Budget Cherokee: Phase 1

Build: Budget Jeep Cherokee Tribute- Part 1

We will be detaling the build-outs of several different vehicles on the Sidetrek blog. However, this ‘01 Cherokee is near and dear to our hearts. Named for our dear friend Nate, who owned the Jeep before his sudden passing in 2017, every time we take this Jeep offroad we think of him, his larger-than-life laugh, and his love for adventuring. We’ll be spending a bit more time documenting the modification process, and the treks we take in Nate’s honor.

We inherited the Cherokee at the end of 2018 for just one dollar. Nate’s wife was ready to part with the vehicle, and knew our affinity for Jeeps and the outdoors, and that we’d put it to good use. Nate had lived for adventure, and relished every opportunity to get outside with his friends and family. From taking his three kids rock climbing near his family’s village in Italy, to dragging us on our first pack-in camping overnight with a toddler who woke screaming every twenty minutes…all night long…he had an enthusiasm for the closeness that comes from time spent together in nature. Every time I take the Jeep out, I remember Nate and he inspires me to make the most out of each adventure, and every precious minute we have together. 

Nate always put people first. Even after selling a successful startup, their family lived modestly, prioritized their local community and church, and relished the simple pleasures of nature. For a genuine love of learning, they chose to DIY many projects. It’s in this spirit that we want to build-out his Jeep. Making meaningful edits on a budget, taking the Jeep to a new level of capability Nate would very much appreciate, and never losing perspective that this project isn’t about gear, it’s about the adventures and family time these mods will enable. 

So we’ll be doing lots of clever and interesting things with the Cherokee, showing you how to squeeze maximum fun out of whatever budget you have. Let’s go!

 

Our Goals

We want a rig that’s at home on medium difficulty trails, and can stretch to make harder trails like the Rubicon. This will require an increase in ground clearance, traction, storage, and recovery options. The target budget is $5,000 which is trim, but achievable. This project will serve as a good example of what can be done on a budget. Basically, our goal is the Goldilocks Cherokee: not too high, not too heavy, not too expensive, just right! 

The Strategy

For Phase I, we’ll focus on getting to our destinations.  We’ll be adding a lift, larger tires, and basic recovery and safety kit  

To keep the build simple, we want a tire/lift combo that offers good off-road capability without having to do major and expensive upgrades to the driveline and suspension geometry. For the XJ, 31’s and a 3” lift serve that purpose. Anything more and you have to start swapping out drive shafts, gears, axles, steering and suspension geometry components.  Needless to say, that gets expensive fast. Taller vehicles also have a higher center of gravity, which can make it easier to tip on side slopes, especially when adding a rooftop tent.

Focusing first on DRIVE allows you to get out on the trail fast, and the other phases can come later. If you’re new to overlanding, just taking day-trips with these new modifications will let you get used to your vehicle’s capabilities. We have enough previously-owned camping gear to handle 2 or 3-night trips without investing in major refrigeration or storage upgrades. If necessary, grab a basic ground tent and camp stove, and just get out there

 

Bang for the Buck: Some thoughts on the Jeep Cherokee

The Cherokee is a great platform for a budget rig. Good used models can be found for $3,000-6,000, and they are known to last for well over 200,000 miles. They are also simple to work on, have a great network of owner forums, and there are tons of aftermarket add-ons available. A huge benefit of a budget rig is that you can worry a lot less about scratches, dents and even a roll-over.  It’s harder to say that about a $50k Gladiator! Plus the Cherokee just has a cool, classic shape, and Jeep doesn’t make anything like it today.  

The Cherokee is fairly small, which makes it great for offroading.  It has a short wheelbase for a 4 door, giving a good breakover angle, and has pretty good approach and departure angles.  It’s also narrow, allowing it to slip through where larger vehicles struggle, which is a nice bonus. 

Downside: the cargo area is small, so we’ll need to be creative to fit gear for four. More on that in Phase II.

