Off-Road Jack Overview
Jacks of All Trades
Unless you only wheel on the bunny slopes, there will come a time when you have to take on that dreaded field repair. Most of the time a field repair will involve jacking the Jeep up to get to or remove the busted part. Anything from a blown bead to a shattered pinion means it’s time to get the wheels in the air. And, unless you are the Flash, you ain’t pulling a pinion out of an axle while jumping your Jeep. So, you’ll need some kind of a jack.
Most of us don’t think about jacks until that breakage occurs, and then we try to use the factory scissor or manual bottle jack. It’s often then we discover that it doesn’t lift high enough, the little base makes is really unstable, or the tiny little pad on the top slips off of whatever it’s on if a bird farts nearby.
For those reasons and many more, we recommend a dedicated off-road jack before going out. In the past there was only one option: a farm or beam-type jack. When suspensions had as much flex as a guy in traction, lifting one corner of the Jeep in the air would more often than not result in getting a tire off the ground. But over the years Jeeps have gotten slinkier, and people have been looking for other reliable methods of getting that wheel in the air.
At the same time as companies were coming up with new and cool ways for the off-road guy to get his wheel in the air, we were spending time on the trail and have seen a few cool ways to reliably convert regular home jacks to off-road use. Each method of lifting a tire has its pros and cons, and we’ll talk about those here. Whether these affect you and your Jeep, only you can decide. It might seem that we are copping out by not doing a shootout and declaring one jack the true winner. The truth is, no one answer will be correct for anyone, and you guys are smart enough to figure out what you need in a jack based upon your terrain, your Jeep, and your needs.
We need to add this disclaimer or our shysters will shut this story down so quick it would make Speedy Gonzales look like Slow Poke Rodriquez: Whenever using a jack, make sure to properly support the vehicle before attempting to work on it. Of course, a jackstand is the best thing to use. If by some odd chance your jackstand is broken, in a pinch you can use other solid objects such as logs, spare tires, or rocks. We try to keep the Jeep supported equally between the jack and whatever we are using to support it for twice the safety.
Also, make sure that whichever wheels are on the ground are chocked to keep the Jeep from rolling. Try to jack the Jeep up only on the most level ground available. Make sure the Jeep is in gear with the parking brake on.
What: A jack that offers an amazing lift range and capacity in a relatively small package. Can you imagine some of the other jacks here with this lift range? They’d be half the size of your Jeep. Beam jacks are sturdy, need little maintenance, and are largely field-serviceable.
Also known as: Walking-beam jack, Hi-Lift Jack, farm jack, beam jack
Price (as shown): $82.99 (PN HL485)
Get it: Hi-Lift Jack Company, 812/384-4441, hi-lift.com
Why we picked this one: We’ve used this one for 20 years now and only had to rebuild it once. It always works when we need it, no matter how much we neglect it.
How it works: There are two pins. One will stick in a hole and hold the weight of the vehicle while the other moves to the next hole. Also known as walking up the jack, small springs provide the force to get the pin in the hole, while weight and friction hold it there. Roll pins retain the walking pins in the jack. With only a few moving parts, there isn’t much to go wrong here. Some general “farm” or “beam” jacks use a different walking mechanism, which we find wears and isn’t as good as the Hi-Lift Jack for off-road vehicle usage.
Lifting range: 41⁄2 inches to 42 inches (48-inch-tall jack) or 54 inches (60-inch-tall jack)
Maximum rated lifting capacity: 4,660 pounds
Lifting capacity tests: We’ve had the entire end of a V-8 CJ-7 off the ground to pack sticks and rocks under tires. It takes one strong guy to hold the jack and Jeep from shifting, or three guys if you have them—one to hold the jack, and two to stabilize the Jeep. We’ve tried to use one of our 60-inch jacks to get one end of Trasborg’s M-715 off the ground, but after about 1-inch of deflection on the main beam, we gave up and a Deuce eventually came along and got us out.
Alternate uses: Clamping leaf spring hangers to frame, holding axleshaft and wheel/tire in on a busted C-clip axle, 42-inch-at-a-time hand winch, sleeving tie rods with the handle, shifting axle side-to-side to replace broken suspension bolts, breaking beads on tires.
Safety tips: Keep hands and head from between the beam and the handle. Watch the handle on lowering since it likes to snap upwards. While entertaining, don’t let the jack auto-down: Keep it under control. Wear gloves, especially on the beam side of the jack. Be careful of the load shifting side-to-side, even on flat ground.
Maintenance: Virtually none needed. Lubricate pins from time to time.
