A common misconception of many Jeep enthusiasts is that they don’t need to carry some- thing as complex as an onboard welder because they don’t go rockcrawling or extreme off-roading. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Trail failures are not always caused by a single incident with a difficult obstacle. Many catastrophic structural failures on your Jeep are caused by long-term fatigue. That means the damage can happen anywhere, including while driving down a dirt road to grandma’s house.
Because off-road recoveries are so time consuming and potentially expensive, taking along a trail welder is cheap insurance that will certainly save you or your buddy’s bacon sooner or later. The cost of one off-road recovery from the local tow company will easily pay for any of these trail welders. Most repairable failures only require a few inches of quality weld to get you and your Jeep back to civilization. We’ve successfully used many different portable welders over the years. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. We compiled the pros and cons of some of the most common and effective methods of melting metal so you can choose the best system for you.
Welding with 12V automotive batteries is very common in the off-road world, and rightfully so. This is the least expensive and least complex method to melt two pieces of metal together. To successfully lay a bead, you really only need two batteries, and in a pinch, you could get by with two pairs of jumper cables, although actual welding leads are preferred. The batteries are wired in series to produce the 24V needed to burn metal with standard arc welding electrodes. Of course, your weld time will be limited by the power stored in the batteries. As the batteries discharge, your welder performance will decrease. However, some users have been able to burn through up to 11 1⁄8-inch-diameter E6013 arc welding electrodes on 1⁄4-inch steel plate, with plenty of power left over to start a Jeep. It’s been our experience that arc welding with batteries is very similar to welding with an inexpensive buzz-box arc welder. It takes some practice and the electrodes often stick to the work piece. If this happens, you should quickly disconnect the cables to keep the batteries from shorting out and overheating. As with all welding methods, there are safety concerns. Always keep the batteries away from the weld sparks, they can off-gas hydrogen, which is flammable. We highly recommend using only high-quality batteries like the Optima YellowTop. These deep-cycle batteries can handle being drained and recharged many times. If you decide that this is the trail welder for you, look into the Anza Products Metal Mender kit. It comes with just about everything you need to easily and safely repair metal on the trail with two batteries.
The Premier Power Welder is the most versatile and compact of all the trail welders available. The kit includes a new high-output alternator that replaces the stock alternator in your Jeep. The control box can be installed just about anywhere, and the wiring is very simple. Unlike other trail welders, the Premier Power Welder can supply 115 DC volts at up to 20 amps for powering common household electrical devices and garage tools like grinders, saws, and drills. There is even a feature to quickly recharge a dead car battery. The Premier Power Welder can be set up to arc, MIG, or TIG weld if you have the right equipment. Arc welding is obviously the least complex and most popular since it requires nothing more than a ground cable and a power lead with an electrode holder, in addition to the Premier Power Welder. The unit is easy to operate and lays down consistent weld beads. Thanks to the design of the welder and the high-frequency output, the Premier is much easier to weld with than a traditional plug-in buzz-box arc welder. It can supply only two-thirds the amperage of conventional welders and give the same penetration. The high-frequency penetration capability agitates the puddle 7 to 10 times more than a conventional welder, bringing all the impurities to the surface. Even an amateur welder can quickly learn to produce a solid weld. We have had great results using 3⁄32-inch E7018 electrodes. This is a good all-purpose welding rod that can be used in all positions. It’s still a good idea to keep some E6011 electrodes around for dirty and oily weld jobs, though. The Premier can use up to 1⁄8-inch-diameter electrodes at 100 percent duty cycle. Premier Power Welder has bolt-on applications for pretty much every common engine. If the company doesn’t have your odd-ball application, one of the alternators can probably be adapted to fit.
The Broco GoWeld is a spool gun that’s powered by up to three 12V automotive batteries. It can be used as either a flux-core wire-feed welder or a MIG welder and will weld steel, stainless steel, or aluminum. The gas fittings that are required to make the MIG conversion are included in the kit. The gun, cables, miscellaneous parts, and the instruction manual all come housed in a sturdy plastic carrying case. It’s compact and light but will still take up a lot of space in a small Jeep. The GoWeld uses common 4-inch-diameter welding wire spools and has the ability to weld material in excess of 1⁄2-inch-thick with two 12V batteries or up to 1-inch-thick with three batteries. The voltage and wire speed are easily adjusted via the dials on the front of the gun. There are several LED lights on the nose of the gun that display the battery condition.
