Beyond the Stock: The Journey to Jeepness

So you’ve purchased your first Jeep! Congratulations on your soon-to-be addiction. Thankfully, this an addiction you can control. … Sort of. Well, mostly. … OK, who am I kidding? Some say “JEEP” stands for “Just eats every penny.” With one of the largest aftermarket followings in existence, the Wrangler is a metal canvas that many a mechanical artist has lavished with ideas, accessories, upgrades and wild customizations.

You can pass 10,000 Jeeps on the trail and never see two that are completely identical. This is a good thing, but with so many choices, deciding what to tackle first can be daunting. After all, most of us have limited funds to invest in our Jeeps, so we want every dollar spent to count. Let’s take a fun but practical approach.

The First Ride Is Free

The first step on your journey to ultimate “Jeepness” is free. Yes, it won’t cost you a cent. It’s really rather simple: Get out and ride. Go find places off-road to drive. Learn what your vehicle can do in its current state and how it feels out there in the wild.

Think about where you will actually drive your Jeep. Few of us will need to scale tree trunks and boulders on our morning commute to work. Yes, I mentioned the four-letter word that pays for our obsession, but with good reason: Unless you have the luxury of building a dedicated rig for exclusive off-road adventures, you will need to keep its on-road performance in mind as you plow forward with your off-road upgrades.

I want to give some love to the daily drivers that do double duty as off-road weekend warriors. As the sticker on the back of my WK2 proudly states, “Remember, Stupid, you have to drive this home!” Thanks to my lovely wife, I shall never forget these sage words of wisdom.

Pay close attention to the terrain you will be turning those tires over, and be mindful of how much time you spend on different surfaces. If you are driving on the highway at 70 miles per hour several times a week, that will temper your choices for suspension, tires and gearing. Remember that what makes a vehicle perform better off-road will typically reduce its performance on-road.


Join the Proverbial Club

Before you decide to go out trail-riding, try to find some likeminded folks to go out there with you. There are numerous Jeep organizations out there, and it’s not hard to find other locals who share your love for the outdoors and off-roading. It’s always a good idea to venture off-road as a herd — or at least with one other Jeep — for the sake of safety and getting back home.

Shortly after buying my first Jeep, I discovered the Ocala Jeep Crew on Facebook after one of my wife’s co-workers recommended we check them out. It has been both educational and inspirational to associate with others that know the area well, and have been wheeling longer than you have.

Group leaders are often asked by new folks, “What should I do first to my Jeep?” The most common reply is, “Where do you plan to drive it?” This is a simple thing to overlook, but one should give it consideration.

You would be surprised just how capable a bone-stock Jeep is, be it a Wrangler, Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, Compass or Renegade. Before you go spending your hard-earned money on upgrades, you need to determine what is necessary and what is optional for where you will actually be taking your beloved machine.

Back on Traction

Over the past year, I’ve been involved in numerous conversations pertaining to traction. Traction is the frictional grip a tire has with the road surface. Dedicated highway tires have smaller lugs, closer together, with multiple sipes, whereas dedicated off-road or mud tires have much larger voids between the tire lugs and tend to have few sipes and much thicker, blockier tread lugs.

Understanding that many Jeeps, trucks and SUVs serve as daily drivers and weekend off-road warriors, tire companies have been very busy producing treads that can handle both pavement and sand, mud or snow well. They trade some of the extreme performance features of the dedicated use tires to fit in the middle and be a good choice for all around use.

Tires like the BF Goodrich Comp TA KO2 or Goodyear Duratrac come to mind. But while these tires might seem like a logical first upgrade to the stock tires on your Jeep, you also need to consider your drivetrain and its ability to put the power to the wheel with traction.

We’ve all heard the word “locker” before. It refers to an axle’s differential having the ability to lock itself so both wheels turn at the same speed as the driveshaft turns it. For pavement and hard-packed dirt roads, an open differential will allow the left and right tire to spin at different speeds, allowing the inside tire to turn less than the outside tire in a turn. This greatly helps with the maneuverability of the vehicle.

A problem arises when the terrain offers little traction: While one tire spins on an open differential, the other can stay motionless, since all of the torque is being applied to the wheel that can spin freely. It’s a good idea to learn about what kind of drivetrain your Jeep came with. Some have electronic locking differentials both front and rear, which is ideal for selecting what you need when you need it. Others have fully automatic systems, like the Quadra Drive II system in the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and some other trim levels.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and the proud owner of “Black Widow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. He recommends considering your own usage and driving habits before committing to a modification of your stock Jeep.

This system can dynamically change the differentials from full open to full lock and anywhere in between. Having the ability to send 100% of the engine’s torque, any tire that has grip — even if it’s only one — can really get the most out of the traction available to the tires. It’s putting the power to the road that makes going off-road possible. Plow a front-wheel drive sedan into some sugar sand and you will quickly find yourself stuck with three tires not spinning at all and one just digging a hole. If you can keep all four tires turning, you have a much better chance at getting through and keeping your forward progress.

Just as the drivetrain and tires give you traction to pull yourself through the terrain, ground clearance gets you over the terrain. Getting “high-centered” is a dreaded event in which the center line of the vehicle is laying right on the ground and the tires are just spinning in the air, dangling in the ruts. This is why it’s key to keep the tires on top of the high ground so your Jeep doesn’t belly flop and become a solid mass of dead weight.

Call of the Wild

So after all this talk of tires, drivetrain and ground clearance, are we any better off figuring out what to upgrade first? Yes! By driving your Jeep out there in the wilderness, you will quickly discover where your particular vehicle is in need of modifications.

I would consider drivetrain first, tires second and lift third. However, you may want to include a winch in there, near the top, if it’s feasible. The winch will not only help you get out of a sticky situation, it will help get others out too, and helping others is at the core of Jeep culture, in my book.

Mechanical front and rear locking differentials are the pinnacle of drivetrain goals, but they may not be necessary based on your driving habits and how your existing drivetrain and four-wheel-drive system manages its available traction.

Huge, deep, knobby tires might look fantastic, but are they necessary? Remember, bigger tires bring on their own domino effect of required upgrades to compensate for driveshaft angles, transmission and differential gearing. You will likely have to lift the suspension to clear the tires. Each modification can lead to 10 more. It’s easy to get carried away going bigger, taller or stronger, but it may be more than is necessary to simply go for a ride off-road with friends.

But come on — we all know that “more than is necessary” is kind of built into Jeep’s DNA. So that Jeep is your own. Customize it to fit your needs and your taste. Build it for you, not for others. You just need to get out there and drive it and connect with the soul of your machine. The first upgrade is the beginning of a long and endless journey as you evolve your Jeep into an extension of yourself. Jeep life is not a destination; it’s a journey. Adventure calls. Let’s answer that call prepared.

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