When going out into the woods your passengers need proper protection. No, I don’t mean a 45 to shot grizzlies and velociraptors. But seriously, the truth of the matter is that with all the rocks and trees around you’re going to inevitably run into something.
No matter what kind of off-roading you do, you need to at least be able to ensure that you can limp the rig home. It can kill you on a regular road, so it goes without saying that in the back-woods, dessert, etc. any damage to your machine is a serious problem. Even assuming that you wisely go out with buddies, their ability to tow your rig back through 14 miles of Jungle is limited and medical care is far away.
Over and above just the fact of life that accidents happen, bumpers are often also an integral part of the vehicle rescue kit serving as a tow point, a high-jack point, and winch mount.
There are about as many choices for jeep bumpers as there are Jeeps. So…buying a bumper is a matter that requires some pondering. What will your project vehicle goal ultimately be?
Stock Off Road Bumpers
Yes, for some applications stock bumpers actually work the best. They have the benefit of being light, and they provide the highest level of highway safety for you and others. All those millions of dollars in R&D that the company poured into the stock car are built with the assumption that the bumper they designed is on there.
This is an interesting “pro” though; if you change to anything else upfront than this no longer holds true because the handling, braking, acceleration, tire speed rating, etc. have shifted in relation to the new geometry and now that bumper may be too light, high, etc. to work as intended
The stock bumper is also limited severely off-road. Many are made to survive a 5 mph fender bender and to make sure pedestrians walk away; the finish and fit are not the major focus. If you’ve ever washed a car, I’m sure you’ve had the unpleasant realization that the finish on a stock bumper is easily damaged by road debris.
When going off-road, your bumper is going to be tag teamed by bush wacks, stones, and there are sharp enough twigs and branches to stab right through the plastic.
That means even if it’s just light-duty and no major impacts, there is likely to be some serious cosmetic damage; moreover, that odd rock, stump, or Sasquatch will pretty much knock the entire bumper off.
- Designed by your OEM for highway safety (read $$$$) and any other piece isn’t nearly as researched.
- Very light, no changes to handling
- Cheap, heck you probably already own it!
- Looks good, no silly styling
- Even light brush will eat into it, and a real hit will destroy it.
Aluminum bumpers have the benefit of being very light: in fact, sometimes they weigh less than stock. They also can be had for acceptable price points. I include here the light “nerf bar” or grille-guard styles.
I’m of the opinion that they are most competitive when competing with steel bars of the same type because in those situations all things are about equal and they save on weight. Remember, Gas will probably get expensive again. So for the price, you could wreck an aluminum bumper and still net a profit over steel
Aluminum has two obvious weaknesses though that keep it from being as popular as steal alternatives for heavy uses:
It self-destructs fasteners, rivets, and weakens at joints and mounting points. Aluminum when hit vibrates. And to eliminate the vibration the bumper has to send the energy down into the frame. Simple physics.
The construction is never so tight that the energy won’t leak out anywhere the bumper is fitted to the frame of the vehicle or itself and tack out mounting points. That vibration weakens the metal of the bolt holes and welds. Even if you baby it, there is a lifecycle to the material.
Dents come out easily in aluminum, but they go back in even easier. Basically, Aluminum crinkles, whenever it is hit and pulling it back out, make the material where the dent was like a hinge eager to go out of shape again. If you’ve ever torn a soda can you be familiar with how if you push it back and forth enough that it “tears” along the perforation easily?
- Toucher than ABS plastic
- Changes look similar to steel pieces
- Rust resistant
- Vibrations wear them out
- Still weak to impact
Steal is the way to go for “real” 4×4 driving that is more intense than using 4×4 as an excuse to not put on chains. Its biggest weakness is weight. Some claim a steal bumper can cause the front end to sag yet they are really only unforgiving if your suspension is worn out.
While I doubt you “see” any effects from the weight, you will feel it. With the weight bias being pushed forward or backward on a massive tire carrier bumper, the rear end is going to move much faster and break away quicker with an increase in body roll.
At the same time, breaking distance is tied to suspension loading so stopping distance will go up unless the suspension is re-tuned with proper springs, etc. yet it is very unlikely you can get all the way back to stock.
Most 4×4’s are heavy though and will really be “ok” with a steel bumper attached
Conversely, steel’s weakness in weight becomes part of its appeal. The steel bumper at speed punches with a lot of inertia like a fist.
At off-road shows, many relate that steel bumpers do very well against deer. It’s kind of like “brass knuckles” which make a punch a whole lot worse. Also against “slow” obstacles like rocks steel similarly shines.
Many aftermarket bumpers have tensile strengths similar to the frames, so they can handle a lot of slow blows and glancing hits. Also, as it is the same material as the frame they can support winches directly.
Yet, all this comes at a price. With steel, it is pretty much impossible to get a dent out. And unlike aluminum pieces, if the coating or paint is taken off it will rust. Rust affects all of them eventually be they $1500 or $300.
