Adding a new set of aftermarket wheels to your off-road vehicle is one of the coolest things you can do to transform and personalize the look of your rig.
However, if you buy wheels just because you like how they look and you don’t factor in some very important specifications—material, weight, size, and a few other things—you could mess up the performance of your vehicle both on and off the road.
That’s why I want to share some information that you might want to consider before you buy that set of pretty looking wheels.
What Wheels Are Currently on the TrailRecon Jeeps?
Above are the three different wheel types from TrailRecon's current Jeep Wranglers. From left to right: From the 2015 silver, Jeep Wrangler JK is the Machete Crawl Beadlock wheels by KMC Wheels in polished metal; from the red 2021 Jeep Wrangler 392 is the bronze 701 Bead Grip wheels from Method Racing Wheels; and from the 2018 yellow 2-door Jeep Wrangler JL is the beadlock capable Mopar Performance Wheel that came stock on the 392.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of the things you should think about before deciding on which set of wheels are right for you, here’s a quick rundown of the three different sets of wheels that we currently have on three of our Jeeps.
While each of these wheels were designed to go on a Jeep and they are all aluminum, they all have very different specifications and purposes that we’ll dive into below.
1. Are Aluminum Better Than Steel Wheels?
There are several different materials used to make wheels but they’re primarily either aluminum or steel.
I’m a fan of aluminum wheels and one reason is because they are typically lighter than steel. Lighter wheels are better for your vehicle’s drivability and they’ll cause less wear and tear on your rig, particularly your suspension and tires.
Steel wheels, because they are heavier, are not only going to cause more wear and tear on your vehicle, they’re also going to impact your acceleration and breaking performance—your rig is going to respond a little more slowly, whether you’re trying to speed up or stop, with heftier wheels.
Something else to consider is that, even though today’s aluminum wheels are pretty durable thanks to modern technology, it’s still possible to crack one if you take a hard hit on the trail, and it’s pretty difficult to do a trail repair on aluminum wheels.
But if you take a hard hit on a wheel made from steel, which is significantly stronger than one made out of aluminum, it’s more likely to bend than crack, and that makes it easier to do a trail repair with a hammer or welder.
Another thing to think about is pricing. Aluminum wheels are more expensive than steel, and depending on the wheel design you want, your wallet is probably going to take a hit. Steel wheels are definitely the more affordable option of the two but the choice of available styles is much more limited.
And this brings me to my final point in the steel vs. aluminum wheel debate—design choices.
With aluminum wheels, because of the way they are made—cast by pouring molten aluminum into a mold—you’re going to have many different spoke designs, sizes, and finishes to choose from. Personally, I just think aluminum wheels look really good, and aesthetics matter.
Whereas with a steel wheel, because it’s made by cutting the metal and welding the pieces together, your style options for spoke design and size are much more limited. Although…I have to say, I am a big fan of the look of an old classic steel wheel.
When it comes to deciding which wheels are best for you, it’s all about choosing the wheel that’s going to be right for the job, and that includes factoring in the material they’re made from.
Honestly, if I were planning do a trip all the way across Australia or one that involved some heavy rock crawling, I’d go with a steel wheel that can take a beating and can be repaired when I’m in the middle of nowhere.
But for a rig that does double duty as both my daily driver and weekend warrior vehicle, I’m going to choose an aluminum wheel every time.
2. Which Wheel Finishes Are Best for Off-Roading?
The bronze 701 Bead Grip wheels by Method Racing Wheels is powder coated, giving it a durable finish.
Speaking of aesthetics…let's talk about finish options for wheels. There are several different choices available, but I’m going to talk about three of the most popular finishes, which includes powder coating (the one you’ll see most often, like what I have on my bronze wheels), painted, and polished.
What I like about powder coated wheels is that they are more resistant to corrosion and they are very durable. This comes in handy when you’re out on the trail and your wheels are getting up close and personal with rocks and bushes because powder coated wheels hold up really well against scratches and dings. But when you do actually scratch through that powder coat, I’ve found that trying to touch these up is not the easiest thing to do.
