Essential Off-Road Equipment Guide
Other than your vehicle, you technically don’t need any off-road equipment to go off road. Hell, for that matter, you don’t even need an off-road vehicle to go off-roading. I once saw a Mexican family happily drive a Honda Civic up a gnarly road in Baja without a care in the world.
But you wouldn’t do that, would you?
Because you know that family’s Civic isn’t long for this world and that you’d rather be prepared for the worst—or even just the likely–calamities that off-road exploration can invite.
I’ve been actively pursuing off-road adventures for about 6 years now. I’m fresh enough to the endeavor to remember what it’s like to be clueless but experienced enough to have established what gear I consider essential. So that’s what I’m going to share with you here, in hopes that it will help kick start your adventures.
I’ll include a rationale for why each of these off-road equipment essentials is important, as well as a few pieces of gear that I’ve either used personally or had friends vouch for. In the interests of keeping this article focused, I’m going to assume you already have an off-road worthy vehicle, some kind of truck, Jeep, or one of the more capable SUVs on the market — Subaru’s come to mind. Here I’ll cover equipment needs beyond the vehicle itself, as choosing a vehicle is a deep, complex, and deliciously contentious topic on which one can spill a great deal of ink.
Why put navigation first, you ask? Well, while getting lost can make for a solid adventure (and a killer story), it can also be frustrating and dangerous. Knowing where you’re going, how to get there, and how to get back is step one in the path to off-road mastery. And do you really want to be that driver — the one who thinks they’re heading to Inspiration Peak when they’re actually descending into Jackass Flats? No, you don’t. Don’t go to Jackass Flats.
Maps & Guide Books
One thing I like to do when thinking about backcountry gear is to start with this premise: if I have no access to electricity or wireless services, what do I need to accomplish the task at hand. When it comes to navigation, the answer is easy: maps. The kind made of paper that you hold in your hand.
For off-roading trips, I generally try to find good topographic maps for the area I’m exploring. In the United States, the United States Geological Survey offers the widest coverage of topo maps of varying scales, which can be purchased through their online store.
Guide books can also come in handy. If you’re lucky, the area you plan to explore has already been documented by an intrepid predecessor. Many regional off-road guide books are available on Amazon.
You know you want one. I’d recommend considering getting two – one driving and one for walking (voluntarily or not).
A good old-fashioned magnetic orienteering compass feels right in your hand and is one of the fundamental pieces of off-road equipment. You don’t need anything fancy, but you need one you can rely on and you need to know how to use it.
Suunto and Brunton make quality compasses that are popular with hikers and orienteering enthusiasts — something you can quickly become if you’re vehicle breaks down or gets stuck. Here are a couple of solid choices.
Part of the fun of going offroad is the risk of getting stuck. Thing is, sometimes you actually get stuck. And guess what? There’s no tow truck gonna save you.
Recovery gear, and the skills to use it properly, are going to get you out of this mess. There’s a ton of gear on the market, but to get started, you really only need a few key items.
Spare Tire & Jack
The most basic items are those you have in your regular vehicle: a spare tire and a jack so you can change it out. And don’t forget a lug wrench.
Make sure when you buy your gnarly offroading tires that you buy five, so you’ll have an extra as your spare. Two types are jacks are typically used by offroaders and overlanders: a tall farm jack (often referred to as a hi-lift jack, after the iconic brand) and bottle jacks, which are hydraulic jacks that are small enough to fit in a car.
We tend to carry both. Use the bottle jack when the situation allows, and the farm if you need a lot of height to get out of the situation. BE CAREFUL when using jacks, especially farm jacks. Do your homework on how to use them safely. There’s a reason they are called “farmer killers.” Read more about how to use a hi-lift jack.
In advanced usage, farm jacks are also used to free trucks when they are high pointed, meaning the wheels have been lifted off the ground by rocks, trees, or other obstacles. This can be a risky move and isn’t recommended without prior training.
When you get good and stuck, a pull from a friend (whether another vehicle or your own winch) can save the day.
Recovery straps can be attached to your winch (see below) and then secured to a rock, tree or another anchor to pull your vehicle free. Like using a farm jack, using a winch requires special skills to do it safely, so please do your homework and get some training before you try it.
Offroad recovery straps can also be attached between vehicles, so that one vehicle can pull the other free, either through the use of a winch or by towing. It’s important to distinguish between the two types of straps. Static straps don’t stretch much and can be used for winching or towing other vehicles out.
Kinetic recovery ropes or straps (also collectively referred to as “snatch straps”) stretch quite a bit more and are used in “snatching” a stuck vehicle free. In this maneuver, instead of slowly pulling the stuck vehicle free, the rescue vehicle builds up more momentum, building up kinetic energy in the snatch strap. The stretched strap then contracts suddenly, jerking the stuck vehicle free. Again, an advanced maneuver that requires some training and practice.
When using recovery straps, you’ll need some additional items that include shackles (for connecting the straps to the vehicles) and tree savers (straps for wrapping around anchors such as trees and rock). Note that recovery straps are weight-rated for different-sized vehicles, so make sure you get one that’s heavy-duty enough. Also, make sure your vehicle has the appropriate attachment points.
