the full panoply with complete underbody protection, heavy-duty bumpers, and rock sliders will depend on exactly where your adventure takes you, but it never hurts to be prepared.