Turn Your 2WD Into a Badass Overland Vehicle

I helped a 2WD pickup get unstuck from soft sand this weekend. An empty bed, slick all-season tires, and confusion about what his truck could handle conspired to mire this guy up to his rims in beach sand. I had a collapsible shovel and a set of MaxTrax in my Subaru, and we dug him out and got him on his way. Later that weekend, a friend in a 2WD van but with all-terrain tires and some knowledge of how his van operates in sand parked in the same spot and got out with no drama. With more people hitting the road for camping because of covid, we thought back to this primer on how to get way out there even without 4WD, a perfectly doable scenario, provided you have the right setup and a bit of know-how. -Ed.

“It’s not about the vehicle,” Overland Journal’s Chris Collard told us when asked recently about turning 2WD trucks into overland adventuring rigs. “It’s about the adventure.” He then directed my attention to It’s On the Meter, a blog written by three courageous guys who took a London taxi cab on an around the world expedition that covered some 43,000 miles. Sure enough, that black cab has seen more of this earth than about 95 percent of its residents ever will and it did all of that with only two drive wheels.

Let that cab serve as a great confidence booster for you 2WD truck owners who want to take your rig out into the messy outdoors but are concerned about not having the capabilities of a low-range 4WD. Maybe you found a great deal on a truck that made sacrificing 4WD worth it. Maybe the offroad bug didn’t bite until long after you’d been a 2WD truck owner. Whatever the reason for owning one, 2WD trucks are plenty capable of getting you to some gorgeous places. Just because you have just one differential doesn’t mean you’re limited to pavement and gravel roads.

We called Collard, figuring that if anybody knew how best to outfit a 2WD rig to make it as off-road capable as possible, it’d be the editor of Overland Journal, a publication dedicated to responsible, but still totally hardcore off-road action. Here’s what he says to focus on, if you want to make your 2WD más fuerte.

“It’s Probably obvious, but you have to start with the tires,” Collard says. This is your first stop. You want chunky all-terrains that will handle a little bit of whatever you’ll be driving through. He recommends the BF Goodrich KO2s, the updated version of their classic KO all-terrains. We’ve run the Cooper Discoverer AT/3s on our vehicles and highly recommend them for their road manners and incredible grip in the dirt. Collard’s colleague Scott Brady, Overland’s publisher, likes the Coopers too. AJ’s Steve Casimiro went from KO2s to the Coopers to Toyo’s Open Country AT/3s and likes the Toyos best.

“One of the biggest things that affects traction is tire air pressure,” Collard says. “Lots of times you can air down to 5-7 psi to really increase the tread footprint; then you’ll really feel what kind of grip you can actually get out of the back end.” Collard then told me a story about a couple who’d gotten stuck offroading deep in the Australian outback, where they eventually died of exposure. Had they simply aired down their tires, they could have driven out of their predicament. Slap an air compressor on your rig to refill your tires or get a portable one and you can air down whenever you need to put a little more rubber to the dirt.

Ever been to Baja in a built-out 4WD, white-knuckling over a rocky hill only to be met by a rusted out, mid-90s sedan cruising up the other side, a friendly local waving at you, not a care in the world?

“Get a set of Maxtrax,” Collard says (the plastic, studded ramps you put in front of your tires when stuck in the soft stuff.)  “Those will get you out of lots of trouble.” He also recommends a kinetic recovery strap so that a buddy, or a total stranger, I guess, can pull you out of a bad situation, provided—and this is key—you know the safe attachment points on each vehicle. Collard also says he’s used a heavy duty come-along as a poor man’s winch back when he was strapped for cash and a winch was an out of reach luxury. An actual winch is of course even better, but that requires a heavy duty bumper too, and at this point, the cost becomes prohibitive enough that simply selling the 2WD and buying a 4WD starts to make better economic sense. Also—never head out into the dirt without a shovel. Don’t waste time on one of those dinky folding models—to move dirt and rocks you’re going to want a D-handled version like this Bond. The cheapest get-me-outta-here insurance you can buy.

Spend enough time on offroad discussion forums and you’re sure to read somebody claiming that a 2WD truck with a locker in the rear (a locker binds the real wheels so that they spin together) can do whatever a 4WD truck with open differentials can. Collard wouldn’t go that far, but he was pretty confident that most people could go wherever they’d want with a locking rear diff. “Sand, snow, mud, anywhere you get in a place with one tire losing grip and just spinning, the locker is a huge help.” 2WD Tacomas with the TRD package often have selectable electronic lockers. Many 2WD GM trucks sport the G80 automatic locking rear end. Either is a terrific upgrade over stock open diffs. Installing a locker in a 2WD truck is of course an option, but if you’re not mechanically-inclined enough to do it yourself, you’re staring down the barrel of a multiple-thousand-dollar mod. An ARB air compressor-powered locker will set you back around $2,500, including labor, for example. An awesome bit of trail kit, but again, I’d probably sell my 2WD and buy a 4WD before investing that kind of coin.

Mechanical limited-slip differentials, like Eaton’s Truetrac, are a much cheaper upgrade for a 2WD rig (install + parts run about $1,300 or so) and while they don’t give you quite the grip of a locked rear end, they’ll send plenty of power to the wheel that does have traction if you start to lose grip on a drive wheel.

Once you’ve built out your 2WD rig, take it out somewhere safe to to see what it—and you—can handle. You want a place where a friend can help pull you out of trouble if need be, before you have to figure it out in the backcountry somewhere. A mudded field, a patch of snow in a parking lot, maybe a grassy hill with nothing to slide into. If you haven’t done much offroading, you’ll likely be shocked at what a 2WD truck with ample ground clearance and a good set of tires can handle.

In good weather, as long as you aren’t trying to crawl over sand dunes or boulders, a 2WD truck will get you just about anywhere you’d possibly want to go. Ever been to Baja in a built-out 4WD, white-knuckling over a rocky hill only to be met by a rusted out, mid-90s sedan cruising up the other side, a friendly local waving at you, not a care in the world? It happens, trust us, and it only takes seeing that once to learn that driver skill and good sense are almost—almost—as valuable as 4WD in an overland vehicle.

Just ask the maniacs in that London cab.

Photo courtesy of El Tacorojo



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