TAKING A STOCK TJ WRANGLER TO ROCK CRAWLING LEVEL
“Red” the Land Use War Machine “Jeep Albright” has been around the block a time or two, graced the covers of several magazines, traveled hundreds of trails, and had four (4) rebuilds with dozens of changes and upgrades. Millions of enthusiasts have checked out Red over the years on the social networks and websites.
Here is his story of this first-off-the-line 1997 Jeep TJ Wrangler. This is not a list of endorsements or sponsor/partner thank you notes. My focus is on telling you how Red got to where he is; what worked and what didn’t work after 22 years with my butt in the front seat — and upgrading, changing, fixing, and modifying about any part you can think of.
Red came to me in late 1997 to replace my 1982 CJ-7, “DV Sally.”
He was built in May of 1996 when Jeep was using a lot of XJ Cherokee parts in the new TJ. His computer was first off the line and discontinued a few months later. So nothing “1997 TJ” fits Red. Oh well…adapt, engineer and overcome.
I will start by telling you the only thing left that is stock from the factory is the transmission; everything else has been changed many times.
From a tech tip standpoint, I will let you know what I did; what mistakes I made; and what righteous moves I did; and what suggestions I have for you and your Jeep build.
1998 first trip out, still with tube bumpers.
In an ideal world…
If you have a new to you Jeep you want to build, my first “in an ideal world” suggestion is to plan and research your entire build; save up the money to do it all at once; and THEN commence the transformation.
We all know that seldom if ever happens.
When I bought Red from my brother (R.I.P.) who had owned it 6 months from brand new, he had off road tires, an early model 4:1 transfer case reduction, and a couple lights. With a 5-speed (stock) tranny he was fun to drive. But I broke him!
Always a land use war machine, in 1999 he was on the steps of the CA state capital as part of Lobby Day.
For examples, I changed rear ends and gears but didn’t “do” my driveline. Ouch. I changed the transfer case reduction by adding an Atlas and didn’t upgrade the goodies that connect to it! Big ouch; even spun off a chromoly axle. And before that I jumped up a tire size (or two) before changing gears so NO power! Anyway, here’s some tips.
Tires, Lift and Gears…
The vicious circle starts here. You should not lift your Jeep or put on big tires until you have the gears to turn them! Like most Jeepers, I thought in those days jumping from stock 3:73 street gears to 4:10 or 4:56 would be good. And yes, it was good – on 33 and even stretched to 35 inch tires. Later on I jumped to 37 inch tires and really started breaking stuff!
First trip to Moab, Golden Crack, where I learned that needed a gear reduction and some lockers!
So, skip the big bright lights and do-dads and focus on gears and tires in your early stages.
Lift it; Lock it; Winch it; and Rack it…
I told hundreds of Jeepers to use this catchy phrase…but of course, from above, get some appropriate gears. But locking up your axle (or at least a limited slip) should be done at the same time you change gears. Did I? Not the first time I changed gears. But after 4 rear ends, I learned this lesson the hard way. It’s spendy to go back in later.
Red Jeep overlooking the Rubicon Trail, Ca in 2002. Still a lot of stock going on. Too many times I felt a bit naked without a real roll over system.
Winch: A winch is insurance. Period. Don’t leave home without it if you’re doing trails or traveling alone (not recommended).
No longer manufactured, the Warn PowerPlant was one of the best things I did to Red, having the air compressor up front and easy to get to. I gave up long ago on cheap, auto parts store 12 volt pumps. They take way toooooo long. I recommend a portable (unless you can mount it) good electric/12v pump that clamps to your battery (not cigarette lighter style).
Snorkel: In the early days I added tube bumpers (popular then) as well as a snorkel. My thinking on the snorkel had to do with my open air-intake system which was assisted (I thought) by the snorkel forcing air into the motor. It helped some. But no, I never crossed water deep enough to need a snorkel. I still like them on overlanding rigs, though.
I went through a lot of changes in wheels and racks and accessories. Good off-road tires were always part of my gear, though. In places like Moab, you must learn the pick the lines right for your Jeep! Don’t follow an articulated buggy with your 33 inch tires and mostly stock Jeep.
Racks: Putting storage racks on smaller Jeeps like my TJ is essential – I thought. I added a rack on top; a rack in the back; gas can carriers; and an internal rack after removing the back seat.
About then I was partnered with Larry McCrae of Poison Spyder who weighed my Jeep on digital scales. 7000 pounds!
Larry looked at me with a frown and said, “Del, you gotta lose weight!”
