If you are planning to get serious about off-roading and overlanding, investing in a high-quality off-road jack is a wise move.
An off-road jack is designed to handle challenging trail conditions and modified vehicle geometry that stems from larger wheels and suspension lifts. These are essential pieces of off-roading and overlanding equipment.
The stock scissor jack that comes with many Jeeps and other trucks and SUVs will prove inadequate in many situations, particularly when dealing with tall vehicles or challenging off-road recovery situations. Replacing it with a more robust jack should be one of your first pieces of off-road gear.
Below, we’ll cover the various kinds of jacks typically used off-road and how to choose a jack for your adventures. For what it’s worth, we typically carry two jacks when on the trail: a Hi-Lift jack and a bottle jack.
A quick warning, never get under your vehicle when it is supported by only a jack.
How to Choose an Off-Road Jack
A number of factors need to be considered when choosing an off-road jack, including its weight capacity, lift range, size and weight of the jack, and your expected use cases. Cost is also a factor, of course, and you’ll have to weigh that along with other factors when choosing a jack.
The most important number when choosing a jack is its weight capacity, which is typically given in tons. Jacks range widely in tonnage capacity and, generally speaking, a jack rated for higher tonnage will be heavier and more expensive.
You’ll determine the tonnage capacity needed based on your vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the vehicle’s maximum weight capacity, including the vehicle itself, all vehicle fluids and payload (additional people and cargo).
GVWR is a good reference for the jack capacity you’ll need, as it dictates the most the vehicle should weigh, including modifications (racks, bumpers, etc) and cargo.
A good run of thumb is to find a jack with a tonnage capacity that matches your vehicle’s GVWR. For instance, a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon has a GVWR of 5,800 pounds so a jack rated to 6 tons (6,000 pounds) would be a good match.
Keep in mind that your jack won’t be lifting the entire weight of the vehicle, so a jack with a rating that matches your GVWR will have extra capacity when lifting your vehicle. Because of this, you could probably get away with a jack that is rated to less than your GVWR, but in our opinion, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get one that’s rated to close or even a bit more than your GVWR.
When off-roading and overlanding, you may need a jack that has a taller lift range than the scissors jack that comes stock with your vehicle. If you have modified your vehicle with a suspension lift and larger tires, you should definitely check whether your scissors jack can still get your wheel far enough off the ground to change a tire. It may not, in which case you’ll need to find a jack that can lift it high enough to get the tire off the ground.
Beyond simply changing a tire, a bottle jack or beam jack (e.g., Hi-Lift Jack) can also be useful for vehicle recovery, and the extra lift can come in handy here. For instance, if you are high-pointed on a rock, you can use the jack to lift your axle off the rock so you can put rocks underneath your wheel to get you over the obstacle.
Hi-Lift Jacks and other beam jacks have a really wide lift range, which allows you to lift vehicles from points on sturdy aftermarket bumpers that are higher than the lift points under your vehicle. This can come in really handy in certain situations, such as when you can’t get a bottle jack or scissors jack underneath your vehicle.
Terrain and Your Vehicle
Beyond the characteristics of the jack itself, you should consider where you’ll mostly be using your jack and with what vehicle.
Certain jacks are better for certain conditions. For instance, a bottle jack is useful in many situations, but it may not work in situations where the ground is soft or it’s difficult to get it under the vehicle. An exhaust jack is really best used in soft-ground situations, such as in deep mud or sand. If you regularly explore areas with a certain type of terrain, it’s worth finding a jack that matches that terrain.
Your vehicle will also dictate what jack you can use. Beam style jacks, such as a Hi-Lift, will only work on vehicles that have sturdy jacking points, such as those found on aftermarket bumpers and rock rails. Many stock vehicles have no jacking points that can be used with a Hi-lift.
Types of Off-road Jacks
There are several different types of jacks used in off-roading, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses. Like we mentioned before, we actually carry a couple of different jacks (a bottle jack and a Hi-Lift jack) that complement each other.
If you are just starting out and aren’t tackling particularly challenging terrain, your vehicle’s scissors jack might be all you need. As you get more adventurous and make modifications to your vehicle, you’ll want to invest in more capable jacks.
Farm Jack (a.k.a, Beam Jack or Hi-Lift Jack)
Good for: soft ground (with baseplate), firm ground, rocky terrain recovery
Farm jacks, also known as beam jacks or Hi-Lift jacks, offer the versatility and durability to solve many off-road challenges. The iconic beam jack is the Hi-Lift jack, invented around 1910 by Philip John Harrah, founder of the Bloomfield Manufacturing Company in Indiana. Several other companies also now make farm jacks or something similar for off-roading.
