This week we ran the spectacular Iron Chest Mine trail in Chaffee County, Colorado. And while this trail boasts an historic mine above timberline, spectacular views, and high shelf roads, it’s most well-known for the boulder field that makes up the first ½ mile of trail. Loose boulders from basketball to couch size, scattered constantly, and piled on top of each other make for some very challenging, technical driving. I first drove this trail 5 years ago, and on that run, I slipped off a large rock and landed smack on my oil pan. The impact put a sizable dent in the pan to the point that I was rather concerned that it would rub against the crank shaft. Coincidentally, a young friend of mine, who is just getting into Jeeping, had a similar incident yesterday, only he wasn’t as fortunate. The rock tore a hole clear through the pan causing the oil to leak out high up on a mountain trail.
These incidents highlight the importance of thinking ahead and analyzing the potential threats to your vehicle’s undercarriage when wheeling. Factory skid-plates on most Jeeps are adequate for light trail driving, but as soon as you start looking for more difficult challenges, it is an issue that must be addressed.
The first areas to consider are the ones that can cause permanent damage to expensive components, primarily the engine, transmission, and differentials. All three of these are not well protected in factory trim and contain fluids that, if lost, can ruin not just an outing but your vehicle. Factory differential covers are made of thin sheet metal and, being down close to the ground, are one of the most vulnerable to damage. There are 2 ways to fix this, as both heavy duty covers and diff skids are readily available and both do the trick. One thing to look for – that I wish I had considered – is a cover with bolt pockets machined in to protect the bolt heads from getting disfigured. The oil and automatic transmission pans seem like they are up and out of the way, but it’s surprising how easy something can get up there and tear things up. Good skid plates for these are relatively inexpensive and available from quite a few manufacturers.
Next to consider are the parts that, while not vital to the drivetrain, are vulnerable to damage and can incapacitate your vehicle and strand you and ruin your day at the very minimum. Factory steering components are often made of thin tube, and can be easily bent, changing the alignment to make steering impossible. Steering upgrades can include heavier duty components – all the way up to swapping in one-ton steering that is near damage proof. Other items that often need protected are control arm brackets, the steering box, and evap canister.
A final step to protecting your undercarriage is to upgrade the factory skid plates that protect the transfer case and gas tank. The factory units are plenty capable for up to moderate duty use, but can be dented and damaged as your wheeling goes from moderate to difficult. A skid made with thicker, heavier steel will protect much better. Some models even have higher clearance versions that can increase ground clearance.
What I’ve described are some common vulnerabilities in late model Jeeps, but each model has its own strengths and weaknesses, and needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis. It’s not nearly as an exciting topic as lockers or articulation but not an area to take lightly. Some forethought and protection can make for a much more enjoyable and secure wheeling experience.