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Adventure Rig: In Search of the Perfect Setup …

Like everyone else who frequents this website, I have seen my fair share of lifted, expedition rigged, bad ass trucks – especially Tacomas. When I bought my Tacoma in 2011, I made the decision that I was going to build mine to be every bit as bad ass as any one of them. The difference, of course, is that I did not grow up racing trucks or go karts around dirt tracks, don’t own an off-road shop, am not sponsored by anyone that owns an off-road shop, and only understand the process in principle.  Not to mention that truck parts and modifications are not cheap and my place of employment doesn’t exactly back the money truck up to my bank account every two weeks.

With all of that in mind, I needed to be very specific with what I expected her (all my vehicles and weapons are girls) to do and what I didn’t expect her to do and to keep my modifications and upgrades consistent with that. What I came up with was a vehicle that was capable of getting me into (or out of) anywhere I wanted to be, a rig that could support an extended range trail ride or an overlanding trip, and was as comfortable on the beach as it was on a trail in the mountains. What I did not want was a truck that was a mall crawler, desert race vehicle, rock crawler, or mud bogger.

That being said, and with a copy of Killing Rommel by Stephen Pressfield and Sting of the Scorpion by Mike Morgan under my arm, and visions of The Rat Patrol in my head, I strode into Rick Hendrick Toyota and haggled out the purchase of a brand spanking new, 2011 4 door Tacoma with an SR-5 trim package, but without the TRD accessories. Considering that I was planning on putting a lift on her anyway, it seemed to be a waste of money.  Further more, she is a 6-speed manual transmission which is sufficiently rare in modern America. She had to be purchased sight unseen as the truck was still on the boat when the papers were signed.

My first mistakes came on the very day that I bought her, however. I mistakenly believed that the dealership would do a better job of installing aftermarket lifts than any other place and that if the dealership installed the lift, it wouldn’t void the warranty. While I cannot claim that having the dealership do it wasn’t easier and faster, it was a mistake. The mistake was in having the dealership order the parts, help me with the wheels and tires, and do the work. I didn’t understand as well as I should have what I was really getting.

I went with an Ultimate Lift Kit from Toytec Lifts. The front suspension was a coilover based on Boss shocks with Bilstein 5100 shocks and an add-a-leaf in the rear. I went with  KMC Addict 18” wheels and BFGoodrich All Terrain T/A tires in 285/65/R18. My first impressions were favorable and, in her first summer with me, she spent more than her fair share of time on the beach. The wheel and tire combination rubbed badly at first, until the right amount of trimming of the plastic under the wheel well stopped it, or I should say mostly stopped it. What I didn’t know at the time was that this front suspension was designed primarily for use in dry environments. The heat and humidity of North Carolina weren’t doing it any favors. Nor did I know that the add-a-leaf lift in the rear was, largely, aesthetic in nature. Additionally, while the overall size of the wheels and tires was ok, I would have been better served with 16” wheels and tires with different ratios – a “more tire, less wheel” approach.  This would have made my ride a bit easier and made damage to the wheel less likely.

German BeerThere was a three-year hiatus on modifications as my truck and I moved to Germany. While I was there, I must say, she served me well. While she is clearly not designed for the Autobahn , she didn’t let me get run down.  Also, she was (just) small enough to handle the narrow European streets. Although, late one night in the medieval section of Salzburg, Austria I did have to back her down a street so narrow that I needed to fold my mirrors in just to get through.

Tacoma Build 3While the European/African adventures that I had dared to hope for never materialized, I took the time to do the research that I should have done before I began to putting parts on. I joined and crawled through Tacoma forums and surfed countless manufacturers’ web sites trying to soak up as much knowledge as I could. I also began to plot and scheme on trail armor.

I knew that I wanted the front and rear bumpers to be from the same company, I’m weird that way. I also knew that I was going to want some custom work insofar as mounting of the spare tire, tools, etc was concerned off the rear bumper. I did not like the look of the hooped front bumpers and began to search for a company that could handle that request. I settled on Demello Offroad. I called from Europe and began the conversation with the Demello crew about how best to handle this. We emailed pictures back and forth and finally settled on an idea.

