Ruggedizing Your Vehicle with Prep Tips from a US Rally Driver - ITS Tactical

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Ruggedizing Your Vehicle with Prep Tips from a US Rally Driver

By Wyatt Knox

Having a break-down on the side of the road flat-out sucks. Maybe you’re driving your lady home, honing your driving skills, or even overseas, the simple truth is that a little bit of car preparation can go a very long ways toward keeping the wheels turning and getting you where you need to go.


You don’t have to be a trained mechanic to ruggedize your vehicle, all it takes is a little bit of time, basic tools and materials that you can find just about anywhere to turn a normal production vehicle into a high speed workhorse ready to tackle your driving adventures.


Your battery needs to be tied down very securely if you plan on operating at high speeds, over rough terrain, or both. A loose battery will arc its terminals on sheet metal, flex and break its connections, or shift from its location and interfere with other moving parts. Batteries can be tied down with ratchet straps, bungees, paracord, etc.

Take care not to bridge the terminals with metal or any other conductive material, even touching the terminals together with a tool tool can let the smoke out of the wires or ECU. Cover the battery or at least the hot terminal with scrap rubber or plastic, even wrapping with tape will help prevent a catastrophe.


Standard equipment tires found on most sedans across the world are fairly thin, weak units. The sidewalls of the tires are especially prone to puncture, as the steel belts and other plies are typically found only in the tread section of the tire.

Over-inflating tires to 35-40 PSI will help to keep the sidewalls away from the terrain that you’re driving over, this will also keep a better seal between the tire and the wheel. Do not slide the car overly sideways on rough terrain, as this exposes your sidewalls to rocks and debris.

Specific rally-racing tires are available in a variety of sizes to fit most vehicles, these tires are designed and reinforced to handle very abrasive surfaces and rough terrain. Whenever possible, carry a full size spare and tools. Secure all of these as well.


Standard white lights found on most cars leave much to be desired. Replace bulbs with higher wattage units when possible. Also, it is important to understand that your headlights were aimed at the factory with other driver’s feelings in mind. In the States, left side headlights are aimed further inboard and down as a courtesy to other motorists, and headlights are in general aimed further down than is practical for expedient driving.

Find a level surface to align your lights against a large wall or even a deserted stretch of road. Rain-X not only works well on windshields but it keeps headlights clean too. Be sure to adjust your following distances on muddy roads.


There are many vulnerable parts on the underside of your vehicle that will stop your trip in a hurry if they are compromised. Your radiator and oil pan typically sit fairly low, as well as fuel tanks, pumps and brake lines. With time and materials, you can do an excellent job of protecting these items, but we all know that there’s often no time for this. Scrap metal, thick rubber, plastic or even a road sign can make an adequate skid plate underneath the engine or fuel tank. I have a Finnish friend that once cut a piece from the wing of an old military aircraft in Estonia to fashion a skid plate in a hurry.

Slice small diameter rubber hose lengthwise and use it to wrap fuel and brake lines then finish it off by affixing with hose clamps or flex ties. Secure the exhaust system firmly to the body with mechanics wire or hose clamps at all mounting points.

Drive Time

These few precautions should dramatically prolong the life of a standard vehicle. The more time that you have available, obviously the better you can prepare your vehicle for rough terrain, heavy loads or aggressive driving. Simply by going through these checks, you also make yourself more familiar with the vehicle and aware of its weak points, which will allow you to change your driving style and decisions accordingly. Good luck out there and keep it on the road.

Wyatt Knox

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Wyatt Knox  as a contributor on ITS Tactical. Wyatt was the 2011  2-Wheel Drive  US Rally Champion, former lead instructor at the Team O’Neil Rally School  and is now racing internationally as well as doing private instruction and coaching.

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  • xpo172

    Ah geez. Please don’t steal my road signs to fix up your vehicle.

  • The lights advice is likely illegal in your jurisdiction. In most states, it is a violation to use headlights that strike the roadway more than 75 feet in front of your vehicle when there is oncoming traffic. Check your local equipment laws.

    Blinding other drivers isn’t just being an asshole, it’s being a lawbreaker and all around poor citizen. Leave the TEOTWAWKI measures until TEOTWAWKI.

