Building “Tatanka” Our Overlanding Jeep Wrangler

Are there too many Jeep building blogs and vblogs out there? NEVER! That said, if you are a Jeep owner, you know that no two Jeeps are exactly alike, even those factory stock off the lot. Each one has its own unique quirks…after all it is a Jeep.

We purchased our 2015 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara (JKU) used in the early summer of 2020. We had been searching a long time to find the “right” one. One that was well cared for, low mileage and equally important one that fell within our budget. Tough to do in many places of the country where Jeeps are popular daily drivers as well as off-road pleasure vehicles.

Jeep Wranglers are probably the ultimate in customizable vehicles on the road today. So many aftermarket accessories and upgrades can turn a Wrangler into anything you pretty much envision. We quickly made a list of the must have add-ons, that quickly transformed into a lengthy list.

The list filled a notebook page, which required prioritizing each item by importance versus just nice to have. Tops on the list were tires. The OEM Bridgestone Desert Duelers were nearing the end of their tread life. Well, four of the five were. The original owner never included the spare in the tire rotation…or possibly never rotated any of them at all.

Airing down for any off road excursion put a hint of doubt in my mind whether I’d be able to get thru the ride without having to replace or repair a tire while on the trail. Cornering on wet pavement also felt as if it were drifting.

Tires & Wheels

Front wheels have plenty of clearance to fully articulate but remain inside of the fenders to provide protection from debris.

Some owners feel the need for tall wide, beefy looking tires. So, depending on the wheel size means one has to replace all five wheels to accommodate the size of the new rubber. I didn’t want to spend money on wheels, I felt that the factory rims were perfectly fine looking and the tires I selected were available in a size that matched up to the wheel. I did go with a taller tire by selecting a BF Goodrich KO2 that was wider and had a larger ratio profile than the OEM tires.

Rear tires fill the wheel well but don’t protrude past fenders.

In choosing the set up I did, I did so as to not attract unwanted attention from law enforcement officers. Many states have strict regulations about tires protruding past the fenders and our home state is no exception. Besides, it’s nice not having dirt and mud slung up the sides, coating the door handles with goo every time you drive through a puddle.

The fenders offer protection, something we’ve come to appreciate during our back country excursions traveling with a group of side by sides that are narrower and their owners tend to take such tracks routinely.

Whether we are driving down a sand wash, along a rocky trail or the pavement on highways…the BFG KO2s hold traction.

 

Just Enough Lift

TATANKA as she sits at the time of this post.

From the first offroad test drive we knew that it needed lifting…just a little. A box stock Wrangler has tremendous capability off road. We put it to the test as often as we could and found there were occasions when the cross member and the gas tank scraped an object on the ground and a wheel would come off the ground.

We also knew that our plans to Overland meant more weight due to the equipment we planned on carrying. So, the hunt was on to find which lift kit (system) would yield the best performance to meet our needs and not break the bank. I didn’t want to have to buy twice, which many who put price over quality as their main criteria soon find out about. The cheaper options usually ends up failing to meet their expectations or simply physically fail soon after installation.

Several brands rose to the top of our list of possible options and we selected Teraflex after seeing their system in action and hearing so many customers praise their products. The Teraflex ST2 was the system for us, it didn’t require any extras to make it work properly, was affordable and came with all of the necessary components. We placed our order through Summit 4×4 Company in Prescott, AZ. They also did the install which took several hours. When we placed the order, I inquired about Bilstein shocks in lieu of the Fox shocks the kit came with. Both were good units, so we decided to go with those included in the kit. Turns out the shortage of metal was causing delays in production and there was an indefinite back order on the Fox units, so we went ahead and ordered the Bilstein shocks and I am satisfied with the ride.

The Teraflex suspension lift being installed at Summit 4×4 Company in Prescott, AZ.

The overall ride is a little firmer than stock, which is to be expected considering the purpose of the suspension. What was surprising it improved the cornering capabilities on pavement without any noticeable body roll. Something you sense in a vehicle with high ground clearance.

