Off-road vehicles come in a range of types and functions, from expedition vehicles to recreational, construction, technical vehicles, and off-road racing vehicles. Each has its unique features developed for its particular purpose.
Off-road vehicles can be dedicated off-road vehicles or vehicles with the capability of going off-road as well as being used on urban roadways. Off-road vehicles have an enthusiastic following as a means of recreation, resulting in many types of off-road vehicles being developed.
As we take a look into the world of off-road vehicles, you will be amazed at these amazing vehicles’ diversity and capabilities.
An ATV, or All-Terrain Vehicle, is known by various names in different locations. In Australia, it is known as a four-wheeler; in Africa, it is called a quad, or quad-bike. These off-road vehicles are known as ATVs or LUVs (Light Utility Vehicles) in the USA.
Essentially, these off-road vehicles were developed from motorcycles and share many of the same technologies in the vehicle. These vehicles bear a strong resemblance to motorcycle technology, from the handlebar steering to the types of engines, sitting position, and drive chains. The main difference is the four-wheel configuration as opposed to two.
The four wheels provide greater stability and give the ATV greater versatility for off-road applications than a motorcycle.
ATVs are used in agricultural applications to move easily around the farm where roads are poor or non-existent and can even pull small trailers to move feed, livestock, and equipment around the farm.
ATVs have gained a following as a recreational off-road vehicle to take on challenging trails and backcountry driving for fun.
ATV, or quad racing, has become popular and lucrative in the motor-racing scene, with races taking place on tracks, dirt arenas, and off-road trails. ATVs used for racing have suped-up engines, modified chassis, and suspensions to give the vehicles better handling and speed.
In some countries, the ATV is considered a street-legal vehicle, but in most parts of the USA, Canada, and Australia, the vehicle is not street-legal and is only allowed for off-road use.
In the military context, ATVs have also been used as fast vehicles to get strike teams into position in rough terrain that larger vehicles cannot traverse.
Severe injuries resulting from accidents while riding ATVs have brought the safety of these vehicles into the spotlight in recent years. The most common accidents are flips and rollovers, with the ATV landing on top of the rider. Many of these injuries can be minimized by using the correct safety gear and riding techniques.
Utility Task Vehicles or UTVs are similar to ATVs but are slightly larger, and the seating arrangement is different.
The seating arrangements in a UTV are side by side on a bench seat rather than sitting astride the machine. This seating arrangement has led to these vehicles being called SSVs or Side-By-Side Vehicles.
UTVs can carry between 2 and 6 people, depending on the configuration of the vehicle. Two-seater UTVs with a load bin at the back are often used in the agricultural and hunting context as off-road vehicles to access difficult-to-reach parts of the farm or hunting grounds.
Similar safety concerns as the ATVs exist with UTVs, which has resulted in many manufacturers including rollover protection for the vehicle occupants.
UTVs have also been used in motor racing and have participated in their own class in the Dakar Rally since 2017, with a maximum allowable engine capacity of 1000cc.
Sandrails are custom-built recreational off-road vehicles for sandy conditions. These vehicles are not street legal and are strictly for off-road use.
Sandrails are so named because of the tubular steel rails used to construct the vehicle’s framework, and they are designed for off-road driving in sandy conditions.
The steel rail framework is generally left exposed, with little to no cladding on the framework. This leaves the drivers exposed to the elements, which generally requires the wearing of goggles and other protective equipment to keep the sand off the driver’s face.
Sandrails are generally custom-built with a low center of gravity to enable climbing and descending steep sandbanks without the risk of rollovers.
These off-road vehicles usually have wide tires to accommodate driving in soft sand. Powerful motors are often included in the vehicles to power through soft sand and provide the required speed for the thrill-seekers.
4. Dune Buggy
Dune Buggies or Beach Buggies were first developed by the surfer set as vehicles that could go off-road on the beach to access surfing spots on the coast.
Many of these off-road vehicles are street legal since they have been built on the chassis of street-legal vehicles and comply with all the requirements for legal road use.