    • todd camper

      That doesn’t seem to apply to stock Mercedes , BMW’s , and most luxury cars behind me putting out 75% of the sun into my rear view .

    • Robert Paulson

      Rich people aren’t subject to the same laws we are. Look at the taxes put on cigarettes but not on cigars. Why? Rich people smoke cigars.

    • jellydonut

      I also fail to see the point when this is what (drum roll) high beams are for.

  • Chrisk

    And please follow your manufactures specifications for tires running at other than pressures is dangerous. Remember Firestone/Explorer. Be safe people.

    • cyoung

      The Explorer tire issues came from under inflation, not over inflation. Under inflating them for a more comfortable ride caused the sidewalls to flex more than they were designed for, heating up the tires and causing premature failure. When the manufacturer replaced the tires per the recall, the Manufacturers recommended tire pressures were changed also. The previous recommendations were prescribed for comfort of ride and not in accordance with the tire manufacturers recommendation. Those tire pressures listed inside the door and in the manual are from the vehicle manufacturer, not the tire manufacturer.

    • Chrisk

      You are correct, but the important thing to remember is that the guidelines set by the manufacture (vehicle or tire) should be adhered to for safety. As long as you are running the size tires your auto manufacturer recommends you follow the pressure guidelines set for that size/vehicle load out. If you change to an unspecified size you start to stray from the manufacturers recommended specs and do so at your own risk, and that’s where errors in safety start. A tire used in an improper load range or over/under inflated is at risk for any number of failures and short life span.

  • Geoff

    While we’re discussing light modifications: don’t up the wattage unless you significantly upgrade the wiring as well. The stock wiring and bulb sockets will not handle big wattage increases without generating huge amounts of heat, possibly leading to melted wiring, lamp lenses, or even a fire.

    Changing your vehicle substantially is one of the most dangerous things you can do. You’ve already got a 1:85 chance of dying in a car crash with a stock vehicle that has intact crash energy management systems, lighting, wheels and tires, and aerodynamics. Change any one of these things substantially and you’re likely to make things better, not worse. It takes a big automotive company with billions of dollars to spend to tweak a car design and crash test it to make it relatively safe. You don’t have those resources, and likely aren’t an automotive engineer.

    Be careful what you suggest to people and stick to what you know.

  • Jason

    OK, Have to weigh in here as a former ASE master tech and off road racing crew member:

    The advice on the battery being secured is spot on, but I have yet to see anything that works better than a factory engineered hold down. If there is damage to the battery mounting REPAIR IT! Don’t rig it. Battery hold downs are engineered not to squeeze the battery case inwards from the corners which is what any flex strapping system will do which may cause battery case failures. If you need to make a hold down other than in an emergency secure 2 small L Chanel pieces to a cross bar to distribute force and attach straight down from the ends of the cross bar (similar to many factory mountings…..)

    The tire advice missed a few points. Inflating beyond the vehicles recommended inflation is likely a good thing, but exceeding the tire marked rated pressure (which is in the 40psi range or up for most tires) is illegal if operated on public roads and will subject the tire to more stress and increase the probability of bruising damage from pot holes, rocks etc which can affect the lamination of the layers (read blow out or tread separation potential). If you max your tires rated pressure you need to monitor your wear patterns (which you should be doing anyway…) but you will normally end up with better control and more responsive handling on hard surfaces.

    I have had to repair more headlight harnesses from cheap piece of crap high wattage “blue” lamps being used that are not legal for on road use and run too hot as well as having a reduced life. I would recommend getting the long life bulbs at factory wattage instead for improved reliability and adding a secondary lighting system that can be switched on when needed (proper electrical installation with fused protection and relays is assumed…). As to the adjustment, the factory adjustment settings are designed to give the best use and safety for ALL drivers on the road with a longer straighter throw on the left lamp and a slightly shorter throw just a hair off the the Right on the right lamp for extra shoulder illumination. Raising the headlights too far will take light off the road closer in front of the vehicle which can be more dangerous. Now many vehicles have badly adjusted lights, and while using aiming equipment is the best way if you need to about 15′ from a wall on flat ground 6″ or so lower on the wall than your actual headlight height is works decently (with the left straight and the right a hair right and farther down). This may vary depending on vehicle ride height, use your judgment for about a 35′ primary throw depending on light pattern. Some vehicles come with adjustment bubbles built in to use on a level surface. The rain-x is a great suggestion for headlights.

