February 11, 2014

My Toyota Camper

A year ago, I started fantasizing about campers other than my VW Syncro.  It felt adulterous. I had been living in it for a year and half at this point and the cost of maintenance was catching up to me.   Syncro’s are pretty amazing vans.  Mine had an Audi engine, front and rear locking differentials and could go any where I wanted it.  The problem was reliability.   Only 300o were ever imported to the US, and very few people know how to work on them.  Many times a minor break down such as a fuel pump or a starter turned into a week long search for a mechanic that was willing to work on it let a lone had access to the right parts.  My van was made in 1987 and had 292 miles on it when I bought it.  With the right maintenance,  It will keep working forever,  but my regiment of 40k miles per year were wearing on the car.  From afar, VW van’s are very romantic.  Living in one is a totally different story.

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many good alternatives to a Syncro in terms of capability, size and efficiently.  Sportsmobile’s weigh twice as much and cost between $50-100k.  Depending on the, year there are problems with the Diesel engines and the MPG are hard to swallow.  Eurovans are plagued with electronic issues and never come in 4wd.  A full size truck and camper is way to big. I wanted something, I could parallel park in a city and make my way around narrow forest service roads. Eventually, I settled on a Toyota Tacoma and a poptop camper.

Go to a remote area for an activity like surfing, snowboarding or climbing and you’ll likely see a Toyota truck with a pop top camper.  Unlike a rare German 4×4, the parts are ubiquitous and any garage in the world can work on them.   Sure they aren’t as “c00l” as a VW, but one break down in the Mojave desert cured me with my fixation of how cool my Syncro was.

After doing a bunch of research on forums like Wander the West and The Expedition Portal, I focused my attention on a Four Wheel PopTop camper.  All though not the fanciest,  they have been making campers for 40 years and have a cult following of people that use theirs in harsh situations.  To maximize usable space,  I decided to remove the stock bed and put an aluminum flatbed on the truck.  This would allow for the side entry I loved about my van, as well as a lower center of gravity and increased storage around the wheel wells.   On a tip from a friend,  I got in touch with AT Overland in Prescott, Arizona and they helped design, source parts and work with Four Wheel to build the camper.  The whole process from conception of the idea to delivery of the finished product in Prescott took eight months.

The ruberized canvas walls have an insulative layer that helps with condensation and keeps the camper warm in cold temperatures.

The camper is based off of a 2013 Toyota Tacoma Access Cab.  The truck has a V6, six speed manual and the off road package.  I upgraded the truck with a 2-inch lift from Old Man Emu, an ARB Bumper, Warn Winch,  Airflow Snorkel, Firestone airbags in the back and a custom rear leaf set up from Deaver in Orange County.

Parked in Baja on the campers maiden voyage last summer.

When popped, the bed slides out to roughly the size of a Kingsize.

Extra fuel storage and some badges of honor from the road. Between the fuel cans are two Max Trax for putting under the tires in sticky situations.

AT Overland fabricated 4 Lockable aluminum boxes under the flatbed for extra storage room.

A 20,000 BTU furnace keeps me the camper warm during cold nights.  This opened up a ton of possibilities for me.

Compared, to my Syncro, the Four Wheel Camper feels like a Four Seasons.  It has an electric fridge (powered by two marine batteries and 160w panel) a two burner stove (two 10 pound cylinders) a furnace (runs off the propane and 20 gallons of freshwater and an outdoor shower.

This month marks the two and half year mark for living out of my vehicle.  It’s flown by.  My initial plan to spend a year on the road has morphed into a way of life.  I love living out of a small space.  It forces me to limit my possessions and conscious of the mess I make.  Instead of buying something when I’m bored,  I travel to a new place.  My new camper gives me piece of mind to continue my travels .  I’m hoping to have it for twenty years.

Here are some more links,

Gone Tomorrow (Ian Durkin),

AT Overland,

Four Wheel Campers.

38 Comments



  • Kellz
    February 11 , 2014

    What do you do for money dude?


