There are a few things I won’t go off-road without, and right at the top of that list is a portable off-road air compressor.
Portable air compressors can provide so many valuable uses when going off-road or Overlanding, from the obvious use of inflating tires to the not-so-obvious use of activating an air locker.
I have an ARB Locker in the rear axle of my Defender that I wouldn’t be able to use without an air compressor.
While there are many options on the market, I’m going to take a look at what I consider to be the best 5 portable air compressors.
Top 4 Off-Road Air Compressors
ARB High Performance Twin – Best on-board
If you plan on Overlanding for a long time or wish to install air lockers on your rig, there’s no better compressor out there than the ARB High Performance twin.
Now it may not be the cheapest air compressor you’ll come across, in fact, it’s quite pricey, but it does pack a punch in terms of performance and quality.
ARB do have cheaper on-board air compressors, but I just don’t think they’re to the standard of the High Performance.
Viair 400P – Best all around
The Viair 400P is one of the most popular off-road air compressors. Many off-roaders I meet on the trail are using this unit, and most, if not all, are extremely happy with it.
The 400P will have no problem inflating 35″ tires, but if I had tires bigger than that, I would probably look at a different compressor.
Viair does have another unit, the 450P, which would be suitable for bigger tires. However, if you are running 33″ or smaller, I’d stick with the 400P. The 400P is faster; however, the 450P has a higher percentage duty cycle, meaning it can run for longer before needing to switch off and cool down.
Smittybilt 2781 – Best budget
Smittybilt has a wide range of off-roading products. What I like about Smittybilt is they offer good standard products at an affordable option. They may not be the best on the market, but they get the job done.
This 2781 air compressor is constructed from heavy-duty steel and is solidly built. There is a thermal cut-off switch to prevent the compressor from overheating and possibly causing damage.
There are not many drawbacks to this compressor at this price. The only one I can think of is it’s a lot heavier than you might think.
ARB CKMP12 – Best quality
I like ARB; a lot of parts on my Defender are from ARB. They have been in this game a long time; they’re intuitive, produce very high-quality products, and have great customer support.
I would say this is the best portable air compressor you can get. It’s super fast for a portable compressor, taking about a minute to go from 20 PSI to 40 PSI.
It’s nicely compact and comes with a great carrying case. It is also IP55 rated to prevent dust and moisture ingress.
It’s honestly hard to find drawbacks to this off-road air compressor. One may consider the price a drawback, but the quality you get for the price, I think it’s a bargain.
Off-Road Air Compressor Buyers Guide
There are a few things you need to consider before going out and looking for your first air compressor. Not all compressors are made equally, and not all will have some features you may require.
On-board vs portable
One of the first decisions you will have to make is do you want an on-board compressor or a portable.
On-board compressors are mounted to somewhere in your vehicle permanently. Usually in the engine bay, in a wheel arch, or some people have the in the back. They stay wired to the battery constantly.
We use an on-board air compressor because we have an air locker, and a portable compressor is not suitable for this task. The air locker comes with a switch to integrate into your dash to operate the compressor.
When purchasing an on-board it’s a good idea to purchase a dual model, because if you have a single and a locker, you won’t be able to get any other use out of your compressor.
- Operates air lockers effortlessly
- Conveniently stored out of the way
- May need extra equipment to install
- If not installed in an accessible location, it can be troublesome to hook up an air hose for inflating tires.
Portable air compressors can be carried around with you anywhere. They usually come with a carry bag or case, making them convenient for a range of uses.
Some models plug into a cigarette lighter port, but you might be better off going with a larger model that comes with crocodile clips that connect to your battery terminal.
While these do offer a benefit of flexibility, they do, however, take up more space in your vehicle, and if you’re Overlanding, space may already be tight.
- They offer a lot of flexibility and the ability to help fellow off-roaders
- Usually cheaper than on-board compressors
- No installation required
- Can’t operate lockers
- Takes up space in the vehicle
What size Air Compressor do you need?
When choosing an off-road air compressor, a general rule of thumb is to go bigger than you think you might need. However, there are always tradeoffs with price, weight, and size.
The size of the tire you intend to inflate will determine the size of compressor you need. It’s important to remember that although you may be running a 33-inch tire now, you may decide to switch to a 35 in the future: this is why it’s a good idea to go bigger now.
Most manufacturers state what model compressor is best for what size tire, and they generally base this on the cubic feet per minute rating.
The larger the CFM rating, the faster you can inflate your tire. Generally, a CFM rating of 3 is a good size for tires up to 37″.
If you are only running 33″ tires, you might be fine with a CFM rating of 2.3.
What PSI do you need for a portable Air Compressor?
One thing many people overlook when considering an off-road air compressor is the pounds per square inch or PSI.
This is understandable because most people are only thinking of tire inflation when they are purchasing an off-road air compressor. However, a compressor can do much more than that.
When off-roading or Overlanding I always bring my air tools in case I need to repair something on the trail. This is where PSI is important, and you need to make sure you have an adequate PSI to operate your air tools.
Air tools are great for overlanders; they are lightweight and don’t require batteries that take up space and need recharging.
Most off-road air compressors will have more than enough PSI to operate your tools, but to be sure, check with your tool manufacturer to find the required PSI.
The duty cycle refers to the amount of time a compressor can be run in a given period (usually one hour period).
For example, if the duty cycle is 50%, the compressor can run for 30 minutes and then stay off for 30 minutes.
The reason for this is to prevent the engine from overheating.
When choosing a compressor, it’s important to think of the future.
Are you planning to install an air locker? If so, go with an on-board.
Are you thinking of getting bigger tires? Then go with a larger CFM rating.
Try to think of all the instances where you might need an air compressor and then decide which is the best fit for you, because it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all scenario.