Ultra-light at Heart

I came to overlanding by a backcountry route. I’m not mechanically inclined (my dad taught me woodworking) and my off-roading experience consisted of bumping down washboard BLM trails to find hot creeks and fishing holes. I’m an ultralight backpacker first, but over the years of driving to and from trailheads, my mind always wandered to those dusty ribbons of roads way out across the desert valleys, the ones that wind their ways up tallus slopes and disappeared beyond timberline.

A quick Instagram search will have you drooling at some seriously sublime overland setups; lifted full-travel beasts on 35″ tires with ARB bumpers, armor, rooftop tents, and slide-out freezer/refrigerators. Problem is, I don’t make that kind of money, at least not yet. Which set me on a course of finding a budget build; a rig with everything I’d need to follow the roads that had only lived in my imagination and, perchance, to camp in places most folks can’t access. Here’s where I’m at in my journey.

Taco Time

before lift

after lift

My first step was to buy a Toyota Tacoma 4×4. These trucks have a good reputation for off-road performance and long-lasting engines. The Tacoma is a mid-size truck which is perfect for fitting in tight places and minimizing desert pin striping (if you care about that). The shorter wheelbase of the short bed means a better breakover angle, and since I’m not a tall guy, I can sleep back there with no problems.

In keeping with my budget build, I wanted to lift the truck just enough to fit 32″ tires. Toytec Lifts proved to be the perfect one-stop shop with an affordable package including: Bilstein 5100 shocks and struts, 2.5″ coils, and 2″ add-a-leafs. The customer service is top-notch, and everything arrived on my doorstep two days after ordering, with free shipping!

Toytec provides detailed installation instructions, but I chose to have the suspension installed at a local shop. According to most folks on Tacomaworld.com, anyone with a few basic tools can do the installation, but I didn’t trust myself with a spring compressor!

In any case, the ride ended up being much better than stock and my 32″ tires fit with no rubbing. Next up was a camper shell.


The ultralight backpacker in me wanted something light, yet strong. I’d had a fiberglass camper shell on my old truck, but I heard that aluminum “contractor” shells are much lighter and more durable. After drooling at Go Fast Campers (base price: $6,500), I ended up going with a basic Century aluminum shell with ladder racks and “windoors.” I seriously don’t know how I ever got by without windoors! There’s nothing like leaving them open at night with the desert and mountain breezes stirring the blankets and the stars winking. The ladder racks are perfect for loading up paddle boards and MupuTrax.

A Mint Under the Pillow

Thanks to all the good homies posting on Tacomaworld.com, I found some simple bed platform plans and headed to the local hardware store for the goods. Four 2x4s fit into pre-molded slots in the Tacoma composite bed and support two pieces of plywood I cut and carpeted for a perfect platform. I recommend using two pieces of plywood because they are easier to load/unload and it also gives you the option of only using one sheet if you’re camping solo. The platform puts you level with the windoors for enhanced views and stargazing.

Just Drive

Last April I followed my buddy on my first legit overlanding expedition through Death Valley. Sure, my truck wasn’t a trophy Instagram dream setup, but is sure as hell got me everywhere I wanted to go; up dry arroyo waterfalls, across sandy valleys, and through steep, rutted mountain passes. Each night we picked camping spots with sublime views, hiked, and drank beer and tequila under the diamond sky.

Here’s to happy trails, treading lightly, stopping for animals to let them pass, and packing out everything you pack in (and more).

What Else to Bring

Here’s a quick general list of stuff to bring along on your overland adventure:

  • Tire plug kit
  • Air Compressor (Viair 100% duty cycle)
  • Traction/Rescue boards (Muputrax)
  • Hi-lift jack
  • Shovel
  • Jerry can full of fuel
  • Lots of water
  • Portable battery charger/jump starter
  • Beer

Overlanding 101

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About The Author
- Jeff McElroy is a Ventura and Mammoth Lakes-based writer. His surf/coast-inspired short story collections, CALIFORNIOS and CALIFORNIOS 2 have received awards and accolades within the boardsport and literary communities. He writes about adventure athletes and the wild places for EDGEtv Network. When he's not writing, he's surfing, backpacking, snowboarding, and trail-running with his wife and Jack Russell Terrier.

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