Building your Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK for overland travel:
As much as you see Land Rovers and Unimogs and other cool vehicles on epic adventures, here in the Northeast, the Jeep Wrangler is an overwhelming #1 choice for many people. On our trail rides they outnumber all other makes almost 10 to 1. It is understandable how the Jeep Wrangler JK could be such a top pick for most folks interested in off-road driving or overland excursions. The ride is much improved over the older Jeep YJ and TJ models and the interior, while still fairly utilitarian and “work-horse” like, is getting to be pretty well put together and comfortable; nothing like the days of the old CJ where having to contort yourself into strange positions to get over the sill and into the seat was a daily adventure. The Wrangler JK is a pretty reliable vehicle and with the Rubicon package, very well suited for almost anything you can throw at it. With a little help they can make a fantastic overland choice, if not a little on the small side. With the Rubicon model mentioned, there is no need to discount the base model Jeep Wrangler JK as a capable vehicle. They do very well for what they are. The information presented here will be geared towards the Unlimited or 4 door Jeep Wrangler JK, since the 2 Door will prove to be a little cramped on space for a real overland trip. This is not to say that you can’t do it. Each one of our Trans New Hampshire Expeditions featured a 2 door Wrangler and they all made it out alive. The 2 door is absolutely suitable for overland travel, but not as common and not nearly as spacious as the 4 door. Sleeping at night will almost certainly be in a tent if you travel by 2 door Jeep.
This entire article is focusing on putting together a build sheet for a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK, non-Rubicon. If you have a Rubicon, this list absolutely still applies but you can remove things like the locker or rocker protection, since the Rubicon models come with that equipment from the factory. This article is solely regarding vehicle modifications and assumes that you have already procured all of the recommended and necessary supporting equipment like recovery straps, off-road capable jack, tool kit, etc.
First: a list. Everyone likes lists. The reasoning behind each choice is listed below for those interested in reading a bit further. This is not a “money is no object” approach. Everything here was carefully chosen for it’s balance between capability, reliability, and price. Some items are top end, like the AEV lift. In this case, the quality of the lift outweighs the high price point when compared to other offerings. A budget boost is very inexpensive but you will pay for it in other ways and we do not recommend them. We have a goal of building a capable and reliable overland vehicle, not a mall crawler. If all you care about is looks, budget boost away and put on some 37″ tires. Road manners will be atrocious and trail performance not much better but you will look pretty cool.
Rocker protection: Tyger Rock Sliders – $280
Air supply: MV50 compressor – $74
Rear Locker: ARB locker and compressor
Front bumper: Barricade Trail Force HD Bumper – $390
Winch: Warn M8000 – $585
Roof rack – Unless you are carrying a roof top tent or more gear than you can fit inside the truck, a roof rack will only add weight up top, where it is most hurtful, decrease fuel economy by increasing wind resistance, increase overall height and catch on branches and low parking garages, and add wind noise to the cabin at high speeds. Unless you have a specific need for a roof rack, leave it out.
6″ lift and 40″ tires – Low is better! With added height comes a lot of downsides. Higher COG, higher overall height, more suspension sway on the road, decreased road handling capabilities, worse suspension and steering geometry, added weight, and more to go wrong. Same with tires. I hope you have stock in Exxon Mobil, because your fuel economy will tank with 40″ tires. Not to mention the added cost of not just regearing but replacing entire axles to handle the stress of the tires.
Lights, lights, and more lights – Let’s face it, how much wheeling do you do at night? Those big awesome LED bars are not legal to use on the street. They can be helpful for setting up a campsite at night, but so are headlights and flashlights, and neither of those items decrease mpg and add wind noise. Lights are cool, I know, I have a bunch too, but they are not necessary until all other build components are done, and even then, it isn’t so much a necessity as a “this would be cool to have”. With all of this said, a single auxiliary light source (small LED bar or pair of lights) is helpful to have at times. These lights should be a flood pattern and aimed ahead but towards the outside. The most common need for lighting is finding a hidden campsite or trailhead at night or in inclement weather. You are typically traveling slow and need light to the sides to show where to turn.
