Modifying Your New 4×4

So you’ve just bought a brand new (or new to you) 4×4. Looking through countless magazines, you see a seemingly infinite parade of vehicles outfitted “to the nines” with thousands of dollars worth of accessories. Online forums crawl with users talking about their latest modifications. The suggestions and possibilities can seem a little bit overwhelming and confusing.

With your new vehicle purchase you may not be flush with cash, so you want to make sure that every modification is a wise one and that your money is well spent. So where do you start?

First and foremost, you want to make sure that before you even leave the pavement, your vehicle is equipped with a proper recovery kit. At the most basic level, your vehicle needs front and rear recovery points, a Hi-Lift jack, a tow strap with closed eye loops, a pair of leather-palmed work gloves and a few load rated shackles or d-rings.

To keep the gear from getting thrown around in the back of your truck, we recommend getting a recovery bag such as those made by ARB. These bags are available in a variety of sizes, but you should get a larger one, as you will add to the kit as your skills and accessories develop.

With a basic recovery kit and a companion vehicle for trail runs, you will find that you can extricate your vehicle from most recovery situations.

Upgrade Your Skills

Suprisingly enough, the first, most significant upgrade is also the least expensive…your driving skills. While many drivers feel that to get the most out of their vehicle they must pour thousands of dollars into outfitting it, the truth of the matter is that in the majority of situations a stock vehicle is much more capable than a stock driver. You should get some seat time in your new vehicle in its stock form. Learn to make the most of its capabilities and you will find that your driving skills will change.

For example, the Land Rover Discovery Series II vehicles come with a sophisticated traction control system. This system operates by detecting wheel speed and engaging traction on the wheels that have grip. However, by feathering the brake pedal in loss of traction situations, you can “trick” the system into engaging earlier, thus getting more traction before precious loss of momentum occurs in that steep uphill climb.

If you’re really serious about upgrading your skills, there are a number of high quality teaching companies available world wide with whom you can further learn the nuances of off-road driving techniques. Within the United States, some of the better institutes are Overland Experts, Overland Training and the “granddaddy” of them all, Bill Burke’s Four Wheeling America.

High quality classes will teach you not only driving skills, but also proper vehicle recovery techniques, spotting techniques and environmentally responsible four wheeling. These learned skills will help later on down the line as you will be able to get the most performance out of future modifications. Furthermore, these valuable skills will help you in the future if you decide to drive other vehicles off road.

Protection is Key

Once you can get the most performance out of your vehicle in stock form, then it’s time to begin thinking about modifications. While these recommendations apply specifically to the Land Rover product line, however the same concepts and theories apply regardless of vehicle manufacturer.

For Land Rovers, the first and most important modification that we recommend is vehicle protection. Primary amongst these are diff guards. While relatively strong, the Land Rover differential is incased in a housing that has a very thin metal housing on the front end. Off road, it is easy for a large rock or boulder to hit and bend or puncture this housing. Repairing this type of damage on the trail is not only difficult, but time-consuming as well. We recommend fitting a heavy duty differential guard such as those made by Safari Gard or Rover Tracks.

The other vulnerable part on Land Rovers is the door sills. The long wheel base of vehicles such as the Discovery, Range Rover and Defender 110 make the door sills and the lower door vulnerable to damage from large boulders. The best modification is to install a heavy duty rock slider, such as those made by Slick Rock Fabrication. This modification will easily pay for itself the first time your vehicle gets high centered and the sliders save your vehicle’s doors.

Wheels, Tires and springs

With only a handful of exceptions, most vehicles come from the factory with tires that are biased towards on-road performance and longevity than off-road traction. Many of these tires have soft sidewalls or tread patterns that underperform in challenging off-road conditions.Which tires you change to is largely a matter of preference, as well as what features you are willing to compromise on.

For example, an excellent, moderate off-road tire such as the BFGoodrich All-Terrain makes for a good compromise tire. It provides improved off-road performance with good street manners and excellent tire longevity. For additional off-road performance, you can upgrade to BFG Mud Terrains, Goodyear MT-Rs or even Super Swamper tires. However, in almost all cases, you’ll increase on-highway ride handling, noise and tire longevity.

For many people, when they upgrade their tires, they also want to go with a larger tire size. Tire size is primarily dictated by wheel arch openings. In order to fit larger tires, you can either cut out the wheel openings (a very permanent modification), or add a vehicle lift. Contrary to popular belief, the lift itself does not allow for the fitting of larger tires. Room for additional tire size is dictated primarily by the amount that this addtional lift limits axle-up travel. For example, the thicker coils of an Old Man Emu suspension actually reduces up-travel on most Land Rover vehicles by almost 2″, thus allowing the fittment of larger tires.

At the same time, fitting the taller-than-stock OME coils allows for additional down-travel in the suspension IF matching shocks are installed at the same time. Matched OME shocks allow for 2″ of additional down-travel. This means that while suspension droop is increased by 2″, up-travel is also limited by 2″, meaning there is no net gain in suspension travel overall.

Adding this heavy duty suspension will benefit your trucks off-road performance by improving a number of critical angles on the truck.

The higher the truck sits off the ground, the greater the approach angle is. This means that you are less likely to bump against rocks on the trail as you drive over them. You will also have a bit more choice in routes that you can take over obstacles. Break-over angles are improved as well, making it less likely that your vehicle will get hung up on rocks or high-centered. Finally, departure angles are also increased. The higher your vehicle’s departure angle, the less likely you are to drag the rear of the vehicle or get hung up climbing steep obstacles or descending off tall rocks.

With the new lift and tires, off road performance should increase significantly. The higher lift allows you to pick your line better and clear obstacles easier. Your new tires bite on the rocks and dig through the mud easier, and with your improved driving skills, you are now getting the most out of your 4×4. The next step to maximize your off-road performance is to protect the front end of your truck. The factory front bumper can get scratched easily, it offers minimal front end protection, and the approach angle can be abysmal on some vehicles.

Protection part 2

To match your vehicle’s newfound capablities, we recommend considering an upgrade to your vehicle’s front bumper. A heavy-duty bull bar will help provide valuable front end protection, increase approach angle, plus provide the option for adding additional off-road accessories like a winch or auxilliary lights down the road.

There is a myriad of options available, but we’re partial to the ARB bumpers (they not only protect but also compliment the lines of most vehicles), and the Safari Gard bumpers. Each has its pros and cons (the ARB is more widely available while the Safari Gard offers a better approach angle) but either choice is a significant upgrade from the stock front bumper.

The next modification that we recommend won’t improve your vehicles handling or performance, but it will make a significant contribution to enjoyability– organization. There are a multitude of ways to organize your vehicle, some of which we’ll get into in future articles, but whatever direction you take, establish a consistent, reliable packing system. This will ensure that you not only remember every item that you need for the trail, but you’ll also be able to find it with ease when you get to your campsite at the end of a long day.

And then…?

With this handful of simple modifications, your vehicle should now be a much more capable machine, able to handle the harsh trails of the remote back-country. Unfortunately, upgrade choices and direction from here are much less clear and more subjective: Those who prefer to travel alone might consider a winch, while a driver drawn to hard-core four-wheeling may find their money more well spent on lockers and gear.

For whatever you decide to do with your vehicle, following these simple steps will ensure a pleasant, relatively pain free introduction to the world of four-wheeling and overland travel. The end result is a vehicle that can get out there and help you discover the world.

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