The most critical (and perhaps best) part of off-roading and Overlanding is staying on the road. Therefore, you want the ability to refill your tires after they've aired down -whether by choice or circumstance; it's important for your safety and having fun on your trail. Similarly, some SUVs and truck owners have to adjust their tire air pressure on the road depending on the terrain. The only question is, which is the best off-road air compressor for you?
Before we dive into the best portable compressors for your off-road driving, let's quickly take a look at the different types you'll find on the market:
Types of Off-Road Air Compressors
Air compressors have two primary use cases:
- Reinflating tires when moving from trail to pavement or mid-trail to adjust to changing terrain. This is mostly after deflating your tires off-road to improve traction, soften the ride, or avoid tire damage on the trail.
- Reinflating repaired tires on the trail, usually if you've damaged two tires and only have one spare tire.
- Some air compressors also have the ability to power air tools and axle differential lockers.
These machines vary depending on how they accomplish their tire-related functions. There are two common kinds of tire-inflating air compressors; on-board and portable. A third option, portable air tanks filled with CO2 and nitrogen, is a favorite among offroad racers and hardcore wheelers, especially because they inflate tires rapidly.
a). On-board Air Compressors
On-board air compressors are installed in your vehicle's engine bay, or anywhere else really, for as long as they're wired to the battery. This makes them extremely convenient since they are already connected and ready for use when necessary. On-board air compressors are also quite versatile: They can also power pneumatic control for air-lockers and differentials in axles; larger models can even power air tools, suchlike, air impact wrenches used to remove wheel lugs.
Installing an on-board system typically involves integrating switches into the dash. But it could also be installed somewhere else in the vehicle to ensure differentials can be locked from inside the cab. Then, you shouldn't have to worry about climbing out and turning the hub on the wheels.
b). Portable Air Compressors
Portable off-road air compressors come in a bag or case that you can carry in and out of your vehicle when necessary. They're designed to run on the vehicle's battery, so you'll have to clip them to the terminals for power. Some smaller models can be plugged into cigarette lighter ports, but these tend to be too small for larger truck tires.
Portable air compressors evidently offer more flexibility than on-boards, mostly because you can use them between vehicles. They're also easy to move around for as long as the battery clip wires allow it. However, it's worth considering using a portable air compressor entails unpacking, connecting it to the battery, allowing it to cool down before you pack it back up -pretty time-consuming and quite a hassle.
c). Portable CO2 and Nitrogen Tanks
Portable tanks are filled with CO2 or nitrogen, similar to SCUBA diving tanks. This translates to rapid inflation since these gases are compressed more than the oxygen in the tank but also expand significantly more when inflated into a tire. Portable tanks are excellent for saving time if you have larger tires that take a long while to fill or when you're only going offroad for a short while.
That said, there's a finite amount of gas in the tank. You will probably want to bring a portable air compressor as a backup.
Pro Tip: For accurate tire pressure results, ensure you turn off the air compressor before taking any readings. Air flow from vehicle tires can mislead the values.
With this in mind, let's now walk you through our top selections for the best off-road air compressor:
1. Best Value: VIAIR 400P Portable Air Compressor
- 12 VOLT Operated - 150PSI Max Working Pressure, engine must be...
- 2.3CFM Free Flow @ 0 PSI. The air hose length is 25 feet
- 150 PSI maximum working pressure and 33% duty cycle
- Direct heavy-duty dual battery clamps with 40-amp inline fuse
- Includes deluxe carry bag anti-vibration tray and more
For several good reasons, it's hard not to pick the VIAIR 400P as our best off-road air compressor. It takes roughly 3 minutes to move from 35 PSI to 60 PSI. This unit is capable of inflating tires up to 35" while also allowing operation up to 150 PSI for 15 continuous minutes. VIAIR recommends a 30 minutes break after use to allow the motor to cool to maintain the higher duty cycle.
The unit comes with a convenient storage bag with smaller compartments for extra storage. Its pressure gauge is remarkably accurate, giving you reliable and precise tire pressure results. This portable tire inflator also sports an ergonomic handle that gives you a firm grip when you're handling the unit after an operation.
2. Most Powerful: ARB CKSA 12 Twin Motor Portable Air Compressor
- This compressor is designed to activate ARB air differential...
- Anodized mounting bracket dissipates motor heat and allows...
- Relocatable air filter assembly for cleaner, cooler air supply...
- Teflon impregnated carbon fiber piston seals for maximum trouble...
- Constructed entirely of lightweight, high strength engineering...
The ARB CKSA 12 is definitely not your ordinary air compressor, and the price quite reflects that. But, you undoubtedly get value for your money, for this unit is incredibly powerful and durable, making it almost a bargain in the long term. For starters, it takes only about 90 seconds to go from 20 PSI to 40 PSI, thanks to its twin motor system. This is remarkably impressive for an air compressor that has a maximum working pressure of 150 PSI.