Painted wheels aren’t as expensive as powder coated one, but they aren’t as durable either. When you scratch these wheels, and they are much more likely to get scratched when you’re off-roading, they’re easier to paint match than powder coated. This does make touch ups a bit easier and that’s a good thing because you’re likely to be doing it often. On the plus side, painted wheels can also be paint matched to your rig if that’s the look you’re going for and they’re easier to keep clean.
The Machete Crawl Beadlock wheels by KMC Wheels in polished metal from TrailRecon's silver 2015 Jeep Wrangler JK.
Polished wheels are essentially aluminum wheels that have been buffed and polished to a high shine and I really like this look. These can get scratched but if they do, they just don’t show the marks as much as they would on painted or powder coated wheels, which is why I really like polished wheels on rock crawlers, like my JK—if I scuff these up, it’s no big deal.
Finally, we have chrome wheels, which were pretty popular back in the 70s when just about everyone had them on their off-road rigs. In fact, I have chrome wheels on my 1974 Jeep Cherokee and they look really cool. Chrome wheels, which can be pretty expensive, just aren’t as much of an option these days as they aren’t as “in” as they once were.
3. When Should You Ditch Your Stock Wheels for Aftermarket Wheels?
Before you go and pull the stock wheels off your vehicle and throw on a new set, there's one very important thing to consider—those original equipment manufacturer (OEM) wheels were designed and engineered to perform with your vehicle’s suspension and drivetrain.
If you’re only swapping out your wheels for aesthetics, you should know that a new set of wheels could change more than the look of your rig—they might just change its performance too. Because those shiny new wheels may have different offset or backspacing (more on this later), or they might be a different size and weight than your OEM wheels, which means you are likely going to change the quality of your ride.
The change could be minor enough that you don’t even notice it…or not. This is just something you should be aware of and give some thought to before replacing your OEM wheels with aftermarket ones, especially if you are already happy with how your vehicle drives.
But if you plan on lifting your vehicle and putting bigger tires on it, well, you’re already doing several things that are going to change your rig’s performance, and you’re most likely going to need a different aftermarket wheel anyway to complement those modifications. And you probably already know your off-road rig is not going to perform the same as it did when you drove it off the lot once you start making changes, especially if you change the suspension or add a lift kit. But that’s kind of the point of most major modifications, isn’t it?
4. Why Does Wheel Size Matter for Off-Road Rigs?
The tire specifications (size and wheel width) for the 39-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires that are 13.5 inches wide, and are currently on the TrailRecon silver Jeep Wrangler JK and fit the KMC 17-inch wheels.
One of the basic considerations when you’re buying a set of wheels is their size.
Way back when, a 15-inch wheel was standard on most off-road vehicle’s and you could throw a 33-inch tire on there and it was good wheel-to-sidewall combination. But over time brakes got bigger, the brake calipers got bigger, and more room was needed to fit them and so wheels had to get bigger. That’s why the standard wheel size for most off-road vehicles today is 17 inches, and that’s what I have on all of my Jeeps.
That does not mean anything is compromised because you can still replace your stock tires, which are most commonly 33-inches on four-wheel drive vehicles, and throw 35, 39, and even 42-inch tires on your wheels and still have plenty of rubber and sidewall to give you lots of grip when you get out there on the trail.
Now, when you do go with larger tires, the next thing you need to think about is your wheel width. This is important because different tire sizes have different manufacturer specifications for the recommended width of the rim. So, you’ll either need to choose a wheel width that fits the specs of your tires or you’ll need to choose a tire that will fit your wheel.
Just to give you an idea, here are the wheel widths and tire specs for my Jeeps:
- The Method wheels on my 392 are 8.5 inches wide, and my 37-inch tires are 12.5 inches wide
- The KMC wheels on my silver JK are 9 inches wide, and I’m running 39-inch tires that are 13.5 inches wide
- The Mopar wheels on my wife’s yellow JL (the ones that originally came on the 392) are 8 inches wide with 35-inch tires that are 12.5 inches wide
So, just make sure you’re taking into consideration what the manufacturer recommended wheel width is for your tires.
5. What Should You Know About Wheel Lug Patterns?
Making sure your wheels are safely and securely attached to your vehicle is pretty important, and it’s the next topic I want to go over.
A lug pattern (also called a bolt pattern) refers to the number of lug holes and the measurement of their spacing on the wheel where the lug nuts (also called lug bolts) on your vehicle will go when attaching the wheel. Typically, Jeeps have a “5x5” lug pattern, meaning they have five lug holes arranged in a circle that has a five-inch diameter.
