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5 Things to Know Before Off-Roading in Your SUV

Jason Fogelson


As the demand for SUVs has increased, so has the range of vehicles within the category. Truck-based SUVs and car-based crossover vehicles are generally lumped together in the SUV category. The truck-based SUVs, like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota 4Runner, are built as body-on-frame vehicles, which makes them very rugged. Car-based crossovers, like the GMC Acadia and Honda CR-V, are built as unibody (frameless) vehicles. That doesn’t mean that a crossover vehicle is necessarily inappropriate for off-road use – it just means that some compromises may have been made in the interest of weight reduction and packaging that reduce off-road capability.

1. Not all SUVs are built for off-road use. As the demand for SUVs has increased, so has the range of vehicles within the category. Truck-based SUVs and car-based crossover vehicles are generally lumped together in the SUV category. The truck-based SUVs, like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota 4Runner, are built as body-on-frame vehicles, which makes them very rugged. Car-based crossovers, like the GMC Acadia and Honda CR-V, are built as unibody (frameless) vehicles. That doesn’t mean that a crossover vehicle is necessarily inappropriate for off-road use – it just means that some compromises may have been made in the interest of weight reduction and packaging that reduce off-road capability.

2. Probably the single factor that improves an SUV’s off-road capability is ground clearance.

Ground clearance is measured at the lowest point of a vehicle’s underbody – usually a part of the drivetrain or suspension system. Some crossovers like the Toyota C-HR have as little as 5.9 inches of ground clearance, while accomplished off-roaders like the Land Rover Range Rover have up to 11.7 inches. That makes a big difference when you’re crossing rocky terrain.

3. All-wheel drive is essential – and not all all-wheel-drive systems are equal.

In general, available grip decreases when you leave the pavement and hit the dirt. An all-wheel-drive system that is designed for off-roading can be adjusted to manage wheel slippage while sending the power to wheels that have more grip. Not all SUVs and crossovers come with standard all-wheel drive – it’s often an option, and on some, it’s not even available.

4. Off-roading is often a low-speed adventure.

Few production SUVs and trucks are designed for high-speed off-road travel, which can be punishing on suspensions, brakes, and tires. Those SUVs and trucks taking air over hills and moguls in action photography are usually equipped with specialty performance shocks. More often, off-roading means trail-riding and some rock-crawling at low to moderate speeds, carefully picking lines and avoiding obstacles. Some routes may require a spotter – an observer stationed outside the vehicle to help guide the driver over challenging terrain.

5. Even though your SUV may have the capability of going anywhere, that doesn’t mean it’s safe, ethical or legal to do so.

Be sure that you have permission from the authorities or from the landowner before you venture off-road. Check the websites Recreation.gov and Tread Lightly before heading out, and make sure that you’re not damaging protected habitats or environments.