Prioritizing Components Is Important

Unless you have deep pockets or an unlimited amount of credit you likely won’t purchase everything you need and want at once. With the new tires and lift installed we put TATANKA through its paces every chance we could. Once we left Arizona for our home state of Wisconsin, our off-road adventures ceased. Not a lot of places to off road in Wisconsin, and some that are available just don’t excite me. I’m not into mud bogging with our one and only daily driver.

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On our way from AZ to WI we picked up an addition to the family, one that required additional prioritization of equipment choices. Maggie took to riding in the back of Tatanka like most German Shepherds do. It wasn’t until we returned to Arizona the following fall when it became apparently she care much for off roading. She felt a sudden need to be on our laps in the front while we traversed rough terrain. Good fences make for good neighbors as the saying goes. PRIORITY! A fence. Not a fence, but a cargo barrier to prevent her access from the rear seat to the front. After it was installed, Maggie actually started to enjoy our back country explorations…she learned to move with the gyrations of the vehicle and really seems to enjoy the view out the windows and sniffing the air when they are open.

Communications

Midland MXT400 GMRS MicroMobile Radio.

Whether traveling in the back country alone or with a group having a means to communicate is very helpful and provides an increased level of safety. For years we have had a pair of ICOM FRS walkie talkies that I acquired to use as an intercom and later for situations while RVing such as backing into a tight site.

FRS radios are one step above CB radios. They are inexpensive, compact and easy to use but are limited in range. GMRS is the next level, just below Amateur or HAM radio. GMRS does require one to purchase a license, but the cost is affordable the licensing period is like 10 years and there is no test required. GMRS radios range in output power up to 50 watts. Some models allow the operator to use relay stations, which means you don’t have to have line of sight with the other person you want to talk to. One person can be on either side of a mountain as long as they both have line of sight with the repeater station antenna.

Recently, as I was sitting in Tatanka here in Arizona waiting for the wife to finish shopping while I chatted with a guy on the Midland MXT400 I installed, who was doing the same thing in eastern Colorado. Try that with a CB…not saying it can’t be done, but not as effortlessly and clearly. We’ve taken a few trail rides and the communications between drivers has been loud and clear.

What comes next?

Our needs change with the time of year and where we happen to be, but we have narrowed down the next three upgrades we need. They are…Winch, Skid Plates & Sliders and Additional Lights.

As we gain confidence in our skills and the capabilities of Tatanka on the trails we want the ability to get ourselves out of a situation if we find ourselves…stuck. Or in possible peril without a line to keep us from disaster. A winch is insurance for such situations.

To date we have stayed on the side of conservative caution…by not going somewhere that could cause sheet metal or underside damage by climbing over rocks and such. There have been some close calls, but by picking the right line to travel we have avoided such situations…but it also limits where we are willing to go. We have no plans to run a route as seen at King of the Hammer off road race, but would like to know we are better protected as we trek up some areas on the trails we do travel.

You won’t see a huge light bar across the top of our windshield, what you will see eventually see are lights adequate to give us the necessary illumination needed to traverse back country trails after dark. Night time treks are not high on our list of Todo’s, but winter days are short and the nights are long and should we find ourselves delayed along a trek that has us still driving after sunset…lets just say its as dark as a cavern out in the desert or mountains. Moonlight is great to have but still too dim to see where you are going especially if you are depending on the stock head and fog lights on a Jeep.

What’s On The List For The Future?

HA! There isn’t enough space here to list everything. But a few items include…mounting system for our electronics (phones, tablet, radios), refrigerator/freezer, roof rack/external cage, limb risers, bumpers front and rear (to get rid of the vinyl end caps on the stock ones), rear internal deck system with storage drawers, roof top tent. After all Jeeps are the ultimate customizable vehicle!

 

 

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Gerald Voigt

Gerald's interests are wide and varied. His work career started in the United States Air Force and since then has worked in logistics management, retail & service management as well as manufacturing. He's an author, photographer, pilot, radio show host and marketing consultant who enjoys RVing which allows him greater freedom to explore, meet new acquaintances and serve his clients.