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  • Writer's picturetahoeadventuretrex

10 Years And We Still Have An Overland Adventure Vehicle Build In Progress

Eyes on the horizon, especially when you're building an adventure vehicle

Building an #Overland #Expedition #AdventureVehicle is an endeavor that takes a lot of time, money, creativity, trial and error, and patience. I've learned from quite a few trial and error situations over the years. In fact, this isn't even my first dedicated build. But, so far, this is my most intensive build that works well to keep this vehicle as my daily driver, while still being a reliable, capable, off road, vehicle for me, my family, and work.

Where Did It All Begin

I always knew that I wanted a 4x4 rig, even well before I had my license. One of my first Hot Wheels was a Golden Eagle Jeep CJ. And, I'm pretty sure that I liked the Dukes Of Hazard and The Fall Guy for the sweet Jeep that Daisy drove and the Chevy truck that Lee Majors' character drove. My parents used to go crazy looking at the collage of magazine cutouts on my wall. My "wall of fame" was the dream list of vehicles that I'd find in off road magazines. I'd study Peterson's Off Road, Jeep brochures, Summit Racing, and 4 Wheel Parts catalogues/magazines. Every time that I turned the page, I'd learn something that I filed away for later. My goal was for when I was older and had more money. But, nothing stopped me from looking. I think the looking was all part of the design process and forming a solid knowledge from other people's experience with trial and error. Of course, we all have to make our own mistakes and learn along the way. What would a vehicle build be without any of the ups and downs?

At 16 years old, I actually got one of my dream rides. My Mom found an old, beat up, Jeep driving through one of the school parking lots. The Jeep badly needed a paint job. But, the price range worked within my budget. So, I purchased a 1980 CJ-7 for my first foray into building off road vehicles.

The Jeep was a nice platform to begin with. The CJ-7 came with a V8 engine mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission. I personally loved the V8's power. But, the fuel economy wasn't exactly something to write home about. At least everything was in relatively good condition. First, I needed a new paint job and to pad the full roll cage that would be pretty close to my head.

Everything on a Jeep is relatively easy to plug and play. The removable hard top and doors made it feel like you could easily change the vehicle for Winter or Summer. Eventually, I got a soft top and bikini top. I also got 4 new Goodyear tires in a 31x10.50r15. But, most of this build was all about the stereo. After all, I was 16 years old. I wasn't building a global expedition vehicle. I wanted a fun 4x4 that I could take to the lake and cruise around with my friends.

Unfortunately, my 4x4 adventures took me and my friends to a dried out lake bed. I didn't know that it was a lake bed. I just thought it was a fun area to play in the dirt...until I got stuck. I was able to extract the vehicle. But, I may have used a bit too much throttle. I sent the Jeep airborne getting out of the ditch, which emptied the carburetor of fuel. After this incident, the vehicle began to have problems with the fuel lines. And, one day everything finally exploded (not quite literally). The leak in the fuel line caused vapor locks and all sorts of issues until the engine caught fire on one, hot, Summer day. That was also the day that I learned the importance of insurance.

I had two more Jeeps and continued to experiment with what worked well and what didn't. Finally, I got tired of having things stolen from my Jeeps, so I started to look for something different. This time, I was looking for a more secure vehicle, and one that I might be able to camp in on road trips. The #overlanding bug was quickly taking over. But, where would I go next?

Ivan "Ironman" Stewart Showed Me The Way

I should've known that Toyotas would find their way into my life. One of my first experiences with a Toyota was learning to drive "3 on the tree" with one of my sister's boyfriend's FJ-40 Toyota. Even to this day, I still love the FJ-40. But, I was tired of keeping all of my belongings in a backpack to take with me for fear of getting stolen. I did look at an older 4Runner when I first got my license. But, the draw of the top down would probably lead me to the same situation as my Jeeps.

Reading one of the latests magazines at the time, I came across a sweet article about Ivan "Ironman" Stewart racing through Baja. As luck would have it, there was a Toyota pickup ad on one of the following pages. Of course, if it was a pickup, then I could have the open air feeling in the back, the security of the cab, and even the possibility of putting a camper shell on for more security. Plus, if this truck could put up with Ivan's Baja testing, then I think it would work well for what I want.

I traded in my 1990 Wrangler Islander for a 1989 Toyota SR5 4x4 pickup. I'm not really sure if I came out ahead or behind on the deal. But, I had a newer Toyota truck that came with a Brahma hi-top camper shell and the extended cab for a bit of extra security. This is where I would learn more about building out the camping portion of my vehicles.

