Outfitting Your Land Yacht- A Guide to Building a Strong, Full Size-3/4-1 Ton Rig

So a 4runner was not enough and binge watching Narcos on Netflix couldn’t get you into a Land Cruiser.  You need a full-size, an Exon-Valdez class rig. Roof Top Tent? That’s cute…You brought your actual living room and kitchen from home. Welcome to the sickness.

If you have spent anytime on Instagram you have quickly learned that unless it’s a Tacoma or a 4runner you are not allowed to have fun and if it’s not a Land Rover then your big ole pig is designated to fire roads only (or read most CA freeways). This is where I hope this post helps you. I don’t want to get caught up in the “he said, she said” but I do want to expand your horizons on the capability of full size rigs. If you have a family, or you simply like the idea of a nice slide in Four Wheel Camper, Hallmark, etc. Don’t believe the rumors. Your truck is not too big, your not going to get stuck pulling onto the shoulder of a dirt road.

The Length and Width Debate (SFW)

Yes, most full size rigs are wider than a Jeep or 4runner, but with each model year it seems these “trail ready rigs” sneak up to the full size width category. Then these pint-sized pipsqueaks add on tires with less backspacing, increase track width through long travel. This all actually lends itself as ammo to the full size debate. If being narrow was the end all goal then most of us are doing this wrong.
Okay, well then the damn thing is too long. It’s like a party barge and a homemade teeter-totter waiting to happen. To that one, it’s a yes and a no. Yes the rigs have some length to them. Overall Wheel Base lengths can be between 130-176 inches. While the potential of going over  razor back trail obstacles or a steep point could lead to high centering there is also this other really nice quality to being super long…. Climbing and Decent. I will tell you between my Jeep YJ and my Dodge Ram 2500 the Dodge feels 3x’s as stable climbing or dropping than the Jeep. With Length means the rig does not want go bumper over tea kettle when going down a steep decline and when you are nosing up a steep incline the rig will benefit from length helping keep the front axle planted and fight the desire to lift a front wheel or transfer weight to the rear of the vehicle.
All challenges aside I will tell you, a well-built ¾-1 ton rig is a hard, hard, rig to beat in capability and build out.
FIRST LEARN TO PICK A LINE.
This is unfortunately something you cannot purchase out of catalog or finance with the rig. No amount of money makes up for learning to pick a good line. I beg you to go out with friends and start moderately trying hard and harder obstacles, feeling your rigs suspension work under you, learning what your rig CAN and CANNOT do. I was up in Big Bear this weekend with several full size rigs and was riding in one that I just finished a build out on. We came up to a connector trail called 3N08, the trial is not a tough one but definitely a fun trail for people first learning the capabilities of their rig. As we tooled down the trail we were stopped by 3 JK Jeeps, all telling the full-size we were riding in; the trail is too narrow; you will never make it; there’s a rock garden,” “you don’t have enough clearance.” I loved as these individuals who did not even know of our existence in the cosmos 2 seconds ago and were now informing us of the capability of our rigs. In these situations focus on YOU and your rig, know YOUR OWN capability. Do not trust “random spotters,” a gentleman who owns a an SUV will see a different line than what you may need. Remember, “Trust but Verify.” I love a second set of eyes, but if I am seeing a problem, I don’t let the second set convince me beyond my gut. At the end of the day the “helpful trail people” aren’t going to drop me off at work in the morning.  This may sound counter-intuitive but wheel a stock full size rig a few times, again, find it’s weaknesses: Does the truck not do well if the front right tire is in a hole and the left rear wheel is one too? Does the truck struggle with spinning only one front wheel trying to pull the rig through things? Are you sure your rear diff is not an open diff (aka, no traction aid, lsd, peg leg, one wheel spins only etc.) Knowing your rig better than anyone else is what will make you great in your own rig. Do not show up to a trail with owner’s manual in hand trying to learn how to put it in decent mode (just don’t.)
 

MAINTANENCE ABOVE ALL
These rigs weigh 7200 pounds plus out of the box without add-ons.

-Do not skimp on things like tie rods, drag links, track bars, u-joints, transmission and t-case services and BRAKES. Yes everything is built like a brick house, but they are only as good as their maintenance.

