Few things are more liberating than loading up your vehicle and heading to the dirt for a weekend of fun with family and friends. Adventure is what off-roading is all about, regardless of whether your passion is grinding through the rocks or hucking off dunes. While you can have fun in just about anything with four wheels, not all vehicles are created equal. If you are looking for a new vehicle to take you away from it all, we have some recommendations. These aren’t cast in stone by any stretch of the imagination; think of them more as a starting point as you search for the perfect platform. We choose vehicles that are not only incredibly capable in stock form, but also benefit from generous aftermarket support to make them even better off-road.
DESERT If you live in the Southwest, you are privileged to have vast expanses of public lands with roads dating back to the gold-rush era, leading to abandoned mines and even Native American foot trails. Farther south, the allure of Mexico conjures up images of the legendary Baja 1000. Many of these roads are covered in washboard, whoops and silt beds. You can travel them in a VW Beetle, but you’d better be tough. Big shocks and lots of suspension travel will make wandering across the desert a much more pleasant experience, regardless of what you are driving.
Our Pick—Ford Raptor
Ford changed the game when they introduced the Raptor in 2010. For the first time, a truck came from the factory with bypass shocks. It also came with a V-8 engine, wider track width and unique sheet metal, 35-inch tires, and the ability to completely shut off the traction control. The second generation (2017-plus) Raptor is even better with a twin turbo V-6 engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission, and even larger Fox internal bypass shocks. *Budget Build—’80-‘96 Ford Bronco or F-150** Ford has a long history in the desert, and the Twin I-Beam front end on its ‘80-‘96 two-wheel-drive trucks and Twin Traction Beam front end on ‘80-‘96 four-wheel-drive trucks and Broncos are capable of huge suspension travel numbers with minimal modifications. Need lockable storage space? Get a Bronco. Want more wheelbase and a bed to haul stuff? In that case, an F-150 is a better choice.
SAND From Silver Lake in Michigan to St. Anthony’s in Idaho, sand dunes provide a never-ending adrenaline rush. Many of the same features that are useful in the desert, such as long travel suspension and big shocks, are also helpful in the dunes. Typically, you aren’t covering as much ground in the sand though, so vehicles can be built lighter for a better power-to-weight ratio. Paddle tires are great, but they take a lot of horsepower to turn. Fun in the sand is directly correlated to the amount of power you have on tap to get to the top of the dunes.
Our Pick—Sand Rail
While everything else on our list has been a production vehicle, there is no beating a dedicated sand rail in the dunes. They have a ton of suspension travel, are smooth underneath to keep from getting stuck, and can be powered with everything from an air-cooled VW engine to twin turbo V-8’s making 1,000 horsepower. The market for sand rails has cooled off in recent years, meaning you can pick up a lightly used car for the fraction of the price of a new turnkey buggy.
Budget Build—Polaris RZR
The reason sand rails have come down in price is a direct result of the number of UTVs you see at the dunes. It is tough to argue with a vehicle that you can make a down payment on, and then go out and flog all day long in the sand. The latest round of UTVs, particularly the turbocharged Polaris RZR and Can-Am Maverick X3, have great power-to-weight ratios, smooth undercarriages, and big shocks to soak up landings. And unlike most sand rails, UTVs are four-wheel drive, ensuring that they rarely get stuck.
ROCKS While hardcore rock crawling has waned in popularity in recent years, the appeal of places like Moab and the Rubicon are as strong as ever. These days people want a vehicle that can drive down the street in comfort, travel to beautiful locations, and still have the ability to conquer nearly any obstacle they encounter. Big tires are key in the rocks, along with axles that are strong enough to support the extra rubber and have locking differentials to keep all four tires turning. Just as important is armor to protect your investment so it comes home looking like it did when you left for the trail.
Our Pick—Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JL
Jeep is the original rock crawler, and the latest JL Wrangler is arguably the best yet with an eight-speed automatic transmission, lighter aluminum body panels, and stronger axles than the outgoing JK model. Jeep is the only manufacturer offering a downsize vehicle with solid axles and a removable top; the Wrangler really has no modern competition. Consider then that Jeep has gone one step further since 2003 by offering a Rubicon Edition Wrangler with locking differentials and a low-geared transfer case from the factory. This is the model to get if you plan to take your Jeep in the rocks.
Budget Build—Jeep Cherokee XJ
Before there was a four-door JK, Cherokees were getting families out on the trail. These vehicles have their limitations—namely the lack of body-on-frame construction and the small wheel wells—but they are inexpensive and quite capable, even in stock form. The solid axles, combined with the front coil and rear leaf spring suspension, make them perform well and easy to upgrade. If you aren’t intent on building a vehicle yourself, considering buying an XJ that has already been modified. You can often get a trail-ready rock crawler for close to the same price as a stock Cherokee.
OVERLANDING The fastest-growing segment of the off-road industry is the overland market, and it is easy to see why. Rather than being the primary focus, overlanding refers to off-road driving that is often used to support other outdoor activities as varied as paddleboarding, skiing, rock climbing, geocaching, rock hounding and more. The vehicles don’t necessarily need locking differentials or long travel suspension, but they do need to be reliable and comfortable for extended forays into the backcountry. Popular upgrades include freezer/fridges, rooftop tents, and recovery gear.
Our Pick—Toyota Tacoma Double Cab
While overlanding might invoke images of Land Rover Defenders roaming across Africa, their relative scarcity and questionable reliability mean that there are better choices for North America. It is tough to argue with the dependability of a Toyota, and the double-cab Tacoma has the perfect combination of size, power and creature comforts to allow it to travel to remote corners of the country with little more than gasoline in the tank and the occasional oil change. The TRD four-wheel-drive version in particular benefits from a selectable rear locking differential and Crawl Control, and the TRD Pro ups the ante with Fox internal bypass shocks. Bed racks to hold rooftop tents, Maxtrax and fuel cans are popular, although wedge-style camper shells are gaining in popularity lately.
Budget Build—Mitsubishi Montero
While Toyotas, Rovers and increasingly Sprinter vans are the overland vehicles of choice, Mitsubishi and Isuzu make vehicles that are world-renowned yet never quite caught on in the U.S. market for whatever reason. The second-generation V20 Mitsubishi Montero in particular (known overseas at the Pajero) is strong with body-on-frame construction and a 7.5-inch-high pinion front ring gear and huge 9-inch-diameter rear ring gear. This rear end was even available with an optional factory air locking differential.