First mods and planning a build (Part 1)

Going to do a three-part series this week on what modifications should be made to a stock 4×4 early on in the build process with overlanding in mind as the end goal.  Also going to look at the planning process itself and how you go about picking which modifications to do first and what to keep in mind for later. 

So, you have a nice new-to-you stock 4×4… what should you modify first?
Over the years I have worked with many people new to the 4×4 world.  The question I get the most, and usually with the most enthusiasm, is “What mods should I get first?”  Everyone who gets the 4×4 bug be it for trail riding, rock crawling, or overlanding usually gets it bad.  Without a definitive build plan, this can often lead to problems down the road or many lessons learned the hard way.
When I got my first Jeep, an ’87 Cherokee Pioneer, I knew nothing about Jeeps.  I knew a little bit about cars and general automotive stuff, but when it came to the off road world I was a total noob.  It wasn’t till many years later, after the Cherokee had been sold for scrap, that I learned it had a D44 with a limited slip, the venerable AW4 transmission, and the versatile 242 Select-Trac transfer-case that I realized I sold solid off road gold for pennies of scrap value.  IDIOT!
As I mentioned in my last post, I plan to talk you through the planning process using my ’04 LJ as an example. My goal is to explain why I choose the mods I did and relate them to some hard-learned lessons from my earlier days of wheeling.  To start, here are a few basic modifications to consider.

The Driver

The very first modification I tell people they need to worry about it is themselves. There are a lot of subtle differences about driving off-road verses on-road. While there is no substitute for experience, a good place to start is an “Off Road 101” style class. Organizations like The International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers’ Association specialize in high quality training and have a network of certified trainers all across the country.  Many of them offer not just basic 101 level courses but also more advanced “201” courses for experienced drivers or drivers wanting to learn advanced skills.  They also offer topic-specific courses like vehicle recovery and making trail repairs.  A formal class is a great way to hone your skills as a driver in a controlled environment from expert trainers.  Even an old crow like myself has a few bad habits and could benefit from a refresher.

Recovery Points

There is no point leaving pavement if your 4×4 doesn’t have recovery points.  There was a day when anything sold on a dealer lot that had four wheel drive came with solid recovery points.  Now, for the sake of aerodynamics, cleaner body lines, and a more sophisticated look most 4x4s lack basic recovery points or relegate them to up-charged special equipment packages.  Even when buying a used 4×4 there is no guarantee there will be recovery points or what kind of shape they are in.  One of my most important recommendations for any 4×4 person is to make sure their rig has quality reliable strong recovery points front and rear.  Hooks, d-rings, frame-mounted 2″ receivers, something… anything… and of course more than one.

The previous owner must have swapped bumpers at some point.
When I got it the factory hooks were missing.
Luckily I was able to procure a set from a local Jeeper.


The only points of contact between your 4×4 and the terrain are your tires.  A good set of tires will go a long way in helping you go further even in a stock rig. When overlanding you need to make sure your rig has reliable sturdy tires that provide traction in a variety of terrain types and weather conditions.  My personal preference is for an all-terrain tread since it seems to be the “jack of all trades” of tires.  Usually overlanding is done on established trails where top surface may be loose but the subsurface is compacted.  This usually negates the need for aggressive mud terrain or ‘bogger’ type tread patterns.  All-terrain tires, especially name brand ones, usually have sipping making them great in the rain and snow which is a feature many large-lug aggressive tread tires lack.  Since overlanders see a mix of terrain, paved and unpaved, it is my opinion a good set of all terrain tires is an essential first modification.

These were the wheels tires on the LJ when I got it.
While fine for the street, they lacked the aggressive tread and sidewalls for off-pavement travel.

Skid Plates and Body Armor

There is nothing worse then being miles from paved roads with a hole in your oil pan, transmission pan, differential cover, or gas tank.  Over the years either I or someone I’ve been with has experienced all of these things.  Skid plates are essential in protecting the vital systems of your 4×4 from rocks and sticks.  If you don’t think sticks can’t hurt, Google “tree through Jeep firewall.”  Even for a “light duty” overlander which won’t see extreme rock crawling or be traversing through unknown wilderness, skid plates can go a long way from making a good day become a bad day.  Things to consider adding skid plates to if your 4×4 lacks factory skids: engine oil pan, transmission, transfer case, gas tank, and rock sliders for the body.  The last one is essential for longer wheel-base rigs but even on a shorter rig they can help protect the body.  Rock rails also can serve double-duty for a jacking point when using something like a Hi-Lift.

Rocker protection is essential.
Not only does it protect the body but it also serves as a hi-lift jack point.
These rocker guards from AtoZ Fabrication are essential for any Jeep.

The Big Picture

If you notice, I haven’t mentioned anything about a snorkel, suspension lift, winch, or roof-rack all of which are common items on modified 4x4s set up for overland or expedition travel.  The reason being is two fold.  For starters, the goal I have for this blog is to show people that you can go overlanding on an “everyman” budget.  This means spending money wisely and not just buying every shiny bell and whistle modification that’s on the market.

The second reason is that a lot of those things aren’t needed by everyone, everywhere, every time.  The goal of this post is to emphasis essential basic modifications for the novice overlander.  In the 15 years I’ve been in the 4×4 world I’ve never owned a Jeep with a winch or a snorkel nor can I honestly say I was ever in a situation where I absolutely needed either one.  I can, however, tell you countless stories where a skid plate saved my engine from a large rock; where my all-terrain tires outperformed stock radials or more expensive mud-terrains; and times when a lack of a solid recovery point made what would have been an easy recovery a total nightmare.

There’s also a danger in building a rig that is more capable than the driver.  Over the years I’ve come across people with deep pockets that have built some really nice rigs.  I’m talking about brand new off-the-lot 4×4’s that have gotten big lifts, big tires, lockers, snorkels, and all kinds of goodies that made my mouth water all before their first oil change.  Once we were out on the trails it was as if they couldn’t drive their way across a parking lot without wrecking.  They had no concept of how to pick a  line through an obstacle.  They had no idea how to modulate the throttle for maximum traction.  They had no idea how to finesse their way gently down a trail without tearing it up, running into trees, or bouncing their way off every rock.
I am a proponent of learning to drive a 4×4 stock long before running out and throwing 100’s and 1,000’s of dollars into modifications.  Recovery, tires, and skids.  Learn to drive it, and have fun.  Case in point, I’ve never owned a Jeep with tires larger than 31″ tall. That’s no bigger than a stock Wrangler Rubicon tire.  People ask me all the time, “When are you going to get bigger tires?”  I always reply, “When I stop having fun on these.”  When the day comes I do upgrade, I probably won’t go much bigger.  At most I think the Wrangler will see some 33″ tall all terrains next.  Which brings up an interesting point on how to plan a build, which I will cover in Part 2 later this week.