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Rock Sliders vs. Running Boards: A Guide for Off-Road Adventure Enthusiasts

Jeep Cherokee with JCR rock sliders(Photo/Mercedes Lilienthal)
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Equip your adventure rig with the proper protection to tackle tricky terrain. Step one: Do not confuse side steps or running boards for rock sliders.

Rock sliders have one main purpose: to shield your vehicle’s body while allowing you to “slide” off an obstacle that you may otherwise get caught on. They’re meant to take a beating.

Be sure to equip your adventure rig with the proper protection before tackling tricky terrain. Side steps and running boards are not structurally sound, won’t save your vehicle from off-pavement fun, and can even cause more damage.

Our guide delineates the differences between rock sliders and running boards to help you choose what’s right for your vehicle.

Moab rock crawling with rock sliders
(Photo/Mercedes Lilienthal)

Rugged Rock Sliders

Along with solid off-road tires (AT or MT tires), rock sliders — also known as rock rails — are a must if you’re planning to tackle gnarly 4×4 trails.

Off-road rock sliders are key pieces of sturdy armor. They are designed to protect the lower portion of your adventure ride’s body. There are many styles of rock sliders to fit a variety of 4WD vehicles.

Mitsubishi Pajero with custom rock sliders
(Photo/Mercedes Lilienthal)

Made of heavy-duty steel tube or square tubing, rock sliders are usually a bolt-on affair that you can install using hand tools. However, custom-made options are often welded to the frame, like on our Mitsubishi Pajero. They’re usually powder coated with a durable high-grade textured or flat black finish, offering long-lasting corrosion resistance for years of use on the trail.

Suzuki-Samurai Amber Turner custom rock sliders
(Photo/Mercedes Lilienthal)

Does Size Matter?

Rock sliders come in various shapes and styles. Some hug the underside of the rocker panels or rise just beyond the bottom of the vehicle to create a streamlined and sturdy line of protection.

Other rock sliders have a larger footprint that protrudes well beyond a vehicle’s side and/or includes a kick-out rail for added side-body protection. They may also offer a convenient step for easy entry in and out of your vehicle.

What style you choose is a matter of taste and, perhaps more importantly, functionality.

rock sliders

Deciding which rock sliders or side guards to get should depend on what type of terrain you plan to traverse.

Big boulders and tight trees? Rock rails that protrude well beyond your vehicle’s underbody will work best.

Tackling less severe terrain and needing protection from occasional tree stumps and smaller rocks? Purchasing a slimmer set of rock rails that shield the vehicle’s underbody and lower sides should do the trick.

Should I Side Step the Running Boards?

side step installed on vehicle.
This is a side step/running board, not a rock slider. It will fold and bend and not protect the vehicle’s body from rock impacts; (photo/Shutterstock)

Side steps, nerf bars, or running boards can often look like rock sliders, but they provide a very different function. Although they are sometimes categorized as the same, they aren’t designed to take a hit on the trail. Their main purpose is to help occupants get in and out of a vehicle or to accessorize a vehicle for a personalized look.

Running boards or side steps often have a rubberized top coating for added grip for muddy or wet boots. Like rock rails, running boards or side steps run along the entire side of the vehicle. These types of boards can incorporate protruding foot “hoops” or indentations for your feet and sometimes have the manufacturer’s name embellished on them.

Whereas rock rails or rock sliders are heavy-duty steel protection upgrades meant for challenging off-road traverses, side steps or running boards tend to be more for decoration and entry into lifted vehicles than anything else.

They add a bit of flair to an adventure rig, but if you’re running nerf bars and expect to go rock crawling with them, you may be in for a rude awakening. Side steps, nerf bars, or running boards simply won’t take the abuse that proper rock sliders/rock rails can.

Are Rock Sliders Worth It?

Suzuki Sidekick with Trail Tough rock sliders
The Teal Terror putting its rock sliders to work, sadly after damage had been done without them; (photo/Mercedes Lilienthal)

Are rock sliders worth it? In my opinion, yes. I lived and learned with our 1995 Suzuki Sidekick, aka The Teal Terror. My husband and I bashed in both sides of our tiny 4×4’s pinch welds and rocker panels before we realized what damage we had done without rock sliders.

Since then, every 4×4 we’ve owned has donned a set of sliders. And the bodies of our 4x4s look a lot better for it.

If you plan on tackling off-road trails, then rock sliders or rock rails are a solid investment.

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