There’s no one factor that determines a vehicle’s off-road prowess, so the first thing you should consider is how much capability you need for what you want to do. Do you want to traverse some hardcore trails? Or do you just need something that won’t get stranded on a camping trip?
There are a few basic things that any vehicle with off-road aspirations should have. Generally, all- or four-wheel drive is a must, as is finding a vehicle with enough ground clearance so it can drive over obstacles — hills, rocks, mud, creeks — without sustaining damage. As a general rule of thumb, a vehicle with 8.5 inches of clearance or more should be pretty good. After that, it really comes down to individual use cases.
It also helps to understand some important off-roading lingo. First off: What’s the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? Generally, all-wheel drive is always active, with power going to all four wheels based on need. Four-wheel drive is a little different. While you can leave the system on all the time, four-wheel drive usually implies the ability to switch to two-wheel-drive mode when you don’t need extra traction.
Many traditional trucks and SUVs with four-wheel drive also have what’s called four-high or four-low gearing. Four-high is for normal driving. Switching to four-low can provide extra traction and control when off-roading. For more information on this and other topics, check out our detailed article that explains the differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive.
You may also see terms such as approach, departure and breakover angles. These are vehicle measurements that influence how steep of an obstacle your vehicle can climb, descend or traverse without scraping the front or rear bumpers or underneath. In general, the greater the angle, the better.
Finally, you may want to look at aftermarket support. Maybe you want to improve a vehicle’s capability, or just make it feel a little more personal and unique. Either way, there are companies that offer a seemingly endless number of parts and accessories that can further enhance a vehicle’s off-road capability. Bigger wheels and tires, upgraded suspensions, LED lights and bumper-mounted winches are just some of the options available from third-party companies.