Project LJ: Stage 3

Article Series - Project LJ

  1. Project LJ Defined
  2. Project LJ: Stage 1
  3. Project LJ: Stage 2
  4. Project LJ: Stage 3

Project LJ Stage 3: Enter the expensive. A series of fortunate events punches up my LJ timeline (items covered in detail below).

$1000 — T-Max EWI-10000 Winch.
$600 — Skid-row Nightcrawler Front Bumper.
$400 — Jeeperman Trail Skidz.
$375 — Smittybilt/Rugged Ridge Off-road Cargo Rack.
$200 — Rola Pursuit Cargo Carrier.
$300 — Jeeperman Rear Bumper.
$85 — T-Max Portable Air Compressor.
$70 — T-Max Snatch-Strap.

Total for stage 3: $3030. (Total for all stages: $4432.)*

* This estimate based on estimated prices for some of these items; I got remarkable (one-time) deals on several, so I’ve not put nearly this much into the rig. Yet.

T-Max Winch

I never owned a winch until this summer, and I hope never to use it (except to pull out stuck Hummers). But I still wanted one. It’s one thing to get stuck out on your own in the boonies; it’s quite another to get stuck when other lives are your responsibility. The ability to self-recover is not to be dismissed.

I originally planned to get a small “competition” winch, but after talking with the good folks over at 4xGuard.com I opted for a bigger (in every way) 10,000-lb. winch with an integrated solenoid. It’s silver, which looks great on the rig, it’s wireless, and it can work underwater.

I have no plans to test out the winch’s submersible qualities.

Front Bumper

I think of all the decisions I’ve had to make on the LJ, choosing a new front bumper was the hardest. When you get down to it, there’s a great many very nice bumpers out there, of all manner cost. I planned to get this one, then that one, then another one, then back to the first … before I settled, at long last, on the Nightcrawler, from Skid-row, with its four trail-angled lights up front and two more tire-angled on the sides.

Why this one? Well, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s a lot cheaper than several others I was interested in. More than that, though, I think it’s a really great design. It’s not the hoop-infested hoopla that so many aftermarket bumpers are. It’s sleek and well-built. I like the big, thick clevis-plates (especially nifty is their silver color, which so nicely fits my rig). I like the modular capabilities it has. And — yes, I won’t deny it — I like all the little lights. They’re not tremendously powerful, but they get the job done.

Oh, and like the winch they’re submersible. So that’s, um, good.

Rock Rails/Sliders/Steps

Even before I brought my LJ home I was concerned about the breakover angle. I was used to the short wheelbase of a CJ, so thinking about bouldering with that long stretch between wheels on my new rig scared the bejesus out of me. The solution? A little extra protection in the form of rock rails/sliders/whatever-you-want-to-call-them.

When it came to these things (I shall call them rails), I’ve long had my eye on those made by Jeeperman (“Trail Skidz,” they call them). They’re heavy-duty, don’t require drilling or other major modification, and they include a piece of black diamond-plate welded on their top, helping them to double as a very functional step. This diamond plate makes them look particularly great on Rubicons, which already have black diamond plate aligned vertically across the bottom of the wheel-to-wheel stretch.

Ruggedly gorgeous, and a psychological weight lifted.

Plus the dog can get in and out easier.

Cargo Rack

Cargo room. Always the bane of the Jeep-owner! Having a soft-top adds to the trouble, since one can’t just throw extra items “on the roof.” So the addition of a cargo rack was, from the beginning, a major component of Stage 3.

When it came time to do it, though, I faced a problem: there weren’t many racks out there I liked. They were of poor quality. Or they were expensive. Or they required permanent modifications to the Jeep, which I object to on principle. So it was that, after much deliberation, I settled on buying/building a rack, using as the core of my set-up a rack made by Rugged Ridge (formerly Smittybilt), which I ordered from Quadratec.

As you may well note, this rack is made for a TJ, not an LJ such as mine. I therefore had to have two extensions manufactured in order to get it to fit my longer wheelbase. I designed the extensions to include “handles” and to angle out slightly from the rig — you can see them in the image to the left. The cost for these parts was not great (about $40), and if that had been all there was to it, my roof rack experiment would have been an immediate success.

Alas, Rugged Ridge products are not made well. The angles on the front uprights were very wrong. On initial install, they were both angled in the same direction laterally and horizontally. In other words, the passenger-side piece was sending its horizontal bar (the one along the side of the Jeep) into the soft-top, while the
driver-side piece was sending its bar out into space. It took some shims and quite a bit of drilling out of mounting holes to get everything to line up correctly (you can’t contact Rugged Ridge). I also drilled out holes in the bottoms of the rear uprights for draining purposes (much needed, because over a two-week stretch I had already accumulated about an inch of standing water in the pipe).

