Jeep JKU Overlanding Build – My Covid-19 Project

The last year has been a doozie. When the pandemic got rolling and didn’t look like it was going to be over quickly, I, like many folks, looked for ways to ‘get away’. Some of these plans were born from fear and doom, some from a basic need to just Be Away, and for others, it was a way to do SOMETHING during the pandemic that felt like you were building for the future. An uncertain future to be sure, but a something you could point at and go “I did this. Now I can enjoy it.”

I’ve had a Jeep, off and on, for the last 8 years. Starting with a JKU (which I sold quickly, unfortunately), and then settling into my 2000 Jeep TJ (affectionally referred to as Ol Yeller), I enjoyed having a ‘toy’ that I could go romp in the woods, or just drive with the top off. It was freeing.

I sold Ol Yeller right at the beginning of the pandemic, because I had gotten fascinated with the concept of Overlanding, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized my 20 year old, small (but still fun!) Jeep TJ just wasn’t going to cut it. And, to be fair, the TJ was not exactly a luxury vehicle. It was time to upgrade to a vehicle I could build out into my overlanding vision.

How it started

I began hunting for a JKU (the 4 door version of the JK) in May, 2020. My criteria was:

  • A relatively low set of miles. 50k-75k was okay.
  • Manual transmission – Manual cars are slowly going away. This was the last chance for me to have a manual vehicle, I was going to take advantage of it. And besides, it’s fun.
  • Hard top. I could have gotten a soft top and upgraded it, but either way, I wanted a hard top in the end. In the winter, it’s really the only way to stay warm.
  • No rust. Jeeps rust. The JK’s are better about it than previous versions, but they still will rust.
The first version of Ghost

I found a JKU that fit the bill, aside from the hard top at a dealership not far away. Took it for a test drive, reviewed it, and it seemed like it would fit the bill. I paid cash for it, and drove it home. While driving it back from the dealer, something felt… off with it. It wasn’t tracking right, and had a bit of a shimmy in it. I had brought up the shimmy with the dealer, and they said they had fixed it, but it still didn’t feel right.

I made an appointment with my local shop (folks I trust a lot), to have them go over it. They did… and… there were problems. It turns out this jeep had obviously been in at least one accident, if not several. The chassis had been shifted forward by an inch on the frame and the body mount bolts were all twisted. The frame had been cut and re-welded (poorly) which threw off all it’s alignment. My shop was definitely of the opinion “This vehicle is unsafe. You need to return it.”

I was, naturally, hurt and felt lied to. I contacted the dealer, relayed all my issues, and they, surprisingly, agreed to take it back and refund ALL the money spent. No restocking, no tax issues, nothing. Just a check back to me. So that’s what I did. I felt a little taken advantage of because I didn’t do a thorough check, but I did have a conversation with one of the sales reps there who said they had another buyer, cautioning him “this vehicle is unsafe. Please take that into consideration when you decide to sell it again.” – I doubt it had any affect, but I had to try.

Second Verse, Same as the First, but better!

So, back onto the market I go. Strangely, I find another JKU, also white, this time with a black hardtop, less than 10 miles from the original dealer. So off I go, give it a test drive, and things look and feel… good! No shakes, it’s smooth and strong, AC works great – I’m cautiously optimistic. THIS time I make an appointment with my shop and make arrangements with the dealer to take the car to the shop for the day for a full evaluation. They agree, and a few hours later, I have a 100% clean bill of health. Nothing wrong with it!

So I became an owner of a white 2013 Jeep JKU Sahara, which was promptly named Ghost.

Ghost was basically stock. Stock Sahara wheels, bumpers, roof, interior. The only ‘enhancements’ were a bit of ‘armor’ on the sides of hte hood, and running boards. It did have the Alpine amp and subwoofer, which was a nice bonus. The head unit was the basic CD player and radio, but everything else was there including steering wheel controls and everything else. Oddly, it didn’t have an FM antenna (??), not sure what that was about. But it was the right price, the right configuration, and felt great. I was ready to get started.

The Build

Over the next 10 months, using whatever tools and basic skills I have, I upgraded Ghost. Through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, ebay, Crutchfield, and trips to Lowes, I built. There was a LOT of learning. I’ve always been okay doing stereo installs and upgrades, and doing wiring, but this build would require mechanical work. Moving equipment around the engine bay, mounting hardware, figuring out what options to do where. The physical build took months, and wasn’t cheap.

Here’s a simplified version of all the work I did. (If you’d like a fully detailed nitty gritty “show me the rust and bolts” review, checkout my build thread on WranglerForum.com).

