A few years ago I was helping lead a group trip along the Continental Divide, when one of the participants badly sliced a tire on his Tacoma on a back road in Wyoming. Roseann and I were riding tail gunner, and as we pulled up the driver had already chocked the wheels, retrieved the factory scissors jack, and placed it under the rear axle. But he was failing completely in his efforts to raise the axle and tire, straining mightily but futilely on the crank handle. Why? Because mounted on the back of the Tacoma was a Four Wheel Camper, which was in turn loaded with water, food, and supplies for a two week trip. We stopped, I got out my four-ton hydraulic bottle jack, and we effortlessly lifted the truck and swapped the tire.

With very few exceptions—such as the superb Italian-made hydraulic bottle jack supplied with solid-axle Land Rovers for some time—factory-supplied jacks are designed to minimal specs to lift the vehicle, on pavement, just high enough to change a tire. Load that vehicle up with bumpers, winches, roof racks, camping gear—or a camper—and you might find that jack whimpering under the load. Actually it would be you who were whimpering.

If you want something that can handle a tire change on a loaded vehicle, as well as recovery duties—for example to lift the vehicle off a high-centered situation, or to shovel substrate under a bogged tire, or insert MaxTrax—you need to step up the game with something rated to at least half to two-thirds the GVWR of your rig.

And then you have a major decision to make: Do you want to lift from up top, via a bumper or slider, or from below, via an axle or the chassis?

The advantage to a bumper jack is, first, you don’t have to crawl under the vehicle to lift it—nice for staying clean but also possibly critical if your 4×4 is buried right to the axles in sand or mud. Or water. Disadvantages? First, your vehicle must be equipped with sturdy, recovery-capable bumpers front and rear—and preferably with rock sliders as well—that will accept the jack’s tongue. Second, to lift a tire off the ground with a bumper jack to change it you have to cycle through the vehicle’s full suspension travel first, which can mean a foot or more of wasted elevation and leave the vehicle precariously tippy. Finally, bumper jacks tend to be heavy and bulky.

The axle/chassis jack is compact (with the understandable exception of the Pro Eagle here), doesn’t waste lifting height to raise a punctured tire, and with a few accessories can perform a variety of recovery tasks. But access to the underside of the vehicle is mandatory, and bottle jacks in particular tend to have limited lifting range—often only six or seven inches unless you buy a double-extension model, which will increase that by another four or five inches. Still paltry compared to the 30 inches or more of a bumper jack.

My suggestion: If you mostly need a sturdy jack for tire changing and occasional recovery work, look at the chassis jacks here. If you like to challenge yourself and your vehicle and frequently find yourself a bit buried, consider making room for the Hi-Lift or the ARB X Jack.

Hi-Lift jack ($100 48” all-cast) 

How many products survive a century virtually unchanged? Yet the antediluvian Hi-Lift still scores points in this group with its low price, rugged simplicity, ease of refurbishment, and versatility—it’s the only product here that will also function as a clamp or a (very slow) winch.

The Hi-Lift’s 4,660-pound rating has become the de facto standard for competitors, and in this group its range of lift is second only to the ARB Jack. Downsides include the Hi-Lift’s 29-pound mass and jam-prone lifting mechanism (the latter usually rectified with a dousing of almost any lubricant, including, according to my nephew, Keystone Light). Also, while proponents always bring up those “clamping and winching” functions, the number of times I’ve done either except to demonstrate it is exactly zero. (On the other hand, I once successfully sleeved a broken tie rod with a Hi-Lift handle and a bunch of baling wire.)

To lift a vehicle by a bumper with the Hi-Lift, you must raise the lifting tongue—along with the entire lifting mechanism—up the main beam to the height needed. Thus if you’re using the common 48-inch model and your bumper is 36 inches off the ground, you’re left with just a few inches of travel (since the mechanism can’t go all the way to the top).