The GoWeld is extremely easy to use and throws down solid welds with very little practice. Runtime on two batteries is 10-20 minutes at a 50-percent duty cycle. The gun can be too bulky for some jobs in confined spaces. We also found that we sometimes inadvertently bumped the voltage and wire-speed dials, changing the settings and screwing up our weld. A bit of electrical tape placed over the knobs could solve this problem once you have your settings dialed in. Just as with the budget arc welder, we recommend using deep-cycle batteries like the Optima YellowTop. They provide consistent and safe power and can be discharged and recharged many times.
The Hobart Trek 180 is the most portable welder ever offered. It is a self-contained battery-powered flux-core wire-feed welder that can be converted to a MIG welder with the correct gas fittings. Two sealed lead-acid batteries and the welder components are conveniently housed inside a durable hard plastic case. The self-contained suitcase design allows you to take it virtually anywhere a welder is needed. At about 60 pounds, it’s not exactly lightweight, but it is relatively compact considering the capability. The welder is charged via a standard 115V wall plug. A huge advantage of the Trek 180 is that it can also be used as a regular corded shop welder. This is one of the many products we wish was still available today. Unfortunately, Hobart discontinued the Trek 180 a couple years back. However, you can still find used Trek 180 welders for sale online. Maybe if enough people call and make a stink about it, Hobart will again offer the Trek 180 or something similar.
Inside the case you’ll find the wire-feed mechanism that uses common 4-inch-diameter spools of welding wire. A bag attached to the side of the welder holds the easily removed cables and wire-feed gun. The Trek 180 works pretty much like a standard wire-feed welder. Individual wire-feed and power knobs can be tuned to the material thickness you are working with. If the batteries are in good shape and fully charged, you can expect to make several feet of weld on up to 1⁄4-inch-thick material. You’ll need to abide by the 10-percent duty cycle at full power to avoid overheating the unit. We found that the Trek 180 worked best on thinner materials like frames. We probably wouldn’t use the Trek 180 to weld on an axlehousing or extra-thick suspension brackets, unless it was the only option.
Make Your Welder Mobile
If you already have a compact welder at home, there is no reason that you can’t bring it with you and at least use it in a main camp. Many modern motorhomes have generators that are large enough to power even fullsized MIG welders. A low-cost Harbor Freight generator produces enough power to run many different arc, flux-core, and MIG welders. In most cases, you probably won’t be taking your generator and fullsized shop welder on the trail with you for the weekend, but having the ability to fix just about anything at base camp could be what’s needed to save a weekend wheeling trip. When selecting a generator, match up your welder’s power requirement to the generator’s running watts.
Read your welder’s instruction manual carefully so you know how to use it properly and safely before you need it on the trail. Practice welding with your welder in all positions and then practice some more. To avoid burns, you should always cover up with non-flammable clothing. Be sure to keep a fire extinguisher close by whenever welding. The sparks and heat can ignite wiring harnesses, fuel lines, and dry brush, among other things. Also check the backside of the work that you plan to weld on, the transferred heat will burn wiring, fuel, and oil lines.
If you have a lot of experience welding on vehicles, then you probably already have the additional equipment covered. You’ll want a heavy pair of leather gloves. We actually prefer thinner TIG welding gloves (left) to the thicker gloves. They allow us to have more finger flexibility, although they provide less protection. We also prefer a welding hood with a large 4.5x5.5-inch view lens. The more common 2x4.25-inch lenses can sometimes impair visibility in confined spaces under a vehicle. Stick with a number 10 shade, if you go darker than that, you generally can’t see what you are welding on. Keep the lenses clean and scratch-free for best visibility. Auto-darkening welding helmets are convenient, but they can be easily damaged when banged around in the back of your Jeep. Pack a slag hammer and a couple of steel-bristle brushes to clean the area before and after welding. If you plan to arc weld, keep your electrodes protected and dry by placing them in a sealed electrode container. You can’t weld with wet or damaged electrodes. We found this well-sealed O-ringed electrode container (right) at the local welding shop.