Check out our articles, Complete Guide to Off-Road Recovery Straps and our guide to kinetic recovery.
Shovel & Gloves
Spit on your palms and get diggin’! A shovel can be your best friend for freeing a stock wheel, making space for traction pads or removing dirt, mud and sand from under your chassis. We like a basic short shovel (waist high) that you can buy at a home improvements store). Nothing fancy is needed. A pair of leather work gloves will prevent blisters and is also advisable when working with recovery straps and winches. For a rundown of some good options, check out our guide to off-road shovels. If you are looking for a small, compact shovel that will fit in any vehicle, we recommend the Gerber E-tool.
You don’t HAVE to have a winch. But they sure can come in handy if you get stuck, especially if you are on your own with only one vehicle. (which generally isn’t recommended). There are some manual winches out there that consist of a cable and ratchet assembly for pulling your stuck vehicle loose. More common are off-road winches that are mounted on the front bumper of a truck, with a motor that’s wired to the battery.
Winching, like messing with a farm jack, can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. The tension on the cable from the weight of a vehicle that weighs several tons creates extreme forces and lots of potential for injury if something breaks loose and goes flying. Make sure you have appropriate training before trying to recover your vehicle with a winch. If you do have a winch, it’s worth getting snatch blocks and tree-saver straps to extend its capabilities.
Tractions boards are textured plastic planks placed under tires to provide grip when you get stuck on loose ground. While they aren’t absolutely needed, if you have a pair you’ll end up using them a lot, and they can make recoveries move along faster than other techniques — such as using a winch.
Air compressors used while offroading have two purposes. The most common use is deflating your tires before getting on the trail, to improve traction and soften the ride for you and your passengers. An air compressor also comes in handy if you need to reinflate a tire you’ve repaired on the trail. Typically, you’d just swap out your spare, but it is possible you might need to fix a damaged tire, for instance if you’d already used your spare and then damaged another tire.
There two common types of air compressors, onboard and portable. Onboard air compressors are mounted to your vehicle, in the engine bay or somewhere else in your vehicle and wired to the battery. Portable compressors are carried in a bag that you take in and out of your vehicle as needed and are clipped to the battery terminals when needed.
A third option, popular among offroad racers and hardcore wheelers, are portable CO2 tanks that rapidly inflate a tire, as the gas expands quickly. If you are offroading frequently, these can save you time, but you’ll probably also want an engine-powered compressor such as those described above.
For more information, check out our Guide to Off-Road Air Compressors.
While mobile phones can be very helpful for communicating when you’re near cell towers, many backcountry areas lack coverage. That’s where two-way radios come in.
In this article, we’ll go over the various radio technologies typically used by overlanders and off-roaders for communications.
The most common use for radios in vehicle-based adventure is communicating among vehicles traveling together in a group.
For instance, the lead vehicle on the trail may warn others of an upcoming hazard, tell them what fork in the road to take, or provide beta on the best line through difficult terrain.
Another use for radios is during vehicle recovery operations and emergency situations. Two-way radios can help everyone in the vicinity stay in contact and coordinate during a rescue situation.
For a breakdown of the various options, check out our guide to two-way radios for off-roading and overlanding. Also see our article on handheld GMRS radios for some suggested models.
What if you get lost? It happens more often than you’d think. It’s always wise to be conservative about the fuel range of your vehicle when planning an offroad adventure, but even then you can get caught out, with the needle on your gas gauge dropping, dropping, and your heart rate rising, rising. An extra jerrycan or two of fuel gives peace of mind and can keep an offroad trip from turning into a hiking trek.
Nowadays, fuel cans come in many forms. The classic jerrycan has been around since the 1930s and metal and plastic versions are now available. Fancier options, like Rotopax, provide a modular and higher-tech option for storage and mounting. Whatever you pick, you’ll need to mount it outside your vehicle to avoid gas fumes inside, so you’ll need some time of system for connecting it. Check out our separate guide to fuel planning and storage for more detail on this subject.
Things break. You’ll need tools to fix them. When you are off the grid, you are the mechanic. We’ll pause here for a short PSA: It’s a good idea to get some basic automotive mechanics training, formal or self-taught if you’re planning to drive into the hinterlands.
You don’t need to carry everything in your home toolbox. Tools can get heavy after all. We liked to bring a set with a range of ratchets and socket sizes, a set of screwdrivers, some pliers, a big adjustable wrench, and a hammer.
Going offroading or overlanding is similar to other backcountry adventures in that you are taking on the risk of being stranded in the backcountry and distant from the services of civilization that we often take for granted.
What happens if your vehicle breaks down and you are stuck in the boondocks overnight or for several nights? What if someone gets injured and you are 30 miles from a hospital with no mobile phone reception?
You should bring a basic backcountry emergency kit with you, and even better if you can carry it in a backpack in case you end up walking. The list below is not exhaustive, but here’s what we keep in our emergency pack:
- Rain gear and thermal layers
- Fire starter kit
- Extra food and water
- Rain/sun tarp
- First aid kit
- Hiking shoes
That’s the list. The essential list of gear you’ll need for getting offroad in the backcountry. There are other things that we didn’t get into, like having a capable vehicle and wheels, but those are so essential that they warrant other posts. Be safe. Have fun.