The difference normally just comes down to the scope, and in this respect, you get what you pay for. This is a matter of cosmetics more than function though as the dents/ rust are normally just on the surface and don’t affect performance. And some owners just Rustoleum the things once a year and are done with it.
An old rusty steel bumper is still probably mechanically good. In fact, they may earn you some respect as #beatennotbabied! And they often match those new fender flares.
- Bulletproof. This may be literally true.
- You can mount a winch and hook onto the thing all over and they have the strength to forgive all kinds of “bad ideas”
- Far better than aluminum or stock bumpers rock-crawling style off-road activities. Use the right tool for the job.
- Heavy. Only really an issue on off-models, budget models, lightweight vehicles, or rigs that are worse for wear.
- Hard to keep shiny. Unless you find one made of stainless, it doesn’t matter the finish it will wear off with hard use. Even powder coat won’t last on the business end of a sledge hammer.
- Dent repair is an issue and it will look trashed if you actually use it. You’re not going to pull dents from ¼” steel.
- So hard and heavy they may impact freeway impact safety.
Many report that they handle animal strikes very well, but I’m not accepting liability!
There are two main types of the front bumper that I’ve heard called various things by various clubs, manufactures, and different locals. Some of these terms are colloquialisms.
There are “small bar” grille bars, headlight racks, pre-runner skid plates, etc. that really only serve to protect the stock bumper, headlights, etc., or against light obstacles and scrapes.
And then there are the serious “bumper” bumpers. These can come in sheet metal or tube styles. The tubes typically weigh less and provide lots of ad-hoc anchor points that are easier to add lights, etc.
Most popular are the sheet metal pieces. These stop sharp obstacles the best, “glance off” hang-ups very well, and protect your winch better because it’s in a steel “box.” Yet, unless there are pre-existing tabs, etc. you’re getting out an arch-welder to make appearance changes/ upgrades.
Picking A Serious Off-Road Bumper
Pay attention to the sides and bottom of the bumper; they should be angled. The reason for this is a straight bar bumper can get hung up or worse give way into the fender.
The accessories you want. It’s better to get a bumper with tow hooks/ light holes from the beginning than trying to add them.
Radiator/winch/hood protection. A bumper that only covers the rig’s bottom half only protects the bottom parts. You want some armor for the engine bay!
With rear-bumpers, the only serious note is that there are different D-ring mounts, tow hitches, and tire swing latches (Jeeps) on the market. You most want to ensure a solid lockdown for the tire swing!
Now, I’m not a fan of the integrated hitches myself, I much prefer a dedicated receiver that is DOT approved (Even the expensive ones lack this). But good luck finding one without it. Sometimes I wish they just left them off or made them rated (Read CIVIL LIABILITY).
To be truthful, I’m not a big fan of the $1000+ bumpers enough to say they offer any extra value. In fact, I’m suspicious. Hand welds and hand bends in the industry often mean at-hand materials.
Human craftsmen often mean-variance is native to the manufacturing process employed by the factory, and while none of this is the makers’ fault nor am I saying some custom shops haven’t really earned their reputations…
There is a concrete scientific reason why CNC machines and robotic welders made our cars faster, lighter, and safer than those that used to be welded by hand. Is a 1964 ½ mustang a bad car because it’s hand-built? No. But 2016 sure is faster, safer, etc.
But some of the expensive stuff is just made on an assembly line anyways! So do we pay more for robot A or robot B?!
I try to be budget-conscious, knocking expensive tools, etc. so that more people pick up the off-road sport who want to. And here I can’t see the higher prices as justified or product as “better.” It’s the problem with progress, darn machines! Mostly, the increased spending is just Ad Budgets or “cool.”
I don’t mind robots making the parts, I just don’t want them driving the cars!
Anyways, most of the competitive shops use CNC machines, robotic welders, and all source steel continuously so they have more control over materials quality and their ability to improve year after year. Such is in line with the fact they simply have a modern production process. And because they are all on board with these manufacturing processes, all the major brands compete pretty on par.
Main Takeaways – Picking An Off-Road Bumper
Stock bumpers are good for road use, aluminum bumpers are good for gentle dirt road use, yet steel is the choice for off-road/ hard use.
Pay attention to the angles of the bumper, how would it slide off hang-ups or protect your rig from various angles of attack?
Get the features you want from the start; bumpers are bumpers. There’s no need to pay to get a super-duper Brand XX bumper. You’ll probably look cooler because you didn’t.
As for my own taste, I like stock bumpers with winch plates and grille guards. I don’t raise the black flag very often, and I like the utilitarian look far more than I like the more modern takes on trucks. Especially on older stuff!
On Jeeps I like the newer looks; I stare at a lot of them and am a bit biased looking for the “new.” Yet, I’ve had the new ones save my bacon as well! And I think a stock truck would have died.
Thanks for reading and stay dirty