Choosing the Right On-Board Air

ARB on-board air compressor

Inflating Tires on the Trail

As 4x4 owners, we put a great deal of thought into the parts we install on our vehicles, perhaps none more so than our tires. For instance, if you have a Wrangler dedicated to weekend rock crawling you might consider a set of Pro Comp Xtreme MT2's for their durability and aggressive tread design, but if your trail runner is also a daily driver and you live where it snows, you're more likely to opt for the Nitto Terra Grappler for their blend of all-terrain traction and quiet on-road riding, as well as excellent traction in snowy or wet conditions. The best tire for you depends entirely on how and where you'll be using them - and the right kind of on-board air is no different.

No truck, Jeep or SUV is fully prepared for a weekend of off-roading without backup air for reinflating tires. Often, it's necessary for airing tires back up to highway-safe psi levels after having aired them down to increase traction on a tough trail and it's also a lifesaver if you get a flat on the trail. There are many options for on-board air systems and choosing one isn’t easy. That’s why we've put together this general guide to trail air. Of course, the system which works best for you will depend on your personal preferences, what your vehicle is used for most and restrictions like available space and cost.

Portable Compressors

There are a wide variety of portable air compressors for trucks, Jeeps and SUVs and they can be used for airing up tires and activating lockers, among other things.

Pros:

  • Draws power from a battery, so can be run while the vehicle is off.
  • Easily portable and can be interchanged between vehicles, such as your tow rig and trail rig.
  • With a stand-along tank, can be used to power air tools.

Cons:

  • Need to be cautious about running down the battery supply.
  • Depending on system and tire size, can take several minutes to fill each tire.
  • Becomes very hot during use.
 

Engine-Driven Compressors

Engine-driven compressors are often mounted under the hood of a vehicle and, as the name suggests, are powered by the engine.

Pros:

  • Runs directly off the vehicle’s engine, so there is no concern of running out of air or draining the battery.
  • With a tank, can be used to run air tools
  • Never left behind because it is installed directly to your rig.

Cons:

  • The vehicle must be running for the compressor to function, as it draws power from the engine.
  • Inflation can take several minutes per tire, depending on psi and tire size.
  • Initial installation can be time-consuming.
  • Cannot be transported between vehicles.
  • Becomes very hot during use.
 

CO2 Tanks

CO2 tanks store air in liquid form, allowing for a greater volume of air in a smaller space.

Pros:

  • Easily transportable for use between vehicles.
  • The cold-operation system does not heat up when in use.
  • Can power air tools without a stand-along tank.
  • Does not need a power system, so can be run while the vehicle is off without draining the battery.
  • Fills tires very rapidly.

Cons:

  • Has a limited supply of CO2, which can only be filled from empty (cannot be ‘topped off’) and only at certain locations, such as paintball shops.
  • CO2 is a "dirty gas" which will clog air tools over time.
  • Compared to a standalone compressor, they take up a lot of space.