Tacoma Build 9Upon my return to the States, I had her shipped to Demello. There I had the front bumper, winch, and custom rear bumper with fuel can carrier, Maxtrax carrier, spare tire mount, and Hi-Lift Jack mount installed. Also, in trying to stop the tire rubbing that had never really stopped, they agreed to cut the cab mount a bit so that it didn’t interfere with the wheel well. All of Demello’s work is first-rate and I am exceptionally happy with their products, service, and the work they performed.

Tacoma BuildWhat I did not understand, however, is that these bumpers weigh considerably more than the stock bumpers and that this would directly affect the performance of my suspension. Shortly after the installation, I began to notice that my front suspension would bottom out more easily causing the tires to slam into the top of the wheel well. Concerned by this, I made phone calls to friends who were more familiar with these things than I was. Combined with a thorough search of the various internet outlets gave me the answer I was looking for. The front suspension was not rated for the weight of the front bumper and winch.

The reality was worse than that. Between the water and being transported across the ocean on more than one occasion, the freeze/thaw cycle in Germany combined with the time where she just sat, the seals on the front shocks had cracked and the air and oil had leaked out. I had been running on just the front springs. This was bad enough with the stock bumpers.  With the addition of the Demello bumpers, a bad situation got worse. The front of my truck took a nose dive every time I applied the brakes and the tires slammed into the wheel wells with greater and greater force every time I took any kind of bump. Additionally, the rear suspension began to squeal and squeak as the added weight of the rear bumper wore down the rear leafs and the bushings between them.

Tacoma Build 8Fortunately I was able to diagnose and fix the problem before things got too bad. Ok, that isn’t completely accurate. I was able to diagnose the problem (with much help from my friends) before the front suspension completely collapsed on me. I ordered new Bilstein 5100 shocks for all four corners, as well as Old Man Emu heavyweight springs for the front and Deaver expedition weight leaf springs for the rear. All of these were installed by the folks at Independent 4x in Richmond, and I am very happy with their work.

Tacoma Build 4I chose this set up based on my research, and on conversations with the owner of Independent 4x as well as others much more knowledgeable in the field than I am. The reason given was that the Bilstein/OME/Deaver set up was the best all-around set up you could get. It wasn’t a specialty kit set up for one environment, it wasn’t based on one company or another’s desert racing designs, and it wasn’t designed to be beaten the hell out of and then pulled apart and rebuilt. It may not be the most cutting edge and technologically advanced, newest fangled suspension set up out there, but it is the best set up for what I want my truck to do.

SONY DSCIn addition to my suspension and the beginnings of my trail armor, I decided that it was time to upgrade my sound situation. Now, I am not some audiophile who has to have the latest, greatest, and best stereo in existence. My ear is not so well attuned that it can tell the difference in sound quality between speakers unless we are talking about the difference between worst speakers on the planet and the best. But I do like rolling with my windows down and I do like hearing my music over the road noise and wind. I surfed over to Crutchfield.com and found what I considered the best answer, a Sony WXGT90BT.  Unfortunately for me, they were sold out. So, not to be deterred, I went to The Everything Store and found what I was looking for. What I didn’t buy, or even consider at the time, was things like adaptor mounting racks to make it fit in the dashboard or wiring harnesses. Who needs those, right? Fortunately for me, I found a place where I live that does good, reasonably priced installation work in an hour or so and, provided that I gave them a few days notice to order the parts, was able to correct my oversight.

SONY DSCThere are precious few aesthetic changes that I have made. One of these was to de-badge the truck. I found the shiny “Tacoma” badging was an eyesore.  This was accomplished with fishing line on a hot summer day, and copious application of Goo Gone to remove the remaining residue. The other was the removal of the stock grille and replacing it with a Satoshi grille, sporting a color matched grille surround and Toyota badge from a 1974 FJ-40.

Tacoma Build 7At the time of this writing, she is far from finished. I am still in the process of correcting previous missteps and getting her back on track. The next step in this is to replace the wheels and tires. I intend to go back to a 16” wheel with 285/75/R16 tires. I am currently looking at the Toyo Open Country A/T or sticking with my BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A for tires, but have no idea what wheels will strike my fancy. Also, I am researching onboard air compression and air lockers as well as off-road lighting.

We will see what the future holds …

Written by

HP Lefler is a traveler, adventurer, writer, and teacher. A native of Minnesota, he grew up sailing and waterskiing and now splits his love between the sandy beaches and high mountains. He lives in Virginia.

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