Image Credits: @Franks_Lens and @KateTheJeep
Getting Started – Where to Start with Modding Your JEEP JK, and JEEP JL – Everything You Need To Know About Getting Started
“I just bought a JK (or a brand new JL) Jeep Wrangler and I’m ready to build it up just like my favorite Instagram influencer’s rig!”
They say the greatest teacher is experienced and let me tell you from someone who has gone HAM on his own build, that if I could do it all over again, if I could take my time, it would have been done so differently. What would I do? I would start with a solid foundation of basics and in incremental stages rather than throw an entire 10 lbs into a 5lb bag. My key takeaway from that approach was the fact that I would find myself chasing issues whose origins were hard to pinpoint. So why take your time and do it methodically? Stepping up for instance to 37’s with a cheap basic lift and a grumper grill can have consequences down the line for the reliability, functionality, and longevity of your adventure vehicle. Understanding how the various components of your build fit together can ultimately save you both time and money down the road. But as you’re just starting out we’ll focus on some items that will add a unique look and feel to your vehicle while also being practical items you’ll appreciate having as you start adventuring with your new Jeep project! So in this article, we’ll explore the basics when it comes to a Jeep build and go from there in articles to come!
What are your plans?
Are you the type of person who cringes at the thought of branches creating racing stripes alongside your vehicle on a narrow trail? Do you hate the idea of beating up your stock skid plates and smashing your differential housing on a rock? Then crawling is most likely not your thing, granted racing stripes and offroading are often unavoidable no matter how cautious you are. If you’re into crawling then there will definitely be things you’ll want to consider in not only your build but the platform you start out with. For you JK aficionados, are you going to get the X/Sport, Sahara, or Rubicon trims? For you JL guys, do you look at the Sport, Sahara, Mojave, MOAB, Rubicon, or one of the other trim models? Let’s break those down real quick and the pros and cons of each.
Roads you can go down:
- Rock Crawler
- Desert/Baja Racer
- Family Camper
- Mall Crawler/Trailer Queen
Different Trim Levels
(image property of Stellantis Group)
On the JEEP Wrangler models from 2007-2012 (gen1 JK) you had a 3.8l V6 motor within the before mentioned trims and from 2012 through the end of production in mid-2018 (gen 2 JK) you had the decently reliable Pentastar 3.6l V6 motor in the same said trims. The Sport/X, being your bare-bones JEEP, with more luxury coming to you by way of the Sahara trim and finally the fully trail capable Rubicon (which lives up to its namesake) with a mix of both luxury and off-road functionality. Both generations offer standard and unlimited versions giving you either 2 or 4 doors respectively.
On the JL Wrangler side of things, you had pretty much the same base trims with even more trims such as the MOAB trim which offered a lot of what makes the Rubicon great coupled with the luxury of what the Sahara would traditionally get you without going all-in on the crawling side of things.
Regardless of which way you go, there are going to be some creature comforts and basic mods you should look into first before going down the rabbit hole of Jeep ownership. We know you’ll enjoy the ride a lot more with any of these recommendations.
Getting Started With Some Quick Mods
I’ll make it easy if you haven’t already purchased a Wrangler and plan to do some serious upgrades down the road including swapping out axle housings, and what have you, get the Sport. If you want something that can get you up some hills and having fun with some of your better-equipped friends get the Rubicon. Based on your personal preference you can dabble in the multiple trim levels offered for both the JK and JL platforms. With that said here’s the approach I would take as someone who both loves to camp as well as crawl. Mind you I own a 2016 Rubicon.
The first 10 mods for your JEEP JK or JEEP JL:
- Headlight/Foglight LED upgrade (if you don’t already have it from the factory)
- Roof Rack System
- Hood latches (JK Owners)
- Door Steps
- Accessory Holder
- Auxiliary power ports
- Lower shock skids
- Hand-held Radios
- Extra Fuel
Yeah, there’s a ton missing but unless you have 20k to drop right away, I say take your time. Why did I make that my list? Where’s the suspension lift? The tires? The bigger axles? The rooftop tent? That will come later, for now, I was thinking about all of the things that I’ve enjoyed having in my Jeep. All of the things that make life either more comfortable, easier, and more functional. We will be releasing a series of topics and articles to come, specifically on upgrading your tires, axles, and definitely a complete guide to choosing a suspension lift on your Jeep JK or JL. There’s a lot to consider when you go into the bigger-boy/girl parts and time will be your friend.