  • John
    February 11 , 2014

    You mentioned how much the Sportsmobile cost a fortune, but with all the upgrades to your vehicle it sounds like you spend quite a bit. If you don’t mind me asking, I was wondering how much it cost to upgrade your truck to the specifications you wanted? I have a Nissan Frontier that is very similar in make to your Tacoma and I am just thinking about the prices of camper, lifting it…etc.


  • February 11 , 2014

    Keliz,
    I do free lance photo editing and art directing work. I did stuff for patagonia and with conde naste.

    John,
    The flatbed and boxes were the spendies part, Other than the camper. the other stuff, like suspension, bumper, winch werent that bad. Since its my home, I wanted to maximize space. Id recommend getting a slide in camper though. Something like a four wheel camper eagle.

    foster


  • nick tucker
    February 11 , 2014

    Foster, I connect with your nomadic way of life. I too, like living in a small space and the open road. I have missed it ever since the walk. I feel as though I will return one day.

    Did you ever look into those Tiny Houses that can fit into the bed of trucks? Those always appealed to me. Love what you’re doing man. Keep it up.


  • andrew
    February 11 , 2014

    As much as I hated to see the VW go, I totally agree with your decision. I was so hellbent on buying a westie, my dad who used to be a vw mechanic when he was younger tried his best to warn me about getting one. Small parts and fixes could end up costing you a fortune. When I saw you got your truck that made me think about other options that were reasonable for a college kid with a limited budget. I settled on a mint 75 toyota chinook for a fraction of the price and a million times the reliability. Toyota parts especially older ones, are so abundant and cheap it’s a way better buy than Syncros. The options on toyotas are endless, my end game is to make it a 4×4, something that I hear can be done in about a weekend for less than a grand.
    Nice work as always.


  • matt
    February 11 , 2014

    I think you have the perfect setup for your situation.

    It’s too bad no one has run with what VW left on the table after dropping the camper van in the US. For now I have to stick with my Vanagon Westy (2WD, so the maintenance has been a bit more tolerable) until some other manufacturer starts paying attention to what quite a lot of people, as far as I can tell, are after.


  • Susan
    February 11 , 2014

    What is the black thing coming out of the hood of your truck on the passenger side?


  • Simpn
    February 11 , 2014

    The first thing that strikes me about your story is the lack of basic mechanical competence in the rigs you drive, live in, rely on every day. A real dichotomy between your independance and self reliance on the road and your lack of knowledge about your rigs you drive.
    Now look at me, obsessing over tire sizes and gear ratios at my kitchen table after a day of work that did not interest me at all. “Planning”, no dreaming of that trip next year. Same trip I planned last year but have yet to take.
    If you’ re ever in Portland, Ore get in touch. I can teach you how to change a fuel pump and you can drag my ass out of town.


  • February 11 , 2014

    Nice breakdown Foster. I certainly think you made the right call to upgrade. Gotta get on one of your trips here sometime soon!


  • Scott
    February 11 , 2014

    Very nice! It looks like all the work was worth it. Your comment about the “wealthy dentist” was an unfortunate bit of reverse snobbery. Not everyone has the abilities and connections that you have that allow you to play climbing/skiing/surfing dirtbag full time. Most people with standard jobs and families have to spend a fair amount of money to do on weekends what you do full time. I enjoy following your blog and I feel you would be better served by resisting the impulse to judge.


  • Ryan
    February 11 , 2014

    Hey I am really impressed with your setup. It is exactly what I have in mind. I am preparing to start buying a vehicle and supplies to start my trip. My question is, what is your monthly budget like? How much money do you need to make to stay on the road. I don’t overspend and am very frugal but would like a reference point. I read in a post above you do freelance photo editing. How did you get into that and make a name for yourself? Do you have a degree or education in photography or editing? Or did you teach yourself? I’m basically wondering how you have a job that allows you to have work and make money virtually anywhere?


  • February 11 , 2014

    Susan,
    the black thing is a snorkle for air filtration.