The big red flag in the Hi-Lift’s manual of arms, as anyone who’s used one knows, is what I call the ZoD: the “Zone of Disfigurement” circumscribed by the arc the handle makes. Let your head stray inside this arc—whether you’re raising or lowering—and you’re asking for a broken nose or jaw if you lose your grip. When lifting a heavy vehicle—especially if the operator isn’t heavy—it can be difficult indeed to apply enough force to accomplish the task while simultaneously staying out of the ZoD. And lowering a load takes exactly as much force as raising it, so don’t let down your guard just because you’re letting down the vehicle. Losing control of the handle while lowering can trigger a feedback loop that results in the handle slamming against the beam and rebounding wildly, ratcheting the vehicle down all on its own.

I know experiencedbackcountry drivers who wouldn’t leave home without a Hi-Lift, and equally experienced backcountry drivers you couldn’t pay to carry one. Over the years I’ve migrated between both camps, so I’ll be no help—except to slyly point you to the product below.

Bloomfield Manufacturing is here.

ARB JACK ($833)

 Think of the ARB Jack as a Hi-Lift that went to a very expensive finishing school. The coarse mechanical mechanism is gone, replaced with smooth and powerful hydraulics—my 115-pound wife can lift the entire loaded rear end of our 70-Series Troop carrier. At one demo I gave at the Overland Expo using the front of an FJ40, a lifelong Hi-Lift user walked up and gave the handle exactly one pump, said, “That’s all I need to see,” and headed for the ARB booth. There’s zero possibility of face-altering kickback—let go the handle and it simply sits there waiting for you to get back to work—and lowering is quite literally a one-finger operation via a little red lever. While a Hi-Lift can only lower the vehicle in increments of an inch, the ARB can gently ease it down millimeters at a time.

In another sharp contrast to the Hi-Lift, to adjust the lifting tongue of the ARB Jack to bumper height, you only have to lift the tongue itself to the appropriate slot on the aluminum body, leaving the full lifting range of the jack intact—up to 48 inches. One quirk: Once the weight is off the ARB Jack when lowering, it does not drop free like the Hi-Lift; there is still a considerable amount of hydraulic resistance. You need to keep the red lever pressed and really lean on the jack to compress it. A separate compression-release button (suitably guarded to avoid inadvertent activation) would be a handy future modification.

The ARB Jack is 15 percent lighter than a Hi-Lift, and only 36 inches long in its carrying case. The sealed mechanism won’t jam in dusty conditions, and the base even has a clever cutout to facilitate breaking the bead on a tire. What’s not to like? I just hope you were sitting down when you saw the price. If you can rationalize—and afford—the difference, I will say that the ARB Jack is hands down superior to the Hi-Lift, and, while accepting that this aspect is in large part a function of the user, a far safer one as well. Also check out the ARB jack base, which smartly accommodates either the ARB or Hi-Lift jack foot.

One caveat: ARB recommends the Jack be stored upright to protect the seals. I store mine upright at home, but carry it horizontal in the vehicle. So far I’ve had no issues.

ARB is here.

Safe Jack Bottle Jack kit ($269)

There may be more versatile jack systems around, but none that also fits in a .50-caliber ammo can. The 27-pound Safe Jack “Sergeant” kit comprises a six-ton hydraulic bottle jack, a flat (chassis) and a curved (solid axle) lifting attachment, and three extension posts, one of them adjustable. Other Safe Jack kits, from “Private” to, yes, “General,” include fewer or more extras (all of which are available separately).

The range of extensions allows you to lift from an axle, the chassis, or a bumper, as needed. Its compact size limits the included jack to six inches of lift; however, as long as the post is compatible, you could pair the Safe Jack attachments to any bottle jack you like, such as the double-extension model I already owned. My Safe Jack kit hasn’t yet met a vehicle it couldn’t lift. A suggestion: Have a blackmsith make you a “wheel claw” similar to the one Tom Sheppard had made and carried in the Sahara for decades (configured for a specific wheel type), and your bottle jack will easily lift one wheel to allow the insertion of a MaxTrax or other recovery mat.

Safe Jack is here.

