Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Do I need special brake rotors for off-roading?

        Adventure | Off-Roading

Image Gallery: Off-Roading You want trouble stopping while you're out mudding? Keep your drum brakes. See more off-roading pictures.
© iStockphoto/njmcc

You've heard the call of the wild. You want to get out there and show Mother Nature what your off-roader's got. Whether you're mudding in Georgia, rock crawling in New Hampshire or dune bashing in California, there are some considerations you're going to have deal with before you hit the trail (or off the trail, really).

One of those considerations that will become quickly apparent to the novice off-roader is the necessity of good brakes. Getting new shoes or pads installed generally isn't enough. The demanding terrain and conditions of off-roading call for slightly more consideration. For one thing, you'll have to decide whether to outfit your vehicle with new rotors. Some aftermarket companies sell brake rotors designed for off-roading, but ultimately, any rotor that fits your needs will be a good purchase. Depending on what type of factory brakes came with your vehicle, you may already be all set.

There are some definite advantages to springing for aftermarket rotors designed for off-roading. Manufacturers generally equip the vehicles they design to be taken off the beaten path with larger brake rotors. In the case of four-wheel drive, bigger is usually better. Aftermarket rotors that are larger than factory rotors provide a larger gripping surface. This can be an important factor, especially if you've installed larger wheels and tires for your excursions.

Having four good rotors can also provide greater control, especially when threshold braking -- bringing the braking system just to the point before locking and adjusting the pressure gently to provide for the greatest amount of traction downhill. With the mud, gravel, dirt and sticks that make up the off-road highway, traction is crucial. Off roaders who've outfitted their vehicles with front and rear rotors report more precise responsiveness among their braking systems when threshold braking [source: Off-Road.com].

All of that extra stopping power is created by more friction, which creates heat energy. Heat can make your brakes deteriorate more quickly and can possibly lead to warped discs. Both aftermarket manufacturers and automakers offer vented or slotted rotors. These allow for greater heat dissipation --a clear advantage -- but also lessen the integrity of the rotor surface, providing areas where cracks can form. If you opt for slotted or vented rotors, do some homework and seek out customer descriptions to make sure the rotors are well made.

If you have a factory brake system that features rear drum brakes, you probably should look into installing rotors for your off-roader. For starters, the flat surface provided by rotors allow for less mud and debris to accumulate, a big problem you'll find with brake drums after taking your vehicle off road.

Even more urgent is the tough time drum brakes have maintaining control going backwards. Any seasoned four-wheel-drive enthusiast can tell you that forward isn't always the best way or even possible at times. Backing down a steep hill calls for tough brakes and drums can't do the job every time. Rotors provide for more grip in reverse, and are pretty much essential if you have brake drums.

When replacing rear brakes, shop for an aftermarket kit that is compatible with your vehicle's parking brake. About as essential as the brake pedal, the parking brake connects to the rear brakes. Leaving it uncoupled adds much more danger to off-roading and some adventure clubs won't allow vehicles that don't have a functional parking brake to participate in outings.