    Scott,
    Growing up in the Columbia River Gorge, I’d see a bunch of weekend warriors that headed out to Hood River and play. Theirs no correct work life balance. I agree about judging.

    Simpn,
    The syncro was its own animal. Pretty much everything about it was specific to Syncros. The starter was really hard to get at. it required dropping the skid plates and taking off the wheels. I went through 5 starters in 4 weeks before a simple problem was found. The engine wasn’t stock, it was converted to an 2.0L audi by the first owner. I grew up tinkering with engines with small engines. The syncro was to much.

    Matt,
    Its a real shame that the RV market in the US went mega in the 90s and the 00s. When the baby boomers start dieing in a serious way, those companies will be fucked. Hopefully a company will come around. VW still makes camper in Europe but they are insanely expensive. Hopefully an america or Japanese companies steps up.

    Andrew,
    Chinooks are amazing. they were the inspiration for my set up. Hows it running?

    Nick,
    ive seen a lot of those slide in campers but the problem is that they dont really hold up well off road. I want this to be painfully reliable.

    foster


  • February 11 , 2014

    I agree about the judging also…….


  • February 11 , 2014

    Allen,
    I agree. Took it out. Your van is awesome…
    foster


  • Jim
    February 11 , 2014

    Why do you recommend a slide in camper rather than a UTE model? How do you access your surf boards on the roof ? What is the longest surfboard you can fit inside of the camper with the top down?


  • February 11 , 2014

    Jim,
    I love my ute and swear by it. For a full time it makes sense. For me the advantages in space were worth the cost. If you go with a slide in, you’ll be able to do it for a lot cheeper. I access the surfboards from steps mounted on the side of the camper. I’ve had 5 on there including 3 long boards. as for inside, I have fit a 6’5 inside and ofter travel with a few six boards sidewise.

    foster


  • Andrew
    February 11 , 2014

    My Chinook runs like a top, like expected from those 20rs. I just put a new weber racing carb on to give it a little boost. Being smog exempt goes a long way…


  • andrew
    February 11 , 2014

    Been curious about your new rig. Thanks for sharing the details. Been following your adventures since I stumbled upon your Nikes reseller story. I’ve got family in Portland Maine and lived there for a little while last year after six years in SF. Happy to be back in California myself, in Venice, taking up surfing and rolling my ’88 Volvo 240dl wagon on weekend camping trips. Cool blog, man.


  • conway
    February 12 , 2014

    loved this breakdown…super nerdin’ out on the details. your posts are an inspired distraction from my daily life (which i love). my family and i take breaks from nyc, and kick it up at our fishing shack in the catskills every weekend. having one set spot works for us, with kids in school and stuff, but i can see a more mobile program down the road. keep on posting this good stuff, and inspiring our escape plan.


  • February 12 , 2014

    Andrew,
    I learned to drive on a volvo 240dl wagon. I’ve day dreamed about putting a pop top from a westy on it.

    Conway,
    thanks man, mobile architecture is the way to go! the catskills are beautiful. i used to escape there when i lived in nyc.

    foster


  • andrew
    February 12 , 2014

    foster,

    Rad idea on the westy pop top for the 240dl. Shoot me a note if you need a place to park by the water in LA, I’ve got extra parking a few hundred feet from the Venice pier. Closeout city usually but fun on the right days.

    andrew


  • TA
    February 12 , 2014

    Can you tell me what wheels you are running?


  • Alexandra
    February 12 , 2014

    Do you think it’s possible for someone to live on the road without doing freelance work like you do? What do the others do that you travel with? As cheap a lifestyle as is it compared to us stationary folk, I feel like it’s a gift granted to only the fortunate few who can find that ever elusive freelance work.

    Anyway, cheers! This is my fave read.


  • Brady J
    February 13 , 2014

    foster,

    Good on ya. I had a 4×4 T100 with an 8 ft bed, where I welded a hammock hanger in the back. Yes, it was magical, no I didn’t figure out how to fund constant tripping. Hopefully my niche will come.