Camper shells are a great starting point for having a secure shelter from the elements. But, the back of a truck bed isn't exactly warm or cozy. My first investment was in a carpet kit to lift me off the exposed metal in the back of the truck. I'm not sure how many people have seen these. But, they're basically a plywood structure with some all-weather carpet glued to the surface. Then, they have a few cubby holes for storage. It is possible to have different configurations for creating a sleeping platform or to accommodate a little cargo. This worked well for myself, my dogs, and even my girlfriend. But, it could definitely feel a bit claustrophobic and it wasn't exactly covert.

I enjoyed having a truck with better fuel economy, some sense of security, and the possibility to sleep in the truck, if need be. But, the Toyota was a bit underpowered. The extended cab was pretty much useless for adults. And, my camper shell was a thin, fiberglass, uninsulated roof that didn't help when temperatures dropped.

The F-150 right before we left the transmission somewhere in Utah

I tried another variation of the camper shell/pickup combo with an F-150 Crew Cab. It was based on a little new trial and error. I had learned just how uncomfortable the extended cab was with a trip to Vegas. And, I tried to find a Wildernest camper shell for the F-150. But, these were a bit harder to find. So, I put another fiberglass shell on the F-150 and hoped to find a Wildernest or save up for a Four Wheel Camper slide in unit. But, these would have to wait for finances to improve and opportunity to present itself.

#Vanlife Is Definitely Not New

Who doesn't remember the A Team, or even Scooby Doo's The Mystery Machine? These vans were popular well before any millennial coined the term vanlife. In fact, the 60s were a heyday for adventure vans, good times vans, and conversion vans. I used to love heading out in my friends' vans when we were kids. The conversion van with the bench seat that collapsed into a bed always seemed like an amazing road trip vehicle. But, I also loved the capability of a 4x4. In 1992, I actually saw something that would change my perspective on building an Overland Expedition Adventure Vehicle. That's when I first saw a #Sportsmobile.

If you don't know what a Sportsmoble is, then I'm not sure where you've been. Sportsmobile creates a few different models of camper vans. But, they've become synonymous with pop-top and 4x4 conversions. The 4x4 lets you escape the minivan crowd and head off the beaten track. The pop-top makes it feasible to have a lower profile vehicle for driving. But, when you arrive at camp, simply pop the top and add another bed for two. They are also equipped with full kitchens, and a lot of other amenities that are only found on larger RVs.

Now that I was married and my family was growing, a van seemed like a perfect addition. I looked far and wide. But, none of these vans were close to being cheap. I did find one older van with a layout that I liked for about half price. Unfortunately, my excitement for their van may have influenced their decision to keep the van. I found another van in Santa Cruz, but my loan was having an issue because not all Sportsmobiles have bathrooms.I searched through Craigslist, Ebay, and a lot of different online forums. And, I wasn't having much luck. Then, I found something that I hadn't considered before. I found a 2002 Chinook Baja 4x4.

The Chinook Baja 4x4 is based on an E-350 series cutaway. The 4x4 was done by Salem Kroeger Conversions. And, the Chinook had thick, insulated, walls and windows. Plus, it didn't have the tent fabric sides. This may very well be the right vehicle for me, my wife, my kid, and my two dogs. Plus, it had a full bathroom, heated holding tanks, off road lights, Corian countertops, radiant heat floors, and heated leather seats.

I really liked the Chinook. It almost drove like a minivan. I wish it had the 7.3l Diesel engine, but it had the 6.8l gas. The Triton V10 wasn't exactly a miser with fuel. But, it had enough power for mountain passes. The Chinook was maneuverable enough to handle some crazy off road trails. And, I could even park it in San Francisco without taking up two parking places. I wasn't particularly fond of the dually setup, which made it difficult to rotate tires, check tire pressure, and created the possibility of getting rocks lodged between the tires. And, I did have an issue with the tires cupping, since there was so much weight in the rear. I grew fond of the Chinook and enjoyed some fun adventures with our Family Truckser meets The Road Warrior rig.

It wasn't long before I learned that we were expecting another child. Well, that put a pretty big damper on the Chinook. It had room to seat everyone comfortably. But, the sleeping arrangement basically turned the gaucho bed and the dinette into a king-sized bed. Plus, the cabinets and closet weren't accommodating for two adults, two kids, and two dogs. This, along with the other inconveniences meant that I had to part ways with our Chinook Baja 4x4.

Practical, Functional, Economical, And Family-Oriented

After the events with the Chinook, I was a bit frustrated. If I had bought the Sportsmobile, then there would've been room for everyone. I wouldn't have had to sell it and I could've still had my adventure vehicle. Plus, I would've already had a large chunk gone towards paying it off. We all know that those payments would be better spent on adventures. Well, now what should I do? Time to get a vehicle that would be practical for Sierra Nevada winters, have room for everyone, and maybe I could get something further down the road.

