Our Ultimate Vehicle

The yota

The Truck

With limited amounts of useful four wheel drive trucks available to us in the states it was pretty much a no brainer.  We began looking for a late 90s Toyota Tacoma with the 3.4 liter, extended cab, standard transmission with the TRD package(I only wanted the TRD for the locker which has already proven itself very useful).  Toyota’s are everywhere in the world so we knew parts would be easier to find (and so far in Mexico parts have been easier to find and cheaper than in the states).  And the little Tacoma is a great four wheeling rig, small enough to be useful on the trails, lots of ground clearance, plenty of power and decent on gas.  It’s really too bad they stopped making the little Tacomas because now all we have for wheeling  left in the states are Rubicons, damn you Toyota!

After a year and half of relentless searching we finally found our baby, an extremely beat up Toyota Tacoma TRD with a great motor and only 130,000 miles all for $ 4,400.  The truck had spent its first life in Monticello, Utah just south of Moab as a hoods-in-the-woods work vehicle.  Needless to say, it had received a lot of abuse and had been driven extremely hard on desert roads all its life.  However it already had a 2 inch suspension lift with a 8 pack Alcan leaf set up in the rear.  A fully reinforced rear frame and nice real front bumper which is useful if you ever plan on using a high lifter jack or possibly hitting something.  It is covered in dents, scratches, bondo and even two bullet holes.  This is a plus because it will stand out a little less in the third world countries, who wants to drive around a shiny truck in Guatemala?   I knew there was going to be a good amount of work done to this truck to prepare it for the trip however it did turn out to be a bigger project then I ever expected.

Fixing the truck

In all we have spent nearly $3,000 replacing, fixing and beefing up the rig.  I am proud to say that I have done all the work myself, except for front end alignment and rear axle bearing removal (you need a special hydraulic press to get that sucker off). In all I spent 170 bucks on out-sourced truck work.  I did all my own wrenching for two reasons.  The first is I am just a poor boy and could have never afforded to pay someone to fix all these problems.  And second, why would you ever drive a truck through 16 countries in the middle of nowhere and not know how to work on it?  I could go on and list everything I had to do but it’s a little embarrassing so I will just write the important things.

  • Timing belt, water pump, new fan blade, new belts and hoses, radiator flush
  • New fuel pump, new gas lines, fuel filters
  • Complete MAF cleaning
  • New throttle position sensor, idle control sensor
  • Power steering pump rebuild and new hoses
  • New C V axles twice[ auto zone sucks]
  • New rack and pinion and ball joints [should have gotten the greasable ones]
  • New plugs, wires, hoses, throughout engine.
  • Synthetic oil everywhere, engine and drive train
  • Heavy duty brakes front and back.
  • Bfg all terrians 31/10.5/15 [of course]
  • Bearings and gaskets on the rear axles
  • And the list goes on.

After hundreds of hours, two different friends’ garages, five driveways, including several hours in a Napa parking lot and countless weekends in my condo parking space, we have a great truck.  I went from knowing almost nothing about Tacomas to knowing quite a lot (however there is still a lot to learn).  And with this knowledge, I now have the confidence to explore remote places and not have to worry as much about breaking down and being stuck without a mechanic.  Plus, I saved about 4 grand in labor costs. Yippee, more money for beer!

Mod it up!

On top of all the repairs I did to the truck we also had to have some extras to make the truck capable of carrying 1600 extra pounds of stuff across the southern continent.  I could have easily spent 10,000 in modifications, but as I am a poor boy we only spent about 1,500.

Once I started looking on the internet at all the stuff out there for “overlanding” , I realized the sky  was the limit.  I started getting ideas in my head about things we “really needed” for the truck.  Luckily, I had Meg to reel me back into reality otherwise I could still be spending money on toys instead of on traveling.  I believe they call this syndrome fauxverlanding!

Here is a list of modifications we made to the truck that I felt were crucial to completing this trip successfully:

  • Extra truck bed frame supports to keep the camper in place when wheeling [jump proof]?
  •  Heavy duty rear redneck bumper
  • Added extra Alcan leaf to make a 9 pack leaf spring

    Adding the new leaf springs

    Adding the new leaf springs

  •  Rancho 9000 xl adjustable shocks in rear
  • New heavy duty alternator [Mean Green], puts out 140 Amps instead of 70. Lots of lights to power and      another battery to charge
  • Smitty built air compressor mounted under the hood.  [Anticipating lots of flat tires]
  • 6 Hella lights, four on the front and two on the back of the camper.  These things turn the night into light.  Thanks for
    Halla Lights on our Phoenix Camper

    The back of our Phoenix Camper with one Hella Light for backing up and one for back porch lighting

    hooking us up Hella, we love you!!

  • stereo that can charge and play the I pod or computer with only one cord.
  • Bose indoor outdoor speaker’s, mounted one in the cab and one in the camper.
  • Giant lock box in the extra cab.  Ripped out the rear seats and built a heavy duty lock box that takes up the whole extra cab [Tons of secure storage].
  • Miscellaneous theft deterrents that I won’t mention for all the thieves reading this.

    Christening the Hood Rat

    Christening the Hood Rat with our new “app”

  • Scan Guage II.  This is a dash mount OBD code reader with tons of other goodies including real time MPG, MPG average, horse power gauge, and coolant temp gauge.  Makes saving gas way easier which is important when you plan to spend around 8,000 bucks on it this year.
  • Truck bed mounted beer bottle opener.  This is perhaps the best mod we did!!!

At this point we have been traveling for 2 months and we are very pleased with everything.  There are just two things that I would love to have, new front suspension and a snorkel.  We have bottomed out the front end several times in the dunes in Baja and it’s only going to get worse with the thousands of miles of corduroy dirt roads that lay ahead of us.  The snorkel would really come in handy in Central and South America, and of course it is not a must, but it would be useful if we wanted to cross water deeper than our tires and not destroy our engine.


7 Responses to Our Ultimate Vehicle

  1. Kenny says:

    You’re finally doing it, hope you guys have fun!!!!!

  2. Anaka says:

    Inspired by your endeavor! We are planning the same trip with our Ford Ranger and recently purchased pop up Skamper. Do you have/need a separate title for your camper when crossing borders etc?

  3. John Heisel says:

    Your trip is truly inspiring! My girlfriend, puppy and I just returned from a more American adventure in our Phoenix Coyote pop-up (bought on Craigslist) mounted on a 2006 Tacoma king cab truck. 6500 miles of driving from Boulder through the midwest and southeast. Numerous national parks, rv and campgrounds, good times! No border crossings though but we road a few ferries in the Outer Banks : ) Good to know about carrying your car title. Thanks for all the truck beta in this post. I think we’ll have to stay in the lower 48 until we figure out how to work under the hood! Our next goal is Alaska, however is all the national parks west of the Mississippi.

    Good luck on your odyssey!

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