Off-road vehicles come in various shapes and sizes and can be used on roads, trails, or areas unsuitable for traditional two-wheel drive vehicles. There are different off-road vehicles, each requiring some skill level, but some are better suited for certain types of off-road use.
Several off-road vehicle types include off-highway motorcycles, off-road bikes, all-terrain vehicles, sports utility vehicles, sand rails, dune buggies, rock crawlers, and military vehicles. Each type serves a different purpose, depending on your needs.
For example, if you are looking for adventure, you’ll likely want a rock crawler, while someone looking to haul cargo will want to pursue an all-terrain vehicle.
Keep reading as we dive deeper into the nine types of off-road vehicles, their common features, and their top purposes. In addition, we’ll cover what the term off-road vehicle means and touch on important safety tips.
Types of Off-Road Vehicles
Various types of off-road vehicles (ORV) accommodate a vast range of needs. For example, you can use them for multiple activities, including hiking, driving, and camping. While you may not be familiar with all types, you’ve likely heard of some common ones like ATVs, UTVs, and dirtbikes.
Each type of off-road vehicle allows you to experience challenging and rugged terrain in various ways. So it’s best to understand the purpose of each to find the one that’s the best fit for you.
Off-highway motorcycles (OHM) are off-road vehicles generally built for off-road and paved road use. While you can use OHMs on paved roads, users typically don’t purchase them with that intent.
Here’s a sampling of different off-highway motorcycles highlighting their features.
- Dirt bikes – These bikes are meant to run on dirt and are lighter than a road motorcycle. In addition, they are less powerful but can still handle off-roading.
- Mountain bikes – If you are looking to ride trails and other terrain, mountain bikes are an excellent choice. While you want to keep them off mud, snow, sand, and ice, you can use them on dirt, rocks, gravel, and pavement. While it doesn’t typically come with an engine, it is still considered an off-road vehicle.
- Motocross bikes – Generally, these don’t meet the standard requirements for emissions, noise, or spark arrestors and are typically used for racing over jumps. Motocross bikes are a type of dirt bike and are built with a tougher suspension to handle landings well.
Four-Wheelers and ATVs: The All-Terrain Vehicle
The terms four-wheelers and ATVs are often used interchangeably and have similar characteristics. Generally, four-wheelers sit under the ATV umbrella, which is why the terms are used for one another.
For example, both are considered all-terrain vehicles that can handle challenging courses, including mud, sand, rocks, and snow.
However, as the name suggests, four-wheelers have four wheels, while other ATV models can sometimes have fewer. That said, you don’t often come across three-wheelers since they were banned in the 80s due to numerous accidents.
Overall, you will notice that four-wheelers and ATVs are practically the same, despite the occasional variation in wheel count.
So, while you should never make assumptions, most ATVs today will be equipped with four wheels. So here’s an overview of the common features and functions of both four-wheelers and ATVs.
- Common Features – ATVs and four-wheelers are equipped with handlebars for steering, a straddle seat for the driver, and excellent maneuverability.
- Common Functions – Four-wheelers and ATVs are often used for towing, hauling cargo, off-roading, snow plowing, farming, camping, hunting, and fishing.
UTV: The Utility Task Vehicle
The utility task vehicle (UTV) is a smaller all-terrain vehicle with at least four wheels. The rugged UTV is often used for off-highway transportation and has gained popularity recently due to its versatility, affordability, and smaller size.
While UTVs are commonly used for recreation, drivers also appreciate the ability to use them for work-related tasks like navigating over rough terrain and hauling material.
You may also hear UTVs being referred to as side-by-side ATVs because they are built to hold at least two passengers. For example, in a two-passenger UTV, the driver and passenger sit next to each other.
However, some UTV models allow more than two passengers.
- Common Features: UTVs include roll cages for protection, bench seats, and cargo beds. They also are controlled with a steering wheel, much like a regular car, making it easier to learn how to operate.
- Common Functions: UTVs are ideal for hunting, farming, trail riding, camping, or military purposes.
Side-by-Side ATVs are off-road vehicles with two side-by-side seats instead of one in front of the other. You can find side-by-side ATVs in various engine sizes and configurations, including several customization options.