These vehicles are characterized by rear-mounted engines, usually VW Beetle engines, and fat tires to accommodate driving on soft sand. Dune Buggies generally do not have a roof to allow surfboards to be easily transported on the rollbars of the vehicle.
Dune Buggies are also used for desert dune recreational driving and have been converted for military use in desert war arenas.
They are similar to Sandrails but are built on an existing road-car chassis rather than built from the ground up with steel rails.
5. Enduro Bike
Enduro motorcycles are off-road bikes developed specifically for participating in long-distance off-road rallies or enduro races. These enduro bikes are similar to motocross bikes but have features specifically tailored to the long distances for which they are intended.
These features include large fuel tanks, heavier and more durable frames, wheels and forks, long-travel suspensions, and engines designed and tuned for reliability and endurance.
Enduro bikes usually have engines ranging in size from 125cc to 650cc. Riders that typically ride in muddy conditions usually prefer enduro bikes with smaller, lighter engines, while riders that ride in sandy conditions prefer the weight and power of larger engines.
Many enduro bikes are configured to be street-legal since they usually have headlights and other electronics that assist with riding cross-country in the dark. These features make it simple to make an enduro bike street-legal if it currently does not comply with this standard.
6. Motocross Bike
Motocross bikes are designed for a specific off-road racing and recreational riding style. Motocross racing is typically conducted on off-road tracks specifically designed for the race.
The venue is usually enclosed, and the tracks are short, with many jumps, ruts, corrugations, and mud patches to challenge the riders as they race.
Motocross bikes are typically lighter than enduro bikes and have suspensions designed to handle landing stresses after large jumps and rutted tracks.
The races are usually of short duration, which allows the bikes to have smaller fuel tanks and the engines tuned for short sprints rather than extended riding.
Motocross bikes are not typically configured to be street-legal since they are not used to race in the dark. Motocross bikes usually have very little in the way of electrics or electronics on the bike. The weight of the battery and components would slow the bikes down over the short, fast races.
As a result, motocross bikes are generally reserved for off-road use only.
7. Trail Bike
Trail bikes are the technical trail riding bikes for off-road cross-country trails rather than the high pace of a short, fast motocross race on a track.
Trail riding is like hiking on a motorcycle, and the bike is designed for this purpose. Some of the features of a trail bike are a larger fuel tank than a motocross bike to provide for longer distances and a softer suspension for comfort over longer rides.
Trail bikes are usually smaller than enduro bikes with smaller engines since they need to be maneuverable on narrow trails with tight turns.
The throttle on a trail bike is less sensitive than on a motocross bike, and the gearing is designed to require less shifting between gears on the trail.
Since there is the risk of a trail ride going into the twilight hours, most trail bikes are equipped with headlights and other electronics, such as electric starts. Trail riding is less about speed, so the additional weight of the electrics is not an expensive performance overhead.
As a result, most trail bikes are street-legal and can be used both on and off-road.
8. Mountain Bike
A vehicle that many people may not immediately consider an off-road vehicle is the mountain bike or MTB. However, this bicycle is designed for off-road performance and boasts features that can handle extremely rough country.
The mountain bike is the enduro bike of the bicycle world. The frame is stronger and built to withstand the pounding of an off-road trail. Mountain bikes often include front and rear suspension to help the rider to better control the bike over rough ground while experiencing less jarring.
Wider, knobbly tires are typical on these bicycles to offer better grip in sandy and muddy conditions and to provide better puncture resistance than standard bicycle tires.
Mountain bikes are also equipped with better braking systems to provide more control over steep descents and sharp turns.
While mountain bikes have been designed for off-road conditions, they have become popular with urban cyclists who find their robust construction better able to handle potholes, curbs, and sharp stones in the road than standard bikes.
The name “jeep” stems from the military history of these vehicles. The name was derived from the letters “GP,” which stand for General Purpose vehicles. This is the name that was given to this class of vehicles in military contexts, and the name stuck when it became popular in the civilian sector.
Jeep became a commercial brand associated with off-road capable vehicles and is currently owned by the American Chrysler motor company. The iconic civilian model is the Jeep Wrangler, which closely resembles its military cousin, the Willys Jeep.