To understand how we got that spacing measurement, just imagine a circle drawn through the center of all the lug holes. Then measure that circle’s diameter and the number you get is your spacing measurement.
Graphic illustrating how the spacing measurement is calculated.
Easy enough, right?
Well, something else that’s important to keep in mind is that lug patterns are usually measured in millimeters because wheel and vehicle manufacturers typically use the metric system. So, while a lug pattern may be referred to as 5x5, it may also be referred to as 5x127, which is 5 lug holes with a spacing of 127mm (five inches equals 127 millimeters). Who knew you’d be getting a math lesson?
Graphic illustrating lug pattern, expressed in inches and millimeters.
Something else to know about your wheel is whether it’s hub-centric or lug-centric because this is how the wheel attaches to vehicle. In a hub-centric wheel, the wheel is centered directly on the axle hub via the center bore (that hole in the middle of your wheel) and the lug nuts hold it securely in place. In a lug-centric wheel, the wheel is centered and secured by the lug nuts. Many aftermarket wheels are lug-centric with large hub diameters to accommodate a variety of different types of vehicles.
6. What’s the Difference Between Wheel Offset and Backspacing?
Brad measuring the backspacing on his bronze 701 Method Bead Grip wheel.
Offset and backspacing are two other wheel specifications that are very important to pay attention to when buying aftermarket wheel. These two measurements determine how close or far your wheel sits from the body of your rig.
Offset is the distance from the centerline of your wheel to the backside of your wheel’s mounting surface, which is where the wheel attaches to your vehicle. This number is measured in millimeters and can be either positive or negative. A positive offset means the wheel sits closer to your vehicle’s body and a negative means the wheel sits further away from it.
Graphic illustrating the offset of a wheel.
For example, the Method wheel on my 392 has a 0mm offset because its mounting surface is dead center on the wheel. My KMC wheel has a -38mm offset, which means the mounting surface is closer to the back of the wheel (the side that faces your vehicle), which pushes the wheel away from the body of my JK. The Mopar wheel on my wife’s Jeep has a 12mm offset, meaning the mounting surface is closer to the front of the wheel, bringing the wheel in towards to the body of the JL.
Backspacing is a measurement that goes hand in hand with offset, and it measures the distance from the mounting surface to the back of the wheel. The more backspace, the closer the wheel sits to your vehicle’s body and things like suspension, and less backspace means the wheel sits farther from your vehicle’s body and gives you more clearance.
Graphic illustrating the backspacing measurement on a wheel.
Essentially, a positive offset creates more backspace and a negative offset reduces backspace—more backspace gives you less inside clearance and less backspace give you more.
Why does all that matter? Well, if you want to upgrade to larger tires on your rig, these measurements are pretty important when it comes to choosing the right wheel to ensure you have plenty of clearance so you don’t rub against your suspension, and that means less backspace, which is determined by the offset.
There is a disadvantage to having your wheels sit farther away from your rig’s body—more leverage is placed on components such as the ball joints, bearings, and axle shafts which will cause more wear and tear on them.
My KMC wheels have 3.5 inches of backspacing and I’m running 39-inch tires, so my wheel and tire combo sits pretty far out there, and I’ve already had to upgrade and replace some of my components.
7. Are Beadlock Wheels or Traditional Wheels Better for Off-Roading?
Close up of the KMC beadlock wheel.
There are pros and cons to both beadlock and traditional wheels, but first…what’s the difference between these two types of wheels?
Simply put, a beadlock wheel does pretty much what its name implies; it locks the tire’s bead to the wheel by clamping it between an inner and outer ring. Whereas a traditional wheel uses the tire’s air pressure to secure it to the wheel’s rim.
The traditional wheel and air pressure work just fine when you’re out driving around town or on the highway but when we’re out on the trail, what’s one of the first things we do? We air down our tires to get a really big footprint and increase traction off-road. And that’s exactly the scenario beadlock wheels were designed to handle.
The reason I like beadlock wheels is because they are strong and durable, and I can air way down when I’m on the trail. This gives me a lot of peace of mind knowing that the bead is not going to pop off the wheel. Having said that, there is a downside to beadlock wheels—as a rule, they’re usually a lot heavier than traditional wheels. But there’s always an exception to the rule, in this case the wheels on my 392.