I had a full-size F350 Crew Cab. But, it wasn't really popular with my ex-wife. It was a bit too much for her to drive. Plus, I would've preferred it to have a manual transmission with the 7.3l diesel. I had the idea to swap the V10 in the Chinook with the 7.3l in the F-350. Then, I could build the F-350 with a truck camper slide in or sell it. But, things weren't really lining up. I decided to cut my losses (especially since the Chinook was gone) and look for something a bit more practical, functional, economical, and family-oriented.

I narrowed it down between a Tundra or a Tacoma. I really liked the maneuverability with the Tacoma. So, I looked to see who had a 6-speed manual, 6 foot bed, Sport edition. I found a couple online. But, my local dealer said that they had a match. Well, we all know how that really works.

I showed up and the only thing similar was the 6-speed manual transmission. So, I had to walk out frustrated. Before I left, I let them know how disappointed I was with their deceptive tactics. Thanks a lot Cardinale Way Toyota. They eventually called me, apologized, and said that they would help me find what I was looking for. As they were helping me, they kept encouraging me to checkout this Tacoma they had just gotten from Carson City Toyota. I reiterated that I wanted a 6 foot bed, and didn't want to pay any extra for the TRD Off Road. Plus, this Tacoma was a bright blue - New Speedway Blue. I didn't want a truck that flashy.

I guess my "negotiation" tactics worked. Because, January 31, 2009, I became the proud owner of a 2009 Toyota Tacoma DCSB TRD Off Road in New Speedway Blue with a 6-speed manual transmission for $27,500. And, they even gave me a great price for the F-350.

Time to modify the front bumper

I've been through at least three different ideas for how to build this vehicle out. I've also modified three different suspensions. I'm still looking to add a dual battery setup, and some better lighting, as well as possibly changing the gearing to a 4.56 or 4.88. I have a portable compressor, but am curious about adding an onboard compressor to help air up/down tires and possibly to use with an air bag system. Navigation would also be pretty sweet. But, our phones do a good job of helping us to get where we want to go. Maybe next year will be the year that I finally go to #OverlandExpoWest to find the next great addition to our adventure vehicle.

Part of the trial and error testing

So far, I'm very happy with how this vehicle handles mud, sand, snow, and almost anything else that gets in the way. We've definitely learned a lot about what works well and what needs improvement. Feel free to message us via the website or send an email to We would be happy to offer any insight for anyone else looking to build their own overland adventure vehicle. So, here is where the build is today:

2009 Toyota Tacoma equipped with a 2017 AT Overland Habitat

* 4.0 V6 with 6 speed manual transmission * TRD Off Road Pkg * TRD Cold Air Intake * TRD Exhaust * 255/85/16 Cooper Discoverer ST Maxx load range E on 16x7 KMC black wheels * ARB Deluxe Bull Bar #3423030 with winch mount and Hi-Lift jack mounted to top tube * Smittybilt XRC 9.5k winch with synthetic rope * CBI Bushmaster Steel Plate wraparaound rear bumper with high clearance receiver and backup lights * Rear backup camera * Bluetooth phone controls * AM/FM/Sat/Aux/MP3 Multi CD with JBL audio and subwoofer * Power windows, door locks, sliding rear window * E Locker * ATRAC * 400w onboard power supply in truck bed

Suspension Changed 4/2013 * OME (Old Man Emu) #OMETACO5HK Heavy Duty 886 Coilover Suspension with 2" lift in the front and Nitrocharger #90000 front strut

* OME Dakar 10 leaf spring pack in the rear #CS047R with Nitrocharger #60091 rear shock

* FK29 Driveline Spacer Kit

* Carrier Bearing Drop

Suspension Changed 9/2018 * Icon Delta Joint UCA * King Shocks 700lb Coil * King Shocks 25001-121A Remote Reservoirs For Rear * King Shocks 25001-119EXT Adjustable Coilovers For Front


* 2017 AT Overland Habitat with carpeted walls, 2 removable carpeted platforms, 12v power, 2-USB power ports, and 2 12v lights, and 3 rail roof rack

* Thule T2 XTR Bike Rack

* Thule SUP Taxi Rack

* Thule Flatop 6 Ski/Snowboard Rack

* Bedrug Bedliner insulated carpet * Yeti Tundra 65 Cooler * Camp Chef Everest 2 burner stove

* 5lb Propane Tank * Trail Kitchens King Charles Chuck Box * Alps Mountaineering Guide Table * Alps Mountaineering Chairs be continued.

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