Posted by Michael McCurdy - Ambassador of Alpha Expedition on April 07, 2014
Background (Published 2008)
A sturdy and well-made roof rack is a necessity for serious overland expedition travel. Roof racks can more than double your effective cargo space, provide an exterior location to carry fuel or other materials that aren't safe to transport inside your vehicle, and provide an elevated location perfect for mounting tents, awnings and other equipment to the roof of your vehicle.
Traditional rain gutter or rail mounted roof racks have been gracing the roofs of overland rigs since the first Series Land Rovers started rolling off the line. However, with the rise in popularity of the long-wheelbase Jeep JK Wrangler as an expedition platform, there is a new demand for full-length roof racks that can stand up to the loads and rigors of overland exploration. As an added challenge, the Wrangler is fundamentally an open-roof vehicle -- even the optional hard top does not provide the structural integrity necessary to handle hundreds of pounds of load while in motion.
Several manufacturers have risen to this call: Wilderness Products, Wild Boar, Kargo Master, MBRP, and Olympic 4x4 to name a few. The solutions offered by Gobi, the Ranger and Stealth racks available for both short and long wheelbase JK's, are indeed somewhat pricier than the competition with a street price of $1599 for the long wheelbase model, not including the roof panel insert. However, they begin to differentiate themselves as no-compromise expedition equipment as soon as we take a closer look at some key features:
With the decision made to install and thoroughly field test the Gobi Ranger rack on two of our Alpha Expedition JK Wranglers, we present here a detailed writeup of our experience and conclusions.
Unboxing and First Impressions
A major consideration for any roof rack, or any item of this size, is shipping cost and logistics. Like many others, Gobi racks ship via truck freight, which can easily run upwards of $250 depending on the distance and weight of the item. However, the cost of shipping is included in the price of the rack when purchased from Alpha Expedition. The shipping company will arrange drop-off logistics directly with the customer.
Gobi racks come very well packaged and protected in a stout outer box, and foam and plastic wrapping to keep all the pieces secure and ensure that they aren't damaged during shipping. Ours arrived without a scratch. Upon unwrapping our Ranger racks, we were immediately impressed with the quality of the fit and finish as well as the quality of the included hardware.
The included instructions are adequate. They include a section with several engineering-style diagrams, and a section with step-by-step instructions for assembly. Compared to instructions that read straight through with illustrations and real product photos in-line, they are somewhat harder to follow. However, installation of the rack is straightforward enough that this is not an issue with the Gobi Ranger.
The light bar assembly is a separate when shipped, and mounts up to the front of the rig re-using existing hardware from the brackets at the base of the A-pillars. Next, the rear supports are bolted in place, again using existing hardware, and secured to the pinch seam at the bottom of the body tub using a clever clamping mechanism that does not require drilling. The instructions indicate that the rear support hoop should be installed next, and that you should use a table to support it while you attach the load floor vertically. However, we found it easier to install the hoop close to its final position, then lift the load floor into place securing it temporarily to the light bar, then install the rear bolts and tighten everything up.
Finally, install the adhesive body protectors to the rear quarter panels and adjust the two hard plastic and two softer rubber stabilizer feet to minimize side-to-side motion of the rack. Do not over-tighten these! You want them to be just tight enough to press against the disks. The early racks included small disks that were easily moved out of position by normal side-to-side rocking of the rack, but these have been updated to larger triangular protectors.
Long Term Use
We have been actively using our Gobi Ranger racks on two vehicles for about six months. At this point, we have thousands of miles of freeway time with our Gobi Ranger racks installed, and we have also taken them over hundreds of miles of terrain typical of overland expedition travel, ranging from fire roads to more challenging technical terrain such as the Rubicon Trail. We have run our racks totally empty, and we have had them loaded down with everything from water, gasoline, firewood, and camping equipment to heavy roof-top-tents.
On the freeway and under light high-speed trail driving, there is no noticeable side-to-side motion of the rack, and they also hold up well to the more typical "grab the rack and shake the vehicle" test used to evaluate the sturdiness of the mounting platform. Using the included ladder, it is easy to climb up and stand on the load floor, and when doing so the stableness of the platform is even more evident -- the only motion comes, as expected, from the suspension of the vehicle. The low profile of the rack also shines in technical terrain where clearances can be tight. We were able to run the entire Rubicon trail without the rack coming in contact with any boulders or trees.
As expected when adding a rack with a light bar in front, there is some increased wind noise, particularly at freeway speeds. This is minimized when running a hard top configuration, however it is also kept to an acceptable level when using the soft top. If the soft top is kept "pressurized" (by turning the blower fan on and disabling recirculation), the cabin noise is only slightly higher than normal. With the windows up, the noise level inside the passenger compartment is probably no louder than the cabin noise inside a typical airplane. It is still possible to carry on a conversation with back seat passengers without raising your voice. Gobi offers fairings for several of its other vehicle applications, and there are rumors of a JK fairing in the pipeline, which promises to reduce wind noise even further.
The expanded steel grate of the load floor allows easy stowage of smaller items and more flexibility in positioning without needing to line things up perfectly to a more typical bar-style load floor found on some competing racks and baskets. The steel grating is quite strong -- it barely deflects when standing in the middle of a panel -- but is still a reasonably lightweight material.
The Gobi rack includes two transverse load bars, which allow the mounting of standard Yakima or Thule accessories, and also common expedition accessories like our ARB Simpson III roof-top tents. We found the bars to work as expected, easily supporting the weight of our tents without noticeable flexing. When inside the tent, the only noticeable motion again comes from the vehicle's suspension, as expected.
One side-effect we experienced after mounting the rack was a significant loss of satellite radio reception. The factory Sirius/XM antenna is mounted on top of the center roll bar under the padding, and can be easily relocated or replaced with an inexpensive unit available at most consumer electronics stores.
Soft top retraction can be accomplished without tools by a single person by removing the quick disconnects at the front light bar, and tilting the rack back. In our applications, the rack rests conveniently on the spare tire, though it may need to be held in place with a strap depending on the specific bumper and tire combo.
Overall, while the $1599 price tag may seem a bit high compared to the competition, it is justified by the quality and craftsmanship present in the Gobi Ranger and Stealth. Our philosophy at Alpha Expedition is to spend the money required to secure gear that will be reliable in the field. A roof rack is no exception. It is an extension of your expedition platform, and it's critical to your safety and enjoyment when you are miles from civilization. We use and stand by our own products, and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Gobi to anyone looking for a best-of-breed roof rack, be it a recreational weekend adventurer needing extra cargo room for a family, or a serious overland traveler needing to gear up for an extended journey.
All prices are in USD