1. Lights Before Lockers – No Seriously!
In the number one spot I’ve always joked you should get lights before locker (I even made a t-shirt at KC saying as much when I worked there). The Jeep halogen lights are notorious for how underwhelming they are, I always found myself straining to see beyond the dull amber glow of the stock halogens. Upgrading to a solid set of LED headlights and LED fogs suddenly made things feel like they went from black and white to HD color.
2. Roof Racks – More Storage
Truth be told, I listed Roof Rack as number 6 originally but after a little reflection I bumped it up to number 2 since the Jeep, for as big as it looks, doesn’t really have a lot of cargo space. This massive vehicle on the outside tends to shrink within as it allows for a lot of legroom for the passengers and comfort trumped cargo. This is a tolerable tradeoff especially when you have 2 kids, a couple of dogs, and a spouse. But after getting a cooler or fridge and some additional items like a stove, buddy heater, and more you run out of space for things like additional supplies, recovery gear, bedding, and more. A roof rack not only solves that but the top tier companies also go beyond offering the base platform and have dozens of upgrades. Frontrunner and Rhinorack are at the top of the list for that kind of functionality.
There are several great choices in rack systems available to you, I have listed a few of my picks below but there are many racks out there to choose from.
- Frontrunner Outfitters Slimline II
- Rhinorack Pioneer Rack with Backbone System
- Rebel Offroad Halo Roof Rack
- Gobi Stealth Rack
- EVO MFG JLU Unlimited Trail Roof Rack
3. Steps for Rack Accessibility
One product that makes me laugh every time I think about it, both for how great of a purchase it was to also it is the one thing that stands out the most no matter how much my other parts cost is my Smittybilt Atlas Door Steps. Now I’m by no means a Smittybilt guy, I have no affiliation with them but damn if they didn’t make the absolute best way to get up higher on your Jeep especially if you have a roof rack/rooftop tent. Not only that but each doorstep has a bottle opener. Buyer beware the bottle opener is angled just right to send a frothy stream of beer all over your door…just saying.
I’ll give you some other options but the number 1 spot listed below is there for a reason.
- Smittybilt Atlas Door Steps
- Hooke Road Door Steps
- EAG Door Hinge Folding Foot Peg
- AUXMART Door Hinge Foot Pedal
- BODY ARMOR Hinge Steps
4. Recovery – Unstuck Yourself
Number 4 comes by way of a lot of experience. When you think of a winch it comes across as a tool for the more seasoned off-roader, truth is is that it’s an indispensable tool for even the weekend enthusiast. Experience in getting stuck and experience in getting un-stuck as well as un-stucking (yeah I made that up) people is worth its weight in gold. You might feel like you’ll always be responsible enough to drive within your vehicles’ as well as your own limits and not push beyond the safest parts of the trail or that you’d take the bypasses but eventually curiosity gets the best of us and we can’t help but see what our Rubicon is actually capable of doing. In times like those, it’s common to learn what it means to get high centered and turtle out on a rock. And sometimes you’re by yourself with your kids showing off what the cool new family Jeep can do. It’s those times you want the ability to recover yourself. A winch is a small investment in comparison to the time you’ll spend trying to dig yourself out or wait for rescue. When looking at winches you’re ultimately looking at something that can pull a few thousand pounds more than the weight of your vehicle. For most people, a 10,000lb winch will be plenty. In addition, you’ll see both synthetic and steel lines out there, I highly recommend going with synthetic as it’s far less disastrous when you encounter a catastrophic line break.
I happen to run a WARN ZEON-10S Platinum but there are a lot of other great brands out there.
- Superwinch SX series 10,000lb Synthetic Rope Winch
- Milemarker SEC95 – 9500lb Synthetic Rope Winch
- Smittybilt X20 Comp 10,000lb Synthetic Rope Winch
- and cheaper albeit less dependable units like Harbor Freight’s Badland winches. (Personally, I’d rather stick with the tried and true when it comes to getting myself out of a bad situation as quickly as possible.)
5. Latches – Less Distraction
Within the first year of I realized that my hood had a lot of play on my JKU. This was very noticeable on the long windswept highway stretches driving into the Joshua Tree area. After an impressively strong wind storm and literally thinking my hood was going to come ripping off of its latches, I bought what I felt looked like a solid set of aluminum latches from Rough Country on Amazon. No play whatsoever after the fairly straightforward installation.
- Rugged Ridge Hood Latches
- DV8 Off-road Hood Latch
- Rampage Products Locking Hood Latch
- JeCar Hood Latch
6. Communication Mounts – Increase Cabin Experience
Now, I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk about this product unless it was something I literally always use every time I drive my Jeep, and this is just that. The Vector Offroad JK-E dock is by far one of the best in-cabin accessories you can purchase for the inside of your Wrangler. Essentially it allows for you to mount everything and anything you need to get within eyesight or reach on your dash, like your cool 67 Designs phone holder or a mounting location for your Switch-Pros unit.
