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Feature Vehicle :: Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Summer 2022 Issue

When selecting a vehicle platform to explore Australia’s wild and remote corners, the list of iconic badges is staggering. Over the years, the Aussie market has been blessed with virtually every platform and model of serious 4×4 ever produced. After years of dreaming, I had a shortlist of potentials: a Defender 110 with the never-die 300Tdi engine, a Land Cruiser Troopy with a monster 4.5-liter V8, a Toyota Hilux, a Nissan Patrol, or maybe even an Iveco Daily with a custom box camper. Of course, all of those come with a factory turbo-diesel engine, ideally suited for long-distance Outback exploration.

While any of those would be an excellent choice, and each has a plethora of aftermarket parts and accessories designed specifically for demanding conditions, a nagging voice in the back of my head reminded me about my experiences around the world. What about a Jeep?, it teased.

The two-door Wrangler I drove 40,000 miles on the Pan-American Highway and the four-door Wrangler I drove 54,000 miles around Africa never suffered a single mechanical issue, were soft on my wallet, and ate up tens of thousands of miles of rough and technical terrain in excessively hot and dusty environments without breaking a sweat. Each day, they put a smile on my face and enabled exploration to more wild and remote places on this planet than I ever dreamed possible. In short, they were the perfect overland vehicles for my continent-scale expeditions.

An adventure around Australia is a different beast, however, and presents unique challenges in terms of extreme remoteness. To complete the infamous Canning Stock Route, for example, requires a range of at least 1,100 unsupported miles, not to mention a minimum of 20 days of food and water. Carrying all of that in a Wrangler would be challenging and likely impossible without exceeding legal weight limits. As fantastic as my previous Jeeps had been, I would need something more to tackle Australia’s Outback.

While Jeep’s marketing team would certainly use a more nuanced explanation, the Gladiator is basically a Wrangler with a longer wheelbase, higher payload, and more storage. For a long-term overlander like me, that means it has all the benefits of my previous Jeeps while adding the ability to carry more fuel, water, and food. That’s a win, win, and win.

It seemed like a workable platform on paper, and I started to wonder if it could be fit for purpose in Australia, where Toyota is King. Land Cruisers touring the country are commonplace, and there are literally thousands of virtually identical vehicles doing so this minute. I’ve never been one to follow the crowd, though, and consider myself a bit of an underdog. I much prefer to find my own trail and take the most exciting and interesting option. My years around the world have taught me just how durable Wranglers are, and now I’m excited to learn the pros and cons of this new platform by taking it farther into the Australian wilderness than it has ever gone before.

2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon: The Design

My Australian passport prevents me from importing a foreign vehicle, so I purchased a new Rubicon in Australian trim, only available with the 3.6-liter gas engine. While North Americans can buy the Gladiator with a factory turbo-diesel, Aussies must settle for a gas power plant. After decades of pining over turbo-diesel platforms, the irony of this situation is not lost on me.

Safety and security are virtually non-issues across Australia, so I don’t need to be as concerned about theft as in the past. Development and infrastructure in many regions of the country provide vastly more opportunities for fun and entertainment than the grind of crossing the Congo or dealing with corrupt officials in Honduras. I plan to take full advantage and carry surfboards and snorkelling gear. My new partner, Katie, will also be joining me, and exploring Australia means for the first time I can include my family, so I must plan for the legal transport of three adults.

From the outset, I knew the modest payload of the Gladiator would be the biggest limiting factor. Once loaded with enough fuel, water, food, and gear to safely cross the Simpson Desert, precious little payload remains for luxuries, and every pound of additional weight was carefully scrutinized.

Knowing the completed vehicle will be very close to its maximum legal weight rating, the suspension choice was critical. For decades, aftermarket Jeep suspension has focused on height, though with the growth of overlanding in recent years, there are now complete packages designed to carry constant heavy loads, as is the case with AEV’s latest offering, ideal for long-term overlanders.

In factory trim, the Rubicon is already exceedingly capable, and with reliability and durability being critical, there is no benefit to modifying more than absolutely necessary. Superchargers add heat and increase loads through the whole drivetrain, while oversize tires add weight, decrease fuel range, and increase wear and tear on steering and suspension components. In short, those modifications have no business on a long-term expedition, and I never considered them.

Creating modest living space inside a pickup bed with a wedge-style camper has recently become the must-have feature for overlanding in North America. While carefully researching weight and payload, I learned that many fully equipped Gladiators are significantly over legal GVWR, a dangerous game I’m not willing to play in the land of very strict rule enforcement, aka the Land Down Under.


Rather than a camper or traditional rooftop tent that raises the centre of gravity and compromises vehicle handling, I wanted the local experience. Popular with Aussie stockmen and overlanders since the dawn of remote Outback travel, a swag is a durable canvas sleeping bag complete with mattress and bedding rolled into one.

A canvas canopy covers the Gladiator bed, a lightweight and durable solution to keep out the sun and dust. I can’t help but love that it’s simple and works, the ultimate mantra for all modifications and accessories.

Legally transporting three people instead of my usual one caused a few pivots in the design, ultimately resulting in a 60 percent rear seat delete. In the remaining rear seat area, I designed a secure cabinet for delicate electronics and camera gear. Inside the cabinet is a slew of charging ports to keep multiple batteries topped off for quick change-outs in the field.