Rubicon vs. non-Rubicon (Sport/Sahara)
In stock form both the Rubicon and non-Rubicon model Jeep JKs are pretty impressive off road. The Rubicon is fitted with dual lockers, a sway bar disconnect, better tires, rock rails, a lower geared transfer case (4 to 1 vs 2.72 to 1 reduction), a Dana 44 (vs Dana 30) front axle, and some different suspension parts. We can break down some of these options and figure out if a Rubicon is worth the extra cost for your needs (if you want to skip ahead, the final result is YES, it is worth it!) The biggest difference between these two models is the tires! The stock tires on non-Rubicon models are street oriented and will let you down off-road. The Rubicon wears a set of mud-terrain tires which are much better suited for overland travel. The Rubicon factory tires are not great when compared to other options but they are not bad tires by any means and will suit most people very well until they wear out. The Rubicon also gets some additional ground clearance since the Rubicon tires are slightly taller than the non-Rubicon models. The extra ground clearance and increased tire diameter are a big help off-road. Dual lockers come up next on the list of important additions. We aren’t going to talk too much in depth about lockers since we could easily dedicate an entire article to the topic. Let’s just say that lockers, especially a rear locker, are an EXTREME advantage when off-road and offer NO disadvantage on the street. Adding lockers to a non-Rubicon model can easily add up to $2500-3000 once you factor in the costs of parts and labor. The lockers are the main reason for choosing a Rubicon over a non-Rubicon. The transfer case gearing is a big difference off-road and makes crawling through the tricky stuff a lot easier. With that said, if I had a non-Rubicon, a transfer case upgrade would only be on the list if I fell into the parts for cheap. The factory gearing is acceptable for overland use, even combined with tall axle gears. We are not building a rock crawler, just a capable overland vehicle for 90% of anything we would encounter in New England. The sway bar disconnect is nice since it allows for some extra articulation when disconnected but allows for a very responsive and safe ride while connected for the street. I don’t consider this a huge added value because manual sway bar disconnects are cheap and easy to install and use but it is a nice luxury. The front axle is a good upgrade but the factory Dana 30 isn’t as weak as a lot of people make it out to be. For an overland vehicle, it will be fine. Don’t be a crazy person bouncing through rocks at full throttle and you will be fine. The weakness in the Dana 30 is the shafts and ring and pinion. The axle tube and all the weight carrying aspects are the same as the Dana 44. If you are worried about being too heavy once loaded, the Rubicon axle won’t help you there. One last aspect of the Rubicon model is factory rock rails. These provide rocker panel protection from rocks or other obstacles and are a necessity on such a long wheelbase vehicle. The factory Rubicon rock rails are ok quality but many choose to replace them with more robust aftermarket units anyway. There are plenty of great, inexpensive, rock rail options available so this isn’t a huge selling point for me either. The Rubicon manual also comes with 4.10 axle gearing in the manual transmission models. I prefer an automatic for all overland and off-road use, but opinions vary. The lower gears (higher number) are a big improvement over the stock 3.21 or optional 3.73 gear ratios but all are manageable with 33″ or even 35″ tires, although fuel mileage and 6th gear will suffer a bit, especially with the 3.21 ratio.
All said and done, you will be adding a lift and bigger tires, so both of those options don’t matter. The rock rails will be replaced as well, so those don’t matter. The axle isn’t a massive improvement for overland use, so that doesn’t matter much. The sway bar disconnect, transfer case gearing, and axle gearing are nice to have but not necessary, and the lockers are absolutely awesome to have. All said and done, for just the lockers, the extra cost is worth it, and the bonus equipment doesn’t hurt. A final note is that the Rubicon comes with heated seats! Sometimes a hard to find option, mostly on the Sahara models.
Edmunds has a good comparison and more in depth breakdown of the Rubicon components here: http://www.edmunds.com/jeep/wrangler/2012/long-term-road-test/2012-jeep-wrangler-rubicon-or-sport.html
Wheel choice is very personal. Everyone has different tastes and ultimately, that is what will determine your final wheel choice. Although steel wheels have been recommended in the past because of their durability and ease of repair if damaged, alloy wheels are now, hands down, the best choice for an overland vehicle. Alloy wheels allow for less unsprung weight which has a dramatic effect on everything; acceleration, stopping distance, handling, shock load, and even fuel mileage. The less weight you have under the springs, the better off you are, especially in an overland vehicle. Almost anything made these days is strong enough and durable enough for off-road and overland use. There are certainly some brands of wheels that are better than others but for the most part, anything will work. Hutchinson makes some incredible wheels, as does AEV, but in my opinion, there is no need to spend the extra $200-350 each wheel when a simple set of $100/ea Pro Comps will work. You want to make sure that whatever wheel you choose has an inset valve stem. Valve stems are susceptible to damage on the trails and is a leading cause of flats. Try to find a wheel that has the valve stem protected. The AEV Pintler wheels have a unique ring around the valve stem to protect it from damage and although this is great for out west, here in the Northeast I have seen it cause more problems than it solves. Debris tends to work it’s way into the protector ring when traveling through mud, which we seem to have a fair amount of, and either tears or dislodges the valve stem, allowing air to escape and the tire to lose pressure. I believe it is the placement of the ring that causes this as it is located at the outer edge and acts as a scoop in the mud. Another thing to keep in mind is the spokes. For offroad use you will want something with inset spokes, like the photo of the Hutchinson wheels. This provides protection from scrapes, nicks, and other cosmetic damage when crawling through rocks. Anything with flush spokes will look pretty trashed after some hard trail use. This is entirely a cosmetic concern but nobody wants to have a beat up looking rig.
