Rock crawling in a UTV is the favorite activity for tons of side-by-side owners. Rock crawling started in the Jeep world, but side-by-side owners have slowly built inroads into the sport. Who knew you could get such a rush from inching over obstacles at low speeds?
The goal of rock crawling is to dominate the terrain—it’s a contest of skill vs. nature. You have to keep command of your rig over some of the most dangerous terrain UTVs can handle. One slip-up could be disastrous for you and your machine.
Rock crawling requires excellent reflexes, calmness under pressure, and problem-solving skills. If that sounds like you, well, you may have just found your new favorite hobby.
We’ve gathered all the info you need to get started rock crawling. And if you’re a seasoned rock crawler, there are some great tips and tricks (and equipment recs) to push you to the next level.
These are considered the top two out-of-the-box rock crawlers:
Here’s a head-to-head for you to compare these machines’ main differences. We’ve included the 64” Can-Am as well—it’s similar to it’s big brother, just in a smaller package.
|Can-Am Maverick X3 X RC Turbo RR 72||Polaris RZR XP 1000 Trails & Rocks Edition||Can-Am Maverick X3 X RC Turbo RR 64|
|Weight||1,843 lb||1,573 lb||1,674 lb|
|Steering||High-torque Tri-Mode Dynamic Power Steering||Electronic Power Steering||High-torque Dynamic Power Steering|
|HP||200 HP||110 HP||200 HP|
|Tires||32” Maxxis Liberty||30” Pro Armor Crawler XG||30” Maxxis Liberty|
|Wheels||15” cast-aluminum beadlock||14” cast-aluminum beadlock||14” cast-aluminum|
|Front Tow Hook?||✔||✔||✔|
|Rear Tow Hook?||✔||✔||✔|
|Winch||4,500 lb||4,500 lb||4,500 lb|
|Warranty||6 months||6 months||6 months|
These rigs are rock crawling ready thanks to their included heavy-duty accessories. They’re all three built to be tough and powerful. You need that when you’re conquering rocky terrain!
But, many riders will argue that the best rock crawling UTVs are built, not bought.
The best part of transforming your UTV into a rock-dominating beast is that you KNOW what’s going on. Since you added all the parts and customized it yourself, you know how to tweak it on the fly or fix it when something goes wrong.
Of course, you can still do that even if you order a rock-ready rig right off Can-Am’s or Polaris’s website. Just make sure that you understand the fundamentals of how your machine functions so you can get to work if the situation demands it.
If you want to turn your UTV into a boulder-crushing monster, read on. We’ve broken down all the key components to building a beefy rig that’ll make mountains look like piles of gravel.
The first and foremost—tires. Since they make direct contact with the ground, they’re obviously super important.
You want as much of your tire to touch the ground as possible. More contact means better traction and better grip so you can take on more obstacles with confidence. You’re looking for bigger tires with a large contact patch, not necessarily deep lugs. As for size, large (but not monstrous) tires are the best choice—33” and 35” are the most popular.
Bigger tires can also increase ground clearance, helping your rig sail over large rocks and obstacles. This helps keep you take on bigger obstacles without backing down or getting hung up.
Here’s a (very well known) hack for you: tons of riders roll on lower tire pressure when they’re taking on rocks. Lower tire pressure creates more surface area → more surface area → better grip → improves overall performance.
We make our XT Warrior SlikRok Edition tires to be the best of the best. Our design gives rock crawlers the traction and control they need when they’re out dominating the trail. The tread pattern gives you plenty of grip without collecting dust and debris along the way. If you’re looking to make your rig into a rock crawler, you could do a lot worse than these tires.
Most rock enthusiasts ditch OEM wheels and go for aftermarket rims. Some riders even downsize their rims so they can use tires with higher sidewalls.
Again, when you lower the air pressure in your tires, you’ll get more surface area. Higher sidewalls provide even more surface area to work with—you can see the advantage.
