Custom Overlanding 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK with Off Road Camper
This 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK was Todd Nonn’s first brand new vehicle. But its future was planned long before then.
"Custom awesomeness." That's how Todd Nonn described his '12 Jeep Wrangler to us before participating in our 2019 Four Wheeler Overland Adventure East with his dad, Steve Nonn, and girlfriend, Beatrix Hartmann. Once we saw the Jeep in action off-road and camping, we could see that was indeed accurate description-ness.
Buying a Jeep JK
Todd was not new to Jeeps when he plunked down money for this Wrangler when it was brand new. "I have been interested in modified Jeeps and trucks since I was young. One of my best friends in high school got me started in the Jeep lifestyle. He had a '95 YJ Sahara." Todd was also not new to owning Jeeps before this Wrangler, as a '97 TJ Sport became his ride at 17. "I took it on many memorable camping trips, spring break to Daytona Beach, and other fun off-roading adventures."
When that Jeep started to show its age, Todd bought this basic JK: "A/C, hard top, manual transmission, and the tow package with 3.73s because I knew I would be lifting it and putting larger tires on it. It still has crank windows; manual locks; and the stock, boring stereo that I could plug my iPod into at the time. So, I didn't have to worry about someone stealing it, or it getting a little wet with the top down. I got the bare-bones Sport version because I knew I would upgrade and build it how I wanted."
Todd has always been a hands-on tinkerer, including in his profession as a builder and fabricator of theater sets and props, "so I have a lot of mechanical and technical knowledge of all sorts of tools, hardware, and components," he explained. "When I started modifying cars in high school, it was about the time all of the original vehicle forums were starting and there was an unlimited amount of information and help out there."
Custom Off-Road Camper
We haven't even started talking about his Jeep's custom camper yet. Todd built it in the summer of 2015; its backbone is a 4x8-foot utility trailer from a tractor supply source. The itch for a camper began after a trip to Canada. "I decided I wanted to get out and go on some longer trips, and I started crunching numbers on camping versus hotel rooms. I then started a whirlwind of research on small campers that I could tow with the Jeep." That sent him down another rabbit hole of tiny trailers, as well as the used market. "With my arsenal of tools, knowledge, and resources I decided to build the camper I wanted," Todd said. He combined designs and CAD drawings he found online with the dimensions he had of the trailer frame, tires, and other camper parts. People definitely ask about the appendage. "It usually turns into a few guys coming over at the campground, resulting in a 30-minute conversation, asking hundreds of questions."
Other Jeep Projects
Todd also has two other Jeep projects in the works "that suck up all the funds": a '46 CJ-2A and a '62 FC150. Therefore, he understands a thing or two about time and money and suggests when it comes to your own project vehicle, "get out there and build it, make it your own, and enjoy doing it." With his JK, "as a turnkey vehicle with a few grand in upgrades, it literally takes me anywhere I want to go and through or over whatever I throw at it."
And that sounds like awesome custom-ness.
"I grew up camping with my family in a tiny Scotty trailer starting when I was only a few months old," said Todd "As our family grew, we upgraded to a larger RV trailer and went on many road trip vacations growing up. I was also a Boy Scout that went on a lot of camping trips and adventures." He enjoys escaping the daily grind and "seeing and experiencing epic stuff," especially when it's by way of a dirt-road trail with "some exciting challenges." A planned upcoming trip will be a "7,000-mile adventure."
Jeep Wrangler JK 3.6L Pentastar
"After reading about the first years of the JK with the sluggish 3.8L engine, I was actually first shopping for an '06 LJ or TJ with the 4.0L. That was the Jeep I wanted to build. And still do, someday," Todd said. But math told him that a brand-new JK would be about the same payment as a 6-8-year-old vehicle with 50,000-plus miles. "Once the 2012 JK was announced with the 3.6L Pentastar engine, I made a deal and got one with the options I wanted." There's a K&N air filter, but otherwise he hasn't tinkered with much else. At first that was due to the Wrangler's warranty, but now it's because stock works fine for his needs, including both power and torque, on the trail. "With the manual transmission, it has all the get-up and go I need on the highway. It gets in the high teens still on road trips pulling the camper." Todd also utilizes an AEV ProCal Module.
Within a few months of ownership, work began. "I always knew I would lift the Jeep. I bought the Sport with basically doughnuts on it and within a few months I started the suspension and tire upgrades," Todd said. There's a Rock Krawler suspension kit, featuring 2 1/2-inch triple-rate coil springs and the company's antiroll bar, plus Bilstein shocks. He did all swaps himself. "It was all fairly easy with a few simple tools, floor jack, and stands in the garage over a weekend." Other mods, like the winch, were done as needed or when he found a good deal or discovered something during his research. His current to-do list includes tie rods, track bars, and steering components. "It's all still stock and showing its life a bit."
