Prepare Your Vehicle For Winter

truck in snow

Winter is an interesting month in Michigan. Parts of the state get consistent winter weather through the season and other parts don’t. Here in the Southeast portion of Michigan, we fall into the inconsistent weather pattern. Unlike our friends on the west side of the state, we may or may not get predicted snow. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your vehicle for winter, whether it’s driving around the city or running trails in the snow.

During the warmer months of the year, we prep our vehicles for rain or mud. The same things that we carry when it’s warm out may not work out well when it’s freezing out. For example, keeping foods that require heating up for emergencies may need to be swapped for foods that are high in calories and don’t need to be cooked. A different style of shovel designed for snow removal may be swapped out for a shovel designed for mud.

From a high level, the equipment is much the same, but once you drill down into the details, it becomes apparent about the differences. Not switching out specific gear or adding in needed equipment once winter hits can leave you at a disadvantage if problems arise. You should also take into account anyone you might have traveling with you. My family count is five people and two dogs. Most of the time, we drive my 4Runner on trips, so I need to make sure to accommodate for my three kids, my wife, and my dogs.

Inventory Your Gear and Emergency Box

Once the warmer weather has decided to leave, and the colder weather moves in, it’s a good idea to do a layout and inventory of everything you have in your rig. You can then identify what isn’t needed, what won’t work, and what could be a liability once freezing temperatures arrive. Checking things like expiration dates, cold weather tolerances, and looking for items that would freeze becomes essential. You want to have the necessary gear in place or have a plan for emergencies.

Below are some essential items to consider when putting together a winter-specific gear box:

  • Blanket(s) or electric blanket(s) or cold weather sleeping bag(s)
  • Battery pack with charging cords for phone
  • Winter clothing: hat(s), gloves, scarf, boots, socks, thermal underwear, etc.
  • Bodywarmers
  • Dry food
  • Water
  • Flashlight(s), headlamp(s), and extra batteries
  • Tow straps
  • Jumper cables
  • Toolkit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Emergency flares
  • Rescue tool, knife, and/or multi-tool
  • First aid kit
  • Entertainment
  • Traction boards
  • Snow shovel
  • Fuel container
  • Full-size spare tire

Most of these items are probably already packed in whatever storage method you use for your gear. However, they might not be for winter use. For example, I have a blanket and a sleeping bag in my 4Runner, but they are not suitable for winter. Ultimately I need to spend some money on good wool blankets and a cold-weather rated sleeping bag.

Supplementing camping gear you already have packed into your rig with the listed items above can ensure you have what you need if it means staying with your vehicle while waiting for recovery. And never underestimate the value of having something to do while waiting. Have some books, magazines, or small games to keep you entertained.

Perform Winter Maintenance

If you follow a regular vehicle maintenance schedule, this should be an easy thing to accomplish. Whether you are doing the work yourself or you turn it over to your trusted mechanic, there are some things you should pay particular attention too. I don’t take into account the usage of winter tires. Most people who daily drive their overlanding rigs will have tires that are sufficient for winter usage.

Don’t Drive Around Blowing Cold Air

Check that your heater and defroster are in working order. There’s nothing worse than driving around on a freezing day and having cold air blow into your cabin. Trust me, I’ve had it happen. Luckily it was a simple fix and only required my rig’s coolant to be refilled. Had I not checked it, I would have driven around all winter with cold air rather than hot air.

Clear Frontal Vision

Another simple check and replacement you can do yourself is to put new wiper blades on and ensure you have the proper washer fluid. It may not seem like a big deal, but there are washer fluids specifically designed not to freeze. I’ve never had this happen, but I have had windshield wiper blades in poor condition going into winter. There are also winter wiper blades available that are of sturdier construction than “summer” blades.

Electrical Checks

Testing the electrical system and ensuring your battery is in excellent condition, your vehicle lights work, and even making sure all of the heating fans come on is another easy check you should be able to perform. Pay attention to slow cranking and whether your vehicle headlights dim while idling; this could be an indication of the battery starting to die.

If you have an automatic starter, ensure your battery is up to par. Having a battery designed for cold weather is ideal, but unless you’re in an environment where temperatures are reaching well below freezing, most batteries are sufficient. With that said, though, you don’t know disappointment until you think you’ve started your car on a frigid morning only to find out it wouldn’t turn over due to a drained battery. Test the battery and replace it if necessary.

