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In the 1972 Film, Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford, when Bear Claw Chris Lapp was teaching Jeremiah Johnson how to hunt elk in a meadow, they walked out of the trees on the far side of their horses to hide from the elk. Jeremiah didn’t know much at that point, he just rode off into the mountains to become a mountain man with a cache of gear and his eye to the horizon. “What if he sees our feet?” says Jeremiah. Which seems like a reasonable question for an equine to be sporting two extra fur clad legs and feet. But Bear Claw was having none of it. “Elk don’t know how many feet a horse has!”
So Jeremiah slides up over the saddle, takes the shot with is Hawkin and fells the buck just before the horse rears up, nocking him to the ground and running off in a panic.
My point is two fold. It doesn’t matter what you drive—the elk don’t care. And you can do everything right, and still screw it up. This bears relevance with the topic of overlanding vehicles, being prepared, and backcountry travel because, just like a mountain man, you can make due with a lot less than you think and knowing how to use what you have  (or at least knowing it’s limits) will get you plenty far.

The Vehicle

A beautiful end to a balmy winter day in the backcountry of Nevada.
A beautiful end to a balmy winter day in the backcountry of Nevada.
Our overlanding rig is a 1999 Toyota 4Runner. This is what’s known as a 3rd Generation 4Runner. First Gen being the original boxy pickup variant with 2 doors and removable top. Second gens most people can’t tell from thirds, but though they still had a tailgate they were a true SUV with fixed full roof and rounded lines.
It seats the four of us plus the dog and all our gear. Well, all the gear we can fit in it. We’ve done multi-day trips in Death Valley expanding storage into a Yakima roof box. Certainly, we can’t take much extra stuff, and if we need to fit in climbing or biking gear then things get tricky, but for the most part it handles us just fine. Our other vehicle is a Ford F-150 Super Crew pickup truck and we can fill that thing to the brim with no problem as well.
Gear is like a gas, it expands to fill the space available. The 4Runner is a fairly small space for four people and a dog, but we can make it work. The key is taking what you need to make you happy and comfortable, and leaving the rest at home.
The 4Runner has all the modern car stuff like electronic fuel injection, ABS, Airbags, seatbelts and it runs great on low-end no-lead. It has a 3.4 liter v6 internal combustion engine that gets us down the black-top pretty easily at 70 MPH if (I’m driving) and efficiently at 17 – 20 MPG.
On the trails it is smooth and capable easily conquering any obstacle your standard dirt road can throw at it. Overlanding, for us is mostly about taking out-of-the-way roads to out-of-the-way places. The way that usually goes down is we drive a lot of miles of regular dirt road, a bunch of miles of rough rocky dirt road, and a few hundred feet of real four wheel drive road. In it’s current configuration, the 4Runner did the Deer Valley trail off Ebbetts Pass south of Lake Tahoe, CA. It was hard and it took forever, but it did it. Overlanding ain’t 4 Wheeling and there’s almost always a by-pass.

Bumpers

Mike Henderson and his All Terrain Family

We’ve got stock bumpers on the 4Runner. They took a few hits during the whole Deer Valley episode. Trees, rocks, my spotter… Still they suffice. There are a lot of great options for bumpers front and rear for the 3rd Gen 4Runner to hold a winch, Hi-Lift Jacks, tires, gas cans, the works. The 265/75R16 spare tire (just barely overs tock size) hangs in the original location just fine, so we don’t need to mount that on the bumper. At trail mileage we can do about 250 miles on a tank and there aren’t too many places in the continental united states that are that far between filling stations, so we don’t need to run gas cans. And without the steel bumpers and rock sliders, there’s no place to lift the vehicle with a high-lift jack, so we don’t need that either.
We don’t run rock sliders. On the Deer Valley trail (this is my benchmark for hard 4×4 trails if you haven’t noticed) I never came anywhere near hitting the rocker panels. The 4Runner has plenty of clearance. Tons in fact. So those are unnecessary for overlanding as well.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument against heavy bumpers and sliders and guards on a vehicle like this is that, it’s just a small vehicle. A light SUV that was engineered to move itself down the road carrying a limited mass of cargo and passengers. If I bolted on a bunch of equipment we’d only need occasionally, if ever, we wouldn’t have capacity for the things we need all the time. Like a bucket full of Hot Wheels Monster trucks.

Suspension

It’s always an awkward question. You see a buddy and he says, “how’s it hanging bro?” How do you answer a question like that? What are they even talking about?
Up front the 4Runner is held up by stock springs and damped out with Bilstein 5100 struts. Those struts aren’t the cool adjustable ones that you can crank up with a spanner, like if you’re trying to impress a tinder date or something. These have multiple settings when you put them together. Mine are set for a 1.75 inch lift. Not much, but enough to blow out the CV axles. Twice. So it also has the Differential drop kit to lower the differential and straighten out the CV axles back to normal.
In the rear the first thing I did when I got the truck was swap out the saggy stock springs with Old Man Emu 906 springs. They were pretty awesome at first, but over time they sagged a bit so I added some Daystar spacers. I’d like to fix that situation and I eventually will. But for now, this does the trick. Again (and I keep coming back to the Deer Valley Trail like high school boys and “your mom” jokes) it was good enough for Deer Valley.

