Baja California, México October 2016, hauling large pieces of Styrofoam out of a nature reserve
Our camper is for sold!
Below is the original write up I did for the setup in October 2016 while in Mazatlan. Enjoy and happy travels!
1995 Toyota Tacoma 5VZ-FE V6 engine extended cab 5 speed manual transmission 4x4. Truck has modified suspension to handle the extra weight: FOX 2.5" ID adjustable coilovers set at 2" of lift. 3 extra leafs for the rear with air bag system as well. Air bags are typically set to 25psi. A steel frame with 12 attachment points supports both the camper and the truck serving as the main backbone. The open rear differential has been swapped for a gear type "detroit truetrac" limited slip differential, which is probably the single greatest upgrade made. The engine has received regular maintenance and care and is in top running order.Our rig is based on our 1995 Toyota Tacoma with a custom mounted slide in truck camper. The custom modifications allow for ample storage space and cargo capacity. We decided to build the rig off our Tacoma mostly because we believe in working with what we had but also due to financial reasons. The Tacoma needed a new transmission in order to sell for what it should have been worth. Additionally it has tremendous sentimental value to us.
When I first came to Salt Lake City to visit Hazel, two weeks after we met at Burning Man, I was interested in purchasing a new truck to replace my incredibly rusty 1990 Toyota Pickup I had driven out from the Midwest. On my fourth day in the city, we found the truck on a sales lot and it's subsequent purchase served as a convenient excuse for us to prolong my stay. We just didn't think we'd ever have kids in the back seat, or at least not so soon.
Once we determined our son's new forward facing car seat would fit in the backseat area of the little Tacoma, we decided there was nothing keeping us from driving our beloved truck to Costa Rica. All we needed to do now was find a camper to go on the back. Our initial plan was to find a gently used popup camper for a full sized truck and graft this onto the rear frame. Full sized campers are much more prevalent in the United States, so we thought we would have an easier time finding a good one for cheap. However, after looking around the Salt Lake area and seeing several in person it became obvious to us that eight foot long four foot wide slide in campers would dwarf our little Tacoma. Plus the extra eight inches of box width might interfere with rear wheel travel. We settled on a new camper made for our quarter ton truck. Quarter ton trucks have 40 inches between the wheel wells and the camper base is only six feet long. It has a wet weight of 1200 lbs. We ended up going with the hard sided camper for the extra space and less complication of popup soft shells. Also hard sided campers are better insulated for cold nights on mountain tops or on the California coast. All to do now was figure out how to attach it to the truck.
I set about fabricating a custom frame on which the camper would sit. I used 2 1/2" .120 wall square tubing for the base frame that attached to the truck. On top of this is 2" 1/8" wall angle iron which creates the tray that holds the camper bottom. The base frame is bolted in four places using the same mounting points the original bed used and welded to the truck frame around the upper air bag mount locations. Additionally, each corner is welded bridging the frames together using a piece of angle iron with extra flat stock for additional strength. I believe in overkill.
The tiedowns were initially large turnbuckles tying each corner to D-rings mounted to the frame. After a few weeks of rambling around the desert with this set up, the weak wood frame of the camper proved inadequate for anchoring the eyebolts squarely. They began to be pulled and some of them even pierced the aluminum skin of the camper. Something stronger was needed. My solution was to build winged platforms which would support the outer edges of the camper as well as provide space for cargo boxes where the sides of the truck bed used to be. I also mounted two pairs of tail lights and extended the rear bumper about eight inches. The camper is now tied down by 2 1/4" steel cables on each corner. This setup creates a stable platform for the camper itself and affords lots of room to mount and secure all of our gear.
The truck itself also received a great deal of attention both in terms of maintenance and modifications. Before we even left Michigan, I overhauled the cooling system, installing a new water pump, thermostat, accessory belts and timing belt. Later, after it exploded in SLC, we would get a new radiator as well, completing the overhaul. We also got new tires before leaving Michigan and of course an alignment to ensure we wouldn't wear out the new rubber before we got to Utah. Oh and new brake pads and rotors up front and new shoes out back. We obtained a used transmission which we swapped out for ours as we had first gear issues. I also put in a gear locking limited slip differential for the rear axle. Later on in Mexico, stuck in the sand, I would kick myself for not putting one up front as well. I drained and filled all the remaining fluids and had already changed the spark plugs not to long ago. When possible I would use OEM dealer sourced parts for pretty much everything. The only parts not from the dealer I installed besides the aftermarket LSD would be the new front CV axles. Dealership halfshafts are ridiculously expensive, so we got NAPA parts here. While I was in replacing the CV axles, I overhauled the front suspension replacing the upper and lower ball joints and new FOX shocks 2.5" coilovers set to a 2" lift. 1" is probably fine now that it's all said and done. The rear axle got air bags as well as three extra leafs installed to help support all the newfound weight. In Mexico we finally had our muffler replaced: no more, "What?" while driving! Fenders were found from an RV supply house and promptly welded in between the new cargo boxes. Later the extra space between boxes would be covered up with crude plywood doors, locked and latched. We carry nine gallons of grey water in the camper for dishes and showering, six gallons drinking water and one five gallon NATO can full of gasoline. I've done 95% of the work myself including fabrication and welding. I like to do things myself. I may not do it correctly, but at least I know what is going on and I always do it better the second time. The only thing I didn't do myself was swap the transmission and differential. I've swapped the transmission/transfer case combo on my previous truck so I thought I would save my strength for another day. The differential was a little intimidating to me, so I watched some more experienced guys do that. Piece of cake. I carry all the tools I've used throughout all this work with us so that I may be ready for anything.
My favorite aspect of the rig is our 400W solar setup. We are powered by two 6-volt 220Ah batteries controlled by a solar charge controller. We have a 1000 Watt inverter with which I can power my 5/8" power drill, angle grinders, charge cameras and laptop and whatever else the wife wants. It is a ton of power and it's awesome.
All of this power is well served to keep all of our perishable items cold in our awesome ARB freezer/fridge. It draws hardly any power and keeps things as cool as we want them. This fridge replaced the dometic fridge which came in our camper unit and burned propane to keep food around 50F in the desert summer heat. We realized before crossing into Mexico we had better get a fridge that can operate effectively no matter how high the ambient temperature. Our ARB fridge is set to a cool 25F and has never blinked. For maintenance, we simply wipe it clean once per week and make sure none of Joey's stuffed animals block the cooling vents.
During the trip, I filled in the remaining open spaces and the sides with doors and paneling for extra storage. One one side is a six gallon drinking water tank and several more cubic feet of space. The other side has the spare gas tank enclosed and contains our camping chairs, little folding table and shovel. The sides of the camper also have LED party lights which can be hooked up to illuminate the sides or an impromptu dance floor.
We removed the hot water heater from the camper to make room for the inverter and book storage.
When stealth camping, we cover the windows with specially cut reflectix. This allow helps keep out the heat on hot days. For cooling, our rooftop "fantastic" fan draws air across whatever window we have open. The fan works best when only one or two windows are open. Usually I open the window next to the master bed as it is the highest and helps remove the most amount of heat. Careful placement of the truck for shade also helps, although the solar still needs to be charged as well. Sometimes I park in the sun in the morning then move truck to shade for the afternoon. In the mountains this doesn't really matter as it cools off nicely at night. When we are in an established camp ground, we also have the ability to plug the camper into a 110V outlet. The camper is equipped with a charging circuit to maintain the batteries at 13.5V and power all the outlets for either 12V or 110V. When not plugged in, our 1000W inverter can handle pretty much any 110V duty we need, including with 5/8" hammer drill and angle grinder.