Most of all, you should get aftermarket wheels with a beadlock option. Beadlock wheels reduce or eliminate the risk of low-pressure tires slipping the rim (coming loose from the wheel and separating back into two parts—you know, a disaster).
If you add too much weight with aftermarket rims and ginormous tires, you might need to think about gear reduction. You absolutely DO NOT want to lose power or torque when you’re rock crawling. You might lose some speed off the top, but like we discussed earlier—you’re not going to be racing if your crawling.
Still confused? Don’t worry, we’ll talk more about gear reduction and clutches a little bit later.
This may be pointing out the obvious, but rocks are pretty rough terrain. A stiff suspension can be hard on both the rig and the rider. Shocks absorb the all the energy from all that jangling around, so you might consider an upgrade if you’re going to start rock crawling just to smooth out the ride.
You should also consider a lift kit. If you’re going to lift your rig for rock crawling, you should choose a portal gear lift. They give you between 4” and 8” of lift and build the gear reduction right into the hub. If you want bigger tires and don’t want to lose any torque, you can trust our GDP Portals to get you the performance you need. They’re the most loved portals in the business for a reason!
A lifted rig can sail over all kinds of obstacles, but there is such a thing as too high. Your rig is less likely to roll if the center of gravity is closer to the ground. You want enough height to help conquer the trail, but not so much that your rig is at risk of flipping all the time. It’s a literal and metaphorical balancing act.
Axle failures are already one of the most common failures on any UTV. Once you’ve upgraded your machine with bigger tires and upgraded suspension parts to tackle rocky terrain, you’ll likely need to upgrade your stock axles to something that can put up with more stress.
An upgraded axle can add more than just strength. Many options can give you greater articulation angles, which will help you tackle tricky spots with confidence.
If you’re going over 32” on tires, you basically have to find a way to correct for the added weight. CVT belts tend to slip under low RPM with big ol’ tires. You’ll need to modify your OEM clutch (or replace it) to get better performance for low speed, high heat, and high elevation rides (rock crawling).
You can get that from GDP Portals (like we talked about earlier) or by upgrading your clutch. Clutch kits can prevent power loss when running larger tires, improve throttle responsiveness and acceleration, and reduce belt slippage and heat buildup—all things you want to prevent while rock crawling.
Your UTV’s undercarriage is vulnerable to all kinds of damage if you leave it unprotected. It’s easy for a rock to get under there and junk up all kinds of parts—plus, that scraping sound is just awful. You can get hooked on a rock and get stuck too.
Instead of scraping along, a skid plate helps your rig seamlessly slide over obstacles. The best skid plates are made of UHMW and good ones are made from aluminum. You won’t find many steel options for side-by-sides though—steel is too heavy for a UTV.
When you’re bumping over boulders and navigating rocky paths, you shouldn’t skip out on machine protection—or personal protection, for that matter.
Rollovers and accidents are are fact of life when you’re rock crawling. To protect yourself from injury, you need to prepare yourself and your machine for the worst-case scenario.
Here’s our recommendations for upgrades that will help your machine and help get you out of tough situations:
Avoiding injuries should be your #1 goal. Here’s some accessories that will help prepare you for a worst-case scenario:
Once you’re set up and you’ve bought or built your dream rig, it’s time to hit the trail. There’s tons of great rocky rides all over the country. Of course, we love Moab (who doesn’t!), but here’s a few more great places to put your rock-ready rig to the test:
There’s no end to the kind of adventures you can find rock crawling. Some of these rides are bone dry, desert conditions, and others are former or current creek beds that will challenge you with water and mud in addition to crazy boulders.
No matter what you’re hoping to get from rock crawling in your UTV, the key is to be prepared. The right equipment (for fun and safety) will make sure you’re rolling with confidence for many years to come. Remember to wear a helmet, bring a buddy (and/or a spotter), and a spare tire and you’ve got this. Before long you’ll be dominating the most difficult trails around—we’ll see you out there.