Another problem with the rack was that it squeaked a bit too much for my taste. There was simply too much side-to-side movement in the construction, which is exacerbated by the fact that the bolts they give you are a shade small. So my father and I also built some add-on brackets that mount behind the taillights and give much more rigidness to the whole while maintaining the necessary flexibility (required since the rack “unites” body and frame). We also drilled out a couple fastening points and put in bigger bolts or set-screws. I’m happy to say the rack is now pretty solid with very little squeak.

I daresay it also looks really cool.

Cargo Carrier

With roof rack comes the need for a roof-top cargo carrier. Being a practical fellow, I wanted something that would protect my precious goods from the elements during transport. Sure, one could just hog-tie a suitcase to the roof rack’s crossbars, but what if it rains?

There are many different options when it comes to cargo carriers: from hard-shell Thules and Yakimas to big waterproof bags. I didn’t like the on-the-ground reports about the latter (not really being waterproof, having lots of windnoise), and the former are expensive and not easy to store. Instead, I chose a Rola Pursuit carrier, which is an apparently unique design: like a hard-shell it is weatherproof, aerodynamic, and adequately stiff; like a bag it is lightweight and can be collapsed when not in use.

I ordered the Rola via the internet (a great deal through etrailer.com) without having seen one in real-life, so when I received it I was blown away by the quality of the thing. Lots of little, well-considered touches that speak volumes about Rola’s design teams. I used it heavily on a cross-country jaunt, and it worked perfectly.

Rear Bumper

So this was a fluke. Replacing the rear bumper wasn’t planned for a while yet (Stage 4?), and I thought, whenever I did it, that I’d go for one of those swing-away types that cost a great deal more money than I have.

There was no question I was going to do something about the rear bumper, though. The stock one is very rinky-dink, and along with the low-slung exhaust pipe it cuts down substantially on the angle of departure — a point of no small concern given how much more shallow this angle is on the LJ compare to short-wheelbase Jeeps.

I drove around for a while with no bumper at all, which was aesthetically more pleasing than the stock beastie, but I did miss having the “lip” of the bumper to stand on in order to get things on and off the roof, for instance (especially pertinent what with the new rack and carrier). By coincidence, it was about this time that I happened into the digs of Jeeperman and was offered a “blemished” rear bumper that they couldn’t sell for full price. The blemishes are minute, so I snatched it up at once. Like all Jeeperman products, the thing is hardcore heavy-duty. It comes with d-ring mounts and even a built-in hitch mount. I was and am very pleased.

I doubt I’ll replace it. The only possible downside is that it isn’t a swing-away carrier. But I think those things only really matter if you’re mounting a spare a lot bigger that stock, which I’m unlikely to ever do. Even if (okay, when) I get bigger tires under a bigger lift-kit, I’ll probably just keep a stock-size spare. It’s kind of silly to do otherwise when you think about it.

Air Compressor

Why does one need an air compressor? Well, the main thing for Jeepers is the fact that airing down your tires (lowering their pressure) can result in better traction and/or ride under certain off-road conditions (not all). The key there is “off-road” — for safety reasons you don’t want to go tearing down the highway on low-pressured rubber. So you need an air compressor to air back up.

Of course, the fact is that you can usually just air back up at the nearest fuel station. Most of them have air pumps for free use — especially those in areas where there’s liable to be Jeepers around. Frankly, that’s what I’ve always done. Hell, I’ve even done it since I’ve had the new compressor: it’s easier than popping the hood and clipping the battery and what-not.

So air compressors are not a necessity, and you certainly don’t need anything huge if you do want one. My air compressor for years was a dinky little plug-into-the-cig-lighter thing that must have cost $10 and could fit under the passenger seat next to the stock jack. I got the new compressor (a terrific portable T-Max bought from 4xGuard.com along with the winch and a great snapstrap) because I wanted something that would pump the tires a little quicker and because, honestly, it was a great deal. It’s lightweight and small, easy to slip in and out from underneath the hood; it isn’t a full-blown compressor-with-tank setup. I figure that if I’m needing to run air tools on the trail (about the only advantage of a big system like that) I’m already screwed and might as well start hiking.

Like winches, compressors are a nice safety net in the deep, deep backcountry, but they’re by no means a must-have. Still, if you want one, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this T-Max one.

Snatch-Strap

A Jeeper needs a good snatch-strap. Towing another vehicle in a pinch, wrapping around a tree that’s used as a winch point to protect it, or practicing really long rope-skipping — snatch-straps have a great many uses, and even big ones (this one from T-Max is very thick and a close-to-egregious 30′ in length) can be squirreled away under the hood.

Mine sits next to the matching air compressor, making the driver’s side of the engine the T-Max side.

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