Racks and Hitches

Out back the 3rd Gen 4Runners all came with a class 2 trailer hitch bolted to the frame. It’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with it, except that it hangs down and scrapes the ground all the time. Talk about 4×4 performance enhancing mods, fixing this would get me a lot more mileage than most other mods I could do. Problem is, I need the hitch. We tow a trailer and run bike racks so it’s a necessary evil (the hitch is also the only thing preventing me from putting a bigger spare tire under the rear). Anyway, the stock hitch that came on this was welded. The stock hitch that came on 1997 and older was a 3 piece with the center cross bar bolted in place with three symmetrical bolts.Those bolts can be removed, the cross bar can be flipped and, after removing some material from the bumper, re-bolted placing the receiver up about 6 inches higher and improving the ground clearance by, like, a lot.
I haven’t done that yet. Everything I do takes 3 times longer than it should because 1) I don’t know what I’m doing and 2) I have to get video of it all for YouTube. I’ll get to it…
Up top I have 1 1/2 stock 4Runner roof racks. What’s that mean? Exactly what it sounds like. I have a stock 4Runner roof rack and in front of that I have half of another one. The roof rails were to short for things I wanted to mount up there so Instead of getting the clamp-on kit from Yakima I went to the salvage yard for parts and drilled holes in the roof. Under critical thought it doesn’t sound like the best idea, but it’s working so far.
The 50% increase in roof rack carrying capacity allowed me to mount a CaseCruzer rifle case between two Yakima bars. It’s a great water tight, lockable and low profile place to store tools, recovery gear, compressor, and a machete I keep around incase there’s a zombie apocalypse while we’re camping. I have a full build video on this that you might check out if you’re bored.

Cargo

The final version made of plywood.
The best mod I’ve made for this truck so far is the drawer-less drawer system in the cargo box. It’s made of 3/4″ birch plywood and divides the cargo into two levels with storage below and above and a slide out table in between. It takes up very little space and makes a huge improvement in the efficiency of what little space there is.
I have a full build and DIY instructions on this as well if you’re interested in building one or adapting it to your vehicle.

Cockpit and Coms

My iPad Mini4 + Gaia GPS Setup works great on my home made accessory mounting bracket.
What do you need to get yourself down the road? Some tunes, a handful of skittles and a place to stash your beef jerky. Ok. Maybe you need a little more than that. It’s nice to have a place to mount your phone so you can play those tunes and maybe ask siri where the closest place to buy beef jerky is and maybe navigate yourself back to camp. Better yet, it’s nice to have an iPad or something so you can leave the GPS app running while you get out and snap instagrams of your rear wheel way up in the air with your phone. Also, it would be nice to have a radio or something to let your buddies know you’re just stopping to snap an instagram and ask them what hashtags are trending today.
So yeah, I have a CB Radio that I crammed into the ash tray slot. Now I have nowhere to hide my mints so the kids can’t steal them. I also made a sheetmetal mount for holding my phone which is really handy when I’m daily-driving the truck. The mount also holds radios and the CB handset or an iPad mini 4 on which we run Gaia GPS for navigation. That is mounted in an Otterbox Defender case and mounted to the accessory mount with steel money clips. Guess what, I have a whole build video on that too. Man, I feel like I’m selling this stuff on the home shopping network.
Other than that the interior is stock. The iOS devices have GPS that is more than accurate enough for our purposes and have enough memory to store maps for wherever we go and music, podcasts and audio books to keep us entertained on the way. The aftermarket radio plays music via bluetooth or USB and a simple 12v USB charger keeps everything powered.

Light Bars

Schoolbus Canyon, Nevada
Schoolbus Canyon, Nevada
Don’t have any. We rarely ever drive at night, so I’ve never made the purchase. In the rare event that we do drive dirt roads at night, the stock lighting on the truck is sufficient, at least at reasonable speeds.

Traction Mats

This one is another head scratcher for me. I’ve never come across a situation where I needed them, or seen a reasonable demonstration of their effective use on YouTube. They can be expensive, and hard to store. For something that can be obviated by a little planning and care, I haven’t seen the value for our minimalist setup. I do have a kinetic strap, shackle and spare receiver pin in my recovery kit and rely on that to get us out of situations where we might become lodged due to bogging down.

You have come far Pilgrim

Towards the end of the movie Bear Claw rids along the trail where Jeremiah is cooking rabbit over a spit. They share a few words and a leg of rabbit. “You have come far Pilgrim,” Bear Claw remarks.
“Feels like far,” Jeremiah Answers.
“Were it worth the trouble?”
Jeremiah seems confused, “Ha,” he says. “What trouble?”
Ok. There can’t be any more you need to know about this truck. There’s nothing hiding. There are no secrets. It’s more or less a stock 4Runner with a little lift and slightly bigger tires. There’s no mystery, no super secret tricks just a solid truck and a sense of adventure. Don’t let the lack of anything else stop you.
Watch your top-knot.
-M

2 comments

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    • Joseph,

      That’s a basic Yakima Control Tower setup with round cross bars and a lexan faring on the front. It mounts right to the factory rails the extensions I’ve added to the front.