The average pickup truck isn’t really designed for technical rock crawls, deep river crossings, or winning first prize at the truck shows – trucks are utilitarian vehicles that focus on getting the “job” done…which is to say they’re built for towing and hauling.
While a brand-new truck off the showroom floor can do quite a bit off-roading (some more than others), installing a lift kit is the best way to improve a pickup’s off-road capabilities. Here’s an explanation as how you go about lifting a truck, and why you’d want to do so in the first place.
Why Lift Kits Are An Increasingly Popular Option
Over the last 25 years, pickup trucks have become:
- more powerful
- more fuel efficient
- more comfortable (some would say more luxurious)
- more complicated, both in terms of features and options but also in terms of safety and emissions equipment
- more car-like
While most people like the improved comfort, power, and fuel efficiency, many true-blue truck owners resent the increased complexity and car-like nature of the modern pickup truck.
Take, for example, the solid front axle. Once upon a time, every truck on the road had a solid front axle. While vehicles with a solid front axle have a stiff ride, they’re incredibly durable and ideal for a lot of rock-crawling and heavy-duty off-road use. Yet automakers have abandoned them in order to make trucks appeal to a wider audience.
Emissions and fuel economy regulations have also impacted the off-road capabilities of the modern pickup. Because reducing ground clearance also reduces aerodynamic drag (thereby improving highway fuel economy), most new trucks only have eight to ten inches of grand clearance…which isn’t much when you consider that some cars have the same amount.
So, as trucks have gotten more car-like, more truck owners have been buying lift kits.
Most lift kits increase the off-road capability of a modern pickup without reducing towing capacity, payload capacity, etc. While all lift kits reduce gas mileage to some degree, the reduction isn’t too bad on all but the biggest lift kits (most truck owners who install a lift see mileage drop 5-10%).
How To Choose The Right Lift Kit
The key benefits of adding a lift kit to your truck are:
- Increased ground clearance
- Ability to accommodate larger tires, which improve off-road traction
- Depending on the kit, suspension travel and stability will also improve
- Improved stance and visibility
- Style and aesthetics
When most truck owners choose a lift kit, they try to balance their need for improved off-road capability with their budget and their daily use needs. For example, someone who intends to run the Baja 500 would likely opt for a $15,000 full-travel suspension lift kit, while someone who wants a little more ground clearance every other weekend might just opt for a 2” leveling kit.
Before you buy a lift kit, you’ll want to consider:
- How much off-roading you do and how technical you want to get
- How often you’re going to use your truck on the highway
- If your truck is a daily driver, you’ll want to consider how much gas mileage you can afford to sacrifice
- Your budget, both for the kit but also for new tires and wheels
Here are the basic types of kits and how they impact each of these factors.
Spacer Lift Kits
Spacer lift kits use a small spacer in or above the spring that typically results in a lift of one to three inches. These spacer lift kits are affordable (some front-end spacer lift kits, known as leveling kits, are less than $200), and because the size of the lift is relatively moderate, they don’t impact highway performance too much, nor do they massively affect gas mileage. Finally, spacer lifts don’t add so much height that you need to invest in a new set of wheels and/or tires to maintain aesthetics.
Of course, spacer lifts have their negatives, the biggest of which being that they don’t add beef up your truck’s off-road durability. In fact, some spacer lift kits (specifically kits that use blocks over leaf springs) slightly reduce your truck’s off-road durability…the keyword here being slight. If your idea of off-roading is a short drive across a poorly maintained dirt road, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
But, if you’re thinking about running any sort of rock-crawling trail or competitive off-road course, a spacer lift isn’t for you.
Bracket Lift Kits
Bracket lift kits are one of the least expensive ways to add substantial amounts of lift to your truck, with most kits offering at least six inches of lift and some as much as eight inches. They’re called bracket kits because installing one requires adding a series of brackets to your truck’s frame, and very often they also require you to cut the frame on your truck to complete the installation.