-Rigs that I know spend a lot of time in low speed, 4x4, sluggin around 10-12K in weight on back roads I recommend transmission services at 30,000 miles (drain and fill fluid, replace filters at 60k.) Another way to check this is just look at the fluid color, Red is good, burgundy not so good, orange no bueno. Fresh fluid is a key component to off setting pricey transmission rebuilds.
-Check gear oil- I put this in its own category because this should be checked based on 2 things, I like to take a peak every 10k, it’s easy to do and it helps make sure the diffs are not doing anything weird; however, after ANY TRIP in which you encountered nasty mud or water crossings do your self a favor and check.  We had a customer a few years ago that had to reseal both his ARB’s and complete whole differential rebuilds after failing to check his fluid after a water crossing. We only checked after the tech noticed a whine during a test drive when he finished an oil change. The diff fluid had the consistency of Yoo-hoo. The customer admitted that he had not been off road in over a year and the rig mostly sat. Take 10 minutes, save $3 grand+.
-I would like to also note here that if you drive an automatic, which is 99% of the world, these rigs do benefit from transmission coolers and “deep transmission pans.” Remember every quart extra to a transmission has the benefit of removing 5-7 degrees in temperature. AFE, ATS, Mag-Hytec, all have good solid transmission pans that add a few extra quarts and while you are going 5 mph up a rocky trail with 10,000 pounds of dispersed-ness, you might as well protect your investment.
TRANSMISSION COOLING
The manufactures really started getting on board with keeping tranny temps down around the model year 2008. Most of the trucks produced after this have large transmission coolers with auxiliary transmission coolers from the factory. So I would just do a deep pan and move on. For those who are ‘07 and older. I have never had a truck return to me with a transmission-overheating problem once I installed a 30,000 GVW cooler AFTER the radiator. (transmission cooler line runs to radiator, then run radiator transmission line to aftermarket cooler, then run cooler line back to transmission).
 

FULL SIZE WHEN IN THE NASTY (Mud, Snow & Sand)

The only real challenge I see with full-size rigs is they are heavy. Big diesel engines, big transmissions, big axles all lend themselves to big heavy pigs. Here are the tricks to use to help you. First like every other vehicle but MORE full size rigs benefit from airing down. I am personally of the camp that, “I will air down when I need to air down” but going from 80 psi to 25 psi will give you a world of difference not only in trail performance but also ride. If you are going on the Mohave Trail or you know you are going to possibly experience soft sandy washes, do yourself the favor and air down before hand. Another way to look at it, if it’s a “day trip” I’ll air down as needed, if it’s a 3 day off road affair, just air down, its easier on you and the truck.
SNOW- Snow and ice are terrible Kryptonite pieces to 5 ton full size rigs. I spent years ripping around Big bear with my Jeep YJ with front and rear lockers and never had to break out a set up chains. I had snow over my 33’s and could muster my way threw anything. I showed up to the same trail with a full size Dodge Diesel and didn’t make it 25 feet. CHAINS are mandatory, they are no longer optional. Personally I am a huge fan of the RUD 4x4 Chains, by far the easiest ones to install, but anything will work as long as it is correct for your wheel size. They offer different patterns out there, some “y chains” some “flat bar” in my experience one is not necessarily better than the other. They say the “y chains” help with slipping side to side, but every set of chains I have had that are INSTALLED CORRECTLY will transform your rig into a Sherman tank.

*Pro Tip- Do not lower your tire pressure and install your chains. Chains need to have a tight tire to hug. If anything if you roll around unloaded at say 70PSI and you throw on your chains to go wheeling, after getting the chains tight, air the tire up to say 75PSI, this will keep the chains from slipping.
ALSO- once the chains are installed you need to wheel off road, “low and slow,” the game is not to spin your tires, let the chains and the weight from your heavy rig break through and bite into the ice. Believe it or not between a Jeep on chains or a full-size on chains, the full size will chop through more things. Largely because of the weight they have as an ASSET not a liability when equipped with chains.
MUD
Mud and 3.5-5 tons does not bode well, this is where your asset is again low tire pressure but also a nice set of self-clearing tires. You’re all terrains work well up to a point but a nice mid-terrain like the Terra Grapplers, or R/T Open Countries, or Cooper SST’s are your better assets in this fight. Personally, I like a full mud terrain. Something like a KM2 (have not had the KM3’s yet), a Pro Comp MT2, or Open Country M/T’s. Basically a good tire that self-clears and has sidewall lugs to help chew threw the earth gumbo.  The downside to Mud Terrains is

A) cabin noise

B) a soft rubber/low tread wear (will wear out faster)

C) they seem to chop easy (where the tire wears unevenly and can cause vibrations and increased noise).  

Rotate Mud Terrains every 5k miles and consistently check your air pressure every month and you will have a good reliable tire. But it is hard to get more than 30k out of a set of mud terrains. With the Pro Comp MT2’s I have been able to muster 38K, still not great but a heck of a lot better than some of my previous choices.
ADD ON’S (This is where you can spend money)

