Overlanding Jeep
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Jeep Overlanding Guide: Building Your Jeep into an Overland Expedition Vehicle

If you own a Jeep, chances are you bought it with a sense of adventure. Going back to World War 2, Jeeps have a long history of off-road exploration and utility use, and Jeep overlanding is simply an extension of that rugged spirit.

Before buying a Jeep Wrangler in 2015, I owned several vehicles that I bought for their utility as adventure vehicles. These included a 4-wheel-drive Japanese minivan, a Ford station wagon, and a Honda Element, all used for sleeping in when going on camping, kayaking, snowboarding and mountain biking trips.

Moving to California from the East Coast, I decided to get a vehicle that could handle the rugged truck roads and off-road trails in Southern California’s many backcountry areas. Since then, I’ve slowly but surely build my Jeep into an off-roading and overlanding platform. 

Here, I share what I’ve done, what I’ve learned and a few tips and tricks to help ease that path of others who are considering buying a Jeep for overlanding or already have one and looking to outfit it.

Because I own a Jeep Wrangler, what I’m sharing will obviously be specific to that make and model. However, many of the general concepts will apply to other Jeep models (I’m looking at you Cherokee and Grand Cherokee owners) and even to SUVs and trucks made by other manufacturers. 

Also, my Jeep is a Wrangler JK model, but everything I’m saying applies to the newer JL models. I can’t speak knowledgeably on overlanding in models prior to the JK.

First, let’s address the elephant on the trail:

Is a Jeep Wrangler good for overlanding?

It depends on where you want to go and what you want to do. A Jeep Wrangler is a terrific overlanding vehicle if you want to access places that require a highly-capable off-road vehicle.

If you will be staying on pavement and mellow dirt and gravel roads, other vehicles with more cargo capacity, less noise, more amenities and better gas mileage might be a better choice.

These, in my opinion, are the pros and cons of a Jeep for overlanding:

Jeep Overlanding Pros

  • Off-road capabilities
  • Huge gear aftermarket
  • Jeep community (Jeep wave!)

Jeep Overlanding Cons

  • Limited cargo capacity
  • Noisy cabin
  • Less comfortable
  • Fuel consumption

Why I chose a Jeep for overlanding

Before I bought my Jeep, I seriously considered lots of vehicles, including trucks and SUVs made by Toyota, Ford and General Motors. 

In the end, I decided to buy a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon for several reasons:

Want to do it all

I also wanted my rig to be an overlanding Jeep, meaning I would be able to pack up the family and head into the backcountry for multi day explorations where we camped at different spots. 

But I also live in Southern California where there are ample off-road trails, including highly technical trails that require modifying your vehicle with a suspension lift, larger tires, rock sliders and other add-ons. A Jeep Wrangler is really hard to top for this type of off-roading, and this extends to heading to hard-to-reach spots for off-grid camping.

So many parts and accessories

The aftermarket for Jeep parts, including those used for overlanding purposes, is huge. It makes it easy to try out different gear that you can find used or onsale and sell easily when you move on.

The Jeep Rubicon, the model I bought, comes off the line with serious off-road chops, which meant I didn’t initially need to do a lot of off-road upgrades. (If I was buying one today, I’d probably purchase the Sport trim and do the upgrades (lockers, axles, etc) myself or have a mechanic do them. But at the time, I didn’t have the time to deal with it. 

The wind in my hair

I wanted to take the roof off when out for a day of off-roading. This may seem trivial, but driving off-road with the roof down is a terrific experience. If it’s your thing, you can’t beat a Jeep.

Never lonely again

There is a huge Jeep community in Southern California. This is the least important among the deciding factors, but it does make it easier to find people to join on the trail. 

In the end, I bought a Jeep Wrangler because it suited my varied needs. Your situation and plans may dictate a different vehicle.  

Basic Jeep Overlanding Gear

Fresh off the lot, a Jeep Wrangler, and especially a Rubicon, is ready to hit the trail. For the first three years, I did very few modifications to the tires, suspension, bumpers, etc. 

I did, however, purchase a few overlanding basics that could really be used in any vehicle. These included:

Cargo boxes

At first, I started with those yellow and black plastic crates from Home Depot. They worked pretty well for a while, but they became brittle and started to crack. From there I moved on to Rubbermade Action Packers and Plano Sportsman’s Trucks. 

I put together a guide to various cargo cases one can purchase for overlanding, based on my own experience, what I’ve heard from others and some of the higher-end cases that are on my own wish list.

Overland kitchen and pantry

I’ve kept my cooking and food storage pretty simple. A two burner propane stove with small gas canisters, dishes and utensils from REI and other outdoors stores, plastic bins for food and plastic tub for cleaning dishes. There are plenty of ways to make kitchen setups that slide out, but so far I’ve resisted adding the extra weight.

Roof-Top Tent

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anyone who gets involved in overlanding because intrigued by roof-top tents. I bought a used Tepui tent that slept two people comfortably–and later two adults and a small child less comfortably. (I’ll spare you the story of my son throwing up in the tent late one night when he and I were camping in the middle of nowhere.)

