Toyota—it’s a brand that took the truck market by surprise. When these small haulers first landed in North America during the early 1970s, they weren’t given the same respect as their Ford and Chevy counterparts. Most people would laugh if you dared to take one deep into the woods or too far off-road. Over time, however, Toyota proved the doubters wrong, rising to the top of the list as a go-to brand for dependable and rugged off-road performance. And the Toyota 4Runner, a fan favorite nearly since its introduction, is no exception.
Considered by many as the first official SUV, the Toyota 4Runner essentially defined an entire class of vehicles. It inspired a new generation of auto making and lives on as a coveted off-roader. Right now, you could hit the local classifieds and find 20-year-old versions fetching almost $10,000. People want them, even in poor condition, because regardless of the small engine displacement and light foot print, they flat out perform. So if you’ve been lucky enough to snag a Toyota 4Runner in good shape, here are some things to consider when converting it into the old school off-roading machine of your dreams.
First, you should get to know your vehicle—and that means a little history lesson. Did you know that the Toyota 4Runner’s lineage starts with a partnership between Toyota and Winnebago? Jack Safro, a Toyota salesman from Wisconsin, gets credit for making the match and laying the groundwork for the beloved off-roader.
The idea was to give the Toyota pickup truck an enclosed space over the bed, extending the cabin all the way to the rear bumper. Toyota sent some bare bones models to Winnebago, who fabricated the canopies, and the model was marketed as the Toyota Trekker. Only 1,500 were made but they all sold, signaling to Toyota that they just might be onto something. By mid-1984, the first Toyota 4Runner was unveiled with a removable fiberglass cap, 4WD, solid front axle, and dependable inline-four engine.
As overlanding sees a bump in popularity again, it feels only natural that Winnebago, a company with a history of building vehicles to survive off-grid, can claim involvement in the development of one of the trend’s leading vehicles. There’s no doubt that the off-road division is dominated by pick-up trucks and Jeeps, but overlanding is what the Toyota 4Runner was bred for. (This is why when you head over to the 2018 Overland Expo East this month you’ll see so many of them on display.)
So the Toyota 4Runner gains points for its unique birth and strong genes; but even the best of us have our faults. Experienced overlanders will tell you that proper cargo management is vital to surviving for long periods of time deep off-road. And in all honesty, the 4Runner’s cramped cargo area makes a poor living space. So if you plan to turn this bad boy into a dedicated off-the-grid vehicle, you need to figure out the best way to lug along gear and supplies.
One very popular modification is to fit the rig with a roof tent, like those offered by Tuff Stuff Overland, so the rear can be used for storage. Another creative take on the manner is to fit the rear of the bed with custom-made cargo solutions. Many overlanding with a Toyota 4Runner will build a platform for sleeping, with storage units underneath. To maximize storage space even further, consider the use of a roof rack, especially for large cargo. ARB, Thule, Rhino Rack, Surco, and several other companies manufacture dependable aftermarket roof racks well-suited for the task.
The 4Runner is capable so you can surely slap on some cargo bins and head out in stock condition, but for those who are looking for some surrious adventure travel, an upgraded suspension is a must-have. The Toyota 4Runner lives on a light truck platform. This means that the factory spec suspension is only capable of managing so much weight. When you start adding gear and mods, it’s easy to weigh down the suspension. Besides, we saw you eyeing up those bigger tires and you can’t pull the trigger on that purchase without selecting a proper lift kit.
Old Man Emu deserves a plug here. The company builds premium quality lift kit systems that overhaul nearly all the weak points of the Toyota 4Runner suspension. If you plan on straight up off-roading, these kits alone are more than capable of showing the rough terrain who’s boss. When loading the rig up with heavy gear for overlanding, it’s wise to use a company like Bilstein shocks to combat the additional weight with stiffer suspension. Note that this can affect ride quality, but it’s a matter of how much stress the shocks will be under, so you may have to toy with this a bit during your build process.
The 4Runner fitted with overlanding gear and a proper lift may be plenty capable, but the fact of the matter is that the long belly of the beast is exposed. Toyota’s are great climbers but when you snag yourself on a steep incline, you can find that the rockers and undercarriage are taking a serious beating. If you plan on stepping into the wilderness with your Toyota 4Runner, you should consider the use of some rock sliders to try and keep yourself from crippling the rocker panels.
Let’s not forget about the guts either. If the rocker panels are in danger, it’s safe to say the mechanical components are starting to sweat. Not to worry though, as you can let them rest easy with the use of skid plates. Sure, these units may only be able to take a few serious hits but it’s better than busting up parts like your oil pan.
The Toyota 4Runner is a nimble platform, meaning it can handle some questionably tight trails. But this means you’ll need adequate protection to the front end. When you started this love affair with the 4Runner, scouring the internet for the perfect used model for your off-road needs, you may have noticed the popularity of stinger-type bumpers.
According to Fab Fours, this design serves two important functions on any off-roading truck. “[The] main purpose is to prevent a rollover caused by shifting vehicle weight when descending a steep incline. Should an off-road truck end up off balanced to the point where a nose rollover becomes imminent, the stinger bar interferes. Secondarily, heavy duty steel bumpers, like stinger bumpers, provide important protection for the front of the vehicle, preventing damage to the radiator and the entire nose.” It’s easy to see why they make a great choice for rowdy Toyota 4Runner drivers who like to adventure into uncharted territory.
Better yet, these bumpers come in configurations that still allow for the use of winches and auxiliary lighting. The styling may not be for everyone, but it’s safe to say looking goofy right-side-up is better than looking foolish upside down.
Power to Pull
Unless you have a TRD 4Runner, the engine on your Toyota is probably a bit under-powered. Sure, that upgraded suspension is helping, but with all the additional weight you’ll want some additional power too. Luckily, Toyota engines respond well to such modifications. With just a tuner and some exhaust and intake work, you can liven that bad boy up.
You should also take a look at the differential gear. Toyotas come with low gears but if your 4Runner is feeling sluggish, you can change things for the better with lower gear ratios. While you’re in the engine bay and diff housing, you can consider locker carriers and a snorkel. These two mods alone will transform a Toyota 4Runner from an already-capable SUV into an off-road dominator.
No Body Shame Here
We love the Toyota 4Runner, even in stock form. But for true off-roading or overlanding success, modifications are necessary. While this model in particular rolled off the assembly line ready to rumble, things change when you’re far out in the wilderness, with only survival skills for company. The 4Runner has a lot to offer—especially for those who appreciate a good build project. With good bones, a solid reputation, and room for modest improvement, some may say it is the ultimate platform for off-grid adventures. So, what are you waiting for… ready to purchase, wrench, and explore?