So you finally got a Jeep Wrangler. The world-famous, battlefield-born legend renowned across the land for tackling the most difficult terrain with barely a yawn. From tires to tailpipe, Wranglers have been designed for decades of optimum off-road performance. Short wheelbases, powerful engines, solid front and rear axles, and light weight all combine to make the Jeep Wrangler the standard in off-road design. Many try to recreate the Wrangler’s capabilities – none have succeeded.
But, did you know it is possible to make your Jeep an even more capable off-road machine? You may not know it, but Wranglers are one of, if not the most customizable vehicles on the planet. The modification options are virtually limitless – lifts, tires, bumpers, winches, lighting, storage… the list goes on. But how to know what to do first? A beginning off-roader may not need a $7,000 stage 6 lift kit. A commuter will soon discover that 38″ Super Swamper Bias Tires are not a good choice for extended highway driving. Let’s look into the most popular Wrangler modifications, and what works best for you.
Modifying Your Jeep Wrangler Into a Capable Off-Road Rig
The Right Tool for the Job
The first step after deciding to modify your Wrangler for heavier off road use, is determining what you plan on doing in your Jeep. How often do you plan on taking your Jeep off-road? What kind of terrain will it be? Will you primarily be off-roading solo, or in groups? These are all important questions that determine what mods you’ll need. Let’s start with the most basic and move to more complex options.
Lift + Tires = Ground Clearance
The bread and butter of off-roading modifications are a lift kit and larger tires. These two modifications work together to do one thing – achieve more ground clearance. Higher ground clearance means you’ll be less likely to get stuck on stumps, rocks, and most importantly, deep mud. Your Wrangler has two solid axles beneath it, each with a “pumpkin” or differential housing. These globe-shaped steel housings sit roughly in the middle of the axles and hang down lower than the actual axle tubes, making them susceptible to getting caught on obstacles or digging into deep mud, thereby high-centering your Jeep and rendering you helpless. Larger tires will raise the height of the suspension and axles, however the size of tire than can be added is limited to the height of the suspension. Stock suspension usually only allows one or two tire sized larger than factory before rubbing on body or suspension components. A basic 2.5″ – 3.5″ Suspension Lift Kit
will enable you to easily fit larger tires, while not breaking the bank, or sacrificing on-road handling.
Tires are the next ingredient, and a hotly-debated subject in off-road communities. Options range from slick all-weather road tires, to gnarly, knobby monstrosities than whine and sing down the road. Most off-roaders opt for either All-Terrain Tires or Mud-Terrain Tires. Mud terrains have more aggressive tread patterns than all terrain, but don’t usually wear out sooner. Mud terrains are also louder. Radial tires offer better on-road behavior and tread life than their agriculture-based bias-ply cousins.
Your Jeep was designed to be rugged, however most Wrangler owners do not take their Jeeps off-road all that often. This means that Wrangler designers made front and rear bumpers that work well for most light off-road applications, but may fall short of the durability and ruggedness required by more serious mud-dwelling users. Luckily there are many choices of aftermarket replacement bumpers available to fit the task. You should replace the weaker stock front bumper with a heavy gauge steel one for several reasons. Most aftermarket steel front bumpers have what are referred to as better “approach angles.” The approach angle is the angle of slope an obstacle can have relative to the ground that will not hit the bumper before touching the tires. Stock bumper approach angles aren’t great. The equivalent of this for the rear bumper is a “departure angle.” Besides better departure angles, many aftermarket rear bumpers have racks and brackets that can carry gear and supplies, like gas and water cans, jacks, and more.
Reach Out and Touch Something
After the flimsy stock bumpers are replaced with tougher and better ones, a mud-minded Jeep owner might consider a winch. A winch is basically a powerful electric reel usually mounted on the front bumper and spooled with steel or synthetic cable that can be extended and retracted. Winches are priceless off-road tools, capable of freeing even the most buried rigs. Winches often keep additional vehicles from getting stuck when attempting to rescue a truck or Jeep stuck in the mud.
New manufacturing processes have lowered the prices of winches substantially over recent years, making them a desirable choice for Wrangler owners.
Let’s Get Technical
Ok, you’ve got your lift and you’ve crammed the biggest meats you can fit under your fenders. But what other options are there to further your Jeep’s off-road capabilities? Probably the best bang-for-the-buck is a Differential Locker. Your stock Jeep axles are likely what’s referred to as “limited-slip,” meaning that power isn’t distributed to all four wheels equally. To change this and vastly improve your performance in mud and rocks, a differential locker will “lock” your axles, meaning all wheels receive even power. This is a more advanced modification, and will likely require a professional to install unless you have advanced mechanical experience and tools. However, once installed, a locker will have an equal, if not greater effect than a lift and larger tires.
The Jeep Wrangler is a unique, rugged, and let’s face it, cool vehicle. It only makes sense that there is a dedicated following of enthusiasts and clubs spanning the globe. These communities exist both online and in person. Most are comprised of good-natured, helpful people that will do anything to help their fellow Jeep enthusiasts. From amateurs to expert fabricators, all experience levels are encouraged to join a local Jeep community. Additionally, it’s a great way to make new friends while enjoying the outdoors, and the thrill that owning a Jeep Wrangler has to offer.