First mods and planning a build (Part 2)

Installing body armor as a first modification on the 2004 LJ.
In PART 1 I covered a list of very basic modifications to consider when getting into 4×4’s and the overland lifestyle. Since I can’t talk about every make and model of 4×4, in Part 2 I am going to talk about some of my personal experiences and not just how but why I modified the 2004 Wrangler the way it sits now.

When people ask me about modifying their 4×4 I usually tell them to work backwards. It’s easy to think with the wallet and buy what you can afford now, but this often leads to compromises that can be detrimental down the road.  It can also mean installing parts today that will be removed tomorrow once you can finally afford the upgrades you really wanted in the first place.

The first question I tell people to ask themselves is, “What tire size do I want to run?”  There is a big difference between the drivetrain load of 31″ tires and that of 35″ tires.  Engine power, transfer-case gearing, axle gearing, axle shaft load, and axle housing type are all things to look at when considering tire-size.  On top of that things like steering linkages, ball joints, and wheel bearings are all impacted when running larger tires.  There are also things to consider when looking at larger tires such as suspension lifts, body lifts, or body clearance modifications to run larger tires.  
The other question I ask people to consider is what the end goal of the 4×4 will be.  Will it be an off-road only rig, or will it be expected to be street-legal too?  Will it need to go from highway speed to rock crawling and back again in the same day?  Given the theme of this blog is overlanding, what type of terrain?  What state laws impact what modifications you can make to a street-driven 4×4?
So let’s talk about a real world example.

When I got the 2004 Wrangler Unlimited (LJ) I knew I was going to build it with the overland adventure lifestyle in mind.  It still needed to be highway worthy, but I wanted to make sure it could still hold its own off road in a variety of terrain types.  I knew I was going to run larger tires, but probably nothing larger than 33″ tall.  I also knew that at the time I had a good set of 31″ tall all-terrains sitting on my old Jeep that were practically brand new.  Since I have been wheeling for over ten years on 31’s it seemed like a logical choice to run 31’s on the Wrangler… for now.

With 31″ tall tires in mind I knew I was going to need some sort of lift on the Wrangler.  I had four options: spacers, a spring lift, a body lift, or break out the sawz-all.
  • Coil Spacers: I had run a set of spring spacers on one of my older Jeeps.  I had wanted to run 31’s on my 1996 ZJ that replaced my XJ.  I couldn’t afford a real lift so I went with a set of 2″ spacers.  While cheap and easy to install they didn’t last long.  Within a year three of the four spacers had failed.  I sprung for a set of 2″ coils and refused to ever run large spacers ever again.  Just seemed pointless to save a few bucks today and end up with more headaches down the road.  A smaller half-inch or 0.75″ spacer can be useful in leveling out an unbalanced or sagging suspension, but anything more than that, to me, isn’t a good idea.
  • Sawz-All: For a brief second I thought about breaking out the DeWalt and a fresh metal cutting blade to make the necessary room for the 31’s on the Wrangler.  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  While I don’t advocate factoring in “looks” to every decision, I did know I wanted to keep the clean factory lines of the Wrangler intact and not cut up the body unless I absolutely had to.  Some people don’t mind the cut-up look, it’s just not for me.
With spacers and cutting off the table that left me with two viable options, either a full suspension lift or a body lift.  Since I was going to start off running the 31″ tall tires from my old Grand Cherokee I knew I needed around one or two inches of lift.
  • Body Lift: Most times when you mention a body lift people cringe and say how they look stupid. I think this is true or larger 2″ and 3″ body lifts but, in my opinion, a well done 1″ body lift is usually subtle enough to run unnoticed to all but the expert eye.  Also, with a 1″ body lift I knew I would be able to install a low-profile belly-pan which would give me some extra ground clearance.
  • Spring Lift: Having run ten years in my ZJ’s on 2″ springs, I really liked the idea of keeping the LJ low.  Stability and handling are key issues for me. I knew that with 2″ of spring lift I could clear 31’s now and 33’s down the road if I added a small body lift.  I also knew that with only 2″ of lift I wouldn’t run into any driveline issues like with taller lifts.
Simply put, the combination of a 1″ body lift and a 2″ or 3″ spring lift would give me the best of both worlds.  The upgraded suspension would help the Jeep handle better and clear the larger tires.  The body lift would give me a little extra clearance and allow me to run a low-profile belly pan giving me an extra 2.5″ of break-over clearance as well as switching to a smoother non-ribbed skid.  But what to do first?
After a lot of deliberation, I eventually decided on the 1″ body lift first because of a few reasons.  First, price.  A 1″ body lift for a Wrangler is cheap.  It’s easy to install and since I knew I would eventually want one I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about uninstalling it down the road.  I also knew I really only needed 1″ of clearance to run the 31’s I already had.  There was no reason for me to rush to a 2″ or 3″ spring lift to clear 33″ tall tires when I knew it would be months, if not a year or two, till I could justify the expense of buying new 33″ tires.  Lastly, another reason to consider a body-lift is it means all new bushings between the body and frame.  With a 10 year old Jeep in a northern climate I had no idea the condition of the body mounts.
Another bonus to staying with 31″ tall tires for now is not having to modify the driveline at all.  If I jumped to 33″ tires I would need to consider things like re-gearing the differentials from the stock 3.73:1 to something more like 4.56:1.  If I were to do that I would need to redo the carriers.  While not a necessity, I knew I should also upgrade to stronger shafts.  I’ve already broken a few u-joints and shafts in my day with my not-so-light right foot.  By staying with 31’s I could run stock driveline components and not be too worried.  Again, in the short run, saving myself some money.
Out with the old, in with the new.  1″ taller heavy duty motor mounts for the LJ.
Another reason I decided on the 1″ body lift was knowing that I would need to run a 1″ motor mount lift.  Since I had already experienced my fair share of motor mount failures over the years I figured a little preventative maintenance would be a good idea.  A pair of 1″ taller heavy duty motor mounts installed the same day I did the body lift seemed like a logical way to nail two birds with one stone.
While I was at it, I also removed the factory plastic crap off the Wrangler.  This was two fold.  One, I wanted to clean up the look of the Jeep a little bit.  Two, I knew the plastic crap just wasn’t going to last.  The factory plastic bumper ends, dubbed “milk jugs” by many in the Jeep community, had a habit of denting even with the slightest contact.  The factory steps would also crack at the first impact with a rock or tree and would also be in the way of the rocker-armor I was planning on installing.
Unwanted plastic parts.
No more plastic, a 1″ body lift, and a set of 31″ tires.
Making an already good looking Jeep look better!
Once the body lift was on I managed to score a set of rocker guards.  With the longer wheelbase of the Wrangler Unlimited being 10″ more than a stock SWB Wrangler I knew the rockers would be very vulnerable to damage.  This was something I had learned over years with wheeling longer four-door Jeep models like the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.  I also knew the rockers would make a great point to jack the Jeep up using a Hi-Lift jack so a version with a tubular step was what I was looking for.  The crew at A-to-Z Fabrication hooked me up with a set of their rockers and from day one I was sold.  Solid quarter inch rocker armor, tubular step, and full-coverage wheel well to wheel well made them a no brainer.
First a few coats of primer…