    The under-body recommendations are generally good, but clamping hose on a hard brake line that is not at risk can lead to wear and corrosion from water born salt and grit. Adding protection is great, but don’t do things that can interfere with service work. Also look at what is at risk and take steps to add protection to the specific threats you may encounter. Proper regular inspections and maintenance are the most important. Many of the things done on race cars involve increased inspections and service that are normal for race cars but not for street cars.

    There is never a substitute for being well versed in all the operating systems and configuration of your vehicle so you are aware of what it can and can not handle.

  • Strayz

    Also note that putting on a skid plate is a great idea, but not so much if it is not set to let air through. Most modern cars get airflow through the radiator from under the front bumper and lower airdams (crawl under your car bumper look up and what you see is what you will be blocking the air flow from). You will also need to make sure your tires stay clear of jerry rigged skid plates and that your suspension can freely travel.

  • Awesome stuff guys! Many great points, I really just wrote this to give a basic rundown of how to prepare a normal (read beater) car for rally-type usage or other abusive driving conditions. A ton of people have been going out in normal cars and practicing loose-surface driving without taking any car prep at all into consideration, which usually ends in tears. Busted oilpans, flat tires, leaky gas tanks, etc. This tends to get old pretty fast, and the expense often overshadows an otherwise fun and constructive hobby.

    My plan is to release a few articles here on ITS about some advanced driving skills, rally navigation etc, and thought that doing a quick baseline on car prep was paramount before people went out and destroyed their cars, I was in no way recommending doing any of this stuff for normal highway use.

    If you’re taking a standard production car through rough terrain, especially at speed, make sure you’re battery is secure (like REALLY secure), you’ve either got rally tires or you’ve aired them up (without exceeding the max psi on the sidewall), you can see where you’re going, and you protect the underbody if possible (1/4′ plate aluminum is best). If you’re looking for easy, low-vis ways of making a car last through hell and back, this is for you. If not, there’s tons of info out there on normal driving, fuel economy, and the safest place to mount the baby seat.

  • Jason Crist

    Good stuff Wyatt, ITS readers are a tough crowd so I always triple check what I write here and still expect to get picked apart at least a little. I like the BW sticker on the SE30. You do any races out east? I’ve been working up some driving material myself. There is quite a bit of driving expertise in the group/ CENTCOMSurvivor (??) Eric, was PSD for General Franks during the Gulf Wars and knows his way around moving a big ass vehicle around. I think he has a J-turn video on here somewhere. I’m still admin’ing BMW Club Racing’s Race School program and racing a fairly full BMW and NASA schedule.
    Look forward to seeing more of your stuff


  • RichardDean1

    to get better ideas look at like tractors they have skid plats on them because there workhorses of the farm ,  and look at logging trucks they have them to  seen some of thouse logging trucks they had 3/4 plates on them . they had dents in them i was shocked at the dents in 3/4 steel plats  now if i was to do it to my truck i would go aluminum  for the lightness and for the strength but thats my opinion

  • RL Gray

    @cyoung  I had an Explorer and the problem was equally with the steering.  I have never driven such a car with such massively over sensitive steering system.  Even with perfect tires, it was NOT a car for a drowsy or distracted driver.

  • RL Gray

    @xpo172  Smaller towns and rural county road departments usually have a “junk pile” of damaged, unusable (for them) signs.  If you ask and tell them that you want them for the metal you might get one.  I have two that a friend got that way.

  • This is great information. Thank you for publishing this.

  • LaurenAdams

    I think that I need to make my car more rugged. It is just a little Optima right now. However, it really could use a hand in becoming more durable. I would hate for something to happen to it because I wanted to go out to the country.

  • JohnM89

    I’ve learned something. Awesome.

  • This rally driver is seriously showing some outstanding tips to work on

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