The downside to these bracket lift kits are:
- they can’t be undone, at least not without a lot of time and money
- they compromise your truck’s original frame – if they’re not installed correctly, your truck will be weaker
- they raise your truck’s center of gravity, which doesn’t help heavy-duty off-road performance
- they all but require you to invest in a new set of tires and wheels, as most trucks don’t look “right” with stock wheels and tires under a six-inch lift
Provided you’ve got the money to install the kit, wheels, and tires, and provided you’re not too concerned about heavy-duty off-road capabilities, bracket lift kits give your truck an impressive stance. For this reason, they’re very popular. In fact, almost all the trucks you see with six-inch lifts have a bracket lift kit.
Suspension Replacement Lift Kits
Replacing key components of your vehicle’s suspension system – such as buying a new set of coil-overs for the front end of your truck and a new set of leaves for the rear – is another way to gain some lift. However, unlike bracket or spacer lift kits, replacing key suspension components also improves off-road performance.
In terms of cost, replacing springs and shocks all the way around (as well as some other key suspension parts) isn’t exactly cheap, and very often this type of lift kit only gives your truck two to four inches of lift. However, because the lift is moderate, it’s not absolutely necessary to buy new wheels and tires (only most people do).
This type of kit is for someone who wants to do some technical off-roading or at the very least improve their truck’s capabilities while also achieving a little lift.
Long Travel Lift Kits
Think of a long travel lift kit as the Rolls Royce of lift kits. They usually add a large amount of lift (five to seven inches is common, but some kits add almost a foot), but unlike bracket kits, that lift improves the truck’s off-road capabilities immensely. What’s more, long-travel kits make your truck significantly more stable at high speeds, making them essential for off-road race vehicles.
There are no downsides to long-travel lift kits…unless you’re on a budget, in which case the expensive of a long-travel kit can be cost-prohibitive. A relatively “cheap” long-travel kit will cost in excess of $10,000 installed, and many long-travel kits are two or three times that depending on the components used.
As Ferris Bueller would say, “if you have the means to buy a long-travel suspension lift kit, I highly recommend it.”
Additionally, there are solid axle swap kits that can make your truck an off-road monster, but we’re not going to spend a lot of time on them here as they’re pretty technical.
Doing the Deed: How to Lift a Truck
We’re assuming that you’re going to lift your truck yourself, which is why the following section has lots of technical info. However, it’s recommended that you seriously consider professional installation. Lift kits usually aren’t too complicated to install in terms of mechanics, but they can be very difficult in terms of logistics. Professional installers usually utilize a hydraulic lift and air tools to make the installation go quickly, and they always have a helper they can rely upon during certain parts of the lift install.
Considering how much professional installation costs, considering the time it might take you to do the lift on your own, and considering the fact you’ll need tools and a helper, paying a professional deserves your serious consideration.
However, assuming that you’re going to do the install on your own, here’s what you’ll need:
- at least half a day’s worth of sunlight, and perhaps a whole weekend to complete the install
- hand tools that are large enough to remove the over-sized nuts and bolts you’ll find under your truck (but air tools would be better)
- a way to safely lift your truck off the ground
- if you’re installing a bracket kit, you’ll need welding and cutting tools
- you’re probably going to need a spring compressor, but if you don’t want to buy one, you can likely get your local shop to decompress and re-compress your springs for a small fee
- a helper and a couple of pry bars
- some spare jacks to support axles and transfer-cases while you’re working
As far as process, the basic steps are:
- Remove the wheels
- Support the axle or transfer case with a jack
- Loosen and remove springs and/or the coil pack
- If you’re installing a suspension replacement kit, you can probably just remove and replace a couple of suspension parts (upper control arms and knuckle) and then reassemble.
- If you’re installing a spacer lift, you can add the spacers and re-assemble.
- If you’re installing a bracket lift, you’ll need to start removing key suspension components and then start cutting,
- If you’re installing a long-travel kit, you need to stop reading about this on the Internet and enlist the help of a professional. If you don’t know what to do, this little article isn’t going to help you. 🙂
Once the kit is installed and the truck is drivable, your next stop is the alignment shop. Additionally, depending on the kit, you may need to get back under the truck and re-tighten various bolts after 5,000 miles.
Good luck – and have fun!