The Last Great “Trailer” Trip

At Last Great Road Trip we pride ourselves on the fact that we not only go on some amazing off-road adventures but that we drive our Toyota FJ Cruiser there and back (hence the road trip moniker).  So imagine our shame when Brian “Woody” Swearingen passes us on the way to Tahoe with our rig in tow.

Rubicon is seven of the hardest miles in the world to drive, but it is also nearly 2,000 miles of asphalt there and back from Seattle. We’ve been doing a lot…  and I really mean a lot, of major modification to our Fj Cruiser (want a list: Ultimate FJ Cruiser), getting ready for the 25th anniversary of Rubithon.  Some of them took longer than expect and we’d just finished up the last of them the week before, still not knowing if they would all hold together.

With no time to shake her down, new Metal Tech 4×4 tube doors installed (killing any idea of climate control through the wind, rain and heat) and the expectation of carnage that comes with running the Rubicon trail, we decided to take Mark up on his very generous offer of a truck and trailer to tow our FJ Cruiser to the event. (It Takes A Garage to pull these adventures off and we can’t thank Mark enough for the tow rig and Metal Tech’s help)

Life is good when you’re driving 14,000 lbs of internal combustion furry down the road, over the hills, though the desert and into Reno for the night.  Despite a maximum speed of 55, the need to find parking for a 45 foot land yacht and 12 MPG on diesel, we are heading to Rubicon and nothing could rain on our parade.

Driving up into the Eldorado mountains of Tahoe in northern California, pushing a good 30 MPH on the vertical climb, we spotted a well built Toyota Wagon (80 series) blow by, sporting some very fancy off road stickers. The next thing I know, text messages are blowing up my phone from several folks wanting to know about the trailer…  Woody had put the word out.

Google “Brian ‘Woody’ Swearingen” and what comes back is a very impressive off-road resume: Founder of IH8MUD.com, professional driver for the 2007 and 2008 Toyota Trail Teams, owner of rockcrawler.com, co-driver Baja 1000 (JTGrey Lexus LX 570 won the Stock Full class in the 45th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 with Brian’s help) and Mint 400, TLCA member of the year, entrepreneur…  the list goes on. Basically: Off-Road Rock Star!

When we arrived at the trail head in the morning to meetup with the others in our run, there was Woody, grinning ear to ear with a welcoming out stretched hand and the announcement to everyone that we should change our sites name to Last Great “Trailer” Trip if we weren’t going to drive the hard miles…  I’m pretty sure, at that moment, I saw Hula Betty hang her head in shame, a tiny tear drop fall from her porcelain cheek and hit the dash as everyone chuckled.

Of course Woody gave us grief the entire week of Rubithon.  But he also spotted us up some of the gnarliest sections of Rubicon including Little Sluice, keeping the Blue Bunny unscathed. Woody gave us tips on 4-wheeling and made it look easy in his Land Cruiser. He provided a ride back out on the trails to videotape other groups of rigs as they made their way into Rubicon Springs and kept us all entertained around the campfire every night with his tales, quick wit and sarcasm. In other words, Woody showed us why he is a legend in the world of Toyota motor sports off-road.

The price I paid in ribbing and ridicule for taking the road out of road trip was worth every moment for the chance to wheel with and learn from one of the best in off-roading.  I wont swear we’ll never trailer our FJ Cruiser again…  that is a very nice way to travel… but we will think long and hard before putting the Blue Bunny in tow again…  I promise.

Next: What It’s Like To Drive The Rubicon Trail

It Takes a Garage To Make An Adventure

As you know I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve, the night before an off road adventure.  Sure there is the anticipation of the adventure and the excitement of what’s to come…  But there is always more.

Sitting outside a Starbucks (got to grab the WiFi where you can on an adventure) in the Biggest Little City in the World, I am struck by, of all things, community.  You see six years ago when we started all this we didn’t really know much about what we were getting into…  What we found were good people and a community that cares.

We mention Metal Tech 4×4 often and sure they make some of the best off road products in the world but they are more than that… in the last few weeks I spent a lot of time in their shop getting the Blue Bunny ready for Rubicon.  I mentioned my concerns about not having time to really shake down our rig after all the mods (Ultimate FJ Cruiser), the 2,000 miles we’d be driving and the real possibility that we’ll break something on the trail (after all this is The Con).  Without a second thought, Mark offered us their truck and trailer to haul our baby down and back.  Mark and LT have done so much for us and their generosity seems to have no end!

The tie-rods on the early Toyota FJ Cruisers have a weak point that will give when you apply enough force from larger tires, re-gearing and granite rock.  Running down spare parts we gave Auburn Car Repair & Offroad a call.  Without thinking twice, John gave us a couple he had picked up for their race truck, offered us tips he’d learned from his FJC desert racing experience and double check a few things on the rig for us.