My Method “bead grip” wheels are a traditional wheel with a twist. They are lighter than beadlock wheels and they are designed with grooves along the inside of the wheel’s rim and an oversized “safety hump” on the rim, which work together to hold the tire beads in securely in place. I’ve aired my tires down pretty low with these wheels and have not had any problems.
Close up of the 701 Bead Grip Method wheel, highlighting the grooves and safety hump.
The Mopar wheel that’ on our yellow JL is a traditional wheel that is beadlock capable. This means it has the ability to function as a traditional tire but also has all the parts necessary for it to function as a beadlock wheel—you just need to unmount the existing ring and put it outside the bead to lock it in place.
Close up of the Mopar beadlock capable wheel.
I also want to mention that most beadlock wheels are for off-road use only. But this is a whole other topic, and one I’m not going to get into here, but it’s something you should be aware of when choosing a wheel.
So, knowing how you’re going to use your off-road rig—as a serious rock crawler or mainly for a daily driver with weekend adventures thrown into the mix—should help you determine whether a beadlock or traditional wheel makes the most sense for you.
8. What Do You Need to Know About Wheel Weight and Your Overland Vehicle?
The weight of your wheels, especially when paired with your tires, is another consideration and an important one because, depending on how heavy they are, this can impact your rig’s performance and contribute to wear and tear.
The wheel and tire combo I have on my JK are heavy—really heavy—and I would never put them on my wife’s 2-door Jeep. First, she would not thank me for making her Jeep slower to accelerate, and second, this particular wheel and tire combination would just put too much extra strain on her existing suspension and brakes, and probably cause an axle to bend or break. The JK has been modified and built to handle this weight, but her Jeep hasn’t.
TrailRecon's silver Jeep Wrangler JK is built for climbing over rocks with 39-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires on a 17-inch KMC Machete beadlock wheel.
In terms of performance, heavier wheels decrease your acceleration and increase your breaking distance because you have more mass in motion. Your fuel economy and handling are also going to take a hit with that extra weight.
So, just be thoughtful about how much weight you are adding to your rig with when you upgrade your wheels and tires—you want to make sure you don’t add more weight than your vehicle can handle.
The other thing I want to mention is the weight load rating of the wheels. Most aftermarket wheels have a rating of anywhere between 2,500 and 3,500 pounds, and this is going to be just fine for the Jeeps in my garage and probably most off-road vehicles.
But if you’re going to be building a massive overland vehicle or you want new wheels for a full-sized truck that’s going to be hauling a bunch of gear around, you definitely need to pay attention to the weight load rating of the wheels to make sure they are the right wheels for your intended use.
9. How Can You Protect Your Valve Stems?
Lastly, let’s talk about valve stems. When you’re out on the trail, rubbing up against rocks and other obstacles, there’s the possibility that you can damage a valve stem—either bending, cracking, or tearing it—so the amount of protection your wheel provides to this small but important part of your tire is something else you may want to think about.
Graphic illustrating the size of valve stem cups and placement on different wheels.
My Method wheels have a small cup around the valve stem hole that provides a little bit of protection but my valve stem still sticks out a bit. The Mopar wheel has a really good protective cup and covers the valve stem almost entirely. And on my KMC wheels, the valve stems are protected by the wheel’s outside ring.
These wheels also have two valve stems that allows you to use a gauge to check your tire pressure at the same time you’re airing up or down, which is a pretty nice little feature to have.
Personally, I’m a huge proponent of using rubber valve stems instead of metal because rubber is flexible and more likely to bend and not break when I hit a rock. Metal valve stems, in my experience, are more likely to sustain damage on the trail by getting bent or cracked.
The Best Aftermarket Off-Road Wheel
There’s a lot to think about when you’re buying aftermarket wheels for your off-road and overlanding vehicles…everything from aesthetics and size, to performance and weight. There are pros and cons, and a lot of nuances, to just about everything when it comes to choosing a wheel.
I hope I’ve given you some helpful information because I know how important this decision is. And, at the end of the day, the right wheel is the one that is going to work best for your rig and the adventures you plan to have in it.