Getting ready to do some extreme social distancing? It really narrows down the number of people you might come across when you’re a few miles up a one-way trail that 95% of vehicles couldn’t hope to conquer. To get there safely and in one piece, you might need (or want) to make some modifications to your rig.
Some of these are for safety and recovery, some are quality of life improvements while you’re out on the trail — but if we’re all honest with ourselves, a lot of why we want them is because they look pretty damn cool. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, I have legitimately used my roof rack one time, and yet I keep it up there year-round.
Most importantly, though, these are all things you can get done in your own driveway with basic hand tools, a little bit of elbow grease, and a selection of words you wouldn’t want your mother hearing.
A Note on Safety and Off-Road Jacks:
If I see another one of you chuckleheads using Hi-Lift jacks to do basic maintenance with no jack stands or other fail-safe in place, I swear…
These jacks can be extremely handy, yes, but they can be quite dangerous if used improperly. Especially with how much suspension travel these offroad rigs tend to have, if you’re jacking from the frame or body, you might have a long ways to go in order to get the wheels off the ground. The farther up you go, the longer a lever arm that jack becomes, and it won’t take much for the weight to shift over, and your rig come crashing down.
Also, these jacks are notorious for having sand, mud, rust, and dirt getting into the mechanism, giving the potential for the teeth to not catch on a lifting stroke, forcing thousands of pounds of weight back down to the previous notch — and the handle flying upwards as a result. That’s a good way to find yourself on the way to the emergency room with a shattered jaw. This isn’t an indictment of the quality of the tool, it’s just old technology, and you need to be careful with it.
Instead, I strongly recommend using a floor jack whenever possible and leave the farm jack for when you have no other options (because they really can be a lifesaver). You can jack from the differential, frame, or other designated lift points with a floor jack, though it might be necessary to use some wood blocks as spacers to get some more height. There are even specially made offroad floor jacks on the market for this very reason. After that, use jack stands, and place your tires under the vehicle to give yourself a buffer in case something does happen.
OK, let me just lower myself safely and gently down off this soapbox with my nice floor jack and we can get onto the list:
1) Off-Road Bumpers and Rock Sliders
They’re not always cheap, but second to a lift kit, this is probably one of the most drastic changes you can make to your rig on this list visually. Aside from looks, there are plenty of functional reasons to go with one as well, like being able to mount a winch, having solid recovery points on tap, giving you another place to mount lights, giving a little more clearance than the factory bumper, and of course, they can take hits better too.
For the most part, they’re pretty easy to install as well. This is changing slowly with new trucks and SUVs as these front end designs get more complicated and bumper shells are integrated into other bodywork. New Tacomas and 4Runners for instance require a lot of cutting in order to install an aftermarket bumper. Otherwise for most applications, and especially Jeeps, it could be as little as 8 bolts and maybe some wiring to incorporate stock lighting depending on the application.
Same goes for rock sliders and side steps. Most bolt right up to the frame or use stock bolting locations, especially for nerf bars or side steps for trucks and SUVs. With Jeeps some more hardcore rock sliders might require drilling holes in the tub to bolt up.
2) Mounting and Wiring a Winch
If you’re getting out away from civilization on anything rougher than a fire road — especially if you have to go out alone for whatever reason (you shouldn’t if you can help it), then I highly recommend getting a winch. Even the most capable rigs can get stuck in a mud bog that didn’t look too bad, or after sliding out into a ditch, or even to recover someone else you come across out on the trail.
While yes, a pull strap and a buddy can do wonders, there are situations where that just isn’t possible. Maybe it’s a bad angle, or there’s no room for him to pull you, or maybe he won’t be able to get enough traction to haul two rigs. With a winch you can pull from a tree (with a tree saver strap), or you can attach to a friends vehicle that can anchor itself on a tree or yet another rig. Lot’s of possibilities.
Mounting is pretty straight forward, just a few bolts on a winch plate onto any bumper that accepts them, and then wiring is pretty simple too. Basically any winch you order new will come with a wiring kit to the batter, and then you have the option of mounting a switch inside the cabin, or just use the remote that it comes with. I highly recommend getting a synthetic line with it. It’s worth the extra money for safety alone.
You can check out my general winch installation guide here.
3) Off-Road Lights
I’ll place this one on the list of more aesthetic leaning accessories, for most people anyway. How much off-roading do you really do at night? Of course, they are really handy come dusk especially, when there is just enough light out that even your brights don’t really do much, and they can be a must-have for the high speed desert guys for seeing rocks, dips, or other obstacles ahead of time. Plus, who am I kidding, they look cool.
Just please, I beg you, do not be one of those people driving around on the street with your light bar creating a beam of artificial sunlight everywhere you go. If absolutely no one is in front of you and you’re off the road or in the backwoods, then sure, go nuts. But on the street, all you’re doing is annoying everyone else at best. No one is impressed by your ability to flip a switch, I promise you that.
As far as installation goes, these can be about as simple or complicated as you want, depending on the lighting configuration, power requirements, and how you go about controlling them along with your other accessories. Most lights will come with a wiring kit, but you may want to use your own switching, tie into your brights circuit, or use an accessory controller like this one from Pro Comp to control them.
Either way, I have a general guide that I wrote for them here that you can reference.
4) Lifting/Leveling Kits
You want to fit those big tires? Well you have two options to do so. You can either install a lift kit to make some more clearance for them, or you can start cutting away sheet metal until they fit (or maybe a bit of both). A lift kit will also give you better approach, breakover, and departure angles. The only thing that can give your suspension and axles clearance, though, are bigger tires.
Depending on how big a tire you’re looking to fit, and what you’re driving, a leveling kit may be all you need. These are generally pretty easy to install, and just consist of a spacer above the front struts. Some smaller lifts use spacers for the rear as well. Coilovers or replacement struts are also usually not too difficult to install, it’s just a more time consuming process.
Where lift kits get more complicated is once you start going higher than 4″ or so. Then most vehicles will need some soft of correction in suspension geometry, either from new control arms, relocation brackets, pinion angle correction, or any number of things depending on your application. This is where you’ll need to look into the installation instructions for yourself to determine if this is something you’re comfortable with tackling yourself, as some of these installs can be quite involved.
For installing coilovers, I have another general installation guide here with some tips and tricks to make your life a little easier.
5: CB or Ham Radios
If you’re spending a lot of time out on trails, a good shortwave radio is worth its weight in gold. From just quick chatter along a trail ride on where to go next and obstacle warnings to helping to find someone stuck or otherwise in trouble — maybe even you! Oh, and on long road trips, you can pick up some pretty entertaining chatter from truckers, and useful traffic information. I even learned the term “lot lizard” with my trusty CB radio. Neat, huh?
Out on the trail as of late it seems that the trend around me at least is starting to shift away from CB radios to ham radios due to their range. However, you are technically require to have a ham radio license to operate on ham radio frequencies, though the lowest certification is pretty easy to obtain and gives you access to the most commonly used bands.
Installation for either is pretty straightforward, it really just comes down to getting the radio power, and then routing the antenna somewhere out of the way of low obstacles while also being high enough to have decent range. Whip antennas are popular for this reason, because they can easily be strapped down for parking garages and drive-throughs, and have plenty of flexibility to (hopefully) bounce right off the odd tree branch.
If you really want the maximum range, though, tuning the unit and antenna can get pretty in-depth to do right. There are plenty of guides on how to do this out there with the help of a cheap SWR meter. That might make an appearance in a future guide here.
Have any questions or comments on this guide? Anything I left out? Have any ideas for what DIY projects we should cover next? Drop a comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com!