Overlanding: Onboard Air Compressor Setups

In the vast expanse of off-road adventures, the call for a reliable air compressor setup reverberates loudly. Overlanding enthusiasts grapple with the challenge of deflated tires and the pressing need for versatile tools on the trail.

The predicament is clear: inadequate tire inflation impedes progress, while a lack of efficient air tools hinders on-the-go fixes. Fear not, for a solution is at hand. In this article, we delve into the world of air compressor setups tailored for overlanding vehicles.

Unpacking the complexities, we navigate the pitfalls, explore the nuances, and present a guide to equip every adventurer with the power to conquer deflation and embrace mobility.

Why upgrade to Onboard Air?

There are several compelling motives to transition to an On Board Air (OBA) setup within your vehicle. Perhaps you've invested in larger tires, and the modest $30 compressor from the automotive supply store no longer cuts it. 

An onboard air compressor allows you to adjust your tire pressure as per your need, right on the spot, adding to your vehicle’s versatility. This is why upgrading to an onboard air system is a wise decision for any serious overlander.

Let's delve deeper into the reasons why upgrading to an onboard air system can greatly enhance your overlanding experience.

Firstly, having the ability to adjust your tire pressure on the go can greatly improve your vehicle's off-road performance. Lowering the tire pressure increases the contact area between the tire and the ground, providing better traction on uneven surfaces. This means you'll have more control over your vehicle, reducing the risk of getting stuck or losing control in challenging conditions.

In addition to tire maintenance, an onboard air system also opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to other off-road accessories. With the ability to generate compressed air, you can power a variety of tools and equipment, such as sleeping pads, and air mattresses for camping, or stand up paddle boards, or floaties for the kids. This added convenience and versatility make your overlanding adventures more enjoyable and efficient.

An onboard air system eliminates the need to rely on external air sources, such as gas stations or "another-guy's-compressor". This means you're not limited by the availability of these resources, allowing you to explore remote and secluded areas with confidence. Whether you're deep in the wilderness or far away from civilization, you can always rely on your onboard air system to keep your tires properly inflated.

Power Tank CO2 System

Types of Onboard Air Solutions

CO2 and Nitrogen Tanks

CO2, in its liquefied form as carbon dioxide, becomes a fundamental component of overlanding vehicle air systems. Typically housed within 10# or 20# tanks, these containers necessitate proper upright positioning and secure mounting within the vehicle structure. To facilitate convenient refilling, a metal strap is commonly incorporated, allowing for the tank's easy extraction. This feature demands thoughtful consideration when pinpointing the most suitable mounting location.

CO2 Tank

In the realm of tire inflation, the speed at which CO2 excels is unparalleled. Its remarkable swiftness, combined with the capacity to generate a substantial volume concurrently, sets it apart. Utilizing a CO2 tank offers the distinct advantage of noise reduction. During its application, the only audible sound is the gentle 'whooshing' within the tire as it undergoes inflation.

Assembling a CO2 setup can be achieved with relative cost-effectiveness, though it entails sourcing the necessary individual components. It's important to note that CO2, regardless of tank size, remains a finite resource; its availability is restricted. Depletion can unexpectedly disrupt your plans when attempting to air up post-trail, or when utilizing air tools for trailside repairs. Moreover, latent leaks have the potential to sour your experience, as you might discover an empty tank when preparing to air up at the trail's end.

Additionally, caution is advised regarding the susceptibility of low-quality regulators to freezing and the tendency of inferior hoses to splinter under extended freezing conditions.

Air Compressors

Air compressors come in a range, from budget options that struggle with passenger tires to robust units powering air tools seamlessly. Noteworthy manufacturers like Viair, ARB, and Extreme Outback offer well-designed compressors.

Commonly operating on a 12V power supply, air compressors are rated by PSI (pounds per square inch) and CFM (cubic feet per minute). CFM is crucial for volume, even if the box claims high PSI. Aim for around 2 CFM at 100PSI.

Amperage impacts power, with some units drawing 80+ amps. Avoid cigarette lighter plug models; their power isn't sufficient. Wiring should match the compressor's rating. Running the engine during compressor use boosts voltage, aiding performance and lessening strain on the vehicle's electrical system. You might want to consider a dual-battery setup

A quality compressor is weighty with specific mounting needs. Some mount anywhere, demanding good airflow for cooling and hose output. Easy access to the on/off switch when the vehicle's loaded is vital.

Consider the duty cycle—the runtime before cooling—for extensive tire filling or air tool use. A 50% duty cycle at 30 mins needs 30 mins to cool; 100% duty cycles run continuously. The unit's pressure or thermal cutoff varies.

Cost-wise, expect $300 to $600+ for a good compressor. If permanent mounting isn't feasible, kits with cases housing components are available.

Don't ignore noise levels; compressors can be quite loud. Understand that compressors are intricate systems with possible points of failure, making troubleshooting complex and part replacement challenging.

Portable Compressors

At a basic level, portable compressors are a popular choice among overlanders. These compact and lightweight units can be easily carried and run off the vehicle's power or a battery pack. Portable compressors are versatile and can be used for a variety of tasks, such as inflating tires, powering air tools, and even blowing up inflatable watercraft for some fun on the water. They are convenient to have on hand and can be easily stored in your vehicle's trunk or cargo area.

