Some of the best adventures are down bad roads.
Whether you are a rock climber, backcountry skier, ice climber or mountaineer there is probably an adventure you dream of that is only accessible via a long bad road. Something that even a Subaru or Volvo wagon won’t go down.
A road or trail that is so bad that only a real rugged 4×4 can make it there.
So, how do you choose a good 4×4?
..and by “good” we mean that is good for you, not good for our advertisers. (for those that have read articles advocating BMW’s and Porsches as appropriate adventuremobiles)
First off. If you are really, truly going to be going far off road you want the most durable vehicle you can find.
This is not as much about brand as it is about technology.
A truly good 4×4 has the following:
- real 4×4 with a transfer case and low range.
- locking front hubs
- a solid front axle*
*While an independent front suspension can be durable and capable, it adds extra complexity and is easier to break. It’s nicer on the highway but worse off-road.
The best 4×4’s are almost always diesels.
…and not these new fancy computerized ones. Something old, stinky and loud!
I say this for a few reasons.
- They don’t need electricity to run. Once the engine is started it doesn’t need electricity to keep running. (for diesels with mechanical injection pumps)
- A fully mechanical diesel will run on a wide range of fuels. Once when no diesel was available I bought enough camping kerosene to get me to the next station with diesel. I’ve done the same using vegetable oil.
- They are typically heavy duty engines and can handle a lot of abuse.
- They are cheap to maintain.
So with that out of the way.
Here are my recommendations on buying your own 4×4.
- Buy used and pay cash.
- Buy for what it can do, not how it makes you look.
- Buy the simplest vehicle you can find. Either so that you can fix it yourself, or so that it is less expensive to have other people fix it. Remember. Complexity adds cost. Climate control? You don’t need it. Power windows, you don’t need them either.
- Don’t spend any more than you are willing to lose. Great adventures involve risk. Not giving a fuck about your paint and bodywork is the ticket to freedom.
- Buy for the adventures you will have. There is no reason to buy a camperized Unimog for a South American adventure if you’ll really just be doing weekend trips with your dog and mountain bike.
- Don’t get caught up in fads. e.g. Do you really need a rooftop tent? Building a sleeping platform in the back of a truck or SUV is way cheaper. Or just use a tent.
- Buy good tires, keep a tire repair kit / compressor in the back and know how to use them.
- Don’t buy weird.
- If you buy weird make sure there are lots of other weird fans of this vehicle out there. Good examples. VW Buses and Toyota Landcruisers.
- Keep your battery terminals clean. Dirty battery cables and clamps cause more dead vehicles than just about anything
- Buy a tool kit, a repair manual and learn how to use them.
- Maintain it well. It’s the best investment you can make.
- Optional – make sure you can sleep in it. When the weather sucks and things aren’t going so well it’s a real luxury to just crawl into the back and pass out. Especially if it’s windy and all the tents are getting blown away.
- Optional – if snow, ice or mud are part of your backcountry experience then invest in a high quality set of tire chains.
My top choices for an adventuremobile
Old Toyota Pickups, 4runners and Landcruisers.
They often rust away but the rest of them keeps going. My 1985 Landcruiser is a great example of this. The rear fenders have a substantial amount of fibreglass in them. Eventually it will probably be mostly fibreglass, kind of like a Corvette.
Jeep Cherokee – 1984-2001
Not diesel but simple, durable and solid axles front and rear.
In general the axles are not as tough as the Toyota axles. It’s worth looking for one with the off road package as it came with better axles which are less likely to break if you have large tires and locking differentials.
Jeep CJ, YJ, Wrangler, etc.
Can’t sleep in them (unless you’re really short) but generally simple, durable and amazing aftermarket support.
Old Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee.
Simple, tough and can sleep in them. Thirsty though.
Old full size pickups
(Chevy, Ford or Dodge) Brand doesn’t matter much. Each has it’s own quirks. Best bet is a heavy duty model, not the basic half ton.
Better off with a standard cab and short box. An extended cab and long box will bottom out too easily.
It’s pretty easy to put big tires on them and while they are usually gas hogs they are typically cheap to buy, cheap to fix and hard to kill. A great example is the photo below. More info here on the Expedition Portal
Full size SUV – Chevy Blazer, Ford Bronco, etc.
Same benefits as the full size trucks but with an SUV body. If you are taller then sleeping inside might not be easy.
What if you really need the space of a van?
You could pony up the big bucks for a custom 4×4 van ($100K+ from Sportsmobile) which is awesome if you can afford one.
An alternative to the Sportsmobile conversion (for the mechanically inclined) is getting a 4×4 conversion kit from Ujoint Off Road
However, there are a lot of bad roads to good places that need a high clearance and sturdy vehicle but don’t truly need four wheel drive.
If this describes you then consider a full size domestic van (Ford, Chev, Dodge) and adding a lift kit and a locking rear differential.
Action Van Suspension is one company that can help you out.
I recommend keeping a come-along and other recovery gear with you and just go for it. Of course having a rescue device with you like an Inreach Delorme is always a good idea if you’re going to be far off the beaten path. Choosing a shorter wheelbase van is the better option as it will be less likely to bottom out and get stuck.
I hope you found this helpful. Don’t’ be mad if I’ve left out your favorite 4×4.
Feel free to comment with your own experiences or recommendations.
A little about my Landcruiser.
It is a 1985 BJ60 and is the somewhat rare diesel version with a 5 speed manual that was imported into Canada.
Currently it has about 470,000 kilometers on it and is still on the original 4 cylinder engine. It has a 3.5 inch lift, 33 inch Goodyear Duratrac tires. The engine has been turbocharged using the turbo from a Toyota Supra and the exhuast manifold from a Japanese market Landcruiser that came factory with a turbo.
Despite bucket loads of abuse there is little that has broken and it has yet to leave me stranded anywhere.
Of all the vehicles I’ve owned, from sports cars to VW vans, this is my favorite.
Yes, I really was stuck. I broke my 10,000 lb winch trying to get myself out of the hole in the ice but other than some new dents there was no damage. I like to compare that to a friends who did something similar in his Xterra and needed about $2k in repairs before he could drive it again.