Two events occurred that put me on a path to buy and build out a new 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD 4×4.
One, I closed a sizable business deal and pretty much retired the next day so I had some time. At 26 years of age, I though it was about time. Oh wait, sorry, a typo. I’m 62. In addition, each time I would close a deal over the years I would buy myself something. A new camera, a bike, maybe a new avionics gadget for the plane. This time it was a pretty big deal so I bought a truck. And a whole bunch of stuff to go with it.
Two, I was working on a follow up to my “Fifty Classic Destinations” book (www.fiftyclassics.com) and decided to re-organize it and focus new adventures in or near the largest National Parks. Which meant I needed to go out and complete some adventures plus get some new photos of old adventures.
What better way to do that than with an overland capable Tacoma that I built myself, complete with logo for advertising?
First up – buy a truck. I waited and got a new 2020 TRD 4×4 (vs. a 2019) for a very simple reason – it had Apple CarPlay. I had gotten used to it on my wife’s Honda CRV and if I was going to spend that much on a new truck, I wanted that. Plus it had a 10-way driver’s seat that was supposed to be way more comfortable. I was also looking forward to playing with the “trail-cams” that has four cameras underneath for rock crawling. When I took receipt of the truck (the dealer’s first 2020), I sat down in it next to the sales guy and said, “OK, let’s play with the trail cams”. Neither of us could get it to work and it turns out it only comes on the high-end TRD PRO model. Bummer. Kinda wish the sales guy knew that.
Just off the lot, and I stopped in and bought new tires. Cooper ST/Maxx 265/75 R16s. I had been running them on our Sprinter conversion for a few years and I like them. That size is apparently the largest you can get without rubbing or lifting the truck. I was going to do a minor lift but I wanted to wait until I had built out the rest of the truck so I knew how much weight I was dealing with.
A shell was next on the list and somehow I ran across the South African company RLD Designs and their stainless steel canopy. I wanted one. I ordered one plus a rack and at the time didn’t know it would be almost four months for it to arrive. Apparently it had a date in Hong Kong and would get stuck there for some time. More on this later.
I opted for the Desert Designs Honey Badger low-profile front bumper. The car was about a week old and here I was with an angle-grinder cutting off the front end. Fun but scary. The sales guy at Toyota seemed pretty decent but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to take the truck back if I made a wrong cut.
The reviews for the Honey Badger said a winch is *almost* impossible to install. However comparing it to working under the panel of my Cessna airplane, it wasn’t bad at all – just some patience in working bolts into the right places. I put in a Smitty Built Winch with synthetic cable.
After the front end I decided to work on the wiring for the lights. The light bar in the front (Rough Country) would be hooked up to a switch and to the high beams. The running lights (or maybe call them ditch lights) top light and rear light would have their own switches. Everything would be run through a large circuit breaker then relays and fuses.
A few tips: To get a wire that is hot when the key is on tie into a circuit in the fuse box under the dash, not under the hood. I used those “Add a circuit” fuse jumper things. Although note you can get a hot wire for “highbeams” in the fuse box under the hood.
Then I spent some time in the cab setting up the switches. Finding custom switches on the web is easy but the switch panel is harder. I found a “blank” switch panel, cut it up, used a heat gun to warp and fit it, then painted it black again to cover up the damage caused by the heat gun. It looks fine.
I also wanted to install a second battery and found there was room under the hood and a few companies manufacturer brackets to hold it. I used a Mole Overland bracket and although the company seemed a little disorganized and shipped me the wrong thing a few times, the bracket itself is solid.
The best battery isolator is the Blue Sea Systems ACR – Automatic Charging Relay. (By chance I met the owner of Blue Sea one time at a small airport in Friday Harbor Washington) The ACR monitors the system voltage and connects the two batteries when the truck is running. Otherwise they are separate and you are free to kill the auxiliary battery blending Margaritas or drying your hair or whatever. I would wait for the canopy to arrive before running wire to the rear.
My goal was to do as much as possible myself on the build, and that included designing the logo, laying it out for the truck, ordering the custom vinyl and applying it (with my son’s help). This isn’t a wrap but old fashion one-color vinyl cut-out. The blacks are blacker this way. The red sun is actually a separate decal.
We did it in the hangar because I tried it outside and a breeze came up and folded the vinyl in half, instantly ruining $100 of vinyl.
We actually only did one side and as of this writing I haven’t done the other side yet. You need to it when it is 60 degrees or higher and winter set in before we got around to it.
Tip: After removing all Tacoma badges and decals, here is my method: Use bare hands and a heat gun. If you burn your hands, it’s too hot. That way you can’t scorch the paint. Heat the decal enough to soften the adhesive and pull it away. If you get the gun too close, you’ll feel immense pain and the decal will shrivel and break. Too far and the decal will break instead of peel. Just right and you can peel it away as you heat more and more of it. Then remove residual glue with Goo-be-gone and cover burns with salve.