The original military Jeeps were 1/4 ton capacity vehicles with 4-wheel-drive and gained the reputation of being rugged and a go-anywhere kind of vehicle.
The Jeep Wrangler, developed in 1986, quickly gained a reputation as being a competent off-road vehicle and came to be iconically associated with off-road driving.
The look and purpose of the Jeep Wrangler have expanded over the years from 2-door soft-tops to 4-door models that are equally at home on city streets and rough off-road tracks.
10. 4×4 Truck
There are many vehicles included under the umbrella category of 4×4 trucks. Trucks were initially developed as part of the agricultural sector and aimed at the farming community.
The trucks were designed to be rugged and durable and include 4×4 gearing to be better suited to work in a rural setting where roads are rough and difficult to navigate with any other type of vehicle.
Many of these 4×4 trucks not only had the 4-wheel-drive capability but also had large engines for hauling large agricultural cargo in the load bay. The large engines also gave the ability to tow trailers and farming equipment in tough driving conditions.
These trucks’ brute strength and durability made them popular in other sectors of society other than the farming community.
The rugged nature of these vehicles caught the attention of off-road hobby enthusiasts and then quickly became sought after for this application.
Many of these vehicles were developed worldwide to serve the same market sector need and became associated with farming communities.
Some of the iconic 4×4 trucks from this category of off-road vehicles include the following.
- Ford Bronco – 1966
- Ford F150 – 1948
- Toyota Hilux – 1979
- Dodge Lil’ Red Express – 1978
- Nissan Hardbody – 1986
- Dodge Ram Trucks – 2004
- Chevy Blazer – 1969
Many of these models served as platforms for the modern versions that are still popular models today for both suburban vehicles and off-road applications.
The British-made Landrover has, for many decades, been the iconic expedition vehicle to remote, far-flung places of the world where roads are almost non-existent.
The Landrover became a particularly iconic off-road vehicle in Africa, where many European colonies used this rugged vehicle to tame the African landscape.
The Landrover was not without problems when used in Africa since the engine was designed for European conditions. The dust and heat of the African continent quickly highlighted the flaws in the engine, resulting in many overheating issues with the standard Landrover engine.
Many Landrover owners in Africa replaced the standard engines with Chevy or ford engines which were better able to handle the harsh conditions in Africa.
Despite the engine changes, the Landrover remains one of the most respected and tough off-road vehicles for tackling the driving challenges in Africa.
The iconic Landrover models are as follows:
- Landrover Series I – 1949
- Landrover Series II – 1958
- Landrover Series III – 1971
- Landrover Defender 110 and 90 – 1990
Since the Landrover Defender series, the brand took on a different path in the market and focused on producing luxury 4WD and SUV vehicles and moved away from the off-road focus.
12. Mercedes Unimog
The Unimog is a fascinating off-road vehicle with a very colorful history since its inception in 1948 in post-war Germany.
The vehicle was originally designed as an agricultural vehicle and had all the features for this role, including power take-off or PTO. The PTO is basically a shaft driven by the running engine, used to power farming implements in the field, similar to how modern tractors perform this role.
Unimogs are expert vehicles for the off-road environment, with all design features specifically for this environment. They have exceptionally high ground clearance, a flexible chassis, switchable drives between the front and rear wheels, and large, equally sized wheels in the front and back.
Their exceptional off-road handling capability has seen these vehicles being used as field ambulances in various militaries worldwide, expedition vehicles in deserts and jungles, fire fighting vehicles, and conversions into overland campers.
Many western European countries put the Unimog to work as a snowplow in the winter months, while in other countries, they are used by forest rangers, construction vehicles, and even as medium-sized troop and equipment carriers in the military.
Unlike many other military vehicles, Unimogs can be bought by civilians and can be converted for recreational off-road applications or converted into camper vans for rugged terrain.
Off-roading generally requires a vehicle specially designed to handle the rigors of the rough terrain and give the operator a more comfortable ride with better control. Whether your off-roading is for recreation or work, there is an off-road vehicle designed with your specific requirements in mind.