In addition, side-by-sides are built with a foot-pedal driving system and steering wheel, much like your regular car or truck.
Unlike regular open-air ATVs, side-by-sides are closed on top, providing extra security for its passengers. Also, side-by-sides offer a comfortable ride, which is not always found in ATVs.
The large size and bigger engine on side-by-sides make it an excellent choice for hauling large cargo, and the extra space allows you to bring a friend along for the ride.
- Common Features: Side-by-Sides commonly have a roll cage for added protection, four-wheel drive, seat belts, windscreen, and large tires.
- Common Function: Farmers often use side-by-sides for hauling large loads or by users on hunting, camping, or fishing trips.
SUV: The Sports Utility Vehicle
Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are considered off-road vehicles because they provide more ground clearance and can handle traveling on rugged terrain. In addition, SUVs are known as four-wheel-drive vehicles because they use all four wheels to move.
SUVs fall into the same category as trucks because they typically have identical frameworks. However, you may notice that the rear wheels of SUVs lack weight, causing them to dig in.
The term SUV is often used loosely and refers to many vehicles with four-wheel drive. One drawback to SUVs is their lack of fuel efficiency, which is usually a cause for criticism.
Also, SUVs are more prone to rollovers due to their high center of gravity.
Here’s a closer look at the common features and functions of an SUV.
- Common Features: SUVs are known for their higher ground clearance, rugged terrain and all-terrain capability, and four-wheel drive.
- Common Function: SUVs can handle various terrains like dirt, rocks, sand, pavement, gravel, mud, sand, and snow.
Jeep is a well-known automobile company; however, the term “Jeep” can define its own class of off-road vehicles that can hold multiple passengers. In addition, Jeeps are considered all-terrain and have four-wheel drive capabilities.
Jeeps first hit the scene when America’s Army needed a vehicle to replace the horse and motorcycle as a standard form of transportation. While there is a dispute about where the name Jeep came from, there is no doubt it has proven itself as a leading off-road vehicle.
The Jeep you know today has evolved over the years and is one of the best vehicles to drive over rugged terrain. So let’s take a quick overview of the features and functions Jeeps have to offer.
- Common Features: Jeeps are equipped with four-wheel drive, a short wheelbase, excellent suspension, and a sturdy drivetrain.
- Common Function: Jeeps can handle various terrains, including dunes, rocks, hills, snow, and mud.
Sand Rails and Dune Buggies
A sand rail is a lightweight, small vehicle designed for off-road use. While dune buggies are similar, they usually have a more powerful engine and larger tires.
Unlike dune buggies, sandrails don’t usually have full-body panels, fenders, doors, or windows. In addition, dune buggies are typically constructed from an existing vehicle (often a Volkswagen Bug), while sand rails are built from an open-frame chassis.
- Common Features of Sand Rails: Sand rails often have the engine in the rear and use a mid-engine configuration. ]
- Common Function of Sand Rails: Sand rails can handle steep dunes well because of their light weight and paddle tires, which allow them to skim the surface.
- Common Features of Dune Buggies: Dune buggies offer a robust front suspension, oversized tires, and occasionally scooped fins to obtain traction in loose sand.
- Common Function of Dune Buggies: You typically use dune buggies on dunes or beaches.
The rock crawler is an excellent vehicle for someone looking to explore the outdoors in an exciting and unique way. Rock crawlers can cover rugged terrain and offer a challenging and breathtaking off-road experience.
In addition, rock crawlers can handle a variety of terrain, including dunes and cliffs. Generally, rock crawlers are altered four-wheel drive vehicles with the ability to drive over rough terrain.
Excellent rock crawlers include the Chevy Colorado ZR2, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota FJ Cruiser, and Ford F-150 Raptor.
The sport of rock crawling has gained in popularity, with many people competing in rock crawling competitions.
- Common Features: Rock crawlers have larger wheels and tires, waterproof electronics, excellent suspension, and power steering.
- Common Function: Rock crawlers can scale mountainsides, navigate across rocks, and move slowly to avoid damage.