Connecting the inflator to the 20-inch air hose is fairly easy. So is hooking up the unit to the vehicle battery, thanks to the help of high-quality alligator clamps. It's worth pointing out that you should ensure you set the nozzle correctly to prevent any air leaks. If you're a serious or seasonal off-roader, the ARB CKSA 12 Twin Motor is certainly an extremely powerful, fast and portable air compressor to match your needs.
3. Most Compact: Smittybilt 2781 Air Compressor
- Auto-thermal cutoff switch - protects motor against damage
- Maximum continuous cycle time (duty cycle) - 40 minutes at 40 psi...
- Maximum airflow - 72 liters per minute. Quick release 24 foot...
- Integrated easy to read 150 PSI pressure gauge
- Storage bag included
This is a well-crafted air compressor made of heavy-duty steel. It takes around 2 minutes to go from 5 PSI to 30 PSI, a feat in itself considering the low price. The unit is also notably fast, with a 150 PSI maximum pressure. Not to mention this is arguably the quietest portable compressor featured on this guide.
One standout feature of this air compressor is its auto thermal cut-off, an excellent addition for people who sometimes forget to keep the air compressor temperature low. It also has multiple mounting systems on a rubber base to minimize vibration. The Smittybilt 2781 is a quality, compact, portable compressor that won't let you down.
4. Most Versatile: VIAIR 300P Air Compressor
If your desire is an air compressor that does more than simply inflating tires, the VIAIR 300P is a great option. It features both an inflator and deflator system, meaning you only need to carry one item rather than two. It's also quite fast, taking about 78 seconds to go from 18 PSI to 30 PSI. Additionally, it has a 150 PSI maximum working pressure.
This air compressor can inflate up to 33" tires. Despite the small size, it's an undeniably powerful portable compressor that gets the job done pretty well. Furthermore, you'll be equally be drawn to its pretty attractive price tag. Not to mention it also features a safety fuse to protect your vehicle from any potential damage.
5. Multi-Purposed: TEROMAS Tire Inflator Air Compressor
- AC/DC OUTLET & MULTI-PURPOSE: TEROMAS tire inflator unique AC/DC...
- STRONG POWER & SPACE-SAVING: Up to 150 PSI, Inflate the...
- AUTO-OFF FUNCTION: Preset your desired pressure value, the tire...
- DIGITAL DISPLAY & LED Lighting: Bright backlight LCD display...
- 100% SATISFACTION: This is a great tool to take along with your...
The Teromas tire inflator/air compressor is an impressively lightweight unit with sockets for both AC cables (60" - 110V) and DC cables (126" - 12V). It takes just about 4 minutes for the unit to go from 5 PSI to 40 PSI, pretty acceptable for its size and price.
As much as it's not the most fabulous of air compressors, this unit from Teromas performs exceedingly well, all things considered. Plus, it comes with several nifty features, such as LED lights and LCD displays, that overall make this a fully multi-purposed air compressor.
P.S: The manufacturer recommends allowing the unit to energize for a minimum of 5 seconds after connecting to an AC outlet.
Factors to Consider in the Best Off-Road Air Compressor
1. On-Board vs. Portable Air Compressor
Choosing between an onboard and portable air compressor boils down to whether you have air lockers on the axle differential. If your vehicle already has them, or you intend to have them installed, it's much more practical to get a larger air compressor that can also inflate tires. On the other hand, a portable air compressor is cheaper and more flexible if your vehicle lacks air lockers.
More in-depth considerations, pros and cons of either of these off-road air compressors are outlined in the section above.
2. Tire Size
The air volume required to inflate your tires determines a couple of factors around the best off-road air compressor for you. For this reason, you need a unit that's powerful enough to fill up all your tires before it exceeds the duty cycle rating- at which point you'll have to wait for the engine to cool down before resuming operation. Worry not because manufacturers usually advise on the best models for different-sized tires.
3. Filling Speed
The more powerful air compressors push massive volumes of air per unit time, meaning they fill tires more quickly. It follows then that if you're not particularly the patient kind, you have to go for a notably powerful unit. If you seriously want to speed up inflating tires, you can consider the pre-filled CO2 or nitrogen tank models.
A couple of notable companies manufacture portable air compressors that are perfectly suited for off-roading and overloading. Australian company ARB is arguably the gold standard if you're looking for a high-end unit. California-based VIAIR has a wide range of solid machines at very reasonable prices. Smittynilt is probably your best bet if you want a budget air compressor.
5. Deflation Mechanism
Airing down tires can also be time-consuming. Luckily, some units come with built-in mechanisms in their valve chucks to deflate tires without the need for you to hold down the valve stem. That said, while these are certainly worth having, you could get a separate tire gauge with a deflating functionality. However, if you get off-road regularly, it would be best to get a dedicated tire deflator.
You mustn't forget you'll be lugging the air compressor around with you, meaning you also have to consider its weight. It goes without saying that larger units tend to weigh more. Smaller compressors are definitely easier to deal with. If you really need a massive model, then consider one that has wheels for easier mobility.
7. Noise Level
You also have to consider the noise when looking for the best off-road air compressor. Therefore, it's important to research and read reviews of your desired unit's noise levels. The exact amount of decibels an air compressor produces mostly relies on its construction, so look out for well-engineered units.