Skip to main content
Off-Road Buying Guide

Off-Road Buying Guide

Jump To: Off-Roading Vehicles: What You Need to Know | Off-Road SUV Guide | Off-Road Crossover SUV Guide | Off-Road Truck Guide | Off-Road Luxury SUV Guide

Want to go off-roading but unsure where to start? Don't know if a truck or SUV is better for getting deep into the wilds? Overwhelmed by the lingo casually dropped by enthusiasts in off-road reviews, forums and communities? Maybe you're wondering if all you really need is that truck or SUV already sitting in your driveway.

While most of today's trucks and SUVs can handle a dirt backroad, some are more capable than others. Jeep, Chevrolet and Toyota, for example, offer versions of existing models specifically modified for off-road capability. These are great for off-road enthusiasts who regularly visit local mountains and trails, but the sacrifices in daily comfort and drivability might make them overkill or impractical for occasional adventurers.

We're here to help. Our guide breaks down what to look for in an off-road-oriented truck or SUV and offers tips to help you pick the right vehicle. We also talk about the wide world of aftermarket parts and accessories that let you customize a truck or SUV to your heart's content.

Off-Roading Vehicles: What You Need to Know

There's no single factor that determines a vehicle's off-road prowess, so the first thing you should consider is how much capability you really need. Do you want to traverse hardcore trails and thread through paths of rocks and boulders? Maybe you want to get into the "overlanding" lifestyle, or maybe you just need something that won't leave you stranded at the secret spot 10 miles off the highway.

But there are a few basic requirements for any vehicle with off-road aspirations. All- or four-wheel drive is a must, as is enough ground clearance to drive over obstacles — hills, rocks, mud, creeks — without sustaining damage. As a general rule of thumb, 8.5 inches of clearance or more should be good. After that, it really comes down to individual use cases.

It also helps to understand some important off-roading jargon. For example: 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 an 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 a feature called 4-Hi or 4-Lo gearing. 4-Hi is for normal driving. Switching to 4-Lo can deliver extra torque for improved traction and control off-road. 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 measurements that influence how steep of an obstacle a truck or SUV can climb, descend or traverse without scraping the front or rear bumpers or the underbody. In general, the greater the angle, the better.

Finally, consider aftermarket support. Maybe you want to improve a vehicle's capability, or just make it feel a little more personal and unique. Either way, dozens of companies offer endless parts and accessories to enhance off-road capability, ranging from engine and suspension upgrades, to larger wheels and tires, auxiliary LED lights and winches, and all manner of racks, containers and camping goods. Today, a thriving aftermarket supplies "overlanders," a catchall term to describe enthusiasts who use their trucks and SUVs as a mobile base of operations for off-roading and remote camping.

Off-Road SUV Guide

Today's SUVs are broadly broken down into two categories: traditional truck-based SUVs and car-based crossovers. Both can do double duty on pavement and dirt, but truck-based SUVs can generally clear more uneven terrain and are built to withstand more off-road punishment. Let's dive into a few of the more popular models you can buy.

The Jeep Wrangler is arguably the most iconic off-roader around. It's a tried-and-true way to get well off the beaten path thanks to high ground clearance and available locking differentials that increase traction on steep and rocky terrain. Modern Wranglers offer features and comforts you expect in a new car without sacrificing off-road capability. You can drive a Wrangler straight from the dealer's lot to your area's most challenging trails and expect to pass without incident. It's that good.

When you combine the Wrangler's vast aftermarket support for upgrades — suspension, power, wheels, lights — it becomes a vehicle that can take you just about anywhere.

Toyota is about the only automaker that comes close to matching Jeep's off-road ability. (Sorry, Land Rover fans, the English brand's vaunted off-road history is still no match for Jeep or Toyota.) The Toyota 4Runner also has a high ground clearance to help you clear obstacles on the trail. 4Runners with the TRD designation are especially designed for going off-road.

The Toyota Land Cruiser is another model to consider. Older Land Cruisers are very capable off-road, but today's model is a more luxury-oriented SUV. It's not quite as intrepid as a Jeep or 4Runner, but it can still make respectable work of a trail. And it's far more comfortable to drive every day. Both the 4Runner and Land Cruiser can seat up to seven passengers.

The Ford Bronco is a relative newcomer, reviving a legendary nameplate that had been dormant since 1996. Like the Wrangler, it's available with two or four removable doors, a removable roof, and in several configurations with dozens of options. The Bronco is very capable off-road, and it's even more comfortable than the Jeep on-road thanks to an independent front suspension and responsive steering.

Compare Off-Road SUVs

Related Articles

Off-Road Crossover SUV Guide

Most SUVs sold today are considered crossovers. That is, they're built atop a car-like unibody chassis and not a rugged "body-on-frame" platform like the Wrangler, 4Runner or Bronco. Crossovers are mostly made for the street, but with enough ground clearance and optional all-wheel drive, many can tackle tougher terrain.

Generally, crossovers don't have the capability that off-road enthusiasts are looking for. For one thing, their unibody construction makes them more susceptible to expensive underbody damage on the trail. For another, their fully independent suspensions lack the wheel articulation of traditional body-on-frame rigs, meaning that it's harder to keep all four tires on the ground when traversing uneven terrain. What crossovers lack on the trail, however, they tend to make up for on the highway. Crossovers ride and handle more like cars and tend to get better fuel economy than traditional SUVs.

