Essential Off-Road Gear
Before you hit the trails for some off-road fun this summer, make sure you have the right gear.
In our blog post about our truck, I talked at length about the mods and upgrades we've done to help our F-150 become our ultimate adventure vehicle. For us that means more than just off-roading - it's our daily driver and tow vehicle too (there are certainly far more impressive overlanding vehicles out there than ours!).
But it's not just about having the right vehicle - you also have to carry the right gear. Over the years, we've learned a lot about what gear works for us - what we feel is necessary to carry to help keep us safe, and maybe help others in need.
Table of Contents
This blog post is about what we carry - but let us know in the comments if you think we're missing something, or what your favorite piece of gear is. We're all learning!
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To make this more digestible, I've broken it down into several categories, so you can pick and choose based on what you use your vehicle for. These are things that work for us - we don't have pets or children, so if you do, make sure to consider what their needs might be. And if your vehicle is different to our F-150 (e.g. a bigger truck), then you may need slightly different versions of some of the recovery items.
Many of these items are small enough that we can keep them in the center console or under the rear seats inside the cab, but some of the larger items we keep in the truck bed. We keep these in the truck at all times, but when we're planning an off-road trip we always review them to make sure batteries are charged, nothing's missing, and to see if there's specific to that trip that we might need to add based on terrain, weather and so on.
As the saying goes: "hope for the best, prepare for the worst". That's what all this first category is all about.
Even though there are plenty of lights on the truck, it's still important to carry additional sources of light. We try and check these periodically to make sure the batteries are charged - but also, carry spare batteries if you can!
- Emergency roadside LED flares - battery powered and super bright, much safer than burning the old-fashioned flares!
- Super bright flashlight - we actually use the insanely bright Fire Sword which will happily turn night into day, but something like this one will work just great too since the Fire Sword is hard to find these days!
- Red LED flashlight - the advantage of red is that it doesn't damage your night vision, so it's useful for emergencies but also for photography!
- Head torch - this isn't the exact one I have (it's no longer available), but I'd recommend a USB-charging one such as this so it's easy to keep it charged. It's small and easy to stash somewhere.
I'm not talking about firearms here - that's a personal choice that only you can make. Instead, I'm talking about basic first aid and survival equipment. Imagine the car breaks down at night in the middle of nowhere - do you have what you need to stay warm and comfortable? The vehicle is also often our closest "base", so keeping a good first aid kit in the truck has come in useful several times.
- Emergency 2-person bug out bag - this is tiny and we keep it in the truck cab so we can grab it quickly if we have to.
- Larger bug out bag - the backpack is too large to stash neatly in the truck cab, so we keep this in the truck bed as a further backup.
- First aid kit - ours is cobbled together from several kits we've acquired, but I'd recommend one like this if you're looking for something small. If you've got space for something larger, this one may be more suitable.
- Maps - especially if you're venturing into the wilderness, make sure you have good maps, either saved offline or your phone, or ideally paper versions. We're big fans of the Benchmark Maps, but free maps from Ranger Stations can also be invaluable!
- Compass - this feels like one of those forgotten tools, but a good, cheap compass could be invaluable if you get lost. Check to see if your first aid kit includes one!
We think of these items as a backup - ideally we'd never have to use them. Although spending money on something you never want to use might seem crazy, if you get stuck and don't have them, you'll be kicking yourself!
With the exception of the tire repair kit, we've used every single item on this list at least once. Often not for the purpose originally intended, but these are versatile items that can come in useful in all sorts of situations.
- MAXSA Escaper Buddy traction mats - although these aren't the MaxTrax originals, these are significantly cheaper but as far as I can tell, just as well made - unlike some of the cheap knock-offs. If your vehicle gets stuck in mud, snow or sand, these are an effective (but slow) way to get unstuck - we've used them to help other people several times and they work great.
- Gerber E-Tool folding spade - we chose this as it was rated so highly, and it's great! Not only is it a spade, but it has a saw blade down the side.
- Sportsman Pocket Chainsaw - we bought this after seeing a friend use theirs. Although it might look gimmicky, this thing works! We used it to cut through a thick tree that had fallen and blocked the trail in Colorado - we were through it in about 5 minutes. It's small enough to fit in your pocket, cheap, easy to use and doesn't require maintenance like a normal chainsaw.
- 10,000lbs heavy duty 20ft recovery strap - this is strong enough you could hang our truck vertically from it, but this way if we ever got stuck with our trailer then it's got enough capacity to pull us free. Make sure to weigh down the strap when recovering in case it snaps or comes loose! And in a pinch, it can easily be used to create a makeshift winch by wrapping it around your tire.
- Tow rope safety cinch - not strictly necessary, but a useful safety item. Much safer than looping the recovery strap around the tow ball!!
- Smittybilt receiver hitch D-ring - very heavy duty, and works well with the tow strap and safety cinch.
- 4x snow chains for all 4 truck tires - we've only had to use these once, but I'm glad we had them! We were on a winding mountain pass, in 8" of virgin snow, with a sheer drop on one side, no cell signal, in 4WD Low. In Death Valley - yes, really! There are lots to choose from so make sure you pick the right size for your vehicle!