Personally, if you have a sound rig that does not need tires, or maintenance, the first piece of the puzzle from my perspective is to get a winch. A lift, rims and tires, all nice add-ons but they will not get you past the inevitable and that is, ONE DAY YOU ARE GETTING STUCK. A really stuck full-size is something of folk-lore, these beasts are hard to move, your buddy in his jeep will probably break an axle trying to pull you out or yank you through something. Trust me the day you have to use your winch you will talk for weeks about the best investment you ever made (it’s the winch.)
SUSPENSION
The way this works, is regardless if you have bigger tires, wider rims, your tires are only as good as the contact patch they can leave. A suspension that does not flex or work under the rig will not help a 12.5-inch tire make full contact. So who cares what tire you have if the suspension cannot keep it on the ground or better yet has the tire bound up in your wheel well. Again in my own experience the Fords and Dodges can benefit well from simply a set of front coils and shocks, Chevy’s can use something like Cognito’s upper control arm and torsion keys to gain that little bit of lift and help in articulation.  Side note: if you do have a GM IFS platform do yourself a favor and get the pitman arm/idler arm support brackets. Many companies make them, my personal favorite is again Cognito, they are super beefy and really help correct a design flaw in the GM full-size steering. I once rode in a 2500HD lifted 6 inches on 35s headed to Calico, we were doing about 75, hit a bridge transition and all of a sudden the truck make a right. The idler arm decided it had, had enough of this world and there we were in the middle of nowhere because of a small part.  We survived but I still think what would have happened if we were in Death Valley? Crawling Bradshaw Trail? $240 bucks for peace of mind is cheap.

 

TRACTION AIDS

So we have talked a little bit of the weight challenges, the suspension concerns and now we are moving to the meat and potatoes. TRACTION: who cares about 950 ftlbs of torque if you can’t get any of it to the ground? Most of the new trucks are now coming standard with either a Gov-lock (a clutch driven posi differential that when one wheel spins at a faster pace may “lock” and mechanically apply the same power to each wheel) The problem with Gov-locks is many in the industry call them “grenade-locks” cause if you abuse them bad AKA stand on the skinny pedal and all of a sudden a wheel, or both wheels gain traction the diff likes to do its best impression of Katy Perry’s, Firework. Ford is the only one I know that offers a factory E locker in the rear, that is a nice option and then Ram rounds out the group with a gear driven Torsen style “worm driven” limited slip. In short the Ram unit is maintenance free and seems to be a stronger unit that any “clutch pack” style limited slips.
But where all these rigs fall short is the front diff. Your sticker on your truck may say 4x4 but you really have 3-wheel drive.  In 90% of your off road driving this is fine. One front tire pulling that trail pig along is just enough “umphh” for your truck to continue through whatever nastiness you might be in. However, there are predicaments where having a true “4x4” is a must. First is the MUD discussion, mud is dirt in suction cup form. The physical properties of mud are why it “sucks you in,” the dirt and water create a suction and restrains the vehicle from moving forward. With a lot of full size rigs you will find the rear axle buried to the frame and the front axle will have one wheel with a much deeper hole than the other. The reason a from Locker or Limited Slip would help you in this situation is that the drive has the ability to try and “crab walk” the vehicle out of this mess by turning the steering wheel “side to side.” This motion believe it or not can be that hail Mary pass between 5 seconds and 5 hours. The second area where 3-wheel drive really effects these rigs is CLIMBING. Again, you are going to have moments where you are going to be climbing an drop one of your front wheels either in front of a rock, or in a natural recess in the earth and that wheel will now become useless, maybe that wheel is just spinning, or better yet you now have the opposite wheel off the ground. Now that wheel that has no traction is where 100% of your power is going. You are now at 2-wheel drive. The benefit of a front traction aid is that while one wheel may be up in the air the Locker or Limited Slip will now transfer power to the wheel that does have traction, allowing you to move forward (in theory) to plant all 4 wheels back on the ground and move forward. Your third major area where 3-wheel drive is a killer in these rigs is SAND. Sand is a different kind of monster, I personally believe it is “over rated” in difficulty but sand has to be respected. With sand the whole idea is trying to float the weight of the vehicle over as much contact area as possible. You would actually be surprised how well a diesel rig can “dune” in the sand at 15 psi. But where the diesels struggle is the fact you have this 1,000-2,000 pound engine sitting up front trying to pound that front axle into the sand. With only one wheel pulling its weight the rig wants to bury that wheel. With sand and most off road obstacles, momentum is key. With a traction aid up front now you have both wheels “cleaning out” the sand in front of the wheels, instead of going up against these natural parking blocks, you are now chewing through them clearing the way for the rear tires to keep pushing as well. 
How fast do I need to address this? Not very fast, my father has 405k on his ram a solid 100k of that is off road. And he doesn’t have one. But then again he is normally not all alone when off road. However, when you do add a front traction aid your eyes will be opened at how a difficult trail of the past becomes a Sunday afternoon drive with the right equipment. 
So again, the List in the order I rate as the best investments in your rig.


1) Maintenance (transmission pan, transmission cooler, brakes, fluids, etc.)
2) Tires (if you can afford to, do #4 and #2 together, either way most trucks can fit a 33 inch tire without suspension and a 33 will look fine down the road if the truck is lifted)
3) Winch *my personal #1
4) Suspension
5) Traction aid (LSD or Locker)


I hope this has been helpful in someway for you and I hope to see more full size rigs out there on the trails!!