Roof-top tents are a lot of fun and offer a level (usually possible) and clean sleeping area.  You don’t need one and they present certain logistical hurdles (extra weight limits their trail abilities and putting them down everytime you want to move your rig is a pain). But overall, I’m a fan. 

Portable Power Station 

In the past, people would install dual battery systems in vehicles used for overlanding to power electronics such as lights and portable refridgerators. They still do. 

Recently, the advent of portable battery systems, made by the likes of Goal Zero, Jackary and other companies, has changed the game a bit. Without going into the rationale, (I covered that here), I bought one of these power stations and a solar panel.

Recovery Gear

A basic set of recover gear is essential for off-roading, and I slowly built up my kit. Again, that’s a whole other topic that I covered a seperate guide on off-roading gear. 

Road Shower

This is a fairly recent addition, but I added a Yakima Road Shower to my roof rack so that we can take showers and clean things off when we’re camping. It just makes keeping clean a little bit easier.

Jeep Overlanding Modifications

After I’d gotten more of a feel for what I wanted out of my Jeep, I invested in a few significant upgrades. Some of these were specific to overlanding needs and others were to improve it’s off-road capabilities.

Roof Rack

One major drawback of using a Jeep Wrangler for overlanding is that mounting a roof rack with a lot of cargo capacity is expensive.

The Wrangler’s hard top doesn’t have the sturdy metal gutters for mounting a typical rack. But given the limited cargo capacity inside, I wanted to carry cargo on the roof. 

First, I bought a Gobi Stealth rack that attached to the frame of the Jeep via tube towers. These are sturdy racks that can hold a lot of cargo. 

The problem with the Gobi was that it prevented me from taking the top of the Jeep. Also, for some narrow off-road trails, the bulky rack was in danger of getting damaged. If neither of those things bugs you, these are terrific racks.

Eventually, I switched to a Nebo rack from Terraflex, which is mounted through the roof and attached to the rollcage. This rack offers less cargo capacity and requires a fairly intensive installation process, but it’s lower profile makes it much less vulnerable to damage. It also can be used to lift the top off the Jeep.

There are a number of other nice rack systems for Jeeps on the market. Rhino Racks and Front Runner racks are popular and well regarded.

Light Bar

Raxiom Light Bar
It’s amazing how much light these can produce.

One of the most recent additions was to add a light bar over the front windshield. As a father of a 7-year-old boy, I rarely get in any night wheeling, so the light bar has been most useful as an overlanding mods. 

The extra light is really nice when we’re looking for a camping spot at night in the backcountry, and also comes in handy when we’re setting up camp at night.

Bumpers

Jeeps come with lightweight bumpers with two recover hooks on the front and one on the back. These will get the job done in basic recovery situations, but they do limit your options when recovering a vehicle.

Stock Wranglers have the spare tire mounted to the back tailgate door, which puts a lot of weight on the door, especially if you opt for bigger tires (see next modification in my list). 

Some aftermarket rear bumpers include a tire mount that puts the weight onto the bumper and takes it off the door. Additionally, some of these bumpers offer more opportunity for carrying other gear and suppled

For the reason’s above, I was in the market to replace my bumpers, in particular the rear bumper, when I camp across someone selling a used set for a good price. 

The front was pretty generic, but had a small bullbar and a solid winch plate. The rear bumper, and Atlas bumper from Smittybilt had the swinging bumper-supported tire mount and brackets for holding two extra fuel cans. 

This is a great bumper for carrying lots of cargo on your bumper, which is clutch for a low cargo capacity Wrangler. The downside is that it is heavy. It’s gotten me through many trips and is really convenient, so I’m okay with the weight. 

Given my interest in technical off-roading and that I’m in the process of building an overlanding cargo trailer, I may go with something lighter down the road.

More recently, I replaced the generic front bumper I’d added with a stubby winch bumper from RedRock to improve the clearance on the tires and lighten the rig a bit. I have rarely needed to use the winch, but it’s nice to have it handy when I do.

Suspension Lift and Larger Tires

The most substantial upgrade I’ve made to my Jeep today was to add a Metal Cloak 3.5” suspension lift and 35-inch BF Goodrich KO2 tires.

To be honest, for general overlanding, you are probably better off with the stock suspension and tire size. They are designed to work with your Jeep’s geometry and drive train, putting less stress on both. They will give you the best gas mileage for long hauls.

Putting a lift and larger tires on my Rubicon came down, again, to my interest in technical off-roading. With my stock tires, I was dragging the belly of the Jeep over rocks on a regular basis and felt limited in what trails I could tackle. 

That said, having more clearance and a more forgiving suspension makes any ride off the pavement less stressful and lets me get into places to camp that I wouldn’t have been able to access previously. 

Parting Thought

Something that I’ve come to appreciate about Jeep Wranglers is that they weren’t designed as heavy duty cargo hauling machines.

They are the ninjas of the off-roading sector, relatively light and designed to cross difficult terrain. 

My goal as of late has been to light the load. Call it ultralight overlanding–taking a cue from the backpacking community.

That is all to say that with a Jeep, more is less. I’m trying to find overlanding gear and mods that keep my Jeep as light as possible. A big part of that is packing less.

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