Let A Professional Fix It

Lastly, do a quick walk around and note any damage on or under the vehicle. If something looks suspicious or something feels odd when you are driving, the best thing to do is take it a mechanic. Have them do a check on the vehicle and get things corrected before severe weather hits. You don’t want to end up off the road because something broke and could have been easily fixed.

What To Do If You Get Stuck

There are plenty of times I’ve seen cars stuck and no one in them. I often wonder what happened to the drivers, where they went, and hope they are okay. The number one thing to remember if you get stuck and cannot self-recover is not to leave the vehicle. Most times, the elements are what end up killing people who leave their car and try to seek help.

If you’re uninjured, exit your vehicle and check to see if you can self-recovery or will need help. If you can safely self-recovery, then do so, but if not, it’s best to call for help. If you’re going to have to wait for a tow truck or someone to help you get unstuck, ensure your exhaust pipe is clear of any snow. If it’s snowing heavily, you may have to exit your vehicle frequently to ensure the exhaust is clear of snow.

If you have injuries, the best thing to do is call for help, make it clear you have injuries, and wait it out for emergency services to arrive. There’s no point in putting yourself in more danger by attempting to self-recover if you are injured.

Final Thoughts

What I’ve laid out is simple enough to follow, and most of us probably already carry the items mentioned and have the skill set necessary to survive getting stuck. Let me know in the comments what other skill sets would be beneficial, or gear might be a plus to have.

2016 SR5 4Runner Build Part 1

To me, 4Runners are like LEGO sets for adults. There is a vast number of aftermarket parts available for just about everything you can think of. They have a proven track record as being excellent  adventure rigs and have that Toyota reliability that isn’t found in many other vehicles.

Once we had our new 4Runner home, I started planning out what I wanted to do and the companies that had the goods to accomplish my plan. Below is the first in a planned few articles detailing what has already been done and what we plan to do with our 4Runner to make it usable to us both daily driver and as an adventure rig.

The Initial Plan

My initial plan had me doing a full build within a two-year timeframe. Pretty aggressive to me, especially considering the cost of doing everything. I also wanted to keep things as local to Michigan as possible. This proved to be tricky with some of the things I wanted to get. However, now that I’ve delayed some of it, I can work with Michigan local businesses to get what I want.

Once everything was planned, and parts were chosen, I set it aside for about a month to think it over. There were still some things I knew I was going to do right away, but the majority of it could wait until I felt I needed those items. My first run plan included the following items:

  • Victory 4×4 Front Bumper
  • Victory 4×4 Rear Swing Away Bumper
  • Victory 4×4 Roof Rack
  • Victory 4×4 Ladder
  • Victory 4×4 Under Armor
  • BFG KO2 Tires
  • Method 702 Wheels
  • Boss Strong 4Runner Storage Drawer
  • Roof Top Tent
  • Refrigerator and Slider
  • Genesis Offroad Dual Battery System
  • Vehicle Wrap

After laying everything out in a spreadsheet with cost, I started to decide what I would go with. That began to change the plan overall. This 4Runner still had to be my daily driver and get around town vehicle, so I started to wonder if having so much weight in bumpers and armor was going to be a good idea. I decided to go forward with a few things just to get started.

Suspension

First on the list was a lift that made the 4Runner comfortable to drive and would still function off-road. I did not want to break the bank on a suspension, so it had to fall within my price range as well. I ended up going with a Toytec 3 inch Aluma Series Boss Suspension Kit. The only option I did not get with the kit was the heavy-duty springs, something I wish I had done from the start.

 

The rear of the 4Runner does sag down some when fully loaded as I found out. It doesn’t change how the vehicle drives too much, but it is noticeable, at least it was to me compared with how it drove unloaded. It wasn’t alarming or concerning, but it’s certainly something for me to keep in the back of my mind.

Wheels & Tires

After having Expedition Vehicle Outfitters install the lift, tires were next on my list. I did not plan on replacing the OEM wheel with an offset wheel, so just the tires were necessary. We ended up going with the tried and true BFG KO2. They’ve been a proven good off and on-road tire that works well in all circumstances.

I planned to get an offset wheel to push the wheels out a bit. In the end, I decided not to do this to save on potential wear and failure points. I also did not want to do a body mount chop at this point. I stayed with the OEM wheel and went with the largest tire size I could fit, which was a 285/70/17. 