… then a few coats of black …

… and now it’s time to install!
I opted for a set of unpainted rockers because, to start the price was right, but also because I knew it would be much easier to touch them up myself down the road with a rattle-can of spray-paint than if I had gotten them professional powder coated.  I am also a fan of DIY jobs to save a few bucks.  Painting them myself took some time, but it save me money that I could spend on other parts.  Something you’ll learn I like to do a lot.
With the rockers installed I was itching to get the Wrangler out on the trails.  One of the other modifications I installed was a set of sway-bar disconnects (stay tuned for a post just about sway-bars and disconnects).  Most people install disconnects on the sway-bar to get more articulation, or ‘flex’, out of the suspension.  While essential for rock-crawling, it’s not all that essential for overlanding.  However, over the years of driving my Jeep connected and disconnected I noticed that even on dirt/gravel roads and when general trail riding the ride was much smoother with the sway-bar disconnected.  I knew a set installed early on would go a long way in saving my kidneys and bladder from the pitfalls and potholes of unmaintained mountain roads.  I also just happened to have a set on my ZJ that I knew would also work on the LJ.  A dollar saved is a dollar earned, right?
1″ Body Lift & 1″ HD motor mounts
Rocker Guards with tube-step
Front Sway Bar Disconnects
31″ tall All-Terrain Tires
Front and rear two-hooks

A trail worthy 4×4 with only a few basic mods.
For now the Wrangler is running factory skid plates.  Luckily it came with skid plates for the transmission and gas tank already installed.  The belly-pan also serves as a nice piece of under-body armor protecting the body of the transmission and transfer-case.  With 1″ body lift installed I am hoping to install a low-profile “belly up” or “tummy tuck” style belly pan along with a longer front skid plate that will protect the transmission pan and the engine oil pan.  I would also like to get small skids for the lower control arms.  For now I will leave the factory gas tank skid alone because part of me is debating swapping it out for a larger tank.  Since I’m in no rush to drop that kind of money any time soon, the factory skid will have to do it’s job.
Hopefully this two-part piece serves as a way for you to think critically about the plans for your 4×4 and give you some things to think about.  Think backwards with a vision of your finished rig in mind.  Remember, for overlanding you don’t need to run out and buy bigger tires and a big lift right away.  Focus on the small quick and easy modifications first.  Get some good all-terrain tires, even if they are stock or near-stock size.  This allows you to save money from the suspension and put it towards skid-plates.  A fancy 4″ long-arm lift and 35″ tires does nothing for you when there’s a hole in your oil pan from a rock.  However, you can slide your rig right through with skids if you’re smart about the lines you pick.

0 thoughts on “First mods and planning a build (Part 2)

  1. Author's Comment: Please note that this isn't a "play book" or "shopping list" that everyone should follow. I'm just sharing the process I went through and not just WHAT I did first but WHY I didn't it. The important thing to take away from this is to "work backwards." Think about where you want your 4×4 to be when you're done, what you're building it for, and then work back to it's current state. Save money where you can… work smarter not harder… and buy quality parts rather than stuff that is "all show and no go."

  2. Dean,

    Thank you for these posts. I have been racking my brain on what simple mods to start with as I modify my 2015 JKU Sahara for overlanding. I want to keep things simple and you have provided me with some sound advice.


  3. Thanks. Building a Jeep for rock-crawling is very different than overlanding. A lot of people overbuild parts of their jeeps for overlanding (like big lifts and big tires) while neglecting overs (quality of suspension over the hight; lack of recovery; lack of gear storage). If you have any specific questions feel free to shoot me a line.