While there aren’t too many companies in this space, you do have a few options to choose from.
7. Power Solutions – How to Power Accessories
This next one might apply more to the parents or tech-heavy side of our community but Blue Sea Systems makes the absolute best products to expand your ability to charge and power things within your rig. I purchased the 12v with 2 dual USB port panel. This allows me to run a line to my rooftop tent at night, charge the kid’s devices during long drives, and also runs my fridge. Don’t even want to think of the mess of wires I’d have without it.
8. Skid Plates – The First Rock is the Hardest
Going back to the exterior and thinking of some of my more common pieces of carnage from the road I’d look into upgrading your lower shock skids in the rear. For whatever reason, the stock mounts are super under-built. They use a very thin steel construction, even for Dana 44s, and the impacts mine have taken have warranted a skid upgrade which essentially doubles up the wall thickness by surrounding the original bracket and reinforcing it with thicker metal and of course the skid element which allows rocks and the like to glance off rather than beat your mounts out of shape.
In general, as your level of comfort grows within the off-road space and you find yourself attempting harder trails, skids will become more of a necessity than a nice-to-have. Our Jeeps are highly capable vehicles but everything reaches its limit when faced with an immovable object.
Companies abound in this space but having so many options also makes for both greater availability and price point.
9. Communications – Ground Control to Major Tom
In the number 9 spot, I’d credit my comms as one of the more important pieces to my overland and crawling kit as when you’re offroading it’s so much easier to push a button to talk vs texting or calling, and often that’s even if you have a signal. I originally started out with HAM and never got around to obtaining the license which comes by way of a very long weekend class and test. Instead, I’ve transitioned to full GMRS comms. I happen to run Rugged Radios but there are other players in this space. The benefit of GMRS comes in the form of a very simple to obtain online license and compatibility with your 10-year old’s spiderman walkie-talkie. And if you’re saying they have limited reach, you’d be right in terms of handheld radios but in-cabin radios can push the wattages upwards 30-50 allowing you to broadcast over long distances. Besides, comms are those things that make you feel like a real-life off-roader/long-haul trucker, I can’t be the only one who likes saying “breaker, breaker” on the radio…
There are a lot of options out there with a few names doing it the best.
10. Extra Fuel – Going the Extra Mile…or 20
And finally, I’d say make sure you have plenty of gas on hand. Especially once you start adding in bumpers, sliders, and more your gas mileage will definitely suffer for it. When that happens you don’t want to be caught on a stretch of the 40 freeway running off of fumes and another 30 miles to go to the next station. Rotopax is a pretty universal solution to fuel (they also make a water container and supply container) and capacities range from 1.5 gallons upwards of 4.5 gallons. Doubles up they can significantly increase your range and at minimum give you just a little more peace of mind for your first few trips out. While there are a few options like surplus Jerry Cans and newer Jerry Can options from the likes of RT OFF-ROAD the gold standard remains the Rotopax brand with plenty of capacity options and other storage options. My only recommendation is to only use certified and approved fuel storage containers as the results of a low-quality product can be deadly.
With all of that said the truth of the matter is that there are many ways to start, and these initial items are a very short list of what will become a bottomless container of upgrades and tools that you’ll acquire during the time you own your vehicle. Having a pragmatic plan with sights on the future, a logical sense of what your budget is and enough research into the best possible direction for your vehicle is what should be at the core of your decision-making process.
Truly defining what you see yourself doing will also dictate your direction. If you’re crawling you’ll move towards a light-weight, recovery-minded, damage-protected build with solid suspension and axle components (probably a lot more than that but it’s a good starting point). If you’re more into the adventuring/camping side of things you’ll move into a less aggressive suspension system to allow for traversing long stretches of bumpy fire roads, likely have some form of shelter on board whether it’s a pop-up Gazelle ground tent or a ROAM rooftop tent and things like onboard refrigeration, power, solar and the like will become more important. And above all, as the saying goes, keep it fun, going through a never-ending list of upgrades can lead to a lot of problem chasing which will ultimately leave you wanting to see your Jeep go up in flames or off the side of a cliff.
Take your time, take each upgrade as individual steps so you can see how it affects your drivability and aren’t left trying to figure out which of the last 3 upgrades caused something to change should you run into a problem.
Don’t be like me, owning a Jeep should mostly be getting you out there, not to your local shop or taking up space lifted on jack-stands in your driveway.