I’ve been a Toyota loyalist for the better part of twenty years. At least, I was until I was issued a 2018 Ford F-150 Lariat at work last year. It was all EcoBoost and leather with remote start and heated/cooled seats, with an absolutely cavernous back seat. I drove it for a year and much to my surprise, I fell in love with it.
I drove a Toyota Tacoma from 2001 - 2007, and then a highly modified Toyota FJ Cruiser from 2007 to 2017, and finally a 2006 Toyota Tundra until early 2018. They were all great rigs, but we outgrew the FJ and the Tundra was too difficult to modify as nobody seemed to make off-road parts and accessories for it, plus the gas mileage was abysmal. I sold it late last year and went truck-less for a few months, which truly sucked.
We knew we wanted/needed a new adventure rig and we looked at several options:
Toyota Tacoma - Too small, uncomfortable, underpowered and too much money for too little truck.
Toyota Tundra - Loved the size and the exterior design, but it’s basically the same truck they’ve been making since 2007. Interior was dated, engine had plenty of power but fuel economy was horrible and, compared to other full-size rigs it cost more and you got less.
Chevy Colorado - Getting close. Roomier, better MPG’s, more value for money but off-road chops were less than impressive unless you went with the ZR2, and then you’re over $45k.
Jeep Gladiator - BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Melissa and I have both owned Jeeps and we won’t make that mistake again.
Then, we made a decision that kind of pushed us in the right direction. We decided to purchase a brand new Four Wheel Campers Raven - a burly, slide-in camper made for off-roading and that came complete with a king bed, dual roof vents/fans, fridge, stove, heater, storage, charging ports, sink w/ 20 gallon tank and a couch. I’m not getting any older and though we could have opted for a shell with a rooftop tent on top, the camper offers much more comfort and flexibility for achy old man bones. Did I mention it has a heater??? We loved the work F-150 and with a few mods, it could be a very capable off-road rig. I mean, look at the Raptor! So, off we went on the hunt for a used truck, preferably in silver or gray, my favorites.
Then, along came Betty. She was in great shape, a 2015 F-150 Lariat with the EcoBoost motor (soooo much power!), the bigger fuel tank, and all the options I wanted including, critically, the FX4 package that gives you a locking rear differential. And, she was just a hair over $30,000. But, she was white. Literally, the only thing “wrong” with her was the color. I sucked it up and signed on the dotted line. Sold!
We took her home and, me being me, immediately got to work on upgrading her for proper off-road duty. First up, wheels and tires. I did my research and looked at Fuel, Icon, Method, Relations Race Wheels and a few others. I landed on Method 701 wheels wrapped in Nitto Ridge Grappler tires, sized 295/70/17. Why Method and Nitto? I looked at several wheel companies and spoke to the manager at our local tire shop, Grand Tire. Jeff is a fountain of knowledge. He used to run support for Baja 1000 races and when it comes to anything off-road related, he knows his stuff. The only wheel on my list that he recommended was the Method, and he didn’t even rep them. The others, he said, had issues with cracking, or poor warranty support, or weren’t designed for heavier loads, etc. I chose the Nitto’s because I love mud tires, but I don’t love the hum they make on the highway and I don’t like how quickly they wear, but I’m not a huge fan of all-terrains because I prefer a more aggressive tread pattern. The Ridge Grappler’s are a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, and they came in the right size. They’re rated for higher miles than most mud tires, they’re relatively quiet , more aggressive than your average all-terrain and reviews are stellar. Why 295/70/17? It’s basically 33.5” tall, which is a couple inches taller and wider than stock, allowing for more ground clearance and rubber on the rock for traction. I would like to have gone with a 305/70/17 but it wouldn’t fit without a taller suspension lift or some serious wheel well trimming, and I just wasn’t interested in either option.
Next up, suspension. I spent way too many hours on the internet looking at Fox, Icon, Radflo, King, etc. Most of the lifted F-150’s you’ll see on the road have 4” or higher lift kits installed. Since we’re planning on putting a camper in the bed, I wanted to keep the center of gravity as low as possible so I only considered 2” - 2.5” lifts, which are also much simpler to install. Once again, I went to Jeff and he immediately told me not to look at Fox. Apparently, their quality has declined over the years and he’d seen a lot of issues with them in the shop. He recommended King Off-Road Racing Shocks with Icon upper control arms. This setup provides the most front suspension articulation and allows for the alignment to be dialed in to perfection. Of course, it’s the most expensive option but again, he doesn’t rep either one and didn’t stand to make a dime on the sale. I’d always wanted King’s but couldn’t afford them. I called King and Icon, and the customer service at King was so over the top phenomenal that I went ahead and ordered a set of their coilovers with remote reservoirs and compression adjustment knobs. I also ordered the Icon Delta Joint Upper Control Arms and then, realizing that I still had other mods to make and a limited bankroll, I’d better settle on Bilstein 5160’s in the rear…for now. If I had unlimited funds, I’d have thrown on some Deaver springs and King’s in the rear. Maybe next year.
With the new wheels, tires and suspension, Betty’s a beast. Like, Betty White before the Snickers. She rides comfortably on road and is much more capable off-road than I could have imagined. We took her over a few trails in the San Juans and at one point passed a sign reading “High Clearance - Four Wheel Drive - Short Wheelbase Only”. Whatev. We kept going and the road wasn’t even a challenge. Tight switchbacks, but taking the right line helped get Betty through with nary an issue, other than a couple close calls with those shitty factory side steps. Next mod? Rock sliders…for sure. Well, after the next mod which is…
Air bags. The Four Wheel Campers Raven weighs around 1,600 pounds decked out, and since the truck is only rated for a 1,600 pound payload, she’ll need some help carrying the camper, our gear and our bikes. There are basically two options: have custom springs made to support the weight or install airbags. Springs are simpler and less likely to fail, but airbags provide more adjustability in ride quality as the weight in the bed changes with the load. Once again, Grand Tire Jeff to the rescue. We’ve got a set of AirLift bags, compressor and remote control on order to be installed in a couple weeks. Once installed, we’ll be able to clickety click a button on the remote to add or remove air volume to the air bags, stiffening or softening the ride as we deem necessary.
We’re picking up the camper in Jackson, Wyoming in late September. While some people take the camper off when it’s not in use and put it back on when they head out on a trip, we’re just leaving it semi-permanently installed in the bed. The whole point of purchasing the camper is to allow us to pack food and clothing, and hit the road - making quick weekend trips all that much easier. We’ll take it out when we sell Betty in a few years but until then, Betty White and Clark Griswold (the camper’s name) will be quite the happy couple.
For the most part, once the camper is installed the modifications will be mostly done unless a glaring issue arises that needs to be addressed. As I’ve already mentioned, the stock side steps will be replaced with a set of true rock sliders. I’ll also install an LED light bar on the front to help us navigate dirt roads at night. I may add LED ditch lights to make it easier to find a campsite at night. The F-150 skid plates are pretty weak, and we may throw on the RCI Skid Plate Package to cover all of Betty’s soft underbelly. Keep an eye on the blog for updates on the build and maybe even some of our adventures with Betty and Clark. Questions? Feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer them.