As fighting went on during WWII, US Navy commanders were facing the issue of keeping their planes in the sky through bombing runs. They knew the solution was to add more armor to the bombers, but it needed to be done strategically in order to keep weight down. The commanders were shown diagrams of where returning planes had taken damage, with bullet holes mostly accumulating across the wings and the center of the fuselage. With this information, it seemed clear to them that these were the areas that needed reinforcement.
Mathematician Abraham Wald saw it differently, however, and pointed out that it’s the planes that aren’t making it back that they should be considering. The fact that the returning planes didn’t often take hits to the engines or cockpit meant that these are the areas that actually needed reinforcement, not the reverse.
Luckily for us, shrapnel and anti-aircraft fire isn’t what most overlanders need to protect against out on the trail, but this lesson in survivorship bias and the balancing act of weight VS protection can help us out all the same. As the overland industry has exploded over recent years, the amount of gear and accessories available to us has increased tenfold -- and probably more than that in sheer poundage on our rigs as vehicles get heavier and heavier.
Every pound you add in body protection is one pound less fuel or water you can bring as you chip away at your vehicle’s GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight) rating. That’s why it’s important to consider how your vehicle will realistically be used in order to determine what sort of body protection is needed, and what will just be adding weight for the sake of instagram clout.
To that end, we took a look at the different kinds of armor and protection on the market today and came up with this list in order of importance that we’ve found for our needs.
On the face of it, yes, the point of these big, beefy steel bumpers is to protect your bodywork and vital operating components. However, it’s their versatility that really puts them at the top of our list here. Adding strong, reliable recovery points as well as a sturdy place to mount a winch on the front and a spare tire on the rear among other gear is where you really get the most practical use out of aftermarket bumpers.
Between the two, we would probably go for the front bumper first, as most vehicles don’t offer a practical solution for mounting a winch otherwise. Mounting a spare on a rear bumper swing-out is a great way to open up ground clearance under some rigs, and also to keep it out of the way to open up room for other gear. The added recovery points at both ends give you more options for recovering others and of course helping others to recover you.
A tough front bumper with front-end protecting bars will also help to prevent damage to the radiator -- especially in the case of striking an animal. Oh, and I guess it doesn’t hurt that they look cool too (I'm looking at you, CBI).
Like bumpers, sliders often serve a dual purpose. Yes, they are built to keep your bodywork off the rocks, but oftentimes they also function as side steps for climbing into your rig. Modern vehicles seem to be getting taller and taller even before we get our hands on them and start pushing them up even higher with lift kits and big tires. The erm… vertically challenged among us have a hard enough time climbing up as it is!
On top of just making climbing in and out easier, these also give you a solid leg up for securing things down on the roof as well as for getting those things back down safely. Fuel cans and spare tires are heavy enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I get there.
Depending on your vehicle and preference, these sliders either bolt/weld directly onto the frame, or sometimes bolt to the bodywork itself, as is the case with many Jeeps. Either way, their job is the same, to rest on the rocks and give a smooth, tough surface to slide across without taking your factory sheet metal with it. It’s a simple job, but not an easy one.
Last but not least, we have skid plates. I guess technically speaking every item on this list can serve as a skid plate at one point or another, but these specifically will be covering up vital components to prevent them from being damaged. Most commonly, these will cover your oil pan, transmission/transfer case, fuel tank, and differentials -- figuring out which you need for your vehicle and use case is the tricky part.
Every vehicle is a little different, and every overlander sees different kinds of trails. Some vehicles let their fuel tanks hang low in the back (such as older Jeeps), and some tuck the tanks up between the frame rails instead. Whether either spot provides more or less protection depends on the kind of trails you usually find yourself on. Some vehicles sit with their oil pans safely hiding behind suspension work or subframes while on some others it might be just about the first thing to hit the rocks if your bumper doesn’t catch them.
This is where you need to take a look around and figure out what would work best for you. Will your rig be seeing a lot of rock crawling? If so what sort of rocks? Jagged boulders like Johnson Valley, or smooth crests like Moab? Some skid plates also offer good protection from mud getting flung up everywhere, such as into your radiator fan.
So what sort of trails will you be seeing and how much weight can you afford to add? Have any specific questions for what's best with your rig? Drop a comment below!
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