This type of  help goes on and on… guys like Beau Jaramillo, Kevin C… go out of their way for us.  The NWFJC, NW Overlanding Society, TLCA are filled with great folks who will help turn a wrench or offer a hand when you need it.

Six years ago we thought we were individuals going out to get away from it all.  Instead we have found a strong rich, community of people who have our back and are willing to go out of their way to help.  We may venture out by ourselves.  But we are never alone.

This May Get Rough, Rubithon 2013

The Rubicon Trial is the stuff legends are made of…  the grand daddy of all 4×4 trails, this “county road” will pick and poke at you until it finds your weakness and extracts its revenge.  Drive the Rubicon Trail once and you’ll have a lifetime of bragging rights.

The Toyota Land Cruiser Association, known as TLCA first came together more than 40 years ago and is now the largest Toyota 4×4 association with more than 65 chapters.  Their primary goal is to bring together a vibrant community of Toyota owners and families.

With all these owners connected through the TLCA a big part of building the community is through off-road events and one of their oldest traditions is Rubithon which is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. The Rubiton adventure starts at Loon Lake, travels seven miles down the most famous Northern California “county road”, known simply as The Con. The turtle paced drive over boulders and granite culminates at The Springs.

For two days, Rubicon Springs, a private camp ground tucked into the high country above lake Tahoe, will be home to more than 300 Toyota off-road enthusiast as they rekindle old friendships, make new connections and celebrate a love for adventure. Camping, four-wheeling, cookouts, hiking, camaraderie and raffle prizes will be the order of business at Rubithon.

Sure we drove the Rubicon Trail back in 2009 but every year the Rubicon Trail changes due to  snow and erosion making each run a unique challenge. This will be the first major test for the Blue Bunny following all her FJ Cruiser suspension upgrades.  Granite boulders, endless trail obstacles, shear cliffs and the very real threat of damage to our rig will make for hella shake down run.

In two days we start… part scared, part anxious and all excited about our upcoming Rubithon off-road adventure.  With no cell phone coverage or Internet, we invite everyone to follow our progress via satellite GPS updates on our web site.

Next: The embarrassing call

Cam Cans Can

Long off-road adventures mean you are carrying what you need…  tools, parts, recovery gear, fluids or anything else you may require to be self sufficient.  But where do you put it all so that you don’t have to dig through your entire truck to get to it when you need it?

We are always looking for ways to store stuff so that is it organizes, accessible, and safe.  Our friends over at Auto Anything sent us a set of Daystar Cam Cans to try out.

Cam Cans are an ingenious way of providing storage space for liquids (antifreeze, water, oil, and other fluids) or trail tools on the outside of your rig so they remain easily accessible.  Their tech says “All containers are constructed of Daystar’s patented polyurethane construction which makes them resistant to warping, crushing, or degrading from UV rays and the elements.” We found them to be pretty durable as they got kick around the garage for several weeks while we waited for our off-road FJ Cruiser to return so we could mount them up.

The containers mount to the spare tire where you can carry one or two Cam Cans locked together.  We opted for a water storage  (you can go a long time without food but run out of water and it gets ugly fast) and the blaze orange tool box.  There is a green for other fluids.

Mounting them up is simple and only takes a few minutes to replace the lugs on the spare with Daystar’s mounting kit hardware.  Each container slides on, twists and their cams (hence the name) locks into place.  No tools required to access them on the trail, just twist and slide off.

We have started carrying our basic recovery kit (tree strap, shackle, gloves, and winch remote) in the tool box so that what we need most to get unstuck is quickly and easily accessible.  We can also throw a muddy strap back in the Cam Can tool box when were done and not worry about making a mess in the back of the rig.

And while we hope we are not digging into our recover gear too much, it is nice to know it will be right at our finger tips when we need it and out of the way when we don’t.

If you want to see their introduction at SEMA, here you go

 

Thoughts Behind The Change

The second universal truth of the Buddha, and off-road adventures, is that everything is continuously changing. Our rig has been going through immense change.  Sure the changes are very bad ass…  but what is important, is to understand why we’re making these changes.

Read through our website (go ahead, we’ll wait) and you will see our rig, the Blue Bunny, has successfully taken us on many amazing off-road adventures so why would we change it.  Seven years ago, in order to go to the North Slope, AK we upgraded the suspension with a three inch lift relying on Sway-A-Way (SAW) coil-overs, rear shocks and springs.  We needed a suspension that could provide lift for larger tires, take constant jarring and improve the handling of our FJ Cruiser. These changes fit the bill for driving over 2,000 miles of nasty unpaved roads. But we wanted more travel to soak up the endless jarring of long off-road adventures.