 

The Lift

First up is getting some clearance for larger tires and for more flexibility and wheel travel.  Quadratech offers a new budget lift comprised of longer coils for the front, an add-a-leaf for the rear and 4 off road-tuned shocks in either medium or firm damping. The manufacturer’s install instructions were detailed and pretty good. They recommend disconnecting the leaf pack from the shackles, but I found that unnecessary. I did buy extended brake lines to avoid a rupture, broke a swaybar link so swapped out for disconnects, and had to add some leaf spring retaining clips that the kit neglected.  We might need a helper spring in the rear once we start adding the weight of a new bumper. There are definitely better suspensions to be had, but for just over $400, I couldn’t ask for more.

Cost: $409 (lift= $219, Sway bar disconnects= $143, Brake Lines= $35, leaf pack clips= $12)

 

Results: The lift height in the front was good, but the back seems lower than expected, but that may be due to fatigued stock leafs.  Overall clearance is just short of what is needed for 31″ tires, so the tires rub when turning sharply.  That’s OK, as I was planning on trimming fenders and prefer to stay a bit lower for easier access into the Jeep. 

It behaves fairly well on and off-road and is not much different than the Rubicon Express lift I had on my previous Cherokee.  It doesn’t seem to have the best rebound control and would not perform particularly well on faster gravel road with corrugation. We tend to roll fairly slowly so  amediocre shock isn’t a deal killer.   

 

Tires

For tires, we went with the Patagonia M/T’s from Milestar, which are possibly the best bang for the buck in off road tires.  These do very well in mud and rock, and behave nicely, with low noise on pavement. Learn more about them in my full review (LINK).  There is a big difference between the mud terrains (M/T) and all terrains (A/T). If only occasionally off-roading on moderate trails, A/Ts will serve you better. They have lower road noise, and are longer lasting than the M/Ts.  However, if you are spending a fair amount of time off road, and find yourself on difficult trails or in mud or deep sand, the M/Ts will perform much better. We went for 31×10.5R15 which keeps us below that threshold of needing to regear or go for larger lifts.  

Cost: $917.50 (5x $183.50)

Two months in, the additional traction has been nice and we’ve already had the opportunity to try the Milestars out on mud, snow and loose, sandy slopes. I can say that I am very pleased with the Milestar Patagonia M/Ts, and I think they’ll be great for most overlanding rigs.  Check out my full review of the Patagonias (LINK).

Basic Recovery and Safety Gear

You can read our post on the essentials (LINK), but I’ll briefly mention our starting kit for the Binkert build.  I had some of these items previously so they aren’t part of the total, but you can find links to everything at the bottom of this page.

  • Traction boards- $68
  • Bottle Jack- $35
  • Tow Straps- Already had
  • Shovel- Already had
  • First Aid Kit- $47
  • Fire Extinguisher-  $40
  • Water Can- $27
  • Basic Tools- Already had

Basics Total: $217

Phase 1 Running Total: $1,543.50

 

So Far, So Good

With the Phase 1 modifications we have a very capable vehicle. With the new stance, and a few basic recovery and safety items, we were ready to hit the trail.  We had been out on a few small trips with the stock format, and a number of places were effectively impassable. We’ve revisited a few of those spots, and they’re now a breeze! We’re driving with much more confidence, trying more difficult trails, and have been able to use the recovery tools to get out of a few jams. The biggest challenge has been side slipping in really slick mud or sand. I have a theory that the Patagonia tread pattern, which is great for reducing road noise, might make them a little more prone to lateral slipping, but will need to do more side by side testing. More about that in the Milestar Patagonia review.

 

Up Next

In our next post, we’ll be adding front and rear bumpers to support a winch and tire carrier, installing the lockers and rock sliders, and planning the roof rack and a custom cargo box. Then in Phase II we’ll focus on CAMP gear that makes multi-day trips more comfortable. Stay tuned for the rest of our Budget Cherokee Build!

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