How Much Ground Clearance For Safe Off-roading

How high is high enough when venturing off-road? This is a very valid question, however, in order to answer that question, you need to determine what type of off-roading you plan on doing since it’s purely a case of horses for courses. Sand dunes vs rock crawling vs graded mountain tracks will require vastly different configurations and the minimum ground clearance will differ substantially.

Minimum ground clearance for gravel tracks ranges between 6.6 inches and 8.7 inches. For over-landing, your ground clearance should range between 8.8 inches to 9.4 inches. A minimum height of 10.8 inches and above is required for tough graded 4×4 tracks and rock crawling.

Minimum Clearance Explained

Ground Clearance refers to the minimum ride height of the vehicle. It is one of the most basic but very important dimensions of a vehicle used for off-roading and Overlanding. Ground clearance is measured as the minimum distance between the lowest part of the vehicle and the road surface. Ride height is measured from the lowest hanging component of the vehicle i.e the subassembly or differential or chassis and the ground.

The ground clearance will determine to a large degree the type of terrain you can comfortably traverse without damaging the vehicle body, bumpers, or undercarriage components.

If you are not planning on doing heavy off-road trails and all you want to do is explore on gravel roads, forest service roads, and mild jeep tracks? If you are not intending on doing any serious rock crawling, 4×4 trails or deep ruts, this is usually referred to as soft-roading. Well in this instance you can get away with a lot less clearance. However, there are other factors that will influence how deep into the mountain you can venture. Read How much lift is required to fit 33-inch tires.

Approach Angle

The approach angle refers to the steepest or maximum angle between the lowest part of your front bumper and the obstacle. A low approach angle will result in scraping and possible damage to the front bumper and undercarriage if you attempt an obstacle with a vehicle with a bad or low approach angle. A vehicle’s approach angle represents the steepest hill or obstacle it can climb without scraping or slamming its front bumper against the rock or slope.

Departure Angle

The departure angle is the distance measured from the lowest part of the rear-end of the vehicle as you depart or exit the obstacle. If you have a low departure angle you risk getting hung up on the rear or even ripping off the rear plastic bumper. The departure angle represents the steepest gradient a vehicle can descend without scraping or bashing its rear bumper against the rock/slope. A lift kit and larger tire size can greatly improve this.
Read: How much lift do you need for 33-inch tires?

Break-Over Angle

The break-over angle is the angle measured between the front and rear wheels and the lowest part of the vehicle in the middle. Picture an invisible triangle looking from the side of the vehicle between the wheels and the chassis. The break-over angle is an indication of the steepest crest a vehicle can traverse without high-centering. increasing tire size improves ground clearance and break-over angles. Read: What size tires can I put on my truck with a leveling kit

Minimum ground clearance is not the most important thing when going off-road; what matters is WHERE the clearance is.

The most important vehicle requirement, in my view, for “soft-roading” is decent all-terrain tires. Soft-roading is not as demanding as many people think it is, but whenever you are off-road, you’d be wiser to err on the side of caution if you do not have a mate to recover you.

Ground Clearance Needed For 4×4 Without Risking Damage

How you measure or determine ground clearance can be done in 2 ways. Measure from the chassis or measure from the diff housing. The distance between the chassis and the wheels will be reduced when you include the weight of additional fuel, passengers, and other offroad gear.
Ground clearance is only reduced from the diff or axle housing once you start deflating your tires.

Below is a list of popular off-road 4×4 vehicles and their factory standard ground clearance measurements. The improved ground clearance will allow you to clear rocks and other obstacles much easier. Ground clearance measurements, break-over angles, and your vehicle’s off-road capability can be increased in 3 ways.

  1. Taller Tires
  2. Suspension Lift
  3. Body Lift

The below table has been sorted from highest to lowest ground clearance.

VehicleGround Clearance
Jeep Gladiator 2020 11.1 inches (281mm)
Toyota Hilux 201910.9 in. (279mm)
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 2019 10.8 inches (274mm)
Toyota Tacoma 2019 9.4 inches (238mm)
Land Cruiser 200 2019 9 inches (228mm)
Ford Ranger 20198.9 inches (226mm)
VW Amarok v6 2019 8.8 inches (226mm)
Jeep Trailhawk 4dr 4×4 2019 8.7 inches (220mm)
Dodge Ram 1500 2019 8.4 inches (213mm)
Land Rover Discovery Sport 20198.3 inches (210mm)
Jeep Grand Cherokee 20196.6 inches (167mm)

How Much Ground Clearance Do I Need In Snow?