Internal Storage and Organization

The next major purchase was for some storage. Boss Strong Box had just released their single drawer 4Runner specific box, so I jumped on getting one. I also had a discount code to use for one via Fieldcraft Survival. This brought the price down to the point that was well below anything the competition could have offered. Short of building my own setup, which I am not prepared to do, this was the cheapest and best option to get me started.

I also picked up a Rago Fabrication center console panel set and an Expedition Essentials 4Runner specific mount. Both of these have been great to have. They both offer mounting options for all of the radios, phones, and tablets we end up using while out in the woods. Both are relatively easy installations, and I would highly recommend looking into them.

Vehicle Protection

The last bit of expensive stuff was to determine what sort of paint protection I was going to go with. This might seem silly, but I still like my vehicle to look decent. Plus, scratches everywhere would drive me nuts, especially on a newer vehicle. The plan upfront was to go with a vehicle wrap of some sort. The problem with this one was the cost to do it and the likelihood that it would get ruined by tight forest trails.

After doing some research, I came across Go Off-Road Armor Tech. Their solution was a simple one that I had seen done with Jeeps in the past. GOAT offers magnetic panels that cover the side of the vehicle from front to back. And the cost was well under what a vehicle wrap would cost at just over $500 for a full set. I’ve got a short write-up and review on it. You can check that out here.

Sleeping Situation

The last item I picked up this year was an unplanned one but well worth the expense. I managed to snag a Freespirit Recreation tri-layer rooftop tent for well under what they run brand new. I’ve only had one chance to use it this year, but it was much better than a ground tent option or even hammock camping.

This is just the beginning of getting this 4Runner set up for adventure. I’ve still got some more items to hopefully knock off the list over winter and before Spring hits.

My New Adventure Rig and Why I Chose It

A few years back, I wrote an article about why I chose a 2004 Suburban as my adventure rig. At the time, it was functional for usage as my daily driver and my adventure vehicle. It could haul my entire family to either the grocery store or out into the woods. It had its pros and cons for sure, but it was what worked at the time.

Fast forward to 2019, and my once-reliable Suburban started to have some significant problems. First, we had to have the entire rear differential replaced as it decided to eat itself at some point. At the time, I thought I would keep the vehicle and continue driving it, but I should have invested that money into a new vehicle.

After the differential replacement, little gremlins started appearing all over, and we ended up having to dump more money into several different repairs. After the third round of being in the shop, my wife had had enough and told me no more. She suggested getting something newer and more reliable.

This started generating ideas for what was next. We bought the Suburban because we needed something to transport five people. My older son has his own vehicle now, so that was no longer a factor. A downgrade in vehicle size was going to happen.

The Options

I started to write up lists of what was possible in terms of affordability, reliability, and availability of aftermarket parts. Those three things were the primary drivers in coming up with a list of vehicles, with reliability being the most important. Below is ultimately what I came up to start.

  • Jeep Gladiator
  • Chevy Colorado
  • Toyota Tundra
  • Toyota 4Runner
  • Toyota Tacoma

The Jeep Gladiator was making its presence known in the overlanding and off-road community, but the price was not appealing for me. Also, I’m not a huge Jeep guy, which put it at the bottom of the list. The Colorado was an enticing option until the reliability issues started to appear. Having owned two Chevy’s in the past ten years, I know it’s just a matter of time before problems start appearing.

That left the three Toyota options. We went to test drive each of them at our local Toyota dealership. Luckily they did not have a Tundra on the lot at the time, which probably saved me a considerable amount of money in car payment and fuel costs. Looking back now, it may have been the better option because we want to purchase a travel trailer at some point.

The Tacoma would have been a great dedicated adventure vehicle, and that’s honestly what I had been planning for. The problem we had was the size of the backseat. With two kids still in booster seats, it was definitely not big enough for their little legs. This left us with the option of the 4Runner, something I knew would work for what I wanted plus hauling the family. It also restarted my planning for the vehicle and what I wanted to do with it. 

 

In the end, we rolled out of the dealership with a black 2016 SR5 Premium 4Runner with 56,000 miles on it. The color wasn’t my first pick, but the price and mileage were good, and we didn’t want to pass it up. The other great thing was it was still stock and hadn’t been an adventure rig at any point. Overall, it checked all of the boxes I needed it to check to get it home and start the process of turning it into my adventure rig.