    Do you have a set weekly/monthly destination, or do you just wander to another site within a certain range on a whim? What sort of routine do you start when you arrive? (go for a walk, meet the neighbors, answer emails, edit photos, level the rig, etc.)

    Brady Jay


  • TA
    February 13 , 2014

    What a fantastic rig!
    I am about to pick up a new Tacoma and I have been looking for classic, old-school steel wheels like you are running and not having a lot of luck. Do you remember where you got yours, brand, etc.?
    Thanks!

    TA


  • February 13 , 2014

    hey man,
    dig the visions you portray in that brain of yours, rad work you’ve done here… I’m wondering what you know (or if you know anything) about dodge ram vans. I’ve been looking at the short body 1500′s because of their 3.9L v6 for fuel economy and compact dimensions while still having a pretty good amount of cargo space for my boards and all. you mention reliability a lot in this post and the main reason for converting to your toyota, and thats my main concern when making this purchase. I’m in my early 20′s and as broke as i ever plan to be so having to pay a shitload for maintenance will definitely put a damper on my travels and creative ventures. Thanks for the input..


  • alex
    February 13 , 2014

    oh, one more thing haha.. do you develop your own film on the road?


  • Jan
    February 13 , 2014

    Hey Foster

    (my comment from two days ago got deleted, it seems)

    I just wanted to say that I’m pretty happy with my Eurovan (with the pop-up top) because it’s great in the city and for camping/surfing. I have no issues with the electronics and never had any with my previous Eurovan either.

    Only thing I miss in my van is an air-heating system. That’s why I want to get a furnace for colder nights in the mountains. What kind of furnace would you recommend?

    I have the same thoughts every time I see a Sportsmobile, but I do agree about the judging part. (some of us weekend warriors sure aren’t the subtle type though…)

    Jan


  • February 13 , 2014

    i love the insight and details in this explanation! really shows you value life on the road, not just being “cool”. though i love VW vans, i really see the upside of doing this. also, thanks for being a constant source of inspiration! always value seeing life through your lens.
    cheers!


  • February 13 , 2014

    Wow. That’s one awesome camper. It’s great to have that kind of ride because you can travel anywhere with the comforts of home. I would rather have one like your Toyota Camper than any other sports car.


  • K
    February 14 , 2014

    Baaah…reading about stuff like that just puts me into daydreaming mode :)


  • Jordan
    February 16 , 2014

    scotty wittlake was my hero growing up.


  • February 20 , 2014

    The best cars, trucks and bikes that work and are easy to maintain are rarely cool. While the cool stuff is almost always a pain in the butt. This extends outside of transportation to most of life. Love your new wheels.


  • Shaun
    February 20 , 2014

    Love the rig, and your photos. Is there a technique or filter that you apply to get the subdued look of your photos?


  • February 21 , 2014

    Some of my best memories are of our van travels….it’s so strange to see only 3000 VW syncro’s were imported to America. In England we obviously have loads of VW vans in fact sometimes we are the only van in the car park that isn’t one. We have a Transit Van made into a camper (so much less cool over here) but it has more space and is way cheaper.
    We did travel to Morocco in a 1972 VW bus though it was the best adventure I love reading your blog it reminds me of our travels, and your new camper looks ace! I hope to do a van trip in America one day.


  • February 24 , 2014

    What a great experience! I love to travel but I’m not dedicated enough to embrace full adventure living. Enjoy reading your posts and living vicariously through you!


  • Foster
    February 25 , 2014

    Great rig, love your photos and stories. I’m planning a year of wandering myself, but mostly by bicycle or backpacking. Wish I was a surfer.

    When you say you do photo editing and art direction, are you able to do that out of your rig? Do you go somewhere to work?

    On a random note, my name is Foster too, and I’ve been living in Portland for 20 years. I rarely meet or read about anyone else with that first name. Enjoy!


  • February 27 , 2014

    What an amazing set up. We’d love to see your new wheels here in the Great Smoky Mountains!