There’s a delicate balance that every Jeep owner must maintain. While it’s immensely fun to sling your Wrangler through mud piles and down rocky crags, injuring your Jeep can quickly negate any fun you were having. There isn’t a wetter blanket than busting your Jeep out on the trails.
A Jeep Wrangler is meant to be pushed to the edge, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be coddled some times. No, I’m not talking giving your Wrangler a massage, I’m talking about outfitting your Jeep with protection. Look, if Tony Hawk wears a helmet, then your Jeep should wear something to protect its frame.
There are a variety of forms of Wrangler protection, but the ones we are going to be discussing here are the bits of armor that can protect your Jeep's rocker panels. The rockers are the area in between the wheel wells directly underneath the door. This area is quite vulnerable, especially when rock crawling. One errant rock or log could bend your Jeep’s rockers, both critically undermining the frame’s strength as well as making it hard to open and close your doors. Additionally, frame repairs can be expensive, so not only is your Wrangler in peril, but it will put your wallet in jeopardy as well.
It’s for that reason there are a variety of ways to protect your Jeep’s rocker panels. From rocker rails, to rock sliders, to nerf bars, there are methods to provide your Jeep Wrangler with protection, a stylistic flair, and added functionality.
These are the most literal form of armor you can place on your Wrangler. Rocker guards are armored plates that attach directly to the underside of your Wrangler’s rockers in order to protect them from scratches and dents.
Rocker guards do exactly what they say, they guard your rockers. In this sense, they are purely for protection and offer no ancillary benefits. They do increase the ruggedness factor of your Jeep, however, and some people are attracted to the aesthetic appeal of that.
Rocker guards are not exclusive to Jeeps by any means, and there are plenty of similar options for classic Mustangs and trucks. There are plenty of ways a vehicle's rockers can be damaged that don't involve off-road driving. Something as simple as an errant rock can leave your rocker panels with a nasty dent.
Nerf Bars and Running Boards
Nerf bars, running boards, or even side steps, are all names for the same basic type of rocker protection. Unlike other forms, these are all less focused on providing raw protection and instead, are intended to provide an access step to the cab.
Nerf bars are a popular mod on more than just Wranglers. Many trucks will install these bars underneath the rockers in order to create a boundary for their vehicle. This added space helps keep your vehicle away from things like rocks and other cars, thus offering some protection.
Nerf bars aren’t soft as their name might imply, but they don’t offer the best protection either. Because of the way they are aligned the possibility for injury to your Wrangler’s rockers remains, as well as other smaller scratches and dents. While nerf bars do the job decently they are by no means the definitive form of rocker protection
Nerf bars are particularly popular on lifted vehicles, hence their popularity on trucks. Because of the ways nerf bars flare out from the rockers, they provide a good step to get in and out of the vehicle. Many nerf bars, or running boards, will be equipped with rubber footing on the top to increase their functionality in this way.
At the end of the day, however, nerf bars are mostly just for looks and for the added convenience of the step. Again, while they do offer protection, they are doing double duty in this way and are more slated for looks and practicality.
Keep in mind that there are a lot of different terms that refer to this type of rocker protection. This is partly because they vary in design quite a bit. Some side steps like the ones pictured above can either be a straight bar across the vehicle's rockers or a series of loops that hang from the frame that provides a good step. If they aren't rocker guards, and they aren't rock rails or rock sliders, then they can be placed in the category of side steps/nerf bars.
Rock Rails and Rock Sliders
Rock rails, which are also sometimes referred to as rock sliders, are effectively a combination of a nerf bar and rocker guards. They look similar to nerf bars but are more precisely engineered to provide better protection. There are a variety of names for these, and sometimes you can find rock rails sold under the name of rock sliders.
Rock rails don’t only provide good protection, but they can also increase your maneuverability on the trail. Instead of getting hung up on some rocks (and damaging your Wrangler’s rockers), your Wrangler will slide off of them injury free and remain able to conquer the rest of the trail ahead.
Another function of rock rails, or rock sliders, is that by their design, you are also given a step to enter your Jeep. Much like a nerf bar, these provide a place to put your feet before entering the vehicle. This way, you won’t have to lift your smaller family members into the vehicle; they can get in themselves.
Rock rails are relatively easy to install, and shouldn't take more than a few hours to fit to your Wrangler. That being said, be sure that the fitment is correct as they are all precisely catered to each Wrangler model. In order to get an idea of how these are to install, check out our tutorial on CJ's Off Road Youtube page.
The Best Wrangler Rocker Protection
As you can see, there are many options to protect your Wrangler's rocker panels. Also, there is a panoply of different names for some of the same basic types of protection. While these are the general types, manufacturers do seem to make up the names for these on the fly.
The long and short of it is, rock rails provide the best protection, rocker guards provide mild protection, and running boards, side steps, or nerf bars all provide some protection with the added benefit of a step.