Tom Sheppard’s bespoke folding wheel claw lifts one wheel for insertion of traction mats.

Surplus M998 scissors jack ($75) and Agile Off Road chassis adapter ($90) 

Gotta love military surplus. The heavy-duty (3.5-ton) scissors jack configured to lift the front or rear A-arms of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle—Humvee to most of us—is available by the score on eBay with case, ratchet handle, and extension rods, for around 75 bucks. Add Agile Off Road’s reversible billet-aluminum adapter and it will securely support your non-combat vehicle at either the axle or chassis. A reversible ratcheting handle means you don’t have to crank in a complete circle in a confined space—a brilliant idea—and as long as your truck weighs less than an up-armored HMMWV this jack will lift it easily to a height of 20.5 inches with the adapter in place. A generous 7 by 12-inch base plate ensures support in Middle-Eastern-theater sand, or any other kind. The lifting post on the jack has a bit of wobble built in; Agile Off Road recommends tack-welding this to increase stability. However, I used it as is and had zero problems. I now carry this setup permanently in my FJ40.

Agile Off Road is here.

Pro Eagle Off Road jack ($440) 

A floor jack with off-road tires—why didn’t someone think of this before? Take a two-ton hydraulic floor jack—the easiest way ever to lift a vehicle on a concrete driveway—add solid axles and burly composite wheels, and you’ve got an all-terrain floor jack. The Pro Eagle rolled over my gravel driveway effortlessly, and lifted the entire front end of my FJ40 in a sandy wash without digging in more than a couple inches. Given the fat tires plus a full-length underbody “skid plate,” it shouldn’t sink in any substrate that doesn’t have a current. Pop on the adjustable extension post for a full 26 inches of lift height. I certainly wouldn’t carry this bulky, 52-pound jack for field duty in the FJ40, but if you’ve got a full-size truck or Sprinter (there’s also a 3-ton version) or are traveling with a group, it will make any recovery a breeze. And, of course, at home it’s an excellent shop jack (I sold my old standard floor jack). One operational note—like all such jacks, the lifting pad moves through an arc as it rises. If you employ the extension, and both the jack and vehicle are held stationary by the substrate, the extension can wind up tilted significantly at full height. Plan ahead.

A full-length bottom plate prevents sinking even in sand.

Pro Eagle is here.

ARB X Jack ($270)

Some of the jacks here are easy to operate; some are difficult to operate—but only one is effortless to operate. Situate the deflated X jack under the chassis of your 4×4, hold the inflation cone over the exhaust pipe or connect an air compressor to the Schrader valve, and the expanding bag will lift up to 4,400 pounds up to 30 inches in the air.

Truck buried to the bumpers with no way to get a bottle jack or Hi-Lift underneath? All you need is four inches of scooped clearance for the X jack to slide underneath. Stuck in rocks with no secure base for a bumper jack? The X Jack molds itself around virtually any substrate, and the hard rubber “teeth” on the bottom help prevent slippage. Included is a thick square of guard material to protect the already-stout envelope, but it’s best to remember this thing is still a heavy-duty balloon, and keep it away from bolt ends and hot exhaust pipes. I’ve seen two punctures resulting from (extremely) careless placement, although the envelope can be patched effectively with the included kit.

Another possible issue with the X Jack is compatibility with your exhaust opening. The jack’s connector is a simple rubber cone, and if your exhaust tip is rectangular you might not be able to achieve a tight seal, critical for inflation. In that case an air compressor will work, but it’s much slower—the X Jack likes a lot of volume and low pressure, the opposite of what most compressors produce.

Finally, remember that at full height your vehicle is supported on air inside a flexible casing; expect a bit of squidginess.

But then, you wouldn’t get under a vehicle supported only by any if these jacks, right?

ARB is here.

A final note: None of these jacks should be employed unless the vehicle is securely chocked. Among the best of that breed I’ve seen are the Safe Jack nesting chocks. One is slightly smaller than the other and so fits inside when folded, yet the pair is substantial enough to serve as chocks for winching duty.

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