  • Found a GobiRack on Facebook Marketplace – I’ve always wanted a safari rack on the jeep, because I love the look and the flexibility it provides. The fellow who had it was happy to hold onto it for a few weeks until we could get down there. It came with a full on lightbar, and was a very reasonable price. I also learned that these racks were INCREDIBLY hard to come by. The manufacturer was way behind on filling orders, and the prices were through the roof (so to speak). I got this for a good price, and was happy to put it in the garage until I was ready to install it.
  • A set of XRC Bumpers (front and rear) to replace the stock ones. I was originally thinking these would be needed (on the rear) to mount the rack, but it turns out the rack mounts to the underside of the body, not the bumper. Regardless, I wanted a front bumper to mount a winch, and a rear bumper that was rugged and able to handle towing and getting banged around. This was another Facebook Marketplace purchase. Met the fellow at a rest stop down in CT. Super nice!
  • A Harbor Freight winch. Yea yeah, harbor freight, blah blah. But if I’m going to be anywhere off road where I might get stuck, a winch is absolutely necessary. I got this during a sale somewhere in November, but didn’t get around to installing it until April this year. It sat on my porch the entire time. My wife is very patient.
  • A new power control panel and relay box – this is a system that gives you switches on the interior to control exterior lights and accessories, using a separate set of relays. Very handy for high current thing (like trail lights)
  • A set of grips / handles from Wild Boar. The Jeep is TALL, and climbing in and out of it is a lot easier if you have something to grab onto.
  • A Vector equipment mounting bar – this goes on the dash and lets you mount equipment to it, like phone mounts, radios, etc.
  • A Boss BE10ACP-C Android Auto screen to replace the head unit – this took a lot of research to arrive at, but I’m reasonably happy with the result. I find floating screen displays really useful (I know others disagree), and having my gmaps on that screen, plus Spotify, an audio interface, backup camera, etc – a huge upgrade.
  • A set of new rims (via Craigslist) to replace the stock rims
  • BF Goodrich T/A K02 Tires.
  • Replaced the headlights from the stock ‘sealed beam’ whatever those garbage things were with a set of LED lights. The improvement is staggering.

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So far so good, but we’re not done yet!

Now everything up until now has been pretty basic ‘kit out your jeep’ type stuff. Folks do this sort of build out all the time, and honestly, the result is pretty awesome. It looks great, it drives great, it’s fun, and it’s comfortable.

But the real goal of this project wasn’t to make another kitted jeep, it was to make something I could go camping and backwoods exploring in, and basically live out of for at least a small stretch of time. To do that, we needed to keep building.

Overlanding Buildout

The next things are parts that any camper would get. I needed a place to sleep, I needed water, food, storage, power, a way to cook, and it all had to fit in or on the jeep in a way that wasn’t horrible.

The first step there is a rooftop tent. This is a type of tent that folds up like a big taco when you’re driving, but unfolds into a big comfortable space when parked. The one I settled on is a Smittybilt Overlander XL tent. It’s quite large, fits me and all my gear and company if needed without a problem, and fits fine on top of the Jeep. This was one of the big reasons I got the JKU – this tent would not have fit on the TJ (of maybe it would have, but would have added more weight in a place that vehicle did not need it. High off the ground.

Once the tent was all set up and useful, I needed to start adding things to make camping out comfortable and sustainable. Anyone who is exploring overland builds will be familiar with this list, it’s the sort of accessory pile that anyone doing camping will understand.

  • Basic camping stuff like a sleeping bag and the like. I already had all this, so that was easy. The tent has a very nice foam floor on it so its quite comfortable.
  • A Mr. Heater portable propane heater. This heater is designed to run inside enclosed spaces, so it can warm up the tent REALLY fast and make it quite comfortable. I tend not to run it all night, but for going to bed at night and waking up on a cold morning, one button and you have a very nice toasty room to get dressed or undressed in.
  • A Gooloo 500w Lithium Ion battery bank that charges from the Jeep when it’s running, and when I’m camped, I can use it to power lights, equipment, recharge various bits, and also power my…
  • A Foho Portable fridge / freezer! Yes, I have a fridge in my jeep. For food from spoiling without the hassle of ice or ice packs, it’s amazingly useful. When I’m driving, the Jeep powers the battery, which powers the fridge. When I’m parked, the fridge runs off the battery. I can run a day or two in that mode without needing to start things up to recharge.
  • A full cooking kit that includes pans, utensils, a cooking stove, etc. The stove runs on propane, and I”m thinking of upgrading to a more peppy stove.
  • A folding table
  • A 5 gallon water jug
  • A medical kit
  • A variety of other gear to keep the Jeep and myself safe, such as recovery gear, spare rope, a shovel, hatchet, spare knife, etc etc.
  • A bike rack! Having my bike with me means I can leave the Jeep parked and go off and explore, then come back for meals and sleeping.

Given all this, I feel like I have a setup that… i can take just about anywhere. It’s comfortable, it’s complete, and it’s mine. My escape vehicle. Say hello to Ghost.

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Conclusions

This has been a year of challenges for everyone. For me, this project has helped channel my needs into a project to build a vehicle I’m enormously proud of (and lets be frank, I love showing off). So far I’ve been camping in it 4 times, and will be going again next weekend. I’m constantly tweaking and adding to the build.

What’s next? Honestly, I’m not sure. I suspect I’ll be fiddling my cooking and heating arrangements a bunch (my current stove isn’t powerful enough). I’m considering a better propane management, something that lets me use a 5lb propane tank with multiple connections. Solar panels have been a thought, but I’m not sure if they’d be helpful (since I tend to camp in the woods). I’m definitely going to be upgrading my radio communications (I have no CB or Ham radio yet), and I want to have a permanent mount for a GPS locator / rescue device.

I hope to go on a couple long trips soon, but we’ll see how the weather, work, and my budget come together. Stay tuned!