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A 1997 Overlanding Jeep Wrangler TJ Named Yeti

A 1997 Overlanding Jeep Wrangler TJ Named Yeti

I come from the tiny Southern California town of Descanso, which is about an hour away east of San Diego. I’ve been a lifelong outdoorsman, off-roader, BMX, and motocross competitor. For the last several years, I’ve been creating content on social media and at the same time building some pretty damn cool adventure machines. My history and start in the off-road scene happened on accident, literally.

A BMX riding accident several years ago rendered me almost incapacitated. I had a clubbed fist, lost 80% of my movement and range of motion from my shoulders down. After a series of joint replacement, nerve, and six bone surgeries, along with years of physical therapy, my doctor had to tell me that the loss of nearly all the functions in my arm and hand will be permanent. He would also be filling out the necessary paperwork to move me from temporary disability to permanent status. The weight of that conversation felt incredibly heavy, which completely shook me. I mean, hearing that my once very active lifestyle would now be all but a memory was devastating as I had forever attached my identity to the wild outdoor lifestyle.

My lifelong friend, Brent Coleman, heard the news about my health condition and recognized I could use some fresh air and adventure to clear my head. So, he swooped me up in his Jeep Wrangler TJ with an ice cooler filled with snacks and refreshments. We set out on a day trip to the eastern San Diego mountains for some trail riding, packed lunches, and epic views. That short turnaround trip flipped a switch in my mind. I remember telling him, “I’m gonna find myself a Jeep to build up so I can tag along with you next time.” Little did I know my life would change forever after that day in the mountains. Exactly three days later, I had a Jeep Wrangler of my own.

The Wrangler I acquired, although clean-looking, was not running and had been in a state of neglect and disrepair for some time. What happened next was a completely out-of-body experience. I worked day and night for nearly three months, only sleeping when needed, eating most meals at my workbench in my two-car garage. I just took time away from the Jeep build to go to my physical therapy appointments four times a week.


I found myself purchasing a used tube bender, a truckload of tubing, sheet metal, along with endless UPS packages rolling in daily containing all the “must-have” parts suggested by Brent to help make a TJ super capable and reliable. Up to this point, I had never bent a tube or built a Jeep, let alone by myself, with only one functional arm and hand. The build process was life- changing. I found myself pushing my limits as a fabricator, as well as physically working until I fell asleep in the garage.

I remember the day I got my Wrangler; I drew a fast sketch of the profile of what my dream Jeep would be like after I’m done building it. My build ethos was clearance above everything because Brent once told me that “the better the approach and departure angles, the more capable the rig would be off-road.” I adopted that mindset to the extreme – as demonstrated by the bobbed tail section and broadside modifications I’ve done to the rig. By the time three months passed, “The Jeep Called Yeti” drove out of my two-car garage under its own power.

I had forced myself to use my once paralyzed hand so much that the muscle atrophy started to reverse. My motor skills had vastly improved, that my doctor, surgeon, and several specialists that had been treating me were shocked by the improvement of my condition. I attribute my recovery to plain old-fashioned hard work and the absolute desire to accomplish something that was once said to be impossible.


I always get asked about what’s the story behind the Yeti name. The 1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ that you see today started as a rare all-white soft top and white body, giving it a unique look compared to the standard black or Spice Brown tops available at that time. So, I just named it “The Jeep Called Yeti.” This rig was my 1st off-road build. I have bolted together many aftermarket parts on other off-road vehicles before this build, but it’s hard for me to feel comfortable calling those other projects “builds.”

This rig is exceptional because I built, modified, and designed this Jeep from top to bottom and created it to overcome any obstacle put in its path. I’ve done everything on this rig. Being an automotive collision technician, classic car restorer, certified MIG and TIG welder with over 20 years in automotive fabrication experience, expertise in paint and body, and a couple of decades of working on engines all came in handy in completing this dream build. Even with all those “credentials,” the build’s biggest challenge was to do something completely different from the thousands of TJs built before mine.

I was careful in selecting the components that went on to this project. I talked to people who punished their rigs to find out the common weak links on the TJ, then take that knowledge and do the best I can with what I have available to make the improvements, adjustments, and upgrades. Outside of all the bolt-on parts, accessories, and other standard OE components, this Jeep project is a custom-fabricated vehicle. The first thing I did to my TJ was cut the tub/body off from the A-pillars back to allow for the fabrication of the full tube structure body modification.

The frame has been bobbed, shortened to 11”, to allow for the extreme rear departure angle. The fully- integrated tube work starts at the front frame rails and ends at the back frame rail, creating an ultra-rigid frame structure and a structurally sound passenger compartment. I used 1” and 1-3⁄4” tubing sizes and all the self-fabricated aluminum and steel body panels creating the angular “Stealth Fighter” body shape.


I initially designed the rig for rock crawling weekend trips in the deserts of the Southwest. However, the rig quickly became a tool for extended travel across the country and long-term minimalist exploration off the grid. The mindset for this build was capability over comfort. I love earning the adventure. My adventure partner and girlfriend, Miss Yolis, and I lived and traveled out of this rig for 500 straight days. We drove from coast to coast in it more times than I can count, often in triple-digit temperatures in the deserts of the Southwest, as well as blasting through snowstorms in the high elevations of Colorado in winter. This rig is a full-time open rig. It’s genuinely a raw experience when you’re driving a rig that has no A/C and no closed cab. It’s all horsepower and smiles.