Two popular choices for an off-road-ready crossover are the Jeep Cherokee and the Jeep Renegade. The Cherokee is a little roomier and more adept off-road than the Renegade, while the Renegade is smaller, more affordable and, dare we say, a bit more stylish. Both offer a Trailhawk trim, which comes with modifications such as a lifted suspension and all-terrain tires for enhanced off-road capability.

Subaru SUVs are also worth checking out. The Subaru Crosstrek and Subaru Outback, in particular, are well suited for light-duty off-roading. Standard all-wheel drive, ample ground clearance, and raised roof rails that make for easy installation of racks and accessories make the Outback and smaller Crosstrek ideal for getting out to lakes, rivers, campgrounds, trailheads, ski areas and other recreational areas. The Subarus aren't meant to traverse boulder-strewn routes, but they can still handle rough and rutted roads.

Like its larger counterpart, the Bronco Sport is a newer SUV conjuring some of the old Bronco magic. Based on the Ford Escape crossover, the Bronco Sport is a more rugged thing with commendable off-road skill, especially in Badlands trim, which features a trick all-wheel-drive system that can imitate a locking rear differential or even send half the engine's power entirely to one rear wheel or the other. Other strengths include gutsy turbocharged thrust, optimized traction modes and optional all-terrain tires. The Bronco Sport can't match rivals in ride comfort and passenger space, but overall it's a capable and impressive crossover.

Finally, Toyota offers a version of the Toyota RAV4 called the TRD Off-Road with a special all-wheel-drive system broadly comparable to the one on the Bronco Sport Badlands. Toyota also throws in all-terrain tires to make the RAV4 TRD Off-Road a little more capable than the typical small crossover SUV.

Compare Off-Road Crossovers

Off-Road Truck Guide

Full-size trucks from Ford, Chevrolet and Ram might dominate the sales charts, but for off-road purposes, we suggest looking to the midsize truck market. Midsize trucks still offer plenty of utility, but their smaller size and shorter length make them nimbler and more maneuverable on the trail.

That said, there are some unique full-size trucks specialized for off-roading, such as the Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram 1500 TRX. If you want to read more about off-roading full-size trucks, check out our rankings of the top off-road trucks you can buy today.

The midsize Jeep Gladiator is basically a Wrangler with a cargo bed. The Gladiator's longer body makes it a little less maneuverable off-road, but in return it offers more utility. The Gladiator offers many of the same robust features and benefits of its SUV twin, including a high ground clearance and available locking differentials for extra off-road traction.

The midsize Toyota Tacoma is the closest thing Toyota offers to a truck version of the 4Runner, though the Toyotas aren't as closely related as the Jeeps under the skin. The latest Tacoma is offered in several off-road-ready trim levels, including the TRD Off-Road, the TRD Pro and the top-dog Trailhunter. All of the above come with modified suspensions and tires for increased off-road capability.

We also like the midsize Chevrolet Colorado in its ZR2 trim level. The Colorado's other trims aren't that impressive off-road, but like the Gladiator Rubicon or the Tacoma off-roaders, the ZR2 benefits from similar suspension, axle, wheel and tire upgrades that give it admirable chops on the trail.

All three of these midsize trucks enjoy extensive aftermarket support, by the way, so you can build a factory model into a more purpose-built off-road rig.

Compare Off-Road Trucks

Luxury Off-Road SUV Guide

Edmunds visitors save an average of $2879 off their new car. How much can you save?

There's a subset of SUVs made for the off-roader who prefers to get dirty in grand style. Luxury automakers offer several robust SUVs, many built atop truck frames, that combine rugged all-terrain capability with upscale creature comforts and appointments.

The Land Rover Defender and Land Rover Range Rover may be the best-known staples of both wooded trails and high-society valet lines. The Defender, in particular, is well suited to off-roading thanks to its modest size, high ground clearance, and wide mix of terrain-based driving modes. The Range Rover is also capable, offering locking differentials, 11.6-inch maximum ground clearance, multiple terrain traction modes and a fortified suspension. But the Range Rover is increasingly a pavement pounder, with new hybrid and long-wheelbase versions pairing with opulent interiors that few owners would want to sully with dirt, mud and sand. The Range Rover's formidable curb weight, which can get up around three tons, also limits its trail mobility.

Other options include luxury wagons like the Audi Allroad, Volvo V60 Cross Country and Volvo V90 Cross Country, which come with all-wheel drive, raised ride heights and protective body panels. Like the Subaru models, these wagons can handle some rough and choppy roads, though nothing too uneven or extreme.

Finally, there's the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, a favorite of the celebrity and social media influencer class. The G-Class started life as a military vehicle that got a second act in the U.S. as a rugged and expensive luxury SUV. Even though it's now a second-generation model, the basic recipe remains the same. Boxy styling hints at its utility roots, while its off-road hardware, which includes a center-locking differential for a total of three locking diffs, is exceptional. The rest of the driving experience is an exercise in compromise — think ergonomic contortions and brick-like aerodynamics, for example — but for sheer presence on- or off-road, the G-Class is arguably without equal.

Compare Off-Road Luxury SUVs

Related Articles

Best Off-Road Trucks

Best Hybrid SUVs

Big attitude, big tires and even bigger capability in dirt, mud, rocks and sand alike. These are Edmunds' best off-road trucks of 2020.