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Trailer To The Trail: Should You Build A Street-Legal Rig Or Go All-Out For Off-Road Fun?

To build or not to build—that is the question facing off-road fans tempted to invest in a trail-only rig instead of walking the fine line between a driver that's comfortable enough to daily but still tough enough for 4x4 fun.

Ford towing Bronco

What should you consider when trying to make this decision for yourself? Let's walk through the benefits of keeping things street legal versus the advantages of building exclusively for off-road shenanigans.

Street-Legal Advantage: Cheaper Operating Costs*

The most obvious advantage of a street-legal off-roader is that it cuts down on costs. Sticking with a one-vehicle solution saves you not just the potential purchase price of a dedicated trail rig, but it also cuts your maintenance costs in half since you won't be buying tires, brake pads, oil changes, and other parts for two vehicles.

Honda crossover in mud pit

There's an asterisk that has to be added here, because if you're going to be taking your daily driver to the trail you're going to be wearing out certain components that much faster, especially in the suspension department. You may also incur body and tire damage on more difficult trails that you can't simply ignore, and which might not be covered by insurance.

Jeep on Nittos undergoing maintenance

Still, unless you're daily-driving one of the less-reliable 4x4s out there (such as an older Land Rover), you are unlikely to spend as much money operating a single truck as you would a pair.

Street-Legal Advantage: You Don’t Have To Buy A Trailer (Or A Tow Rig)

Another way that sticking with a street-legal 4x4 helps keep costs down is in avoiding the need to buy a trailer in today's superheated market. A decent trailer starts around the $5,000 mark, which is a cost you'll pay over and above the rig itself. If your truck or SUV is particularly large, you might need to fork over even more money for an appropriately-sized trailer.

Ford Explorer in the desert

Then there's the towing question. If you already have a tow vehicle available—and if you were considering using your street-legal vehicle for off-road purposes, then you probably do—there's no extra expense here. If your daily driver isn't a truck or an SUV, however, then suddenly you're investing in a tow rig, a trail rig, and a trailer, all at the same time. Those costs can add up relatively quickly.

Dodge on Nittos

It's important to note that yes, you can always rent a trailer from a company like U-Haul, but if your 4x4 has particularly over-size tires it might not fit between the drop-fenders on these units.

Street Legal Advantage: No Extra Driveway Space

After you've paid for all of the above, where are you going to store it? A trailer, tow rig, and dedicated off-roader all take up significant driveway or garage space, and that's before you factor in that you still need to find room for your daily driver.

Towing a lot of toys

If your commuter can also double as a tow vehicle, then you've managed to cut one of those spots from your list, but it's still a lot to ask of anyone who's living in an apartment or condo building. Your trail-only versus street-legal decision might end up being dictated by something as simple as parking availability.

Off-Road Only Advantage: Cosmetic Damage Means Nothing

Bang it up, smash a bumper, tear off a door, crack some glass: none of it really matters on a trail-only truck. In fact, you might even be tempted to cut away as much sheet metal as possible in advance rather than risk having it catch on something while you're driving off-road.

Ford pickup off-road

None of this would fly with a 4x4 you have to drive every day, as you'd soon grow tired of the noise, cold, and wet, the nuisance of law enforcement ticketing you for bad glass and broken lights, and of course the hassle of trying to get a beat-up vehicle through a state inspection.

Off-Road Only Advantage: Ride Comfort Is Not A Concern

When you build a trail-only truck, you no longer have to compromise when it comes to things like suspension comfort, highway-friendly gearing, or steering effort.

Tube frame off-road build

Instead, you can focus on making the exact modifications you need to tackle the terrain you most frequently encounter, which is a much more effective way to spend your budget when customizing a 4x4. A dedicated off-roader offers the best opportunity to run aggressive tires, differential setups, and suspension lifts that simply wouldn't be practical on the street.

Off-Road Only Advantage: Score A Sweet Deal On A Sketchy Truck

When shopping for an off-road-only vehicle, you can skip a lot of the requirements that are typically associated with a street-legal version of the same. Things like air conditioning, the condition of the interior, and even body rust are usually irrelevant to slogging through a mud puddle or scrambling up some rocks. All you need is a workable drivetrain and a solid frame and you can fill in the blanks with whatever aftermarket parts you desire.

Mitsubishi off-road

This means that the price point for a trail rig is often much lower because you can snag a deal on a vehicle that probably won't pass inspection or emissions. Since you don't intend to put a plate on it, you couldn't care less about the presence of a catalytic converter or if the second row seatbelts actually function. That translates into leverage during the bargaining process that you won't find when shopping for a street legal truck.

Off-Road Only Advantage: If You Wreck, You Can Still Get To Work

The last benefit to highlight for trail-only trucks is a practical one. If something goes catastrophically wrong while you're out playing in the wilds—blown transmission, cracked control arm, broken driveshaft—you don't have to panic about how you're going to get to work on Monday morning.

Trail-only off-road rig

Having a daily that doesn't suffer from regular off-road abuse means being able to come back when it's convenient for you to tow your broken 4x4 out of the woods, rather than stay up all night waiting for a wrecker and then frantically repair the issue before you punch in the next day. It's peace of mind that for some is well worth investing in. 

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