Living out of this Jeep for so long was special, but if I had to narrow it down to which trip is the most memorable, it would be a toss-up between our yearly Mexico event or becoming the official pace car at a race in Iowa. We have a 1,200-mile The Yeti-Built 750 off-road adventure rally in Baja that we host that brings participants from all corners of the globe. We became the official Pace Car for the World of Outlaws at the home track for the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa. I put the hammer down and we pulled the front tire off the ground as we rounded the number 2 corner while leading the four-wide pack of the fastest Sprint cars in the world – live on TV, the crowd went crazy! It would have to be one of these two. Damn, so many epic memories while at the wheel of this adventure machine.

While living out of this rig, we also participated in all kinds of events from coast to coast. We’ve competed in The 36 Hours of Uwharrie, Overland Rally Midwest Series, Rebelle Rally, Ultimate Truck Series, Bushcraft Rally, Bushcraft Rally, and everything in between. But wheeling and camping in the Baja Peninsula, where many things could break, is one of the most challenging, and it’s still my favorite. You name it; I’ve broken it. We’ve also once nearly lost the entire rig in a water crossing while running solo on the Wyoming-Utah border. It ended up flooding the transmission and rear axle housing, forcing us to rebuild both the transmission and rear differential while sleeping in the RTT in a parking lot of a tow yard in Rocksprings, Wyoming. Fun times.


When it comes to planning road trips, truthfully, we usually just have a date and destination, and everything in between is freestyle. Basically, Yolo and I have an agreement that if we both turn our heads to see what’s down a trail as we go barreling by, we will always turn around to go find out. We’ve become very self-sufficient running solo. Frequently, our willingness to sidetrack several hundred miles and days at a time tends to make your average-minded OCD trip planning Overlander uncomfortable. We run “lone wolf” 90% of the time. Adventure Til Death!!!

We use some pretty good comms and bring everything we need for extended road trips just in case SHTF. We run a SPOT satellite emergency personal locator beacon (PLB), along with radios and cell boosters. I also carry everything from fluids, custom-built replacement driveshafts, wheel hubs, hoses, belts, scan tools, steering components, hand tools, along with all things “MacGyver.” Gorilla tape, J-B Weld, and Zip Ties. As far as personal stuff, we have Go Bags onboard with medical kits, food rations, firearms, and fishing gear.

An epic and exciting journey is on the horizon for us. We just built a Stewart and Stevenson LMTV M1078 to drive it on the Dawson Highway in Alaska and when we reach our final destination, take a dip in the Arctic Ocean.


Smittybilt 12k winch with STEP 22 100-foot synthetic line upgrade on the spool and another 100-foot synthetic winch extension line, Factor 55 Ultrahook, Snatch Block, and HitchLink, STEP 22 kinetic rope, flat strap, and tree saver, STEP 22 soft shackles, Green Pin hard shackles ,Krazy Beaver shovel


Teraflex 4” lift, long-arm kit paired with the JKS adjustable bump stops with additional 2.5” lift, bringing the total lift height to a total of 6.5 inches. RockJock 4X4 antirock bars, Teraflex disc brake conversion with drilled and slotted rotors, GM big brake booster upgrade with Jegs inline proportioning valve adjuster


Motobilt Crusher front bumper, Full tube body integrated into the chassis


Tube body, boat-sided and bobbed tail section


Novak Conversions prepared Chevrolet 4L60E transmission with a Lokar shifter, Novak Conversions built NP231 HD High/ Low Transfer Case with Novak cable shifter upgrade and Slip Yoke Eliminator kit, Tom Woods driveshafts, front and rear, G2 Core 44 high pinion axle assemblies with 4:88 gearing, Eaton Electric Lockers front and rear


Walker Evans Racing Legends Beadlock 17×8.5 wheel,

Mickey Thompson Baja Pro XS 40X13.50R17


Novak Conversions prepared Chevrolet 5.3 LS v8 conversion, RPM extreme tuned, custom exhaust, custom cooling system with Novak conversions aluminum radiator, and brushless SPAL fan upgrade


KC HiLiTES Pro 6 bar, KC HiLiTES Flex Era 3 pods, KC HiLiTES Flex Era 4 pods, KC HiLiTES Cyclone LED interior lights and rock lights along with a rear-facing amber Chase bar



Yeti-Built rear rack with hard-mounted ROAM Adventure Co. case, Yeti-Built roof rack, Quarter panel long-term storage built into the body – holding long- term stuff like extra driveshaft, spare parts, and drinking water, PRP soft panel bags repurposed from the UTV market


PCI race radios with headsets, Ram Mounts, Switch-Pros switch panel for lockers and lighting


iPad mini wired into PCI race radio and Inca communications, Ecoxgear Bluetooth Sound Extreme amplified soundbar


Flatpit pack flat wood grill, JetBoil, Ultralight backpacker-style gear, Snomaster center console 12v refrigerator



Words: Rob Daman Photos: Brian McGee & Rob Daman I LOVE THE ’80s I’ve been a car enthusiast since the ’80s. Ever since I’ve been driving, I’ve been moddin’ and

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