Todd's JK has a Dana 30 front axle and Dana 44 rear with 3.73 gearing. The Jeep hasn't had many driveline changes because it hasn't broken yet. He says the front driveshaft with the Rzeppa CV joint wore out after about a year because of the more extreme angle, so he replaced that with a Tom Wood's driveshaft. Another add: TeraFlex exhaust spacer kit.
BFG Tires and MB Wheels
Todd knew the very first thing he'd do to the Jeep was a lift and tires. Round one was a set of 33s, but at the 30,000-mile mark, he switched to 35-inch BFG KM3s wrapped over aluminum 15x8 MB Wheels. His trailer inherited the smaller BFG setup.
The exterior scored a few aftermarket parts, including Mopar Rubicon rock rails, Supertop NX and two-piece soft doors from Bestop, and an Outback Adventure Products Trailgater. The headlights might be addressed next. "I have been happy with all of the brands and upgrades I have done to the JK. It is a much more comfortable vehicle for long drives." And while we're here, do we smell extinction in the future? "People seem to comment on the two-door model. They are just sometimes surprised to see one since they are less common now that everyone has the four-door," he says.
Custom Winch Bumper
"I wanted to tuck a winch in the factory bumper as much as possible. I always like clean, streamlined-looking mods," Todd said of how he incorporated the 8,000-pound Traveller unit. He wouldn't have minded installing a Mopar Rubicon bumper with integrated winch or something similar from AEV, but "I always try to keep things simple and budget-friendly when possible." Therefore, he did what he could to the factory bumper to accomplish the same goal. "I welded a universal winch plate in between the frame rails and made the hawse fairlead come out between the stock fog lights," he explained. "This took a fair amount of measuring and putting things together temporarily to pull them apart again and again to get it just right." He used a Rock Slide Engineering vacuum pump relocation bracket to move the pump up into the engine bay.
Let's talk camper, aka the off-road teardrop pod. "There were a ton of challenges. But that's what makes it exciting," Todd said. It's a constant work in progress. At first, he added little by little as the trips went on. "[I was] streamlining what I needed and didn't and how to make it super user-friendly, so it was fast and easy to set up and tear down." He's still fine-tuning now after trips. But having it allows him to take lengthier trips and travel out farther, plus he can sleep comfortably and be dry no matter what the weather. "It also lets me park it somewhere as a basecamp and then do small side trips to explore the area and do some more extreme stuff, like I did in Moab a few years ago," he said.
Building a Custom Off-Road Camper
Here's how Todd built the camper: It's a 4x8-foot utility trailer and he admits that he could have easily fabbed this up out of some angle iron and generic axle and suspension parts. But blame Pennsylvania. The state is "really tricky and challenging with homemade trailers." He adds that this already had a title and VIN— making it super easy to get a plate and register it. Todd based the pod off the 4x8-foot measurements to limit seams and joints. It's a wood and plywood structure, skinned with a polycarbonate and aluminum exterior. He's able to fit a full-size mattress inside and can take advantage of its loads of storage space. The tires/wheels are the Jeep's 33-inch combo's hand-me-downs.
The Jeep's interior is still relatively stock, save for a Tuffy Security Products console insert and the removal of carpet to make way for Monstaliner. There's also a Midland CB and GPS via Garmin and Gaia.
Vehicle: '12 Jeep Wrangler Sport
Owner: Todd Nonn
Stomping grounds: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Build time: Ongoing
Engine: 3.6L Pentastar DOHC V-6
Transmission: NSG370 6-spd manual
Transfer case: NV241 Command-Trac
Low range ratio: 2.72:1
Crawl ratio: 42.24:1
Front axle/differential: Dana 30, 3.73 gears/open
Rear axle/differential: Dana 44, 3.73 gears/limited-slip
Front: Rock Krawler Suspension 2 1/2-inch triple-rate coil springs and sway bar, Bilstein 5100 shocks
Rear: Rock Krawler Suspension 2 1/2-inch triple-rate coil springs, Bilstein 5100 shocks
Tires: 35x12.50R15 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM3
Wheels: 15x8 MB Wheel
Armor: Customized factory bumper, Mopar Rubicon rock rails
Cool stuff: Tom Wood's driveshaft, K&N air filter, Bestop Supertop NX and two-piece soft doors, AEV ProCal module, TeraFlex exhaust spacer kit, Rock Slide Engineering vacuum-pump relocation bracket, off-the-shelf lightbar, Midland CB, Garmin/Gaia GPS, Tuffy Security Products console insert, Monstaliner floors, Traveller 8,000-lb winch, Badland universal channel winch mount, Outback Adventure Products Trailgater, Hi-Lift Jack, jerrycan and recovery tools
Camper: Custom teardrop pod, 33x10.50R15 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain KM2s, 15x8 Trail Master TM9 steel wheels, custom interior/exterior, onboard battery/charger/inverter, Coleman stove