Ok, so you’ve finally gotten your hands on a new or relatively stock JK series of Jeep Wrangler. Your most pressing questions now more than likely relate to what are the best mods for your Jeep Wrangler JK that would give you the best “bang for your buck”, and whether you really need them if you aren’t a “hardcore rock crawling off roader”.
This is in no way set in stone, but since most normal people do in fact live within a budget, we’ve listed these in somewhat of a logical order, and explained why we chose to put them in such an order. If you are like us and have to buy a few bolt-ons per month to avoid a nasty fight with your wife or girlfriend, then you can still have a steady progression with very noticeable performance upgrades.
1. Winch – Vital in an Emergency
First of all, buy a winch. Yes, I know many of you would have rushed out and bought the bigger tires or lift kit first. The problem is those two upgrades will only encourage you to go out unprepared with no backup plan for when you do get in over your head. What happens when go and get yourself in a bind? You sit there with your wife or girlfriend staring a hole through you because it’s hot outside and you’re both stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Ok maybe not, but the fact is that a good winch has so many uses besides simply pulling yourself out of a hole, as one may think. We’ve pulled cars up onto flatbed trailers, pulled logs off of trails, climbed steep hills, and of course, pulled Subarus and Chevy trucks out of the ruts. Before even thinking of spending anything on any other upgrades, consider how you’ve already spent a nice chunk of change on the Jeep itself. You need to make sure you can also get it out and bring it back home again each night.
Smittybilt makes a very solid bumper mounted winch with a 9500 lb load capacity. The thing people tend to overlook is that although your vehicle may only weigh half that, consider uphill strain or pulling you out of a sticky mud hole can nearly double the load requirements. Smittybilt’s 97495 XRC can more than handle our JK Wranglers, probably the heaviest line of Wranglers to date. It also boasts an amphibious motor and 3 stage gear system, for extra torque when you need it, and protection from not only rain but actual water fording.
2. Front Bumper/Winch Mount – Added Protection & Improved Clearance
While we are on the subject of winches, you will want somewhere secure to mount it. E-Autogrilles makes a “Rock Crawler” off road front bumper that not only gives you a solid location to mount your new winch, but it’s also specifically designed to improve your approach angles. What this means for you is far less scraping the front bumper and bottoming out when in deep ruts or amongst large rocks, as well as giving you the ability to start up steeper inclines.
What is really great, besides the sinister look it gives your Jeep, is the fact they are designed it to accommodate the factory fog lights, and as an added bonus they come with both tow hooks already set up with heavy duty D links. The D links do look beefy and stand out against the powder-coated black finish on the bumper, but more importantly, they make sure you are ready for action the minute you finish mounting this bad boy on. The powder coating makes these front bumpers extremely resistant to corrosion, and being made with 5/32” steel sheet and 2” steel tubing, they offer substantial protection both on road and off road.
3. Side Steps/Skid Bars – Protect Your Door Sills
We have your front end covered, as well as a contingency plan for getting you out of a bind. Let’s look at a little more in the way of protection for the underbelly of your rig. Tyger Auto offers a set of powder-coated side steps whose design matches perfectly with the E-Autogrilles rock crawler bumper. Tyger’s step bar systems are a very useful blend of nerf bars, running boards, bash guards and rock rails to protect your rockers.
Most of your run of the mill step bars found in truck catalogs are generally just style tubes made of thin wall steel tubing with chrome or black paint. Typical step bars bend fairly easily under duress, and are more oriented to your stepping onto them than they are to actually protecting anything. However, Tyger’s take on side steps, which they call the Star Armor kit, is made from heavy duty 2 inch steel tubing with .120 inch thick walls. They are all welded into single one piece designs, and dual stage powdercoated for an outstandingly durable finish. Tyger also includes a Lifetime Warranty against manufacturing defects for added peace of mind.
4. Tail Light Guards – Protect Your Expensive OEM Tail Lights
Another degree of protection that many first time truck or Jeep owner’s don’t normally consider involve the tail lights. Well, technically all the lights are important, but we covered the front lights already with the off road bumper. Most owners however, neglect the rear tail lights. Our tail lights are not flush mounted inside the bodywork like most trucks, which leaves them exposed and easy to damage.
While most driving may never put them in harm’s way, our Jeeps also come with a gear called reverse, which can get very interesting while in the middle of the woods or a tight trail. Often we find ourselves backing into small bushes or saplings or worse, trying to get turned around because of downed trees to large to move, washouts, or other hazards. While these otherwise harmless saplings definitely yield to steel bumpers, your exposed plastic tail lights usually wont fare as well.
5. LED Headlights and Fog Lights – Dramatically Improve Visibility at Night
While we are at it, let’s talk headlights and fog lights a bit more. We now have them protected quite well, so it’s also a great time to look into upgrades. I know that many people are buying up LED light bars like candy, but what would make an even bigger impression would be LED headlight and fog light replacements.
LED lighting has advanced so far, that for a surprisingly small amount of money, you can actually buy LED headlight and fog light housings that are direct replacements for the factory candles. And replacement is exactly what stock Wrangler headlights need as they provide notoriously weak light output and all round subpar performance.