One of the advantages of portable compressors is their mobility. You can take them with you on your adventures, whether you're exploring remote trails or going on a camping trip. They are also relatively affordable compared to other onboard air solutions, making them a popular choice for budget-conscious overlanders.

Portable Air Compressor 12V

What to Look for When Choosing an Onboard Air Compressor for Overlanding

When it comes to overlanding, having a reliable onboard air compressor is essential. While the above descriptions touched upon some important factors to consider, let's dive deeper into each one to ensure you make an informed decision.


Efficiency is a crucial aspect to consider when selecting an onboard air compressor. Look for a compressor that offers a high CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) rating. This indicates the compressor's ability to deliver a sufficient amount of air for various applications. A higher CFM rating means faster inflation times and the ability to handle more demanding tasks.

Additionally, consider the compressor's duty cycle. The duty cycle refers to the amount of time the compressor can run continuously before needing a cool-down period. Opt for a compressor with a high-duty cycle to ensure it can handle extended use without overheating.

Maximum Air Pressure

Maximum Tire Pressure

Another crucial factor to consider is the maximum air pressure the compressor can generate. Most onboard air compressors have a maximum pressure of around 150 PSI (Pounds per Square Inch), which is sufficient for inflating tires. However, if you plan to use the compressor for more demanding tasks such as operating air tools, you may want to consider a compressor with a higher maximum pressure.


Overlanding often involves traversing rough terrains, so durability is of utmost importance. Look for a compressor that is built to withstand the rigors of off-road adventures. Opt for models with sturdy construction, such as those made from durable materials like stainless steel or heavy-duty plastic. Additionally, consider compressors that come with protective features like dust and moisture resistance to ensure longevity.

Installation and Noise Level

While the performance of the compressor is crucial, ease of installation is also an important consideration. Look for compressors that come with comprehensive installation instructions and all the necessary mounting hardware. Additionally, consider the space available in your vehicle and choose a compressor that fits well without obstructing other components.

Noise level is another aspect to keep in mind, especially if you value a peaceful overlanding experience. Some compressors can be quite noisy, which can be bothersome during extended use. Look for compressors that are designed to operate quietly, ensuring minimal disturbance while inflating your tires or performing other tasks.


Lastly, take a closer look at the accessories that come with the compressor. Some compressors may include a variety of attachments and fittings, such as air hoses, tire inflator gauges, or even carrying cases. Assess your specific needs and ensure that the compressor's accessories align with your requirements.

By considering these factors and taking the time to research different models, you can confidently choose an onboard air compressor that meets your needs and enhances your overlanding experience.

DIY vs. Professional Upgrade

Installation of an onboard air compressor can be a fun weekend project for the DIY enthusiast, while others may prefer to trust a professional with the job.

A DIY installation gives you a practical understanding of your equipment which can be useful in troubleshooting problems down the road. You get to experience the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished the installation yourself, which can be a rewarding feeling. Additionally, by taking on the project yourself, you have the freedom to customize the installation to your specific needs and preferences. This can include choosing the location of the compressor, selecting the type of compressor that best suits your requirements, and even incorporating additional features or accessories.

Auto Mechanic Professional

However, it is important to note that a DIY installation may require a certain level of technical knowledge and skills. You will need to familiarize yourself with the necessary tools and safety precautions, as well as follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. Depending on the complexity of the installation, you may also need to allocate a significant amount of time and effort to complete the project successfully.

On the contrary, a professional installation assures you of a correctly installed setup without any hassles. By hiring a professional, you can have peace of mind knowing that the installation will be done by someone with expertise and experience in the field. They will have the necessary tools and knowledge to handle the installation efficiently and effectively.

In addition, a professional installation may come with certain warranties or guarantees, providing you with added protection and assurance. If any issues arise after the installation, you can rely on the professional to address them promptly and professionally.

The choice between a DIY installation and a professional installation ultimately depends on your comfort and expertise levels. If you enjoy working on projects and have the necessary skills, a DIY installation can be a rewarding and cost-effective option. However, if you prefer to leave it to the experts or if you lack the required knowledge and experience, hiring a professional can save you time, effort, and potential headaches.

Regardless of the route you choose, it is essential to prioritize safety throughout the installation process. Always follow the recommended safety guidelines, wear appropriate protective gear, and consult professional advice or assistance if needed.

Typical Costs

Cost of Air Compressor Systems

The cost of an onboard air compressor can vary greatly depending on the type, quality, and brand. A basic portable air compressor can start at around $70, while an engine bay mounted fully-integrated compressor costs $300-$600 depending on capacity and accessories. 

An off-the-shelf CO2 setup (like a Power Tank) will run you $600-$900, but if you can source all the pieces individually and build your own custom solution the costs are closer to the onboard compressor above.

Remember, the overall cost will also include any additional accessories, installation charges (if not DIY), and future maintenance costs.

Maintenance & Care

Maintenance of an onboard air compressor is a key factor in ensuring its long life. Regular checks for wear and tear, ensuring the compressor is clean and free of obstructions are all part of the process.

Also, it's important to always monitor the device while it's working, as excessive heating can indicate a problem that needs immediate attention.