And so the trip begins
After two and a half years of planning, prepping, saving and working endless hours on the truck I can finally say that Meg and I are on “the trip”. Damn it feels good. So here we go from Wyoming to the tip of Argentina and with a whole lot of luck and cheap living maybe we will even make it back to Wyoming with the truck and camper. The roads are long and so far have proven to be incredibly bumpy so hopefully the truck holds together because it’s gonna be a wild ride.
Being the adventurous types, loving to take the road less traveled, we planned on doing a lot of off highway travel because let’s face it tar roads can be boring. We also plan on doing a lot of surfing and where there is surf there is sand and a 2 wheel drive vehicle is rather worthless in the sand. Plus where there is a tar road there are usually a lot of people and that makes it even harder to get away from it all. We knew immediately we were going to need a worthwhile four wheel drive truck to make the journey in.
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 parts have been easier to find and cheaper than in the states). We also fit right in with all the other millions of Toyota Tacomas in Central America. 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 we don’t have any trucks for wheeling in the states.
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 2,000.
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
- 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, but none yet]
-6 Hella lights, four on the front and two on the back of the camper. These things turn the night into light. Thanks for 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.
-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 3 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.
The Phoenix Camper
Wow this thing has totally changed our lives!!
Before this camper Meg and I were die hard tent campers. But after traveling all over the US and Mexico living out of a Subaru and popping up a tent every night, we knew that this trip needed to be different!
We wanted to upgrade to camper life… and upgrade we did! We spent about one year researching small slide in pop-up campers that would fit our Toyota Tacoma truck. In total we found that there were only about 4 brands out there that made campers to fit this size truck. In researching these brands we realized that two of them made their campers out wood and in our opinion wood was simply not strong enough to withstand the severe abuse it would receive over our year plus journey. So this narrowed it down to 2 companies. When evaluating these options we based our choice simply on comfort and storage ability. Which camper would be best for two people (one of which is a women) to actually live in for an extended period of time? The answer… Phoenix pop-up Campers.
During our investigation and while traveling through Silverton Co, we happened to see a Phoenix camper on a Tacoma and asked the owners if we could take a look. The owners, a retired couple, had spent nearly 3 years traveling to and from Alaska with their camper and couldn’t say enough good things about it. It was love at first sight and we knew right away this is what we wanted. Now we just had to find one that we could actually afford, which to us meant used. I scanned the internet daily and nothing ever came. Turns out, people do not sell these things; they pass them down to their kids. With our departure date quickly approaching and still no camper we were getting desperate. We sent out an email to Phoenix, told them about our trip and our dilemna. The very next day I received a message from Rob and Cari, the owners… “Meg we just hit the jack pot!!!” We were getting the mega hook up, a custom built pop-up with all the gadgets we desired.
Phoenix, a family owned business based out of Denver, has been building campers since the 70s. Needless to say they have it dialed. Visiting their shop where they construct the custom campers from the creation of the welded aluminum frame all the way to the finishing details, like curtains, that make a camper a home was amazing. With all their campers built by hand, each one leaves the shop a little different than the next depending on the customer’s needs or wants. While we were there they even had a lifted CJ 5 with a pop up camper in the facility, [drool] talk about go anywhere camping!
For our own custom made camper, Meg and I came up with a nice little wish list, but we were undoubtedly novices in the camper world, so talking to Rob with his 20 plus years experience in the industry helped us to pull together our camper details nicely. In 4 months we would be driving away with our custom made camper.
Here is our camper package.
-Large solar panel, this thing is a super thin profile about the thickness of a piece of cardboard. It is essential for any long term camping electrical needs. It charges the battery really fast and allows you to be self sufficient in the backcountry.
-Heavy duty deep cycle battery. Combined with the solar panel we have not drained this sucker yet.
-Heater, kept me toasty during a weeklong ice climbing trip in Montana.
-Refrigerator. The fridge runs off electric and propane. We primarily run it on propane and it keeps the food cold even with 90 plus temps outside. The fridge is a must if you don’t plan on shopping every single day [think extended backcountry travel]. Plus there is nothing better than getting to the beach after a long day of hectic driving and grabbing an ice cold beer out of the truck to enjoy.
-3 burner stove
-Double sink with hand pump and electric pump.
-12 gallon water tank, last us about 3 days.
-5 gallon propane tank which lasts us about a month.
-2 rear mounted Hella lights. One light is wired up so it comes on automatically when you put the truck in reverse. The other light is wired to a switch in the camper, super useful to see what that bump in the night is. We feel far safer leaving the camper for midnight pee sessions with this super bright light.
-Awning. We didn’t even request this but phoenix threw it on any way. It is amazing and we would have suffered many a hot shade less day on the beach without it. It helps keep the camper far cooler as well. It is our outdoor living room, dining room and bar. Your neighbors will be jealous!
-Fantastic fan. This is a roof mounted fan that keeps the camper surprisingly cool day and night, extremely necessary if you plan on living comfortably in the heat.
-Extra, double fold out bed. This bed is for when we are trying to keep a low profile. It allows us to sleep in the camper without it popped up. Good for super secret pirate camping.
-Rear lockable access doors to the truck bed. The high lift jack, table, chairs and shovel live here.
-Queen size bed. Its more comfortable than my bed at home.
-Storage under the bed. Phoenix campers convinced me that we needed this and I am so glad I listened to them. This extra storage is the key to living comfortably with two people in this camper. It’s our dresser, library, clothes hamper and miscellaneous storage. It adds a lot of storage for its seemingly small size and this is one of the things that sets this camper apart from others.
-Roof rack with ladder. It’s where the surf boards live.
-Auxiliary gas can mount. Another custom fabrication by Phoenix campers
-Aero dynamic front profile [nose cone] and cab bubble. The cab bubble is an inflatable cushion that is wedged between the top of the cab and the sleeper. It keeps the wind noise and drag down. We have been really surprised by how quite the camper is during travel and we can still hit 80 no problem. Plus we are averaging 17.5 mpg [with conservative driving] which is not to bad for a four wheel drive home on wheels.
-8 way camper tie down system. This keeps the camper attached to the truck and has not failed us yet. It is a system of heavy duty ratchet straps that are connected in the bed of the truck. [out of view and out of the wind] With over 5000 miles of rough driving we have had no issues of camper movement.
Home sweet Home
Other than a few womanly touches in the kitchen [spice racks, dish racks, tooth brush holder ] we had to make no modifications to the camper for our journey. It was made custom for us to be exactly what we needed and nothing more; a simple lightweight, comfortable, rugged and secure home to live in while we drive through 16 countries, over terrible roads, for a year or more. Job well done Phoenix!!
Come along for the ride
Want to join in on the adventure? Check out our blog, www.adventureamericas.wordpress.com.