Skid Plates – Time for some upgraded armor

When you start to push your overland adventures into more remote and technical terrain the risk of damage, and the repercussion from such damage, starts to escalate quickly.  Figuring out how to deal with that kid of thing is a delicate balance between risk identification, risk assessment, and risk mitigation.

Not a position you want to find yourself in without adequate skid plates.
Might also explain why my OEM transfer case crossmember and OEM Transmission skid plate were bent.

When it comes to protecting the vital systems of your 4×4 the name of the game is skid plates.  In this article we’ll explore some recent upgrades to the LJ and some of the reasons why I chose to take my skid plate game to the next level.

When I set out to build the LJ into my version of the ultimate overland adventure vehicle I knew it would have to preform three tasks equally well. First, it’s my daily driver. No matter what I do to it it has to be reliable and comfortable enough to drive everyday. Second, it’s an overland adventure vehicle. This means it has to handle long journeys in a variety of terrain as well as be functional as a rolling “home on wheels.” Lastly, and here’s where things get complicated, it’s also part rock crawler. By no means do I expect my little LJ to tackle extreme terrain. However, I do expect it to tackle technical terrain without breaking a sweat. The 2016 No Highways Tour proved the LJ can tackle black diamond trials in Moab but still manage to navigate back roads, dirt roads, highways, and still get me back and forth around town for errands. That said, I did find some weak links.

Risk Identification

Arguably the two most vital systems in any 4wd vehicle are it’s engine and it’s transmission.  If you peak under your vehicle you’ll see they are also two of the most vulnerable.  A byproduct of their design are large flat pans full of fluid.  Both the engine and transmission need that fluid to work.  There is no worse feeling than looking at your rig with all of it’s “blood” spilled out on the trail because a branch impaled the transmission pan.  Even worse is coming down off a rock, hearing a crunch, and then watching your oil pressure plummet.  Luckily neither one of those things happened to me but I was there when they happened to people I know.
Another vital area on any 4wd is the fuel tank.  Most fuel tanks on modern SUV’s and trucks these days are plastic.  Plastic cracks really easily when impacted.  Luckily most manufacturers know this so things like my ’04 Jeep Wrangler come with a factory gas tank skid.  However, not all manufactures are so inclined to make that sort of things a factory options.
Think stock skid plates are enough?
The OEM gas-tank skid on the LJ not only had it’s far share of dents, but it was also pushed up by about a half-inch.
There, much better!
Not only does the GenRight Safari tank incase my fuel capacity from 19 to 31.5 gallons, it also comes with a heavy duty steel skid plate.
The final two areas worth mentions are on the axle.  A solid front axle is the second lowest component of a 4×4.  The differential housing is in a very low and vulnerable location. The other thing that a lot of people may not realize is vulnerable are the lower control arm brackets.  Most Jeep owners deal with the dreaded “death-wobble” at one time or another.  One potential cause of death-wobble is actually fatigued control arm mounts due to repeated impact.  While not a high-risk thing for soft-road/overland Jeeps, it can become an issue for those that like to go rock-crawling.  Which brings me to the next point, risk assessment.
When I did my new gears in the LJ it was the perfect time to add a better differential cover.
A lot of people claim skid plates are just a bandaid for a lack of driver skill.  They say that they are a waste of money and the added weight isn’t worth it.  I beg to differ.  Given the above experiences I treat skid plates like fire extinguishers.  Better to have one and not need it rather than need one and not have it.