In my early overlanding phase, I beefed up everything and went heavy. That would have been fine if I had not still been a rock crawler. I did too many spare tire stands and near back flips. Lighter is better…If you’re overlanding, then this probably appeals to you. The trick for me was to find the right combination of overlanding, picnicking and rock crawling.
The lesson here is to remember that everything you add to your inventory or Jeep build adds weight. In some circumstances like rock crawling, weight is NOT your friend.
Lights, Recovery, and Armor
Armor: If you plan to get off road and in rocks, armor your Jeep. Rockers, or rock sliders are critical in my book. Skid plates on key belly stuff is important too. I even had a welded-on skid plate on my rear diff. You should not have to worry about every bump, grind and gouge.
Lighting: Yes, lights are cool. I have had my share on Red. Key point is to put lights where you will really use them – not just look good. I added two small lights to the back rack of Red for setting up camp without using my headlights. The rack swings out and the lights become maneuverable to point where I need them.
Get it home: Recovery gear is valuable – even if for your buddy and not you. We already talked of a winch as insurance. But a good recovery kit; some appropriate tools and connectors; and the safety items to ensure a smooth recovery. What videos. Do your homework. Talk to the experts.
I immediately fell in love with closed system winching and synthetic winch rope. Being able to safely recover me, or my buddies, was critical. And keep your recovery kit handy; not too buried when in the hard stuff.
Radios, Roll Cages, and Dash
Communications: If you do club stuff and convoys, get the right radios and make sure you know how to use them. I waited too long to get a ham radio. I had a CB from the beginning and still use it; but ham is so much more valuable on many trails and in all emergencies.
Mounting a fire extinguisher where I could get to it; a good CB radio (in those days) and some roll cage accessories made Red more practical. The trick to mounting stuff in your Jeep is to FIRST just sit in it; in your driveway or shop. Imagine using the piece of equipment you’re considering adding on. I wanted my CB up top where I could see the numbers and knobs.
One of my best additions was the dual-band dash mounted Race/ham radio. What a trip saver.
With a custom roll cage, I was able to arrange my dash to hold all my goodies and still have roll over protection. The driver’s seat becomes more like a cockpit.
Roll over safety: Roll cages are for the serious. But if you Jeep with kids and pets, or do the hard stuff, GET A CAGE. Insurance. Even one that is bolted in is better than stock. Add enough braces to ensure you and your passengers can survive.
I have had two sets of 5-point safety harnesses, and honestly, I seldom, if ever use them. But I always insist on using good/real seat belts.
For us older Jeepers, there’s a saying: “At my age I need a cage.”
Dash Additions: On your dash, put the goodies that make sense for your travels and trips. GPS is key. Have a system/unit that you know how to use so you KNOW where you are – especially in areas with designated only travel. Be right. I tried going cheap and easy the first time. Not so good…my street system didn’t show off-road stuff. Worthless in the backcountry.
A mounting system that doesn’t let you down, or fall off, is key. Everything I attach to Red is meant to stay attached, even in a roll over.
Part 2 will be a gallery of more mistakes, additions, changes, upgrades and lessons learned…in the meantime, here are a few more pics.
Red made the cover and this inside shot in Surveyor Magazine in 2004 after the first official (modern day) survey of the trail.
We used to call this “jeep camping” but now it’s more just camping or overlanding.
Big lesson here! When I first started trailering Red, I thought I’d be slick (and convenient) and attach my straps to the D-Rings on the back of Red. Wrong! The Jeep bounces and works its own suspension until the straps get loose. The right way is to use axle straps or attach to the axle some how. Tire straps are good too. Using either the axle or the tires as your anchor eliminates Jeep bounce that loosens your straps.
Axle straps with good solid tiedowns are the right way to anchor your Jeep to the trailer. Tire straps work well too. Just don’t use the frame or D-Rings on the bumpers.
In this 2005 flop-over on the Rubicon Trail, there was no “yard sale.” I like to make sure stuff is attached, strapped down and likely to stay in place, even during a roll over. While strapping stuff down, I imaging being in a boat in the ocean; or at least imagine a flop over. Then tighten just a tad more.
Here is Red arriving at Wyotech University to spend three months getting rebuilt and fixed up after the Rubicon flop-over.
Walker Hill on the Rubicon Trail was our nemesis…Red took a flop-over and did a serious amount of damage that Wyotech spent 3 months fixing and learning from. That started the most amazing transition of Red and his life as a Jeep. Stay tuned…