Safety isn’t just for the driver. Your vehicle is liable to deal with plenty of knicks and bruises throughout its lifetime, and there are plenty of ways to help protect it. From bumpers to rock rails and rock sliders, there are an impressive variety of ways to bolster the exterior and the frame of your Wrangler. That being said, one of the most ubiquitous ways of protecting your Wrangler is the use of skid plates. Put most simply, skid plates are pieces of metal placed under your vehicle to protect critical components. They're very important for off-roading vehicles, but they can also prevent damage from happening on the pavement as well.
What Do Skid Plates Do?
Skid plates are an easy and simple way to reinforce the critical parts of your Wrangler’s undercarriage. Important parts like the transfer box, fuel tank, and the differentials can all be broken by an errant rock. If these are ever damaged, especially when out on the trails, they can completely incapacitate your car. Not only would this ruin your off-roading excursion and leave you stranded, but the repairs could also wreak havoc on your wallet.
Anything on a vehicle’s undercarriage can reap the benefits from skid plates, from the gas tank and oil pan, to the transmission and transfer case. Even the factory skid plates can be replaced with a flashier aftermarket option. Aftermarket skid plates can also be thicker and composed of whatever material you see fit. Additionally (even though they are hidden from sight unless you are seriously flexing), skid plates can be painted or powder coated a variety of colors.
There are other fringe benefits to skid plates as well. Because they generally lay flat underneath the vehicle, they can have a positive effect on aerodynamics as well. They can ultimately reduce turbulence and help air pass more smoothly underneath the vehicle. Not all skid plates have any effect on aerodynamics, and those that do may only provide minor benefits. Additionally, skid plates do add to the overall weight of the vehicle so any aerodynamic benefits may be canceled out by this fact. That being said, this is not the main reason to install a skid plate and is more of an ancillary benefit more than anything else.
There’s also this idea floating around that skid plates are only useful for off-roading. There are plenty of reasons to install skid plates on a vehicle that only drives on pavement. For one, lowered cars have a higher risk of incurring undercarriage damage. On a bagged car, even something as mundane as a speed bump could cause some serious damage. For that reason, skid plates could prevent a bunch of maintenance and keep your lowered vehicle from spending too much time in the shop.
Skid Plates vs Belly Pans
Belly pans are often confused for skid plates. While they do serve some of the same purposes, belly pans are more useful on pavement. Unlike skid plates, they can't take heavy abuse and are more intended to deflect small debris from flying up into the engine compartment. Additionally, belly pans have a more significant effect on the vehicle's aerodynamics as they cover the entire bottom of the vehicle.
Finding a suitable belly pan for your vehicle will be more difficult than finding skid plates. since they have to be precision built and are quite large, they aren't as popular as an aftermarket upgrade. Most cars that do have belly pans come from the factory with them. For that reason, you're more likely to find belly pans on luxury or high-efficiency vehicles.
Materials of Skid Plates
Skid plates are generally made out of two types of metal: aluminum or steel. The pros and cons of these are pretty much the same here as they are in the rest of the aftermarket scene.
Aluminum plates are generally cheaper, and lighter, but lack in strength when compared to their steel counterparts. Additionally, they tend to break in a more catastrophic way than steel. As opposed to simply bending, aluminum skid plates can shear off, develop holes and rips, or even shatter. This means that they are significantly more difficult to repair than steel plates. That being said, they can still provide plenty of protection, despite being the softer metal. Skid plates gain strength not solely from material strength. The geometric design of the skid plate and how it deflects weight is equally important for a skid plate's effectiveness. Additionally, aluminum skid plates function great on standard roads because of their inability to rust. While aluminum can still corrode, they won't be devoured by wet and salty roads the same way that steel and iron will.
Steel plates, while being heavier, are quite a bit stronger than aluminum skid plates. Because of this strength, they are able to skid easier, meaning that they won’t grip to whatever obstacle they come across and will move along the object until it is free. Even if they get damaged, it’ll likely just be a dent or something equivalently mild. While this is not to say that steel skid plates are impervious, they are considerably more repairable.
How To Install Wrangler Skid Plates
Generally speaking, skid plates are easy to install. There are mounts for most every type of skid plate available underneath the vehicle. This also means that it will be more difficult to remove the part from beneath the skid plate to service it. However, with a
skid plate, you will likely have to service these parts less often, so that inconvenience is generally mitigated.
Regardless, most skid plate installs are quite simple. For example, Matt from CJ Off Road's YouTube team shows how simple installing an oil pan skid plate on a Jeep JK is in the tutorial below. With just a ratchet, a few sockets, and a jack stand, a skid plate can be put into position and be ready for action in a matter of minutes.