Risk Assessment

Part of the process is not only identifying risks, but assessing them as well.  Is there a risk a meteorite will fall from the sky and crush my Jeep?  Sure.  It’s highly unlikely, but in theory it could happen.  That doesn’t mean I need to worry about it though.  The likelihood of something like that is so low it’s not worth an ounce of my time.  However, is there a risk of a rock or tree-branch poking a hole in my engine or transmission oil pan?  Yup.  I’ve seen it happen.  Is there a risk of a rock deforming my differential cover causing a leak?  Yup.  I’ve had that happen.  Is there a risk of a rock or branch poking a hole in my plastic gas tank?  Yup.   Luckily it already has a skid plate.
The first area I knew needed protected was the body.
While not a skid-plate by definition, rocker guards to their far share of skidding on rocks.
Risk assessment isn’t just about probability though.  It’s highly unlikely anything will hit my engine oil pan.  However, if something does then the repercussions of that damage could be extremely bad.  For instance, if I’m in a remote part of the Utah desert and some freak accident happens where something hits my oil pan and causes a leak I could be stranded.  That’s not an easy trail-side fix.  Plus I’d also need a full engine’s worth of oil.  That’s not something I carry (although I probably should).  So while the likelihood is low, the risk is still high.  Sort of like why I carry a fire extinguisher.  I hope to never need it.  However I never leave home without one.
Skid plates are like fire extinguishers.
You know you never need one, but you’ll be glad to have it when you do.
The other part of risk assessment is knowing your limits.  It’s probably honestly the first risk mitigation technique.  That’s knowing when to not enter a situation.  More often than not the majority of my problems were self-inflicted.  I either went down a trail that was a little over my head, or I was young and still using the “when in doubt throttle out” philosophy.  Those two things usually equated in one broken part or another (like a split axle housing).  Knowing when to turn around because you’ve assessed a high risk situation is always a smart move.  However, sometimes you can’t.  That’s when other risk mitigation techniques are needed.

Risk Mitigation

Once you’ve identified the risks and assessed their likelihood it’s time to take measures to prevent them.  While it would be ridiculous to wrap out 4×4’s in bubble wrap or fully armor them like tanks there are a number of ways to protect the most vital of systems.  Again, for the average overlander many of these might be overkill. That’s up to you to decide how far down this risk mitigation path you’re going to go.  For me, I need some major upgrades.

That’s a lot of exposed vital systems.
Not to mention the transfer-case crossmember (bottom of the pic) turns into a shovel really easily.
So much better.
The exhaust,engine  oil pan, and transmission oil pan are all protected.
Plus the engine skid overlaps with the transfer case crossmember making a virtually seamless underbelly.As a bonus, this skid doesn’t interfere with the front driveshaft.
Aside from the above mentioned things like rocker guards, differential covers, and the GenRight gas tank skid, I knew I was going to need a new better transmission skid plate.  I also wanted to protect the steering box which is in a very bad location on the LJ.  The other thing I wanted to do was the LCA’s skids since the lower control arm mounts on my ZJ were toast.  Live and learn.  Lastly, is the lower radiator guard.  While a relatively low risk impact zone, this guard just helps protect the lower part of the radiator from things getting kicked up into it.  More importantly, it also protects lines for my auxiliary transmission cooler.
Looking up at the radiator and the transmission cooler lines.

Much better. Just need to tuck up the transmission cooler lines a little better.
As you can see, the steering box is very exposed.

It also hangs down low bellow the frame.

This Skid Row box is one of the best on the market is duplicated by so many other companies.

So much peace of mind knowing it’s protected now.
Side-by-side comparison of the lower control arm skids.
You can see how much protection these offer.

Supporting the Innovators

SFK Manufacturing, LLC, the company behind the Skid Row Offroad brand, was one of the first speciality companies to make products for the Jeep lineup.  They’ve made skid plates for CJ’s to JK’s and XJ’s to ZJ’s and even the KJ.  They now offer skid plates for not only Jeeps but also Nissans and Toyotas.  They will also do custom work taking all of their expertise and ingenuity to build skid plates for any 4wd on the road.  Just like other companies like JKS Manufacturing, AtoZ Fabrication, and Rigid Industries ECOA seeks to partner with and support the true innovators in the off-road industry.  There are plenty of made-in-China crap products out there.  We want nothing to do with that crap. We also don’t want to partner with companies that rip-off the designs from the real innovators.  When the time comes for you to upgrade your vehicle, whether it’s suspension, body armor, skid plates, or LED lighting make sure to support the innovators who are developing the products.
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