There are few parts of your overland rig that suffer more abuse over their lifetime than your wheels.
Constantly subject to every day threats such as corrosion, salt spray, road grime, chemicals, water, and brake dust, your wheels also have to survive countless heat cycles, and hold up under punishing off-road conditions. Sand, mud, and rocks can all chip away at your wheels’ integrity, not to mention urban hazards like potholes and high curbs. Your wheels do not live an easy life.
From an aesthetic standpoint, besides an attention grabbing paint job, nothing draws the eye more to a vehicle like the wheels. Their design and color can really make or break the style of a rig. And you know what? How our rigs look is often as important to us as how they perform - and that’s ok. Part of what makes the overland lifestyle fun and satisfying is executing your personal vision for your rig, both in practicality and in style. What else is Instagram for?
The great thing is that you don’t have to sacrifice high performance for sophisticated design. Wheels are also a significant investment - so it pays to get it right. Quality aftermarket wheels can deliver on all fronts, and some wheels from respected manufacturers like Icon and AEV are even engineered with your specific vehicle in mind.
There are, however, some important questions to ponder and requirements to assess when shopping for a new set of rims.
Before we jump into the world of aftermarket wheels, let’s take a moment to consider the wheels you have on your rig right now. In many cases, especially with a lot of the 4x4s that are popular within the overland community, the stock wheel offers performance and durability that is on par with many high-end aftermarket wheels.
Why is this? First, the manufacturer engineered the factory wheel directly for your vehicle. The strength, size, and offset are all carefully calculated through hours and hours of R&D to meet the exact demands of not only safety and durability standards, but also for the job that particular vehicle was designed to do.
Standard OE wheels often feature cutting edge materials and manufacturing techniques (like forged alloys) that are affordable for the manufacturer simply due to economies of scale. Because automotive companies build or purchase hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of wheels every year the cost for using high-end materials comes down proportionally.
In the event that you need to replace a wheel due to damage or theft, it’s easy to find an exact copy. In addition, you already own these wheels - they came on the car! Some high quality aftermarket wheels can ring in at eye-watering price points. So, don’t discount the stock wheel out of hand.
That said - there are a lot of reasons for moving on to an aftermarket set of rims. First, of course, the stock wheel on a Tacoma looks like the stock wheel on every other Tacoma. If you want to shake up the aesthetics of your rig, the vast number of unique designs the aftermarket offers will do that in a hurry. Second, while the factory wheel is engineered for what the manufacturer designed the vehicle to dofrom the factory, you may have other ideas about whatyou are going to do with it!
Tire size and construction are the primary considerations here - some OE rims can be too big. Many newer four-wheel-drives are hitting the market with eighteen, nineteen, or even twenty inch wheels. While they may fill the wheel arches, often the available tires in these sizes have limited sidewall height, which can leave wheels vulnerable to damage on rough tracks, and increase the possibility of punctures, not to mention contributing to a rough ride out on the trails. On the flip side, a too-small factory wheel can look lost under the fender, and might not accommodate more aggressive tires, like many mud terrains, due to their width or offset. For many of us, the stock wheels just aren’t going to cut it.
Where does the overlander start when they’re looking to upgrade?
In the Post-War era, when four-wheel drives became more widely available to civilians, all of the adventurers who were the first to explore the remotest parts of the globe, and pushed the boundaries of what was capable in these vehicles, ran steel wheels. Simple, robust, easy to repair, many of them were of a two-piece “split rim” design that made it possible for a driver to fix a wheel, or actually install a new tire on the side of the road with no specialized equipment.
While split rims have nearly gone extinct (newer tire technology made them very dangerous), the general benefits of steel wheels that the earliest overlanders enjoyed still apply today. Affordable and sturdy, especially for long distance overland journeys in far-flung or still developing countries, there may be no other choice than a steel wheel. They bend when damaged, instead of fracturing, and they can simply be hammered back into shape to get you down the road. When my wife and I traveled in southern and east Africa, we saw mechanics expertly repairing steel rims with hand tools in many of the communities where we stopped, no matter how remote.