- Windshield ice scrapers - the one with the brush is actually really useful for brushing loose snow off the top of your vehicle before you drive, saving people behind you from a faceful of snow!
- Tie down straps - these will always come in useful, for securing loads in your vehicle, or even in a recovery situation.
There are some basic tools you should carry that could come in very useful - for example, knife, screwdrivers, crescent wrench and pliers. But there are a few specific items we carry with us that are worth sharing.
Let's start with tires - keeping them inflated correctly is critical, and airing down when off-road helps with traction and ride quality. And of course, make sure your spare tire is in good condition!
- Tire pressure gauge (1 analog, 1 digital) - the analog gauge doesn't go high enough for the 80psi our trailer tire needs, but I don't like relying on just a digital gauge when off-roading, hence 2 gauges. It also means your passenger can help you air down!
- TeraFlex tire deflator - speaking of airing down, these deflators are much easier than poking the pin with the edge of the valve cap or your finger nail.
- Viair 400P-RV air compressor - I cannot recommend this highly enough. We've used it on the RV and the truck, and helped other people air up after off-roading. Works great, nice and powerful - but be warned, it gets HOT after airing up several tires! The RV version comes with a longer hose and a few other bits which can come in handy. Keep an eye out for deals on these though, as prices do fluctuate.
- ARB speedy seal tire repair kit - fortunately we've never had to use it, but the hope is it would repair a tire so we could make it back to civilization for a replacement.
- Amp clamp / multimeter - this handy multimeter has a clamp you can put over AC or DC wires to measure current. Very useful!
- Non-contact infrared temperature gun - once you have one of these, you'll find all sorts of uses. How hot are your tires? Are your brakes overheating? Is your beer cold yet?
- Several tarps and sheets - never throw out old bed sheets, just relegate them to your vehicle. When you need to lie down underneath and check something, you'll appreciate it!
- Assorted fluids, lubricants, cleaners and sprays - research ahead of time and find out what your vehicle needs. We tend to carry oil, gas, windshield washer fluid and several different lubes, but check what you need!
- CB radio - if you're going with an off-roading group, sometimes they'll use CB radio as a means to communicate. We used to have a truck-mounted antenna installed, but it was too much hassle so we keep this handheld one in the truck just in case.
- GMRS radio - although we bought this mainly to make it easier to communicate when parking the RV, it's been really useful for off-roading. In real world usage, you can still get a couple miles of range which is usually plenty to communicate between rigs
- Handheld HAM radio - you need to be a licensed HAM radio operator to use one of these (my callsign is KN6HTM), but the range is vastly superior to GMRS radio, even on a cheap handheld transceiver like this one.
- Garmin inReach Mini - we don't have one of these…yet. But we're seriously considering one. I've heard good things about them so let me know in the comments if you have one and whether you think it's a worthwhile addition to our communication arsenal.
I hope it goes without saying, but I'll add it just in case. Always bring more food and water than you expect to need. We always assume at least 1 gallon per person per day, and double that if we're going somewhere hot. It may sound a lot, but if you get stranded, need to use the water to wash something, or find others in need, it could make a real difference.
If you're traveling through an area with abundant water supplies, you may even want to consider a water filtration system. Most of our overland exploration has been in the deserts out West, so we haven't run into this yet, but it's something to consider.
The food you take obviously depends on what you enjoy, but in our experience it makes sense to always keep some emergency rations that you don't plan on eating and don't require any preparation and keep well - protein bars, nuts, etc. That way you're prepared in case something goes wrong - your camp stove won't light, your cooler fails or you end up being away for longer than you expect.
Whereas previously, our electronics may have been luxury items, we increasingly find ourselves relying on them - in particular our phones. They have become our navigation tool, our emergency communication device, our route planner.
Our approach has been to converge on USB as a standard wherever possible. We take a big USB power bank with us, and then carry USB chargers and cables for all our devices. If you're looking for a great 12V USB charger, then this one supports USB-A as well as the new USB-C standard at up to 45W - we have 1 of these in the truck and 2 in the RV for charging laptops and phones.
Phones are obvious candidates, but we have USB chargers for our Sony A7R iii, our Canon EOS 6D, as well as for AA, AAA and 18650 batteries - and many others too. These all mean we can keep things charged in the truck as we drive, but if the worst happens, we can recharge them from our power bank too.
For me, nothing beats the experience of being out in the middle of nowhere, exploring parts of the country that so few get the opportunity to see. But I always want to feel safe and prepared.
Wherever possible, we always try to travel with others. We always let people know where we'll be - including relevant officials (e.g. Park Rangers) if appropriate.
There are some great communities out there like Overland Bound who promote responsible overlanding - if you're new to off-roading, then I recommend joining a group like that. Not only do the organize trips you can join, but they can be a wealth of information to help you plan out your own trips, upgrade your rig, find the right gear, or just improve your skills. And if you want to learn more, the Overland Expo is a great event to meet people and get inspired to go out and do more.