Car Life Nation

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A grey 2020 Chevy Colorado ZR2 is shown from the front off-roading in the desert after leaving a used truck dealership.

Do You Really Want to Take a One-Ton Truck off-Road?

Pretty much everyone knows what a pickup truck is. It’s a large vehicle with a one or two-row cabin followed by a long, open bed. Trucks are famous for their capabilities, including towing, hauling, and off-roading. A good truck is the kind of machine that you can put through some abuse. In fact, many off-road enthusiasts may browse their local used truck dealership to find an all-terrain vehicle – particularly because pickups are so hardy.

Where things may get confusing, though, is when you start to discuss different truck classes. When it comes to towing and hauling, it is pretty clear that bigger is better – but that isn’t exactly the case when it comes to off-road driving. Believe it or not, each class has its distinct strengths, weaknesses, and recognizable features, when it comes to tackling the trail. Which class of truck is best for off-roading? Read on to find out.

Midsize Trucks

Midsize trucks are generally the smallest used pickups you will find today. While compact trucks exist, they haven’t been sold new for roughly a decade now. Compact trucks also tend to be more focused on efficiency than off-road performance. For the most part, used trucks start at medium and scale up from there. As you can guess, there are some good reasons why you might take home a midsize truck, as well as some drawbacks.

Let’s start with the basics. Midsize trucks have the smallest beds, cabins, and overall dimensions in the pickup truck world. However, a smaller body comes at an appropriately reduced price. For this reason, midsize trucks are popular buys for first-time car shoppers.

Unfortunately, their smaller size comes at the cost of strength. Midsize trucks usually have the lowest towing and payload ratings. If you’re looking for a hardworking vehicle that can comfortably tow over 5,000 pounds and haul over 1,000 pounds, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Of course, midsize trucks have decent towing and payload ratings – more than other body styles like sedans and SUVs usually do – but if you’re concerned with weight limits, go bigger.

But if you are looking for an off-road truck, towing and payload probably aren’t at the top of your list, and a midsize truck comes with its distinct benefits beyond price. They’re more accessible, easier to steer, more maneuverable in tight driving conditions, and designed to perform better. Midsize trucks are lightweight and aerodynamic, which means they respond better to thrilling, performance engines and can really sear down the asphalt.

Generally, midsize trucks are your best option for off-roading. Compact and maneuverable, they can easily power over rocky or wet terrain, and their light weight comes in handy when traversing mud and sand. Trucks like the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, Chevy Colorado ZR2, and Jeep Gladiator Rubicon are standouts in this category and come fully equipped for off-roading straight from the factory.

A red 2020 Jeep Gladiator is driving down a dirt road.

Half-Ton Trucks

The next step up is half-ton trucks, which are significantly larger than midsize models. These full-size options are the most common and most diverse category of pickups. Balancing good features from both lighter and heavier trucks while sacrificing little, trucks like the Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 fall in this popular category. They offer good ride quality, towing and payload ratings, and durability.

Of course, your experience will vary based on the make and model you choose, but half-ton trucks are regarded as the most well-balanced trucks. There’s a huge demand for these trucks, which is why truck brands tend to produce more models within this category. Choose a vehicle in this class if you want capable towing on a budget, a nice-sized cabin, and good driving for your daily commute. Crew cab, half-ton trucks have more seating, plenty of legroom, and available creature comforts like convenient storage.

Another popular feature of the half-ton category is the abundance of powertrain choices. All truck brands offer hefty V8 engines in their half-ton models. In fact, some truck brands offer as many as six different engines for trucks in this class. The smaller the engine, the better the fuel economy (and buy-in price), but a powerful engine can help deliver excellent power to the wheels; this provides more power in paved roads and the power to traverse difficult off-roading surfaces too.

However, half-ton trucks are large vehicles and can begin to have trouble even fitting on narrow trails. That is why the factory off-road models like the Ford Raptor and Ram TRX tend to focus on high-speed desert running rather than rock climbing and technical off-roading. If you live in an open area, then a half-ton truck can be a great off-roading vehicle.

Heavy-Duty Trucks

While the previous two categories fall under the category of light-duty trucks, the next size up is your heavy-duty trucks. These trucks, as their name indicates, are designed to work harder, often delivering commercial-grade payload and towing ratings in a vehicle that still looks like a passenger truck. Look for trucks with names that include “HD,” “2500”, or “3500.” These are your big boys.

While you might expect that a heavy-duty truck, what with its increased weight and durable frame, would be the best category of truck off-road, lighter trucks have significantly better ride quality and handling. Heavy-duty trucks are less responsive to precise steering, and they’re engineered to carry extreme weight rather than traverse delicate conditions.

Because of this, you do not see as many factory off-road models for heavy-duty trucks. The most capable is the Ram 2500 PowerWagon, with the Ford’s Tremor package for the Super Duty is another option to consider. Heavy-duty trucks are best suited for off-roaders who absolutely need to be able to tow our haul heavy cargoes. Otherwise, a half-ton or midsize truck is usually the better option.

A 2021 Ram TRX is shown off-roading in the desert.

Crossing Over

If you’re interested in a less off-road-oriented truck, you don’t have to give up on all-terrain driving. Modern truck companies know that all-around, well-balanced vehicles sell better. You can customize just about any truck with equipment packages catered to your interests – including upgraded safety or infotainment tech – as well as luxury creature comforts.

Therefore, you don’t have to buy a midsize truck if you’re interested in off-roading. Just equip a full-size or heavy-duty truck for better off-road performance. Take Ram trucks, for instance. The Ram TRX is this dedicated truck brand’s most adventurous offering, a truck designed with excellent power, suspension, underbody protection, and other features that are clearly meant to shine when you take your truck off the beaten path. However, the TRX isn’t the only truck in the Ram family of pickups that can handle the off-road. Ram allows you to add the Off-Road package to just about any truck in their lineup, including the Ram 2500.

The Off-Road package soups up a hardier, more towing-oriented truck with a suspension lift, larger off-road tires, and – depending on the model year – features like electronic locking rear differential and hill descent control. Suddenly, your beefy, heavy-duty pickup is capable of taking on Mother Nature’s most grueling trails.

Are You Ready to Go Off-Road?

If you’re shopping used, you can save a lot of money by finding a truck that has already been equipped for off-roading, even if it’s not a midsize model. However, you tend to save more money when you shop midsize: they’re priced lower to begin with, and factory off-road models are more common. Still, truck brands are making it easier than ever to get everything you want out of their trucks, crossing boundaries to deliver features like off-roading and high trailering ratings at once. In our opinion, though, midsize trucks are an off-roader’s best friend, namely because of the outstanding truck products in this class.

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