An alloy wheel, when cracked, bent, or otherwise mangled will usually be beyond repair (unless with specialized equipment), and need to be replaced. When you’re on the top of a mountain in Bolivia with a broken wheel, it will undoubtedly be hard to track down a new factory or aftermarket alloy to keep you going. For this reason, some overlanders who do choose alloy wheels often carry two spares.
To their detriment, steel wheels can be heavy in comparison to similarly sized alloy wheels, though modern steels are lighter than before, and some models can come within a few pounds of their featherweight aluminum counterparts. Not as comprehensively strong as alloy wheels, steel rims may damage more easily, and they’re mostly only available in fifteen and sixteen inch sizes.
The design of a steel rim is somewhat limited, though their classic look can impart a kind of retro ruggedness to your vehicle. Some manufacturers like Land Rover are even offering steel wheels as factory options on their off-roaders, such as the new Defender.
By far the most common wheel available on 4x4’s today is the cast aluminum alloy. Lightweight, super strong, and available in countless sizes and offsets, as well as myriad designs to suit any aesthetic, for most overlanders, the modern alloy is the go-to.
Lower mass means less unsprung weight - weight not carried by the vehicle’s suspension - which increases fuel efficiency, and decreases stress on axles, wheel bearings, and suspension components. This is a serious consideration in more extreme off-road contexts where these components are put under a lot of stress. A lighter wheel can also handle a larger, heavier tire without running a big weight penalty. This is helpful if you are considering mounting mud terrain tires, which tend to be heftier than comparable all terrains.
A related advantage is the vast number of sizes, widths, and offsets that manufacturers of alloy wheels offer. This allows the overlander to consider nearly endless combinations of wheel and tire combinations to best suit their driving style, travel goals, and budget. And, of course, because they are so commonly available, there is sure to be a design out there that suits any taste and style.
A step up from cast alloys is the forged alloy wheel (some factory wheels are forged). Forged wheels are generally lighter, and an order of magnitude stronger than cast wheels, but they are also an order of magnitude more expensive. Forged wheels are a little more rare on the market, so options can be limited in fitment and design.
Regardless of which alloys you choose, always buy from a reputable manufacturer who has a good track record of building strong, durable wheels, and who stands behind their product. Wheels are not only a functional and aesthetic part of your vehicle, they are also a key component of keeping you safe on the road. A failed wheel can lead to disaster.
One beneficial trend in aftermarket wheels is the development of vehicle-specific applications. Expedition Overland has been running Icon and AEV wheels for a long time, and they are truly Trail Tested. They offer a wide range of high quality cast alloy wheels engineered specifically for modern Toyotas and Jeeps.
Guaranteed to fit, and backed by Overlander’s one year guarantee, all these handsome alloys will give you many years of trouble-free service down the road. We know because the crew at XO has put tens of thousands of miles on theirs over the years.
I’m a fan of the AEV Savegre. Cast from A356/T6 aluminum alloy specifically for the ever-popular JK Wrangler, this slick design can fit up to a 37 inch tire.
I think it looks fantastic in matte black on a white Rubicon.
Finally, a top tip: When shopping for wheels, if the spare wheel storage in your vehicle can accommodate it, it pays to buy five new rims rather than just four. Having a matching spare can make all the difference in a tire emergency. Plus, putting one more wheel into your tire rotation schedule spreads out the wear, and can lead to a little more life for your tires.
What’s your wheel of choice? Do you run a specialized wheel, like a bead-locker? What’s the sweet-spot for wheel size for you? Share with the community in the comments!
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The Overlander Notebook returns again to one of the overland traveler’s dream destinations - Africa. In the wildest places of Botswana, the rainy season reveals many surprises and quite a few challenges.