The most common use for a Hi-Lift is lifting a vehicle to change a tire or to lift a stuck wheel or a truck’s belly off the ground. It’s worth noting that the manufacturer says you shouldn’t use it for changing tires, but in reality people do. You also can use one to hand winch a stuck vehicle loose or as a clamp or a spreader, during field repairs to squeeze parts together or pull them apart.
Beam jacks are versatile, and we always carry a Hi-Lift with us on the trail in addition to a bottle jack. Like we mentioned above, one of the primary benefits is their wide lifting range. They can also be used as a back-up winch if you don’t have one or your winch is malfunctioning.
The primary downside is that beam jacks can be dangerous to use if you aren’t careful and knowledgeable in their operation. Check out our guide to using a Hi-Lift jack for more information on safe use. We highly recommend you get training from a qualified instructor in using beam jacks.
Another con of beam jacks is that you’ll often need to lift the vehicle quite high to get your wheel off the ground, as the suspension will sag as you lift. Another option is to bring a chain or strap to prevent your axle from sagging or to bring attachments so can lift from the wheel itself. This can be a hassle when you are trying to change a tire, which can make a bottle jack more convenient (if you can get it under the axle).
- Quick to set up
- Wide lift range
- Can’t be used on most stock vehicles
- Can be dangerous
- Heavy and bulky
Good for: firm ground, rocky terrain recovery
Bottle jacks are a step up from scissors jacks that come stock with most vehicles, offering more lifting power, stability and versatility. They are compact for their lifting power, very simple to use and generally more stable than stock scissors jacks.
Many off-roaders and overlanders consider them safer to use that beam jacks, and we agree. They don’t serve all the purposes that a beam jack can, but for many situations they will do the job without the risk of using a beam jack. That’s why we carry both a bottle jack and a Hi-Lift — the bottle jack for general use and the Hi-Lift for situations where the bottle jack can’t do the job.
Several companies, including Safe Jack and ARB, make bottle jacks specifically augmented for off-road use to extend their stability and lift range. We like these a lot and would recommend getting one — if you have the budget. They aren’t cheap. See below for some suggestions.
If you can’t afford one of these, a standard bottle jack rated for your vehicle will work just fine. It’s a good idea to bring some kind of base for the jack to rest on, such as a piece of sturdy plywood, metal, or plastic, as you will likely be using it on soft ground and will need to spread out the load so the jack doesn’t sink in.
If you’re in really soft ground, such as sand, it may be difficult to find a stable patch of ground for a bottle jack, which is where a Hi-Lift jack (with a base plate) or exhaust jack can come in handy (see below). Also, if the belly of your vehicle is on the ground, it can be tough to get the bottle jack underneath, so another style of jack may be needed.
- Quick to set up
- High weight capacity
- Difficult to use on soft ground
- May not fit under vehicle in certain situations
Good for: soft ground
If you’ve ever watched Ice Road Rescue or other tow truck rescue shows, you’ve seen the giant inflatable bags they use to rescue fallen semi-trucks. You can use the same technology for off-road recoveries. Exhaust Jacks are basically super-sturdy inflatable bags that lift a vehicle off the ground. They can be inflated with either the exhaust from the vehicle engine or an air compressor.
The major advantage of an exhaust jack is that its wide footprint makes them more stable than other jacks, especially beam jacks, and prevents them from sinking into soft ground. Also, if your belly has sunk down into soft ground and you can’t fit a bottle jack underneath, an exhaust jack may well do the trick.
To sum it up, if you spend a lot of time driving in deep sand, snow, and mud, in particular, an exhaust jack could be a great addition to your recovery kit. These can also make a great second support when using a Hi-Lift, offering some peace of mind.
The downsides are that they are fairly pricey and a puncture can make them inoperable, so you’ll need to make sure you use them carefully — meaning protecting them from sharp objects. Also, if you have two exhaust pipes, you probably don’t have enough pressure coming out of a single tailpipe to fill an exhaust jack.
- Good for soft ground
- Fairly compact and light
- Can be punctured
- Exhaust stinks
- Limited uses
When you are using a jack, there are some things you will likely need in addition to the jack itself.
A base for the jack will help it remain stable, particularly if the ground is soft. This can be something as simple as a piece of plywood or a purpose-designed jack base.
An off-road shovel will help you clear space around wheels and make room for jacks if the belly of your vehicle has sunk close to the ground.
Straps or Chains
When using a Hi-Lift jack, you may need to strap the axle to the body so that it doesn’t sag when lifting the wheel.
Protect your hands when working around a vehicle by wearing tough work gloves. It can prevent unnecessary injuries.