When driving in snow regularly you definitely want to be traveling in an SUV or UTE because of the added ground clearance, in stock form.
Driving in snow requires good ground clearance and not speed like an expensive All Wheel Drive AWD sports car. It is irrelevant if all 4 wheels are turning but you cannot clear the snow.

So if you live in a part of the world where you get heavy snowfall you will need a vehicle with at least 8-10 inches of ground clearance. Most sedan vehicles generally have an average ground clearance between 4-6 inches whereas SUVs average between 6-8 inches. Some luxury high-end SUVs like the Land Rover Discovery even have (Slightly Problematic) height-adjustable pneumatic suspension which increases the ground clearance by means of inflatable airbags for extreme driving conditions, like snow. So more clearance is almost always an advantage.

When traveling through snow your ground clearance is not the only factor to consider but the most important feature for winter driving is proper winter or snow tires. The tread design pattern and the rubber compound of these tires greatly improves the vehicle’s traction and handling on snow and assists the vehicle’s built-in safety features. For example, your Traction Control and ESP systems only work correctly if you have traction and proper grip on the tires.

Read: Do 4WD Vehicles Need Snow Chains

Ground Clearance For Over-Landing

This is a photo if me in my Mitsubishi Pajero 3.5 V6 traveling through the Richtersveld on the South African/Namibian border

So when you overland you need to determine what you want to do and in which type of terrain you will be conquering. You want to ensure your minimum ground clearance is 8 inches up to a maximum of 10 inches. Your main concern should be the reliability of your vehicle and the safety of your passengers.

Proper expedition AT tires with 3 ply sidewalls are also very important. Some vehicles allow you to go extreme with overland customization but always but aware of your vehicle’s center of gravity and that your vehicle does not become top-heavy with heavily loaded roof racks, rooftop tents, and other equipment and accessories. So if you want to maintain diff heights then you’ll need arch clearance and taller tires.

If you need approach and departure angle increases then a cheap fix would be to fit a body lift. You need to exercise caution and always consult with a professional before you fork out your hard-earned cash. A body lift might raise the body from the chassis but it won’t improve your ground clearance. Only taller tires accomplish that.

Read: What’s The Biggest Tire You Can Fit on a Tacoma

Over-landing is all about exploring new territory, more than conquering large obstacles. The tracks and trails you will traverse might be rough or technically challenging, but they are just the means to an end, not the goal itself. The main purpose is to explore and experience new destinations around your country or the world. Over-landing could be done on a weekend trip consisting of 100 miles from home or a 10,000-mile cross-continent expedition. Your vehicle and equipment can be basic or extravagant, depending on how deep your pocket is or what your philosophy on over-landing is. When over-landing, the main goal is to experience History, wildlife, culture, scenery, test your self-sufficiency – these are the rewards of over-landing.

How Much Difference Does Ground Clearance Make Off-Road

If you decide to venture into the unknown and traverse some harsh terrain in search of some adrenaline-pumping 4×4 action then you really want to make sure you have the correct vehicle with enough ground clearance and plenty of space between the chassis of your vehicle and the terrain you are attempting to travel over.

If your vehicle is lacking in this department you better have a fat wallet because you stand to do some serious under-body damage when climbing over rocks, boulders, and other large obstacles. You will often get caught up on the underside of your vehicle and find yourself high centering when your vehicle gets caught on these obstacles. You risk damaging body panels, brake lines, and your oil sump to name just a few expensive ticket items.
With this being said, it all depends on what kind of off-roading you are planning and the more extreme you go the higher the ground clearance you’ll need on your vehicle.

Conclusion

Technical off-road terrain can be enjoyed throughout any outdoor journey, and you as the explorer might be in search of a challenging route or track to test your skills and the capabilities of your vehicle as part of your experience, but overland travel is not the same as “weekend warrior” and recreational “four-wheeling”. There the main goal is to overcome the most challenging obstacles available.

Jade C.

4-Wheel drives and off-road driving techniques has been my passion for over 20 years. Here we strive to provide the most accurate, up-to-date, information about the functionality, common faults and latest technology built into most 4 Wheel Drives.

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