There is a lot of discussion about wheel size. 15″ vs 16″ vs 17″ vs 18″ or bigger. Each choice has it’s benefits and drawbacks when paired with a tire of the same outside diameter (say 35″ for this example). A 35″ tire on a 15″ wheel will give 10″ of sidewall between the wheel and the ground. This is best for offroad since you will be able to get more flex out of the tire when traversing obstacles. The downside is that on-road handling will be negatively affected because of the added sidewall flex. Additionally, a 15″ tire will generally be heavier than the same outside diameter tire in an 18″size. An 18″ wheel will leave you with 8.5″ of sidewall between the wheel and the ground. 1.5″ less than the 15″ wheel. This will improve on road handling but allow for less tire flex off-road. The second aspect of wheel size to consider is tire availability. 15″ tires are hard to find these days and becoming rarer each year. 16″ is even becoming hard to find in larger sizes (37″). A 17″ wheel seems to be industry standard right now and the choices are pretty endless for tires in that size. 18″ is becoming more common as well. I think either a 16″ or 17″ tire will perform very well for an overland vehicle and final choice would be dictated by price and availability of your tire choice. Either way you go, a wheel with about 4.5″ of backspacing is what you need to fit larger tires (33″-35″) on your Jeep JK. The last factor to think about is future upgrades. There are some steering upgrades that won’t fit with 16″ wheels as the components will contact the inside lip of the wheel. If you plan to upgrade in the future, stick with 17″.
One of the first modifications that I think any 4 door JK owner should consider, is a small lift. Tires and suspension pretty much go together. You need to decide on one before you decide on the other. If you choose to run a 6″ lift, a 31″ tire will look rediculous. Similarly, a 40″ tire will not fit on a 2″lift. You need to have a general idea of both suspension and tire size before narrowing down your choices. This can lead to some back and forth while you narrow down choices. There is no doubt that a small (2-3″) lift transforms an Unlimited JK’s off-road capability. The Unlimited has a pretty long wheelbase and breakover angle suffers because of this not to mention the already low ground clearance of the factory suspension. With the added weight of any overlanding equipment (stove, sleeping gear, food, fridge, and any other aftermarket components) the factory suspension could be overloaded and a lift allows you to replace those components with ones better suited for the task. For most overlanding needs a small lift is perfect. Too big and on road manners suffer. Too small and off-road capability is lost. It is all about finding the best balance for what you intend to do and choosing a spring that properly matches your load. For New England, a 2-3″ lift on a 4 door JK will get you through 90% of anything you will encounter. You want a well designed kit with reliability in mind. Simple is most often better. A VERY important consideration when upgrading your suspension is to match the spring rate with the intended load. I have ridden in FAR too many vehicles (typically OME equipped) where the owner has spec-ed extra heavy duty springs and is not carrying an extra heavy load. This leads to a super stiff and uncomfortable ride on road and no flex offroad. It really is the worst of both worlds. Spec a spring rate that is correct for your actual load. Don’t choose one step up just because you think you might want it some day. You will regret it. There are hundreds of lifts out there. One of the best performing and best engineered kits out there is the AEV 2.5″ Dual Sport lift. This lift rides well on the road, can handle a decent load, and works off-road. It will hold up to the elements and will not leave you wanting more. This kit can fit up to a 37″ tire with some work, although for overlanding, I would suggest sticking with a 33″-35″ tire.
