A well prepared vehicle can be the difference between a successful off-road excursion and a not so successful off-road excursion. Here are some helpful tips to make sure your trip goes as successful as possible.By Jeff White – December 2, 2015

This article applies to the Jeep Wrangler JK (2007-Present).

Off-roading is abusive and brutal no matter what vehicle you’re in. Even vehicles designed and purposely built for off-road duty, such as the Jeep Wrangler, take a beating when leaving the pavement. That is why preparation before any off-road trip is extremely crucial to the success of your trip. It’s not so much a question as will something go wrong, but rather it’s a question as to when. I would say that nine out of 10 times you go off-road, there will be some situation that you get yourself into that being well prepared will get you out of with as little damage as possible. Rocks, sand, mud, trees and many other earthly things you encounter off-road will show you just how vulnerable your vehicle is.

Many of the tips I list here are not going to be vehicle specific and can be applied to any type of vehicle you decide to take off the beaten path. All of them will apply to the vehicle, but remember that there is a lot more to a successful off-road trip than the vehicle. Proper preparation for yourself and every other person that will be coming along is also extremely important and another how-to could be written just on that subject. It’s also always a good idea to bring along or at least consult with someone who is experienced in going off-road and also might have some experience in the area you will off-roading in.

Materials Needed

  • Jack and jack stands
  • Millimeter sockets sizes 10mm-21mm
  • Standard sockets sizes 3/8″-1″
  • Ratchet
  • Flat head screwdriver
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Needle nose pliers

Before beginning your preparation, it is a good idea to become completely familiar with your Jeep and its trim level as well as equipment. Obviously a Jeep Wrangler Sport is not going to be as capable off-road as a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon out of the box. Obviously you could have a Jeep Wrangler Sport with some off-road focused modifications, but again, this is why it would be a good idea to know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Step 1 – Check the vehicle’s fluids

First things first. Let’s start with the easiest and most basic of vehicle maintenance practices, which is checking the fluids. All of them. This means engine oil, automatic trans fluid or manual trans gear oil, brake fluid, coolant, washer fluid, diff fluid, anything that fluid is used for on your vehicle you will want to make sure you have it topped off and as fresh as it possibly can be. It would even be a good idea to perform an oil change or other fluid changes before going off-road. Remember, you are going to be putting your vehicle through very different stresses while driving off-road and most of the time you will be operating it in much different parameters than when you are driving around normally. An off-road environment is a hell of a time to realize that you don’t have adequate coolant in your radiator and due to the added strain on your engine’s cooling system is beginning to overheat.

Figure 1. An oil change and coolant flush may be a good idea.

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Step 2 – Check the vehicle for leaks

While checking all the vehicle’s fluids, it is always a good idea to have a look around and check out if there are any leaks that are noticeable. Any fluid that is coming from somewhere that it is not supposed to is either a sign that some fasteners need to be tightened, a seal is going bad, or there is some damage in the location of the leak. You will have to use your better judgement to decide how severe the leak might be. Keep in mind that while a leak might not be too bad at first, taking the vehicle off-road can worsen the condition of the leak and make the situation much more critical than it started out to be.

Figure 2. Inspect for oil leaks.

Figure 3. Check the auto transmission pan and seal.

Figure 4. Inspect the diff cover and pinion seals for seepage.

  • Figure 5. Another angle on the pinion and diff.

Other areas to check for leaks are:

  • Power Steering Lines
  • Wheel Seals
  • Automatic Transmission Cooler Lines
  • Brake Hoses and Lines
  • Valve Covers
  • Fuel Injectors and Fuel Filter

Step 3 – Check tires for wear and serviceability

Tires are extremely important when it comes to your vehicles’ proper handling on the road. They are the only part of your vehicle that contacts the road. Off-road driving is no exception. In order to ensure that your vehicle is going to be able to maintain its traction when the terrain changes and gets tougher is to make sure that the tires that your rig is equipped with are (1) capable of handling this type of duty and (2) are in the right condition to handle this type of duty. A proper off-road tire is made specifically to handle abuse. They usually have reinforced sidewalls and specifically designed tread that allows them to cut through many different types of surfaces, so that they can come in contact and make traction with varying surfaces. A common practice when off-roading is to air down your tires to a lower PSI so that it keeps the footprint of the tire as large as possible. In order for this to occur and still keep the tire in a working condition, it must have a sidewall designed for this. It is one of the reasons off-road focused tires are much more expensive than regular tires. That being said, a severely worn off-road tire is just as bad as having normal street tires. This is why you will want to check the tires very thoroughly, making sure there are:

  1. No cuts in the sidewall of the tire.
  2. Plenty of usable tread left.
  3. Able to hold air pressure correctly.
  4. No dry rot or other tire defects that could cause the tire to fail under extreme use.
Figure 6. Extreme cracking, dry-rotting.

Figure 7. Cut sidewall.

(Related Article: Off-Road Tire General Information – JK-Forum.com)

Step 4 – Check suspension for wear and serviceability

Other than your vehicle’s tires, the suspension is going to take the most abuse while driving off-road. It will be put in positions where it will have to articulate past where it normally does while driving over speed bumps at the grocery store. This will put a tremendous amount of strain on its joints and bushings. Make sure that these items are not excessively worn and all the mounting point fasteners are tight to factory specs. There are many ways to go about checking the suspension, but if it’s your first time, start by just visually inspecting all suspension joints, bushings, mounting points, rubber boots, and fasteners. Make sure that nothing looks damaged or visually worn. After this, take a jack and raise and lower each corner of the vehicle independently. Throughout doing this, try and apply force to certain parts of the suspension to see if anything is loose.

Here are some areas of the suspension to focus on:

Figure 8. JK front suspension.

Step 5 – Equip vehicle with recovery equipment

I know you don’t want to hear it, but if you are going off-road, you are going to get stuck. You can be in denial about it all you want, but the truth is, it’s going to happen. If for some reason you go off-roading and you don’t get stuck, then that means that you are not really going off-roading. Not only are you going to to get stuck, but other people you are with are going to get stuck also. It’s just one of those things that comes along with the activity. That and breaking things. So when this does occur, you must make sure that you are prepared to get yourself unstuck. This means having all the necessary recovery gear that will make getting unstuck as smooth as possible.

Here are some basic items that might come in handy for your off-road trip:

Figure 9. Common recovery tools.

Going off-road can be a great activity. It’s a fun way to enjoy everything a vehicle like a Jeep Wrangler has to offer and can be a nice way to experience the outdoors. But remember that it can also be dangerous and that being prepared is one of the best ways to minimize the dangers. This is a short list of ideas that will help in that, but it is not everything. Common sense and experience play a huge role in taking this further to make sure that your off-road trip is successful and makes you want to keep going out for more.

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