With vast regions of Australia requiring a range of 600 miles simply to get there and back, additional fuel is a must. The Long Ranger has been making auxiliary tanks in Australia for decades, and their 18.5-gallon (70-liter) tank designed for the Gladiator directly bolts to the frame. Now with a total capacity of 40 gallons (153 liters), the dual filler neck allows for filling either tank at any time.

Striking a kangaroo on a long journey around Australia is pretty much guaranteed, so the addition of a strong steel bumper with radiator protection was a must. Over the years, I’ve relied on a winch to save me from my own bad decisions enough times to consider it mandatory, and tucking it into the AEV bumper keeps it out of sight. Spotting roos early is the best way to avoid them, so I’m adding LED driving lights and a lightbar to augment the factory LED headlights.

Living Systems

Nothing was more essential in Africa than access to safe drinking water, and I was sure the same would be true in Australia, so I designed a new and improved water system, this time mounted in the bed of the Gladiator. At its heart is a 14.5-gallon (55-liter) tank straddling a wheel well, connected by a 12-volt water pump to a carbon filter to provide pressurized drinking water and a shower.

Dual batteries have long been a staple of overland vehicles, and while the old-school solenoid arrangement I had in Africa worked well enough, it was high time I modernized. At the center of my 21st-century setup is an efficient all-in-one DC-DC charger and MPPT solar charge controller. Paired with a lightweight 100-watt solar panel, the system charges a 50Ah lithium battery that is half the size and weight of comparable AGM batteries. With the ability to prioritize solar charging over adding load to the alternator and using solar to trickle charge the starter battery when the aux battery is full, this system really does it all.


Rather than building interior living space, I opted to maximize outdoor living space in the form of a Rhino-Rack 270-degree Batwing awning with multiple zip-on walls. The idyllic weather and lack of safety concerns mean I’m excited to spend my days outside, taking in the expansive views rather than being cooped up in a tiny living space. Rain and flies will be a challenge, and while the route I have planned ensures the former should be rare, I’m under no delusions about the latter, which drive many to the brink of insanity with their incessant need to get up close and personal.

Preparing and cooking meals is a huge part of my travels, and I’m always looking to improve food and kitchen storage to increase convenience. Designed specifically for the bed of a pickup, the latest offering from Overland Kitchen integrates a large fridge, ample storage, food-prep area, and two-burner stove into a single stainless steel drawer. The addition of a hardwood cutting board creates a massive workstation that makes meal prep quick and easy.


The Build

Anticipating Covid-related shipping delays, I began ordering parts six months prior to my arrival in Australia, optimistically hoping to complete the build in only two months. Dad’s shed was the perfect workshop, and I couldn’t help smiling at his rusty tools that were already old when I was a child.

Feeling timid about working on the first new vehicle I’d ever bought, I jumped straight into the deep end. I drilled holes in the roof on day one to mount the sturdy Rhino-Rack Backbone system, and on day two, I took to the hood with a grinder to mount the snorkel.

As the weeks turned into months, Dad and I worked days, building and problem-solving as we went, before cooking meals in the evening and catching up on our many years apart. My Australian citizenship was on shaky ground when I hesitated over Vegemite, though it didn’t take long before I returned to my long-buried roots.

Working long hours, Dad and I slowly transferred the massive pile of boxes onto the Jeep, though, of course, the two-month timeline was laughably optimistic. Four months later, we were still working away while waiting on the last of the parts to arrive from the US.


2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon: Final Product

In every way, this Gladiator has become the evolution of the Wrangler I designed and built for Africa. The water system, power and solar, and storage and kitchen are all tremendous improvements on functional and reliable designs that already worked well. Turning wrenches with my Dad was equal parts enjoyment and frustration, just as I hoped and knew it would be, and my brother Mike even made a late appearance to claim the glory of completing the final pieces. I’m immensely happy this project became a family effort, and now I can’t look at the Gladiator without thinking of the time we shared.

After exploring the far corners of the globe across four continents, I’m excited to explore my birth country, a place I hardly know.



2021 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon


3.6-liter V6 gas engine
8-speed automatic

Suspension and Drive

AEV 2.5-inch DualSport RT suspension and heavy load springs
AEV steering damper
Factory 4.10 diff ratios, locking differentials, low-range transfer case

Wheels and Tires

Yokohama X-AT tires, 285/70R17
Mopar steel wheels

Recovery and Armor

AEV EX front bumper and skid plate
Warn Zeon 10-S winch with synthetic line
AEV snorkel with dust pre-filter
MaxTrax MKII recovery boards


The Long Ranger 18.5-gallon auxiliary fuel tank
14.5-gallon drinking water tank, filtration, pump
Lightforce Venom LED driving lights and 20-inch lightbar
Overland Kitchen truck bed Expedition Kitchen
Coleman two-burner, dual-fuel stove
Dometic 55IM fridge
Renogy DC/DC, MPPT solar charge controller
Renogy 100-watt lightweight solar panel
Renogy 50Ah lithium battery
Rhino-Rack Backbone, Pioneer Platform rack
Rhino-Rack Batwing 270-degree awning
ARB air compressor
Custom canvas canopy

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Read more: Old Versus New: A Real-World Perspective

Dan Grec is an adventurer, snowboarder and photographer based in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Growing up in Australia gave Dan a passion for travel and exploration, and years of family road trips around the continent re-enforced that passion. In 2011 Dan set out in his Jeep Wrangler and drove 40,000miles from Alaska to Argentina, passing through some 16 countries over 22 months. You can connect with Dan, and learn more about his developing adventures at: The Road Chose Me