Pros: Lots of uses and lots of accessories make it very versatile. Low maintenance means forget it till you need it. If it does stop working, you can often use screwdrivers or other hand tools to get it going again.
Cons: The long overall length might make storage in some Jeeps difficult. Slinky Jeeps can often keep a tire on the ground, even with the 60-inch jack. The small base digs right to China in even moderately soft terrain. The slick base slips off rocks, too.
Con fixes: There are lots of aftermarket external mounting options for these jacks. For slinky Jeeps, use a length of chain or strap to keep the suspension from drooping. Hi-Lift makes a larger base to keep the jack from sinking in soft stuff. Or, if you are cheap or in a pinch, use a piece of plywood, a spare tire, a floor mat, or whatever you have that will disperse the load. For the rocks, again, Hi-Lift makes a special base that keeps the Jack from sliding. Or, if you are cheap, we’ve had some luck tying the bottom of the Jack off to multiple non-moveable objects nearby.
What: A jack that is very compact and very easy to use, it is often overlooked for off-road usage. But it fits in many Jeeps better than the other jacks we talk about in this story and has no problems dealing with slinky Jeeps. As a bonus, it is the cheapest option in this story and can double as an easy-to-use home jack in a pinch. We show the 20-ton jack here, which is good for FSJs and some bigger four-door JKs; there are smaller options available for smaller Jeeps.
Also known as: Whiskey jack, barrel jack, hydraulic jack
Price (as shown): $40.99 (PN 66482)
Get it: Harbor Freight Tools, 800/423-2567, harborfreight.com
Why we picked this one: The price means we can keep one in every Jeep if we want to, and we don’t have to be bashful about modifying it if necessary to get us out of the woods.
How it works: Pumping a handle up and down moves fluid from a reservoir into a cylinder and increasing pressure in the cylinder pushes the jacking part upwards. A screw-in pad offers additional lifting range.
Lifting range: 91⁄2 inches to 16 inches (181⁄2 inches with extension)
Maximum rated lifting capacity: 4,000 pounds
Lifting capacity tests: Has no problems getting one corner of our M-715 off the ground, and a lightly-built four-door JK was no problem either. It does take a lot of pumps to get stuff in the air, but the jacks with lower weight ratings lift quicker.
Other uses: Moving suspension parts away from frame, shifting axles, helping pry loose parts away from broken parts, keeping axle from frame after catastrophic leaf spring failure.
Safety tips: Because of the small point of contact, off-angle jacking is risky: The pad likes to slip off round axletubes. Try to jack perpendicular to the direction that the jack cylinder is moving. Weld or tape the jack pipe before usage, or at some point you will be forced to crawl under the Jeep to get the other half.
Maintenance: Keep filled with hydraulic jack fluid. Keep cylinder in down position with valve open when not in use.
Pros: Very small package fits in any Jeep. Lots of power for the size. Can do things for field repairs none of these other jacks can. Lifts slinky Jeeps with ease. Low cost.
Cons: With age they might leak when laid on their side: store upright. Huge temperature swings might pop fill plugs out. Might not work in some off-vertical positions. Large minimum height means it might not work with some stockish Jeeps. Small base and small pad can make usage in some situations difficult. If it does start leaking and stops lifting, only hydraulic fluid will fix it. Engine oil and gear oil don’t work.
Con fixes: It’s 40 bucks; if it starts leaking on side or stops jacking off angle, get a new one you cheapskate. Who has a stockish Jeep anymore? Use a piece of plywood or other item for the base (as shown). For the pad, we’ve welded V-shapes to it, but like welding two pieces of chain to it. The chain can then be bolted around whatever you are lifting. If you are worried about leaks, carry some hydraulic fluid.
What: Air bag jacks have been used for rescue squads and in the Australian Outback for a long time. It has a low minimum lift height, a decent max lift height, and if used at one corner at a time, it is pretty stable for the height it is able to achieve.
Also known as: Bladder jack
Price (as shown): $228.99 (PN 72X10)
Get it: ARB 4x4 Accessories, 425/264-1392, arbusa.com
Why we picked this one: ARB has a solid reputation. The company is known for making good products that it stands behind. We’ve heard horror stories both about the initial quality and about warranty claims on other brand air bag jacks that were cheaper. The kit comes with lots of accessories in that convenient carry bag.
How it works: The orange thing is basically a big air bladder that can be filled either off the vehicle’s exhaust or off of a compressed air supply. As it inflates, it grows, and will eventually lift a corner off the ground.
