A Skid Plate May Not Be Enough Off-Road Protection

Whether you do it on a motorcycle or a truck, going off-road can be a lot of fun. However, to do it properly requires a fair bit of preparation, especially to your chosen set of wheels. Having enough ground clearance and the right tires are good first steps. And many vehicles designed for off-roading, such as adventure bikes and Toyota’s TRD Pro SUVs, supplement that with skid plates. But depending on what kind of off-roading you’re doing, that may not be enough.

Off-road protection: skid plates and beyond

A rider wheelies a 2020 KTM 790 Adventure R, showing the Black Dog Ultimate skid plate
2020 KTM 790 Adventure R with Black Dog Ultimate skid plate | Black Dog Cycle Works/Sam Bendall via Instagram

Going off-road means dealing with obstacles such as rocks and tree branches. And some of these obstacles, Truck Trend explains, are tall enough to hit whatever’s underneath your motorcycle, truck, or SUV. So, when ground clearance isn’t enough to protect a fuel or oil tank, manufacturers turn to skid plates, Off-Road.com explains. They bolt around vulnerable and critical components and protect them from impacts, Truck Trend explains.

However, skid plates aren’t the only thing you can install to beef up your off-roading vehicle’s armor, Extreme Terrain reports. For those looking into rock-crawling, there are rock rails and rocker guards.

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Rock rails, also called rock sliders, often resemble side steps or running boards, CJ Pony Parts reports. And, as the name implies, they’re designed to help your SUV or truck slide off of rocks. However, while rock rails can function as steps, they provide significantly more protection to the off-roader itself, Morris 4×4 Center explains.

Rocker guards, on the other hand, are more like additional skid plates, only for your doors’ rocker panels. Rocker panels help support your off-roader’s doors and underbody and are often damaged by obstacles. Also, when you get in and out of your Jeep Gladiator, they can get scratched up. Rocker guards go over these panels to prevent this from happening.

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It’s worth noting that these additional protection methods only apply to 4-wheeled vehicles. While dual sports, scramblers, ADVs, and other off-road motorcycles can have multiple skid plates, they don’t have doors. Meaning, they can’t use rocker guards. There are motorcycle frame sliders, but they’re designed for the road, Motorcyclist reports.

A helmeted rider on a 2020 Triumph Tiger 900 coming through a desert town
2020 Triumph Tiger 900 showing skid plate and engine crash bars | Triumph via Instagram

However, motorcycles can get crash bars, Revzilla reports. They’re not exactly armor like skid plates, though. Instead of full protection, they disperse the force of impacts across the frame.

Choosing the right skid plate

Many skid plates are typically made of metal, usually aluminum or steel. However, some bike manufacturers forego metal for plastic or composite skid plates. Each has its own pros and cons.

Steel is the material of choice for hard-core rock-crawlers, Expedition Portal forum users report. It’s extremely strong and is typically fairly affordable. However, it’s also heavier than aluminum or plastic and is prone to corrosion. That can be avoided with the proper coating, but without proper care, a steel skid plate can rust and weaken.

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Aluminum isn’t quite as strong as steel, nor as cheap. However, it’s still robust enough to stand up to rocks. Plus, not only does it not rust, it’s less dense than steel. So, you can make it thicker to provide more impact resistance without a huge weight penalty. That’s especially important for motorcycles.

Plastic skid plates aren’t quite as robust as metal ones. However, not only are they lighter than metal, but they also slide over obstacles better, Dirt Bike Sam reports. They also reflect less sound than metal skid plates. Plus, if you want a bit of extra strength, carbon-fiber-composite skid plates are tough enough for trail riding, Dirt Rider and Dirt Bike Test report. But they’re extremely expensive compared to metal ones.

Do I need all of this protection?

Installing a skid plate can cause some complications. Depending on how it’s designed and where it’s placed, you may have to remove it to perform certain maintenance tasks. For example, if you need to change the oil. Also, cleaning every part of the skid plate can be tricky.

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However, if you do plan on going further off-road than a gravel path, a skid plate is practically a necessity. You don’t want to get stranded in the wild because an errant root cut your fuel line.

Grey-brown 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave truck crossing a dune at sunset
2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave | Jeep

For the other forms of protection, it depends. The Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicon, for example, come from the factory with rock rails because of their rock-crawling focus. The Mojave, on the other hand, with its high-speed dune-running focus, has sand rails instead.

As for rocker guards, installing aftermarket ones typically means drilling holes into the rocker panels. If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s not strictly necessary. But, if the OEM offers them from the factory, they can be worthwhile.

Rider sitting on 2020 Royal Enfield Himalayan on a muddy road
2020 Royal Enfield Himalayan | Royal Enfield

For off-road motorcycles, crash bars are worth looking into. Many ADVs come with as standard equipment—even the $4700 Royal Enfield Himalayan. Together with skid plates, they make sure you and your bike can get home, even after a crash.

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