Oh boy, here we go. Tire recommendations… There are an almost infinite number of choices for tires. The one thing I will stress is this: THERE IS NO PERFECT TIRE!! Everyone argues all day long about how this tire is better than that tire and how this other tire is garbage, sidewall this, side stability that, and on and on. If there was a definitive “best”, everyone would be running the same tires. It simply comes down to one thing: There is no perfect tire. EVERY tire out there has good things and bad things. Every tire out there will do well in one area and poor in another. It is just the nature of things. It is impossible to make a snow tire with incredible traction that lasts 200k miles. It won’t happen! A good snow tire has a very soft rubber compound that remains flexible in cold weather. It also has lots of siping and exposed tread edge. Special compounds and chemicals are used to allow the rubber to bond with ice. All of this leads to incredibly poor performance in high temperatures/high speeds and leads to accelerated wear. A tire that lasts 200k miles will require a tread compound that is as hard as a rock and this will obviously lead to incredibly poor rain and snow performance as well as reduced traction when offroading in the rocks. Every decision you make is a trade off. Nothing is as extreme as a 200k mile snow tire, but there are the same tradeoffs. Everyone needs to figure out their intended use and pick a tire that best matches it. I have made a suggestion above for a Goodyear MT/R. I think it is a great all around tire and does very well here in the Northeast for an overland vehicle. They handle well on the road, have good load characteristics, air down well, and handle most off-road terrain well. They are not that great in the mud which is a downside. It is a compromise but I think they handle conditions here well. I personally like to run a mud terrain tire but I made a choice to live with higher road noise, increased tire wear, and poorer snow performance than an all-terrain of the same size. For me, the added off-road capabilities were worth the trade-off. If I spent more time on-road I will probably go with a less aggressive tire.
Tire size is the one thing we can make an easier choice out of. Lets face it, bigger tires are better off-road and we need to add some off-road capability to our overland vehicle. A small increase in size will have a small but manageable impact on things like fuel mileage and on-road manners. Remember earlier about unsprung weight? Tires are the same. Bigger tires add weight. You will be increasing your stopping distance, reducing your handling capabilities, and limiting your on-road performance but the additional off-road capabilities should more than make up for this. Going too big is obviously not smart, just as going too small would be. We need to find that balance. The lower limit is pretty easy: stock size. The factory size is good and can work very well off-road, especially with a skilled driver and some lift. On the other end, a 37″ tire is pushing the limits of axle strength on a stock JK (Rubicon or not) and will really dig into your on-road manners. The factory gearing will not be a happy match for a 37″ tire and your Jeep will be pretty anemic (goodbye 6th gear). A 33″-35″ tire is the range we should stay in. Both will fit with the AEV 2.5″ lift. Both tires have benefits and drawbacks but I think a 33″ tire is the logical choice for an overland vehicle. You will be introducing only a small weight increase, keeping your center of gravity low (and overall height), keeping performance losses to a minimum, and suffering the smallest drop in MPG. A 35″ tire has the benefit of being a much better performer off-road. An added drawback would be that a spare tire relocation bracket or stopper extension is likely needed for a 35″ tire and the tire will block some additional visibility out of the rear window. Even though a 33″ tire is probably the logical choice, I would run a 35″ tire. It fills up the wheel wells a lot better and the off-road performance increase would be worth it to me. Again, weigh your needs and expected use and decide if it is a trade off that you want to make.
When the pavement ends and the dirt begins, there is a need to air down your tires. It doesn’t matter if you are letting out some pressure to give a softer and more compliant ride for a long stretch of dirt driving or airing down to single digit PSIs for deep snow travel. Whatever your reason, you need to have a way to air back up afterwards. There are a plethora of systems out there from modified air conditioning compressors to Co2 tanks to 12v compressors. For overland use, a 12v air compressor is the choice of most. Make sure to get a compressor with alligator clips or one that is designed to be hard wired. Do NOT get the cigarette lighter compressors. They are insanely slow for airing up tires. A good compressor will pull some serious power, so make sure to have the vehicle running while you fill up. Compact, lightweight, and reliable, the 12v compressor proves to be a good option. Co2 tanks are bulky, heavy, limited use, and can freeze up in lower temperatures. A York belt driven compressor is fast and reliable but requires maintenance and a lot of work to mount in an already cramped engine bay. A 12v compressor can be permanently mounted inside the engine bay, passenger compartment, or anywhere under the vehicle. They aren’t the fastest way to fill a tire but even the $50 models are faster than a gas station fill station. You want a compressor that is designed to be run constantly. It takes a long time to fill up four big tires. A compressor with a low duty cycle will overheat and shut off. Most compressors on the market designed for this type of use will have a 100% duty cycle. Viair, Extremeaire, and ARB are all common choices for hard mounted 12v air compressors. The ARB CKMA12 is designed for air locker use and is slow to air up tires, but it works. ARB makes a dual cylinder model that is quite a bit bulkier but much faster (CKMTA12). The ARB compressors will be reliable and are reasonably priced. The Viair models are pretty mid range and will do everything you need, if not a little slower than the ARB dual cylinder or the Extremeaire. The Extremeaire is the fastest of the bunch and the best built but the price reflects that. Even though it is the fastest, it is still not fast. The most popular compressor on the trails is the Superflow MV50. This compressor is the same speed as the Viair 450c and just slightly slower than the Extremeaire/ARB CKMTA12. They are cheap, at just $60. Keep an eye on eBay and you can find them pop up occasionally for $50. There are a ton of modifications you can make to the MV50 that improve speed, reliability, and ease of use, and all for very little extra investment. There are tons of writeups and demonstrations on various off-road forums of these modifications. The biggest complaint with these compressors is a failure within the first use. Use the compressor at home once or twice before relying on it for a trip.
