Spring is in the air and jeep wheeling rallies are in full swing. The winter layoff has many of us itching to get back onto a trail. That usually means throwing all of the gear in the jeep, doing a quick walk around and heading out full of excitement. In the flurry of catching up with fellow jeepers we often overlook preventative maintenance and rely on how our jeep handled the trails before the end of the typical wheeling season. After years of moderate wheeling ranging from Alaska to California and Texas to Illinois, I have created a quick checklist that I run through on my rig before each weekend wheeling adventure. I built this quick rundown based on incidents I have experienced or have seen happen to guys/gals in my group. This is not an end all be all list and should be tailored to your specific vehicle.
Axle check (front and rear)
- Axle vent tube – inspect the tubing and ensure it is still attached to the axle nipple and free of dry rot and cracks. A torn or disconnected tube will allow water and grit into axle and wreak havoc with the differentials fluid and bearings.
- Differential Fluid level – Fluid levels should be checked and changed per the vehicles maintenance schedule. If you are like me I love giving my jeep an occasional mud bath or crossing the creek bottom on the deep end just for that reassurance badge. Water is the enemy of most things and will eventually make its way into places it shouldn’t be. The fluid should full, non-gritty and NOT a light chocolate milkshake color.
- Front axle u-joints – The front axle stub shaft u joints are often overlooked but are a common cause of ending a good trail ride. These can be checked fairly easy with a small pry bar or by spinning the wheel while watching the joint. You are looking for excessive movement between the ears, a cap that has started to back out as compared to the others or worst case is a red dust falling out indicating a cap that has lost its grease and the needles are rusted and/or worn.
- Driveline u-joints – The inspection mirrors the axle stub shaft joint inspection with the addition of checking the rubber boot on stock shafts.
- Miscellaneous axle electrical connections – This check is vehicle specific but on a typical JK, you will have speed sensor wiring and locker wiring for the Rubicon owners running to the axles. Inspect the connectors to ensure they are still attached and none of the wires are broken or fraying. It is amazing how wires will break inside the protective covering just to start a game of hide and seek.
- Brake Lines – Give those momentum stopper veins a feel and visual check. A cracked line or dry rotted line is a show stopper so fix it in the driveway instead of the side of a hill.
- Pinion seals/rear axle seals – The pinion seals will typically start as a slow seep, identified by a pinion with a wet sheen or a darker mud color than the rest of the axle. A slow seep is not a reason to call off the jeep adventure but it is a perfect reason to verify the fluid level and take a note that when time allows, swap it out. The same goes for a rear axle shaft seal as far as inspection and fluid check. However, it should be bumped up on the priority list. If the seal leak gets serious different fluid may get slung on to your brake shoes and reduce the stopping effectiveness. Now you will be changing pads (regular and e-brake), cleaning rotors, AND replacing seals.
Steering components Check
- Tie rod ends – A worn or loose tie rod end is a recipe for the dreaded death wobble or loss of vehicle control. They are easy to inspect and replace before they let go but can cause serious damage if they break at normal driving speeds when you hit one of those atom bomb potholes littering our highways. A quick inspection includes a second person. Have the fellow jeeper start it up and ask them to rock the steering wheel back and forth while you are watching each end. If one is loose you will see the knuckle move and the tie rod stays put or it will jump around separate from the knuckle movement. You can also Jack up one side of the axle to get one wheel off the ground. Grab the wheel at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions and rock the wheel back and forth while having the assistant adult beverage drinker watch the rod ends for excessive play.
- Track Bar – The track bar keeps the position of the axle inline left and right. It connects to the axle on one end and the frame on the other. While performing the tie rod check, verify that the track bar is not moving within the brackets and that the brackets are not broken or cracked. A bolt that has lost its torque is often the culprit of track bar movement and a feeder of the death wobble. Investing in a good torque wrench is a great insurance plan for both preventative maintenance and general repairs.
- Check/fill engine oil
- Check/fill transmission fluid – Wheeling is hard on a tranny so the fluid should be full, clean and serviced regularly. For those of us with an Automatic, an aftermarket transmission cooler is highly recommended to avoid overheating the fluid.
- Check/fill power steering fluid – Got to be able to turn those mud slingers and the P/S squeal from low fluid will draw eyes and snickering.
- Check/fill brake fluid – Bigger tires take more effort to stop which creates a higher level of heat within the calipers, rotors and pads and that heat impacts the brake fluid. Checking this fluid does two things: it ensures you have the proper level to stop that beast of a jeep of yours and it will also tell you that there is something wrong downstream when the fluid levels drops suddenly. The fluid should be serviced and flushed per specs to keep the grit from causing issues in those high dollar ABS parts.
- Visually inspect for obvious leaks
- Valve cover(s) –
- T-stat housing – Often the culprit of the random anti-freeze smell
- Transmission cooler lines – Check for leaks, fraying and security
- Radiator hoses – Check both the hoses and clamps
- Power steering lines – Check for leaks, fraying and security
- Electrical checks
- Inspect battery connections – dirty connections, loose connections, battery fluid levels (as applicable)
- Inspect winch power cables – check connections, routing for security, evidence of rubbing/fraying
- Miscellaneous wiring – CB connections, amp wiring, light bar/pod connections, Spod connections, etc.
- Transmission pan gasket for leaks
- Transfer case output shaft for leaks (inspection mirrors pinion seals)
- Inspect for nails, screws etc. I found 2 nails while I was getting pictures for this article, I picked them up since my last wheeling trip. Luckily I have a set of new shoes to go on this weekend!
- Goes with normal checks but check tire pressure before and after the trip. Don’t forget to check the spare that’s always peeking in the back window.
- Check the lug nuts for proper torque and ensure they are all present.
Preventative maintenance has saved my rear end more than once both in the field of aircraft maintenance and the Jeep world. It only takes a few minutes to save yourself the pain and suffering of breaking on a trail for something simple.
Good Luck and keep the wheels turning!
May 27, 2016