The Initial Build

The planning and research started over after I had been driving it for a few weeks. First on the list was a lift that made it comfortable to drive and would still function off-road. I did not want to break the bank on a suspension, so it had to fall within my price range as well. I ended up going with a Toytec 3 inch Aluma Series Boss Suspension Kit. The only option I did not get with the kit was the heavy-duty springs, something I wish I had done from the start.

After having Expedition Vehicle Outfitters install the lift, tires were next on my list. I did not plan on replacing the OEM wheel with an offset wheel, so just the tires were necessary. We ended up going with the tried and true BFG KO2. They’ve been a proven good off and on-road tire that works well in all circumstances.

The next major purchase was for some storage. Boss Strong Box had just released their single drawer 4Runner specific box, so I jumped on getting one. Their price was competitive enough with other systems that it was worth sacrificing certain options like a split drawer system. Plus, it’s an easy install that requires no drilling into the body, but instead uses the tiedown points in the cargo area.

Click here for some more detail on our 2016 SR5 4Runner.

Why It Works For Us

The biggest and most important thing is Toyota’s known reliability in their vehicles. After having dealt with almost a year of an unreliable vehicle, it’s good to know those types of costs shouldn’t be an issue for a while. We also went through with purchasing an extended warranty that should cover us for most problems that aren’t related to any modifications we made to the vehicle.

Fuel costs are also considerably better—our Suburban average $80-$100 per fill-up versus the $30-$40 for the 4Runner. When you’re using your vehicle as your daily driver, the lower costs make a difference month to month. Initially, the MPGs were higher as well but with a lift and larger tires that have dropped the overall number down a few MPGs.

I’ve been a fan of the 4Runner for some time now. Getting one was always high on my list, but I always assumed I would end up with an older 4th generation because of still needing to meet family travel requirements. I’m glad I went with the newer 5th generation because of its reliability, and I honestly love the styling on it. I think Toyota has surpassed other SUV manufacturers in that they aren’t going with how most car companies are styling their SUVs, which in my opinion, is terrible. I’m thrilled with the purchase, and I’m excited about the prospects of being able to have a build that suits our overall needs.

Go Offroad Armor Tech (GOAT) Magnetic Panels Review

When we purchased a 2016 SR5 4Runner, black wasn’t exactly the color I would have chosen. Having owned a black vehicle some years ago, I was well aware of how much it would show everything; dirt, water spots, and scratches. In order to offer some protection to the paint, my initial plan was to wrap the vehicle. However, the cost to do a full wrap didn’t seem practical to me. I did some more research on what I could do and came across Go Offroad Armor Tech (GOAT).

The biggest problem I’ve always had with being in the overland space is worrying about potential damage and getting scratches on my vehicle. It sounds ridiculous, but that always bothers me. Maybe it’s a bit of OCD on my part, but that’s the truth of it. The problem is that it’s bound to happen regardless of how hard you try to avoid those branches or rocks or whatever you might be driving through.

GOAT offers a simple solution in the form of magnetic panels to keep the side of your 4Runner, Tacoma, or FJ Cruiser protected from branches or flying debris that would otherwise cause damage. 

You can decide to have plain panels done up, or GOAT offers a wide variety of excellent designs. They’re also super easy to work with if you want something custom done. You can also get the panels in either a matte or gloss version.

Installation

The 4Runner set comes shipped in a massive tube on two gigantic sheets for the left and right side of the vehicle. Once you pull everything apart, there are twenty total pieces to cover your vehicle from the front fender to the rear fender. 

GOAT recommends not installing them until it’s at least 60 degrees outside, so they are a bit more pliable. I would also recommend having a second set of hands available for some of the larger pieces to make it a little easier.

The front and rear bumpers do not have any coverage being a non-metallic surface. The hood has no coverage either because of heat issues, and the rear cargo door doesn’t have any pieces either because of the amount that would be necessary.

Installation on the first go-around is going to take you the longest amount of time. If you can’t remember where the pieces go, I would recommend leaving the panels in the sheet until you are ready to put them. Or, take a picture of each piece so you can see where they go.

