Overland travel is hitting critical mass; in fact, it’s appropriately appealing now that camping has become this summer’s most popular social-distancing activity. This is especially true for dispersed camping options on public BLM or national forest land, with many states closing their popular campgrounds to avoid large groups congregating in close proximity.
The challenge with accessing ideal locations is that getting off the beaten path requires a capable, high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. Think of it as backpacking with a truck; instead of a hiking trail, a bumpy road will lead you to some equally pristine wild areas.
If you’re new to the idea, buying or even building a new rig can be cost-prohibitive. Good 4x4s off the lot are north of $30K, and upgrades for self-sufficient off-road travel may inspire buyer’s remorse, with thoughts that, “I could have bought a house for that!”
Used trucks and SUVs, however, are a dime a dozen at often a fraction of the price. Purchasing one just means adding more gear to elevate your overland camping experience. Toyotas are our favorite for projects like this and we chose a 1999, third-generation 4Runner to build as an example of simple modifications to make a used vehicle overland ready.
Before you hit the trail, search online resources like Expedition Portal or Overland Journal to master the basics with the smaller stuff like recovery equipment and navigation. And remember, “Know before you go,” should be a mantra for anyone diving into a new adventure.
Under the Hood
Nothing beats a bone stock truck; making too many modifications means more things that can fail on the trail. If a seller is open to the idea, pay to have your mechanic take a look under the hood before you buy. A trained eye should be able to spot any major issues like rust under the truck, or worse: deficiencies that can leave you stranded, like a timing chain that needs replacing.
If everything passes the test, one of the most practical upgrades is installing an Odyssey battery. Its Extreme series promises twice the overall power and three times the service life of conventional models. It’s also built to withstand the relentless rattles you’re sure to encounter off-road. Think of it as an insurance policy to make sure your rig turns over, because AAA won’t offer a jumpstart where you’re headed.
Inside The Rig
Interiors are more of a personal preference, but an aftermarket stereo with at least a Bluetooth connection will drown out the washboard road noise.
Decomposed granite, rocks, mud, sap, sand and sticks will all wreck havoc on your floor, especially if you have to get in and out to navigate unpredictable obstacles. Protect your trim with Weathertech’s floor and cargo liners. Each one is laser measured for an ideal custom fit. Simply brush or hose them off after each use to keep the original interior as good as when you bought it.
Adding a Dometic fridge might just be the most important upgrade for overland travel. If you think about it, only a few things tether you to civilization on off-road trips: food, water, fuel, and hopefully never an emergency.
Chances are, you’ll already be carrying enough fuel and water to sustain for a few days, but bringing along a Dometic refrigerator solves the problem of heading into town to grab ice to keep your food cool. Tether it to Dometic’s heavy-duty PLB40 lithium battery and everything will stay cold up to four days without ever having to start the car. When you do, it charges from a 12V connection until you next set up camp. The fridge sips off the seemingly endless power supply and you can also plug other accessories into the additional USB and 12V ports.
Tires and Suspension
One of the easiest ways to upgrade the comfort of your off-road ride is by replacing the tires and suspension. The chances of your used vehicle needing this anyway are pretty high, so make this a priority as soon as the title is transferred.
Toyo already makes some of the best overlanding tires in the business, seen in its Open Country series, but the third version in its AT range was just released this year. The new iteration pulls double duty as a major off-road tire contender that’s also suitable for daily driving. Developers at Toyo tick all the necessary boxes with a new and improved tread pattern that confidently charges through every terrain imaginable, even snow. In fact, we tested a previous version right after a winter dump, and only needed chains once.
New tires often go hand in hand with suspension. Driving off-road without a solid pairing of the two is like trying to backpack in flip-flops. For this build, the pros at Shock Surplus recommended a combination of Bilstein shocks and ARB Old Man Emu springs to make the rig ride right. The key variable to consider here is carry versatility—both brands offer some of the best options for the used truck market.
Shock Surplus installed the Billstein 5160s up front, giving the truck 2.5 inches of higher travel. They matched the rear with the Billstein 6112s but added ARB’s Old Man Emu heavy-duty springs to account for any extra gear weight, a fridge and even a dirt bike—in this case resulting in an incredibly level, plush ride.
Cargo Carrying Options
With over 30 years of experience developing and testing its products in the grueling African bush, Frontrunner Outfitters reigns supreme in the modular roof rack world. With the extra money you saved by buying a used vehicle, they offer a wide range of options for splurging on every application of overland carry.
The base rack system is bulletproof, made for those born to explore and a jump off for a wide range of accessories. At a minimum, you’ll want the option of carrying extra fuel and water. Thanks to Frontrunners’ promise of a rattle-free mounting, you can scale the capacity to go any distance.
Add or subtract mounts for recovery equipment like a shovel and Hi-Lift jack, while still having room to install a rooftop tent. Secure the stackable Wolf Pack storage boxes with Frontrunner’s Stratchit system and you can go off-grid longer by bringing extra gear or food.