A common question is "what modifications should I make to my vehicle to make it trail worthy?" Reading the offroad magazines, you might think gears, lockers, armor and a radical suspension is required. Below is our take on what it takes to Fool Around offroad. Note that modifications are listed in order of importance and each level assumes you have done everything in the previous step.
Before doing any modifications, make sure you are starting with a good platform. Most any short wheelbase vehicle whose transfercase has high and low range works well on the trails in our area. The Jeep Wrangler is by far the most popular choice, but you would be fine with a Toyota pickup and 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Suzuki Samurai, Chevrolet Tracker, S10 pickup/Blazer, Jeep Cherokee etc. Full size pickups, Blazers and Broncos are too wide for the trails we run.
A stock vehicle will go amazing places. Get a CB radio. Install tow hooks front and rear if you don't already have them. Get your tools and recovery equipment and figure out how to store them securely. Get the biggest, knobbest tires you can fit. Consider a second set of tires just for the trail if this is a daily driver. Wheel it in this state for a couple of years to see if the sport is really for you. You will learn a lot of off road skills. Spend time watching other rigs and figuring out what your ultimate goal is; mild, moderate or wild and most importantly - how big of a tire do you want. Once you have made this decision, you can start to modify your rig without wasting money on mods that you end up replacing later.
Most likely a daily driver, at home on easy trails, but capable of moderate trails. The good news is that after your "First Step" you already have a mild rig. You might think about adding a selectable rear locker like an ARB, improving body armor with rocker protection and ground clearance with "belly up" skid plates.
With this target in mind, you are probably going to keep the stock axles. Your first modification should be a roll cage. Then find out how big of a tire your stock axles can support and choose a tire this size or smaller. Then figure out how much lift (or better yet, sheet metal trimming) you need to fit it. These tires will need lower gears and you should add a rear locker at the same time. You might want to think about a winch and front locker or limited slip. You will begin to see the wisdom of a tow rig and trailer to get home should you break something on the trail.
At this level, you are probably talking about a dedicated trail rig. You should keep it street legal as some venues require driving on local roads to get to the trail head. You should mount seats to the roll cage and install four point seat belts. Heavier duty axles, front and rear lockers, and a winch are mandatory. Once tire size goes over 38" you will need a hydraulic ram to assist steering.
Every vehicle should carry these and they should be securely fastened down (like everything else). You should be able to reach the flashlight and fire extinguisher from your seat. Factory seat belts do not release if you are upside down (don't ask how we know this).
First aid kit (include any of your family's special needs like EpiPens or insulin)
Complete change of clothes
Full size spare tire
Wrench to remove tire (and key if you have locking lug nuts)
Tow hooks front and rear
Specialty tools for your vehicle
Good to have
With the exception of the Hi-Lift, every vehicle really should have these too.
Tow strap (no hooks on ends!)
Short piece of chain with washers and bolt that fits through middle links
Small tarp or blanket
High lift jack
Regardless of your mechanical skills you should carry these to fix your rig of someone else's.
Philips and flat screwdrivers
Set of combination wrenches (metric or SAE to fit your vehicle)
Ball peen hammer
Small roll heavy wire
These are really more for the skilled mechanic, but consider carrying a few of these as well.
Schrader valve and removal tool
Small vice grip
Torx bits (if your vehicle is cursed with them)
Stubby and offset screwdrivers
WD-40 or wire dry spray
Electrical wire, tape and connectors
Misc. nuts and bolts
Extra fluids (motor oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, ATF, gear lube)
At the beginning of a trail ride it is common to introduce yourself. Include a nickname or handle that is easy for everyone else to remember. Be sure to figure out the name or handle of the people in front and behind you. This way you can get on the CB and say something like "Hey Turtle, stay to the left at the top of that hill."
Chatter can liven things up, but limit it to easy sections of the trail. You don't want to be telling a long joke while someone else needs to warn the group about an obstacle or call for assistance.
Only one person should "spot" others through a tough obstacle or be in charge of vehicle recovery. Often that person will need help conveying instructions to the winch operator, watching how close the rear bumper comes to that tree, etc. Work out who is involved before spotting/recovery starts and if you are not part of the operation, keep quiet and stay out of the way. See if there is something you can do to help indirectly - like taking pictures or making sure the kids stay safe.
It takes a village
When it comes to keeping children safe, we are all responsible. Be sure they are off of the trail if vehicles are moving. Be sure they are clear of vehicle recovery operations. Be sure they are not playing near deep water, cliffs, poison ivy, or space aliens. Don't assume it must be OK with the parents. If you are not comfortable, step up and keep them safe. Better to be thought pushy and over protective than to try out your CPR skills...
Watch your back
Always, always, always keep the vehicle behind you in sight! If you don't see them STOP! This way nobody gets lost. This is not always possible in really dense trees or steep hills, but if you are about to take a fork or go over a hill, pause until you catch sight of the vehicle behind you. It takes a little practise to pick a good spot to pause, but the top of a hill or end of a long straight section are ideal because you want to:
Give others some room
Don't follow too closely to the vehicle in front of you. This is especially important going up or down muddy hills. You don't want to slide into the person in front of you going down a hill. If the vehicle in front of you fails to climb a hill, they may loose control backing down the hill to try again. Also, it is to your advantage to see under the vehicle in front of you so you can watch the tires and differentials. This will help you decide what line to take over the obstacles - and what lines NOT to take!
Once you clear that obstacle, you might want to go back and watch others try it, offer advice to them, and maybe take some pictures. Be sure to park far enough down the trail so that ALL of the vehicles in the group will have room to park. If you notice that room is getting short, speak up and help make some room! This is a safety issue, so it is appropriate to move someone else's vehicle if they are occupied spotting for others, responding to the call of nature, or have been abducted by aliens. This is only possible if you:
Leave your keys in the ignition
So others can move your rig. Also, they don't get lost. Few things are as irritating for the group as combing the woods for your keys... but you should still:
This is not a face paced sport, especially if you are in a large group. Be prepared to wait for that newbie to struggle with street tires in the mud pit or the "Big Dogs" who want to try an optional obstacle. Give the newbie some advice if you can and see if you can pick up some tricks from the big dogs. Most importantly, be patient when there is trail carnage or mechanical failures.
One way to reduce frustrating delays is to be sure your vehicle is ready for the trail. Do routine maintenance like checking fluid levels, u-joint condition etc. Its a good idea to attend our annual Saftey Check Event to identify potential problems before hitting the trail.