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Jeep Wrangler Armor Options - Body Building

Posted in How To: Body Chassis on March 2, 2015
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Going off-road will take its toll on your Jeep. While the underside takes the most abuse, the body can become equally carved up with dents and exposed-metal pinstripes. Many of these marks can be seen as badges of honor. A showcase of sorts, littered with memories and trail tales from your Jeep’s history.

For our dedicated wheeling rigs, we couldn’t care less about winning the local show-and-shine. So, if our rigs are a little rough around the edge, that’s perfectly OK. For those still toeing the delicate line of a daily driven wheeler, shredding sheetmetal is high on the things to avoid list. We get it. Driving up to work Monday with your fender zip-tied to your rig might make for a good story around the water cooler, but it’s not the best way to pick up a hot date.

We recently picked up a mostly stock ’04 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Obviously, it didn’t stay stock for long as you can read about elsewhere in this issue. The longer wheelbase makes for a great ’wheeling platform, but the increased body means more exposed sheetmetal. Without question, there is a tremendous amount of aftermarket armor upgrades for the ’97-’06 TJ and ’04-’06 LJ platforms.

The challenge is finding the right parts that fit your build, budget, and needs. We’ll show you more of what we decided on in a future issue. In this installment, we are delving into the bench-racing parts-picking process and mulling over options.

Nose Guard
When it comes to an overwhelming amount of options, the TJ/LJ front bumper takes top prize. Years ago, full-coverage front bumpers had a large draw. These days, more compact stubby front bumpers are the go-to. This is due to the reduced weight and increased approach angle. Keeping the area in front of your tires clear will afford you more line options and maneuverability off-road.

The downside is that your front fenders are more exposed. Obviously, style can play a part in your selection as well, but we tend to lean towards the less-is-more strategy. In fact, we’ve even ditched the entire front bumper altogether on some of our more dedicated trail rigs. Instead of a bumper, we’ve found a bolt-on winch tray, along with the factory tow hooks, works great. It’s not as clean of a look as a complete front bumper, but it gets the job done.

When it comes to steel versus aluminum, we’re fans of steel. Since it’s one of the areas most likely to make impact with obstacles, steel simply tends to hold up better.

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No Tire Carrier
We are going to go out on a limb and offer what some may view as bad advice. There, full disclaimer. We actually don’t like running spare-tire carriers on our more dedicated trail rigs. Why? Adding the extra weight to the back of your Jeep might not seem like a performance detriment, but it can actually make a big difference in upsetting the Jeep’s balance when climbing off-road. We still like having a heavy-duty rear bumper, but we look to more creative solutions for carrying our spare.

For those running up to a 37-inch-tall tire, you can actually secure it in the back of your Wrangler. You’ll have to ditch the rear seat of course, but laying it flat in the back is actually better since it spreads the weight out in the cargo area and directly above the rear axle. You’ll have to come up with a strap or bolt-down solution, but that’s pretty easy.

Running without a spare is a risky proposition, but we’ve done that as well. If you are going to run without, be sure you have an adequate on-board air source, a plethora of quality tire plugs, plug goo, and wire. You also need to know how to use this stuff, so you’re not that guy on the trail.

Tire Carrier
Most official trail rides and events require you to tote a spare tire. Given the limited cargo room of the Wrangler platform, this leads the majority to attaching their spare to a tire carrier out back. For light ’wheeling and daily driving, the swing-out tire carrier is money well spent. Some are a little better than others, but there are very few bad tire carrier/ bumper combos.

When looking for a rear bumper, make sure it has tow points and doesn’t stick out too far as it will negatively affect your departure angle. If you plan to tow, be sure that it’s rated for what you intend to haul. Many with built-in receivers are only designed to be a recovery point. Keep in mind that the further out your tire hangs, the greater chance that it could come in contact with an obstacle or ledge on the trail.

The steel versus aluminum debate here is another easy one for us. If you bump into as much stuff with your back bumper as we do, steel will be the right choice for you. There are still only a limited number of aluminum rear bumper options for the TJ/LJ.

Front Fenders
The biggest breakthrough and change we’ve seen in the body protection game has mostly come by way of new fenders. Hands down, aluminum is becoming the go-to, along with highline conversions. Once you equip your Jeep with larger and wider tires and wheels, the stock fenders become less effective. In fact, the flares often intercept your tires, which can inhibit wheel travel.

Ditching the stock flares for a flat-style flare will allow more room for the tire to travel. An aftermarket fender is also designed to be more durable. Steel fenders will be a bit heavier than a stock fender, but the clearance and strength gains are usually worth the added pounds. If your budget will allow for it, aluminum fenders make a strong case for investment. Since your front fenders are less likely to make contact with terra firma, the lighter surface strength won’t be as much of a factor. Ditching the pounds will also be a good way to counterbalance installing other heavy components.

Rocker Guards
The go-to rocker guard for the TJ/LJ is the bolt-to tub armor. This is typically formed-flat plate comprised of 3⁄16-inch steel. For most wheeling scenarios, this is more than adequate. On a heavier rig, we prefer frame-mounted sliders as body-mounted armor can actually cause the tub to crease on impact if not properly reinforced. Frame-mounted sliders on the ’97-’06 platforms are largely overkill and will take away some ground clearance.

We are on the fence when it comes to aluminum rocker guards. On one hand, the lightweight construction is highly attractive. One the other hand, the surface strength of the aluminum leaves much to be desired. Your rocker is by far one of the most common impact areas on your Jeep. If you see yourself crashing down on the rockers with any regularity, we say go with steel.

Corner Armor
In the same spirit of the front fenders, we are seeing an emergence in aluminum rear corner armor. The weight of a 3⁄16-inch-thick steel corner guard and fender armor can add up, so we are happy to see more options open up. With the shoebox aerodynamics of the Wrangler, adding weight is only going to detract from performance and economy. While the front fenders are often out of harm’s way, the rear is more likely to become one with the earth at some point.

As we mentioned before, the surface strength of aluminum isn’t as robust as steel. This means you have to weigh your options more closely when choosing between steel or aluminum. For the daily driven weekend wheeler, we say aluminum is worth the investment. The cost penalty of the more expensive metal is hard to swallow, but the weight savings will be worth it. If you know your wheeling style and hard-core trail destinations are going to pit your panels between a literal rock and hard place, go with steel.

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