 

 

After the first couple of times, they were a breeze to put on, and I had no issues remembering which piece went where. The problem then became making sure they were lined up correctly. This isn’t an issue with the panels; it’s more of me wanting to have them look straight and match up with the vehicle lines. 

Usage

I ordered my set in January, and it arrived pretty quickly within a few weeks. At the time, I had to wait for a nice enough day in March before I could put the panels on. As soon as I thought it was warm enough to, I went ahead and installed them.

After that install, the weather here turned back to winter, and I was able to drive with them on through some rain, sleet, and snow for a few weeks before taking them back off. I was very pleased with how they held up once it got cold again. I was fully expecting to get home from work one day and find a piece that had come off. That was not the case.

After waiting a few months, I was finally able to test them out on the trail. This is where they really come in handy. On this particular trip, we ended up in some very tight and brush filled sections that would have otherwise left some good scratches on my vehicle. 

At one point, I can recall a small tree running down the side of the vehicle and even hitting the rear of the vehicle. Where a dent or good-sized paint chip would have probably been, there was nothing.

The GOAT armor for sure did its job on the trail and, to me, was well worth the money. Once I was back to camp, I was able to see how much punishment it took. There were still some visible scratches where trees hit gaps in the panels, the fenders (which aren’t covered), and the sides of the roof where my tent did not cover.

Is It Worth It?

While it isn’t a 100% coverage solution, it’s enough to help protect the vehicle paint and retain some value. The only spot I wish had a panel was the gas filler door. For some reason, this wasn’t included in the 4Runner set, but I have seen an FJ Cruiser set that did include one. 

Storing them can also be a pain once you pull them off (GOAT recommends every two weeks). I initially rolled mine up and put them in my Boss Strong storage drawer. This turned out to be not a good idea when I wanted to put them on again. I had to reform some of the panels to be flat and not curve when on. The best option is to store them flat in order to retain their shape.

All in all, I am happy with my set of GOAT panels. The cost of them at just over $500 shipped is well within a budget instead of spending thousands on a vehicle wrap that has more potential to get ruined. That cost also allows you to have options on multiple designs you might want to swap out. I would highly recommend getting a set if you own a Toyota and are after some protection.

Carista Adapter and Application Review

Carista exists in a space that is flooded by options. You can get on Amazon and look for an OBD2 reader and easily find one under $20. Pair it with certain applications and you have a way to diagnose what’s wrong with your vehicle at home.

Where the Carista adapter stands out though, is in its ability to let you customize your vehicle. Having upgraded from a 2004 Suburban to a 2016 4Runner recently, this was something new to me. In the past with my Suburban, I simply used an OBD2 adapter to tell me what was wrong with it. Now, however, I can use Carista to change certain options on my 4Runner.

Want the windows to all roll down when you unlock the car? Done. Don’t need the eco fuel economy bar on the dash? Done. The options are plentiful and most of them I have no idea what they do. Some are obvious and some are not. And some are listed that don’t even apply to my particular model.

Installation of the adapter is simple, just plug it into the OBD2 port on your vehicle. Download the required application for either Android or IOS and pair the adapter with the app. Once that’s done you can get some basic diagnostic and customization features. Pairing the adapter and the app takes a few minutes each time you start the application.

To unlock all of the features does require a yearly subscription of $40. This is on top of the $30 for the adapter itself. You can forgo the $40 subscription part, however, and use the adapter with a good number of other programs that list out vehicle information and diagnostics. I recommend the Torque app, while not the prettiest looking, it does offer a huge amount of information.

The application itself is simple to use and the learning curve is low. The interface is clean and easy to navigate with only three options being available. The tricky part is understanding what each customization option does and that will take some testing. The options for customization only differ from a timed option or a simple on/off option. 

The only other problem I’ve had is using the Carista adapter with the Torque app for live readouts. The adapter works fine with Torque. The problem is re-connecting it with Carista. The adapter won’t play nicely with both applications at the same time. So you will end up having to re-establish the connection with one or the other depending on which application you’re using at the time.

In all honesty, this isn’t something for everyone. If you have an older model vehicle, check the Carista website to see if your vehicle is even compatible. As an example, my Suburban was only able to use basic diagnostics features, basic service features, and no customization options. Whereas our 4Runner has the ability to use all of the options. It’s a great, inexpensive tool to have if you have a year model that works with it.