Lifting range: 5 inches to 31 inches (depending on vehicle weight)
Maximum rated lifting capacity: 4,400 pounds
Lifting capacity tests: We had three Jeeps for the test: a ’79 CJ-7 with a 401 V-8; a ’94 YJ with a 2.5L; and an ’01 TJ with a 4.0L. We weren’t able to get any of the Jeeps off the ground within 30 minutes using the exhaust only, but using compressed air, we were able to get one corner of each off the ground. It didn’t work because of how our exhaust tips are cut. We couldn’t get a good seal on the cone to fill the bag. Max pressure on the bag is 10 psi, and it took us 8 psi to get that CJ with the V-8 off the ground.
Other uses: Card table, personal floatation device, night-light
Safety tips: Even with the protective black sheet, keep well away from anything remotely sharp. We didn’t hurt the bag, but chunked the black sheet. Guide the airbag as it inflates so it isn’t jacking at an angle. Use the included gloves to hold the cone on the exhaust.
Maintenance: The kit includes a patch kit so any punctures can be fixed. Otherwise, we just try to keep the bag clean and pack it back in its included carry bag away from thorns or other abrasive things.
Pros: Fits easily in Jeep. If your exhaust is cut more round than ours or you have onboard air, you can lift your Jeep anywhere you need to. The spikes on the bottom of the bag make it stay in place very well.
Cons: We gouged the black protective sheet on a leaf spring clamp, an exhaust clamp (the Jeep wasn’t running so it wasn’t hot), and a tie-rod adjuster. It wraps around things like you wouldn’t believe, even though the top feels stiff. We had 8 psi in it to lift that CJ-7 and 10 psi is max, so heavier JKs and FSJs might be an issue for this jack.
Con fixes: A small piece of circular plywood would help the wrap-around issues on the top of the jack.
What: An aluminum floor jack combines lighter weight alloy with all the benefits of a home-based hydraulic floor jack. It is easier to maneuver off-road than some steel jacks while home on concrete
Also known as: Floor jack
Price (as shown): $189.99 (PN 68052)
Get it: Harbor Freight Tools, 800/423-2567, harborfreight.com
How it works: This rapid-pump jack uses two hydraulic cylinders to push the pad up that much faster. Otherwise it works very similarly to the hydraulic bottle jack.
Lifting range: 33⁄4 inches to 191⁄4 inches
Maximum rated lifting capacity: 6,000 pounds
Lifting capacity tests: With a 6,000 pound rating, we could lift all but one of our Jeeps off the ground by the belly pan if they were well balanced. In the field, we were able to lift both tires of any Jeep we wanted clear off the ground without a weight issue.
Other uses: At home service jack
Safety tips: Keep the pad centered on whatever it is you are jacking. This jack doesn’t like to articulate; keep all four corners level and keep an eye on rocks poking up in the middle of the jack.
Maintenance: Leave the jack in the lowered position with valve open when not in use. Knock the dirt out of the undercarriage after wheeling.
Pros: Sturdy and fast lifting platform doesn’t care if you have a slinky Jeep or a heavy Jeep, it will lift it. Lighter weight aluminum makes it relatively easy to move around and position under the Jeep.
Cons: Relatively small lift range can be a hindrance with taller Jeeps. The flex issue means many rock-based jack opportunities might not work so well. A large footprint makes it hard to fit in many short wheelbase Jeeps.
Con fixes: Stacking rocks, logs, or using the spare tire and a piece of plywood can raise the overall lift height as can adding a block of steel between the pad and the jack arm itself. A simple piece of 1⁄4-inch aluminum fastened in place of the wheels can fix the flex issue and make it easier to maneuver in some off-road scenarios. Nothing can fix the large footprint. Either you can fit the jack in your Jeep or you can’t.
Unobtanium, But Cool
We’ve covered the main styles of jacks that are affordable to take on the trail, but there are two other ways we’ve seen it done that were pretty neat. There is no way we have the kind of scratch to pull it off.
Rams: Whether hydraulic, electric, or hand-cranked, we’ve seen some off-road rigs with a ram at each corner used in conjunction with spacer blocks, and in some cases chains or straps, to get the tires off the ground. This eliminates the need to carry a jack in the vehicle, gets the entire thing off the ground in one shot, and provides the most stable lifting experience you can have.
Sky Hook: Also known as a crane, we’ve seen racers park crane trucks in their pits to lift entire race cars off the ground in seconds. They do it one of two ways. Either there is a hoop on the cage located where the center of weight is, or they will run a predetermined length of cable, chain, or strap (usually straps in today’s world) to each corner of the cage, then attach it to the hook on the crane, then lift.