The obvious benefit to this upgrade in a Jeep would of course be on the trails. But also keep in mind how many vehicles are destroyed each year by collisions with deer alone. Add to that risk the possibility of either snow, fog, or a torrential downpour at night, and you can quickly be wanting for more in the way of good lighting. Stay far away from eBay for these, as there are many knock offs on the market.
One trusted brand however, LX-Light, will not disappoint, and truthfully, they fit almost anyone’s budget. LX-Light offers a matching box set of black DOT approved headlights plus the fog lights specific to your Jeep model, be it an LJ, TJ, or JK. They utilize real CREE lamps in black aluminum heat dissipating housings and are both shockproof and waterproof.
6. Lift Kit – More Ground Clearance
We’ve covered actually safeguarding your new Jeep as well as your backup plan for self extraction. Now you are ready for the rough stuff and the upgrades that can get you there. These theoretically don’t have to be in any particular order, but out of concern for tire clearance issues, I probably would start with a suspension upgrade. This will allow you to fit a wider variety of rims and oversize tires later, so I would personally go the suspension route for that reason alone.
The best type of lift is going to be fairly labor intensive and include more than just shocks, springs, and spacers. Do not go the cheap and easy route. A quality lift kit will also include a different pitman arm, brake line relocation brackets, coil correction plates, extended sway bar links, and other modification parts. These important components will help compensate for wheel alignment and correct common steering issues caused by running a lift kit with factory suspension components. Without them your wheel alignment, camber, and castor will suffer. Tires will wear unevenly and the truck will drive horribly.
Too many Jeeps have fallen prey to this over the last few decades, and your rig needn’t handle like a turd. Rough Country, a very well regarded suspension lift kit manufacturer, has added to their inventory just what the doctor ordered for our new JK series Jeeps. Aside from tuned lift coil springs and shocks, this set comes with literally everything that could be affected by your new lift, right down to the lower control arm replacements.
7. Tires – Traction is King
Once you have your suspension upgraded, the possibilities for wheels and tires has grown exponentially. While some may go the full on mud tire route, we would encourage you to consider a very well rounded all-terrain type tire. Chances are, you also use your truck for more than just mud bogs. When setup correctly, our Jeeps are nearly unstoppable with plain stockers installed, so going full mud tire really could be considered overkill.
The real benefits of well chosen all-terrain type tires include longer tread life, better and quieter ride (relatively speaking), better fuel mileage as compared with the mud tires, and far better handling on the road or trails. I first tried what has become my favorite set of all-terrain tires, probably fifteen years ago on my brother’s 2008 Toyota PreRunner TRD. Despite being a 2wd, it could ford mud holes and roll over sand dunes right behind Jeeps, Z71 trucks and everything else. While light weight could be listed as an advantage, I truthfully must credit the BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A shoes.
They have been by far the most effective on and off road truck tires I have used yet. Over the years we have run them on several different vehicles. These tires have several safeguards and features most of your full on mud tires will not hold a candle to. BF Goodrich derived the tech for what it calls CoreGard Technology from its race proven Baja series line of tires. The sidewalls are thicker, tougher, and even resist snagging.
8. Axle Lockers – For Challenging Trails
Last but certainly not least come the axle lockers. Most differentials are either open or limited slip differentials (LSD). With open differentials, if one wheel loses traction, all the power will go to that wheel and the vehicle stops moving as it gives way to full on wheel spin. This can be most readily observed in lawn mowers. They allow your tires to turn at completely different speeds, thus improving the turning ability of said vehicle. However, simply mowing tightly around a tree can cause you to just sit and spin the inner tires. Most trucks, have this in either the front or both axles, leaving a “4×4” truck, in theory, a 2 wheel drive… one front wheel spinning, one rear wheel spinning.
LSDs are a bit better, and usually have a clutch system to allow turning, but still transfer some of the torque to the wheel with remaining traction. The keyword here is some. Some torque may not be enough to pull you out of a bind, while your other wheels spin hopelessly. That is where lockers come into play. They create a temporary direct connection to both wheels, so that both wheels spin at the same speed. Unless your Jeep is completely upside down, at least two of the tires must be well grounded. With lockers, whichever tires they are, will turn equally with the ones up in the air, and you will have increased your Jeep’s crawling and climbing abilities tenfold.
The best part about them is, that being temporary, they can unlock as soon as you need to negotiate a turn, and they can be re-locked when traveling straight. Some designs are remote operated, but the type I described, like the Spartan Lockers from USA Standard Gear, are the most hassle free. They are a bit more proactive, keeping you from getting stuck in the first place. They automatically engage and disengage to prevent you from accidentally leaving them locked afterwards and needlessly dragging your expensive new tires across the asphalt in tight turns.
Wrapping It All Up
To put all this into perspective, you can easily transform your Jeep into a very unique, well prepared, and very capable off road beast, for less than you would think. While you might need to pay for installation of the lockers and lift kit if you aren’t confident or interested, most of the other modifications are pretty straightforward and easily handled at home.
We hope our list of the best mods for your Wrangler JK gave you the confidence needed to start upgrading your truck. If you can’t do it all at once, that’s okay. Over time you can chip away and slowly build your perfect JK rig.