Off-Road Military Vehicles
Off-road military vehicles are used in various off-road conditions and are generally built with high ground clearance and four-wheel drive to handle rough terrain. In addition, the vehicles are typically heavy to handle the rough terrain efficiently.
Frequently, off-road military vehicles are equipped with vehicle tracks instead of wheels to handle the heavy load. Also, the vehicles are often camouflaged or at least painted not to draw attention.
However, this does not apply to ambulances and mobile first-aid stations. While the military uses a variety of off-road vehicles, here’s a snapshot of what they use.
Examples of military off-road vehicles:
- Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP)
- MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV)
- High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV)
- Lightweight Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle (LTATV)
- Armored Security Vehicle (ASV)
What is an Off-Road Vehicle?
An off-road vehicle (ORV) can drive on and off on paved or gravel surfaces. In addition, ORVs usually have high ground clearance, large tires, and four-wheel drive. Users can also operate ORVs on regular terrain.
ORVs offer versatility, which makes them popular amongst users.
Common Features of Off-Road Vehicles
Off-road vehicles come with various features, making them appealing to consumers. So, let’s break down the common features you will find in ORVs.
- High ground clearance – An off-road vehicle commonly has high ground clearance and a chassis lifted above the ground far more than a conventional vehicle. The higher ground clearance allows ORVs to go above any potential obstacles.
- Large tires – ORVs typically have large tires with deeper treads to handle off-roading. It is not recommended you use street tires on your ORV.
- Four- wheel drive – ORVs must have four-wheel drive to provide power and traction to navigate across rough terrain
- Low-end torque and gearing – Low-end torque permits you to maintain momentum, while gearing enhances the low-end torque immensely.
- Crawl control – This feature keeps your speed regulated and ensures your vehicle continues to move despite the terrain.
The Off-Highway Vehicle
Off-highway vehicles (OHV) cover land motorized vehicles used for recreational purposes on problematic areas for conventional vehicles, including unimproved roads and trails.
In addition, OHVs are designed to operate on unpaved surfaces, like rough and uneven terrain. Examples of off-highway vehicles include the following:
- All-terrain vehicles
- Off-highway motorcycles
- Dirt bikes
- Utility terrain vehicles
- Four-wheel-drive vehicles
State laws vary on the use of OHVs, so you must check your specific rules and guidelines. For example, Florida requires OHV users to only drive during daylight, where the speed limit posted is less than 35 mph.
An off-road vehicle is any motorized vehicle designed for or capable of cross-country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or natural terrain.
Off-road vehicles are designed to drive off and on public roadways, with various types fitting into this category, including utility vehicles, side-by-sides, and amphibious vehicles.
In addition, you can use off-road vehicles for recreational and work purposes, as they are excellent for hauling and towing cargo. They are often used in farming, camping, hunting trips, or for the pure enjoyment of off-roading.
Off-Road Vehicle Safety
Maintaining safety is one of the most important aspects of utilizing an off-road vehicle. While some vehicles come equipped with safety features like roll cages and seatbelts, it’s not standard on all vehicles.
In addition, purchasing helmets, goggles, and safety pads can help reduce the risk of injury. Also, if you are off-roading with a group of friends, ensure you never get too close to each other and maintain a safe distance.
Many off-roading accidents are preventable with proper use of the vehicle.
There is no shortage of off-road vehicle types, each providing its unique features to the driver. So, for example, if you are looking for a vehicle to tow or haul cargo, you’ll likely prefer the utility terrain vehicle or side-by-side.
However, a dirt bike might be more your speed if you want to race or perform tricks. In addition, if you’re going to drive on the beach, you have several options like the Jeep, SUV, sand rail, or dune buggy.
Despite the off-roading vehicle route you decide to pursue, ensure you practice safety to enjoy many more years of riding.
I’m William Guzenski, ASE certified master automobile technician & automotive expert. I love to attend race events and car shows throughout the country. I also loves to travel 40-foot motorhome, exploring abandoned mines and ghost towns. I’m currently building another car for Bonneville Salt Flats and will be campaigning a drag car at several events.