Chasing our desire for more travel and a smoother ride we upgraded to a  Total Chaos long travel kit and bigger set of SAWs coil-overs that extended the front travel from eight  to about 12 inches.  This upgrade made a huge difference as we crawled the Rubicon, bombed down Baja and wound our way on the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route or any number of local NW 4×4 trails.  But this front suspension upgrade left us wanting more for the rear.  While the front remained confident in everything we threw at it, the rear just couldn’t keep up.  That is when we turned to LT from Metal Tech 4×4 and arranged for them to build a custom rear suspension that was worthy of our adventures.

LT went to work replacing our original axle with a Currie that was four inches wider than stock so it would match the width of our extended long travel front end.  The Curie is a bullet proof housing with huge axles that we will be hard pressed to damage.  A Ford 9″ third member  with 4.56:1 ring and pinion gears was mated up to the Currie.  We needed the gearing to gain back the power that has been lost with the bigger tires, armor and all the gear needed for long expeditions. A Ford 9″ is used extensively in desert racers because of it dependability and parts are readily available throughout the world.  An ARB air locker replaced the stock E-locker that was left behind in the stock third member. A custom rear drive shaft to direct power back to the new rear end completed the circuit.  All these changes were in response to our request for rock solid dependability.  But what about the suspension.

Stock FJ Cruisers come with a 4-link rear suspension and nine inches of travel.  LT replaced this with a custom 3-link.  Starting with Metal Tech’s long travel lower link design, LT lengthened the design for our setup while still retaining all the engineering that has gone into Metal Tech’s original design.  Our links incorporate 2 1/2″ forged Johny Joints® with 1 1/4″ threaded studs and tube steal capable of supporting the weight of the rig if it is drug over a rock, ensuring the lower links will remain true regardless of where we go.  The links were paired with Metal Tech long travel progressive springs and bump-stop off sets to maintain proper positioning as the rear axle travels the entire arc.  When it came to shocks we knew we needed both length and girth to give us the travel we desired and the stamina for endless rough dirt roads without fading.

With the extra width of the Currie, LT add outboard shock hoops to hold 2 1/2″ triple by-pass, remote reserve shocks from Sway-A-Way that are capable of 12″ of travel.  By increasing the shock diameter from the 2″ to 2 1/2″ we equaled the dampening power of two, 2″ shocks and effectively doubling our previous setup’s stamina. The by-pass feature will let us dial in both the rebound and compression dampening to match the terrain we are traveling on.  And what is good for the rear…

Up front we added another set of 2 1/2″ triple by-pass, remote reserve Sway-A-Way axillary shocks to our Total Chaos long travel so we can tune the front and share the load with the coil-overs.  And since the front transfer case was going to be pulled apart to match the gears in the rear, LT added an ARB locker up front giving us complete wheel locking capability front and rear if needed.

The Blue Bunny is a six speed manual and driving a manual off-road is all about having options in the gears.  We’d been thinking about changing out the transfer case for a number of years and since we had everything pulled apart it was time to make a decision.  High and low are pretty standard transfer case options and we could choose some crawler gears to improve control over gnarly trails but that is still a compromise since we face mud, sand and crawling over rock on our off-road adventures.  In order to ensure we can crawl slow, pull a load up a steep hill and still run with speed where we want, we chose an Atlas 4 speed.  The Atlas’ planetary 2.72:1 reduction gear along with the 3.8:1 low range gear provides all sorts of options: H-H, H-L, L-H and L-L along with the ability to engage front or rear independently. You can do the math with all the gears involved to figure out our final crawl ratios but what it comes down to is we can now ooze slower than molasses over rocks, climb a tree fully loaded, sail over sand dunes and still drive to work.

There is a price for all these high end off-road modifications.

  • You’re running with mods that take adjusting to get right and tune it all in.  These are not just drop in and forget it components.  But get it all right…  and wow!
  • No parts store has spare parts on the self for any of the custom work.  You are running a one of a kind rig.
  • You need to know how it all fits together, comes apart and then goes back together because no one else will.
  • You need to learn your rig all over again…  it’s new sounds, feel and driving capabilities…  but that is half the fun.

When it comes to our off-road adventures we aren’t satisfied with one style of wheeling, we love it all. Sure you can put together a purpose built rig that will exceed the Blue Bunny’s capability on any one terrain but we think we’ve built a solid rig to conquer all terrains.  Of course there will be times when we’ll have to finesse a situation or let a faster rig pass but with the trade offs we’ve made (like IFS for the desert over straight axle for rocks, or a short wheel base for maneuverability over tons of room for expedition gear that comes with a longer wheel base), the Blue Bunny should get us through anything we encounter as we continue to look for the last great road trips left in the world.