There isn’t much to say about rocker protection. The factory Rubicon rock rails are good, but not great. They will handle a fair amount of abuse without complaint but at some point, you will probably find yourself wanting to replace them, and if you don’t have a Rubicon, you need to add something! The long wheel base of the 4 door models and the relatively low rocker height compared to other 4wd vehicles leaves the rocker panels in a vulnerable spot. Another big reason to add rocker protection is a step in and out of the vehicle. With the factory rock rails, you are guaranteed to have dirty pants as you step out and they rub against the side of the Jeep. Shop around and find something that you like. There are a million options out there with various selling points. The most necessary point is that they be able to support the weight of the vehicle as it drops onto a rock. Everything else is secondary.
I think that a locker is a near mandatory item for off-road driving in New England. There are lots of rocks, slippery surfaces, and tons of articulation. When a tire lifts, you are stopped, unless you have a locker. There is no need to upgrade the factory Rubicon lockers but for those in a Sport or Sahara model, a rear locker should be high on the list of modifications. There aren’t a ton of options and ARB has been in the game for a long time. They are fairly reliable with a good installation. If you hurry through the install or do a bad job with it, you will pay for it later with leaky air lines, water intrusion, broken electrical connections, and faulty equipment. Take the time to do things right. Run the air lines in protected areas and take care with the wiring. The locker with install will set you back about $1200/axle. Now is a good time to regear if you were so inclined.
When the road underneath you won’t let go, it is time for recovery. The best recovery is another vehicle. You should never wheel alone! With that said, there are times when it isn’t possible to travel with a friend, mistakes do happen, and even with another vehicle, a winch is incredibly useful. With advances in synthetic line technology and better built winches, pulling cable is turning into a first resort for many instead of the last resort it once was. You want a reliable winch and again, there are a million options to choose from. An 8000lb. winch is enough for pretty much anything you get yourself into. Add a snatch block and you can pull 16,000lbs. That is a lot of force. There are plenty of cheap, no-name or rebranded, Chinese winches on the market that are tempting at rock bottom pricing. There are some that are good and plenty that are bad. Pretty much all of them will show you exactly why a Warn is double the price. Almost all have dried up or insufficient grease in the gear box, stiff line pulls, dodgy contact setups, and just a rough overall build quality combined with a decent DOA rate. If you take the risk on a cheap winch, do your research, read reviews, and rebuild it as soon as you get it. Pack it with good grease and redo all of the shoddy electrical connections. There are a few good winches out there that are reasonably priced. Superwinch and Warn both come to mind. Warn is the industry standard for winches and the M8000 is the winch that all other winches are compared to. You get what you pay for and more with an M8000. It will last a lifetime and it won’t let you down. Whatever winch you choose, the most important piece of supporting equipment is the knowledge on how to use it safely! Winches are incredibly dangerous. Learn how to properly operate one and practice in your driveway before heading out on your adventure. Keep in mind that a winch purchase doesn’t stop at the winch. It is merely a bumper ornament until you have a tree saver, shackles, gloves, and a snatch block or two.
Once you have a winch, you need a place to put it! That isn’t the only reason to replace the factory front bumper though. The approach angle of a JK can be greatly improved with an aftermarket front bumper. This will also add a little durability to the front end if it does come crashing down off of a ledge or makes contact with a tree. A stubby bumper is good for offroad since it exposes your tires completely and allows for a much better approach to large objects. In overland travel, I don’t feel that this capability is needed and a full width front bumper provides a little more protection to the front end. Again, hundreds of choices. The biggest deciding factor here will be looks. They can almost all accept a winch, have recovery points, and are durable enough for overland use. Find one you like, read the reviews, and go with it.