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

Equip Your Adventure Rig With The Proper Protection To Tackle Tricky Terrain

Jeep Cherokee with JCR rock sliders

Rock sliders come in all shapes and sizes and are made to protect your adventure rig. However, don’t confuse side steps or running boards for rock sliders. Side steps and running boards are not structurally sound and won’t save your rig from the bumps and boulders of off-pavement fun. This all-encompassing guide delineates the differences between the two to help you choose what’s right for your vehicle.

Moab rock crawling with rock sliders

Rugged Rock Sliders

Along with solid off-road tires (AT or MT tires), rock sliders, or rock rails, are a must if you’re planning to tackle gnarly, off-tarmac trails. Off-road rock sliders are key pieces of sturdy armor designed to protect the lower portion of your adventure ride. There are many styles that fit a variety of vehicles. All rock sliders have one main purpose: to shield your vehicle while allowing you to “slide” off an obstacle that you may otherwise get caught on. Off-road rock sliders are meant to take a beating.

Suzuki Samurai, Amber Turner, custom rock sliders

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 for our Mitsubishi Pajero. Most aftermarket sliders come ready to bolt on — providing an easy install. 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.

Mitsubishi Pajero with custom rock sliders

Does Size Matter?

Rock sliders are offered 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 be dependent on what type of terrain you plan to be traversing. Big boulders and tight trees? No problem. Rock rails that protrude well beyond your vehicle’s underbody will work best. Tackling less severe terrain and need 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 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 thing, 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”, 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 step assistance 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 rock sliders can.

Suzuki Sidekick with Trail Tough rock sliders


Are rock sliders worth it? In my opinion: YES. I lived and learned with our 1995 Suzuki Sidekick, aka The Teal Terror (pictured above). 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 we’ve been protected ever since. If you plan on tackling off-road trails, then rock sliders or rock rails are a solid investment.

Mercedes Lilienthal
About Mercedes Lilienthal

Mercedes is an Oregon-based freelancer who specializes in vehicular adventure travel. She and her husband have three right-hand-drive turbo-diesel Mitsubishi 4x4s and two customized subcompact daily drivers. Mercedes enjoys automotive adventure competitions, having competed in the 2018 Rebelle Rally and the 2020 Alcan 5000 Rally. Her freelance work includes writing, editing, photography, social media management, event coverage, and marketing services.