Upper Body Workout - Upgrading Your Upper Control Arms for Overlanding

Upper Body Workout - Upgrading Your Upper Control Arms for Overlanding

by Stephan Edwards

Are you looking at pumping up the off-road capabilities of your overland rig? Thinking about adding bigger tires and a lift? Every time you modify your vehicle’s suspension there are many variables to consider. Most totally stock suspensions aren’t designed to support larger, heavier tires and increased ground clearance. Aftermarket upper control arms might be the answer for the adjustability and durability you need when your suspension gets burly.

What Are Upper Control Arms?

Most 4x4s with independent coil sprung front suspensions have a dual control arm set up. Attached to the wheel hubs by ball joints, and to the frame with bushings, the control arms regulate the motion of the wheel as the suspension cycles up and down. The lower control arm takes on the suspension loads, but most of the adjustability in this configuration is located in the upper control arm (UCA). Generally made of stamped steel or in some cases aluminum, manufacturers design upper control arms with the factory wheel and tire size (and weight) in mind.

Upper control arm

A typical stamped steel control arm.

Why Upgrade Your Control Arms?

Most of us are looking to squeeze a little bit of extra trail potential out of our rigs. While the vast majority of 4x4s are extremely capable straight from the factory, upgrading tires and suspension components are a common way to get that additional bit of traction and clearance you need to tackle more difficult obstacles.

However, when you make any one change to the carefully calibrated suspension designed by the manufacturer, it can affect a wide range of settings and alignments. In addition, larger, heavier tires and wheels can add strain to suspension components beyond their original specifications. Poor alignment leads to premature tire wear, and more unsprung mass can be hard on ball joints and bushings - not to mention the steel components themselves on stock suspensions.

TJM upper control arms

Adding a lift (either with spacers or taller springs) can alter the range of suspension movement, leading to tires rubbing on bodywork or suspension components and other clearance issues. The degree of both camber and caster in the front suspension is vitally important for a proper alignment, and suspension upgrades almost always throw those measurements out of whack. Upgraded UCAs are generally stronger than stock as well, and can account for the extra weight and force of a larger wheel and tire combination.

When you're spending a significant amount of money on a whole new suspension set-up - shocks, springs, bushings, wheels and tires - a comparatively minimal investment in upgraded control arms will make sure all that new capability gets put to the ground in the most effective way possible.

Shopping for Upper Control Arms

There are two ways to approach choosing a set of upgraded UCAs. The first thing to consider is that aftermarket UCAs are generally designed for specific applications. So, have the specific make, model, and trim level of your rig ready to go.

Bilstein upper control arms

Bilstein B8 Upper Control Arms

You can shop for upper control arms as a stand-alone upgrade, like those from ARB's Old Man Emu lineup and Bilstein, to give a couple of excellent examples. Or, on the other hand, you can include UCAs in a comprehensive suspension upgrade package, like this one from ICON Vehicle Dynamics or TJM. Doing this ensures that all the various components of a lift kit - springs, shocks, and control arms - are engineered to work perfectly together straight out of the box.

ICON suspension kit

ICON Vehicle Dynamics Stage 3 Lift Kit

A final benefit of new UCAs is that they are easy to install - a ball joint separator (which you can rent from your local auto parts store) is usually the only specialized tool you'll need. It's a fast upgrade. Questions about stepping up the strength of your upper control arms? Leave a comment below or reach out to us directly by calling our team of experts at Overlander.

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