The sliders I went with were made by RCI, mainly because they were on sale when I bought them. There seems to be quite a few quality sliders out there. Although it said “bolt on”, when it came and I read the directions it became apparent that you really should drill some holes in the frame for it to be rock solid. Which wasn’t hard to do.
Can’t forget the dogs! I made a custom platform for the rear with fold out legs and cushions. Works great although they would very much like to open the windows and I can’t.
Our collective neighborhood owns a snowplow we use to keep the roads clear. We got a light bar (no idea what kind) for it but the snow-laden trees hang down and knock it off. So I ended up with it and I ordered a rack for it from Victory. The rack is really a Prinsu knock-off but it seems solid. Kind of hard to install on the crew cab because you have to drill holes, and I managed to heat harden one of the holes. Still not sure how to handle that but I went through multiple drill bits on that one hole.
I was going to wait for the canopy before building the drawer/bed system but I couldn’t wait any longer.
Finally after months of waiting the canopy was freed up from its Hong Kong hideaway, made customs at the port of Seattle and within a week showed up at my door. Dang, it was actually worth the wait – I was expecting to be disappointed but I really like it. A very solid stainless steel design and all the doors swing open for an airy feeling.
When the canopy (I think they call them that in South Africa) arrived there was no rack – that I paid for. I called and asked, “where’s the rack?”. The silence answered by question. South Africa. However they did have a shorter rack in stock and I took that instead of waiting an additional four months. Plus they totally made up for the entire wait by throwing in a camp table set up that slides into the canopy. Easy to hit your head on it, but worth it I think.
I tried to spend my dollars on function. However you’ll notice the press-on bug deflector in the next photo. It is pretty obvious it isn’t going to deflect a single bug. However it is a nice black piece of plastic, and the white nose of the truck does a good job of deflecting bugs from it.
I also sprayed on black Plasti-dip on the rear bumper ends. I just thought it looked better that way.
Now the scary part – for me since I wasn’t sure I could do it alone. Turns out I couldn’t. A new suspension.
After some research and finding out about a hundred companies offer Taco suspensions I went with Dobinsons out of Australia. It is tuned for 100-200 lbs in the front and 5-600 lbs in the rear and with that weight, 2 inches of lift.
The rear installation went smoothly but the front did not. With a snow storm rolling in I realized I could not compress the springs onto the shocks. I went down and rented a spring compressor but it was the wrong size and I got them jammed into the springs. I used C-Clamps, cam straps and all sorts of things to try to compress the springs. I finally looked on YouTube and watched people getting whacked in the head trying this. Time to give up before I got whacked. Luckily my one local tire shop had a spring compressor and they bailed me out. I got the truck off the jack stands with about an inch of snow on the ground.
A photo of the mess I made of trying to compress the spring would have been great, but I was in a frenzy so no photos of that stage.
After the canopy was on and suspension installed I set about finishing and installing the drawer/bed system. I designed it so typically so it can be a solo bed with more storage, or 100% coverage for a two-person bed. The Tacoma (maybe most modern trucks) comes with “ledges” that can hold lumber about 10″ off the bed. I wanted 12″ for more storage underneath, so I ripped some 2×4″ down to the correct size, fit them on the ledges and through-bolted them on.
These cut down 2×4’s and the drawer hold up the 3/4″ plywood bed platform.
Now for a bunch of wiring. I ran 4 gauge wire plus switch wire for the lights from the front of the truck to the back. I needed a place to terminate those and for busses, fuses, etc. It turns out 2018 or so Tacomas had a side bin in the bed, and it still fits the 2020 if you want to cut out space for it. I found one on Ebay for $50 that was trashed but it cleaned up nicely and I repainted it.
Safety tip: We met a couple in Santa Cruz that were camped in their vehicle with high end mountain bikes locked onto their hitch rack. They woke up with the sound of power tools and quickly starting yelling to scare away the thieves. Except the thieves, apparently with a decent work ethic, didn’t leave. They kept working on the bikes and eventually left with them, even with other campers around. One solution? Have access to your light bars from the bed. Optionally install a Nautilus 12V airhorn. Turn the night into day, turn on the horn and leave them on. If I was a crook, I would leave.
With this safety tip in mind I installed four switches in the bed. One for the front top light bar, one for the two rear LED lights, one for the inside canopy lights and one for inside of the canopy door. For the canopy lights I used 12V strip lights wired directly and not through relays. Again, the front top light bar and rear LEDs can be operated both from the cab and the bed.
I kinda went overboard on the wiring. In our Sprinter we have a diesel furnace, TV, microwave and all kinds of stuff with solar and a sweet 150 amp-hour lithium ion battery. However in the truck I have two LED light strips and the ability to power my notebook. That’s it. I actually went on Amazon and searched on 12V stuff to see what else I could power. A blender I guess but I like my Margaritas on the rocks. Maybe a refrigerator at some point though I have a Yeti cooler that seems to work pretty well.
What’s next? I’m looking forward to two stages in the Tacoma. Finishing the book “Fifty Adventures for Active Families” (www.fiftyclassics.com) and then hopefully going on a tour of the west coast selling books and speaking at stores and events. We’ll have to see.