Despite the trend being overdone, misunderstood, and a little too social-media centric, I’m broadly in favor of the current adventure vehicle craze. In my part of San Diego, you can’t walk a block without seeing a luxury-condo-spec Sprinter, a loaded-up Tacoma with a bed camper, or a Gladiator decorated with countless recovery tools and spare gas cans. They all seem to be phenomenal tools for exploring, but many are lousy for adventuring for three reasons. They’re too expensive, too nice, and too capable to make it a rewarding challenge.
Perhaps most don’t want a challenge. I’d suggest they find another hobby. I mean that without malice and, in fact, with deep personal sympathy.
A proper adventure should require serious planning, audacity in some measure, and pushed limits. As a result they are expensive, time-consuming, exhausting, and risky. Until you know how to calculate those risks, the only way to grow safely is to lower the stakes. That’s why I’m a believer in the shitbox adventure rig.
The trouble with a good adventure rig is, of course, how good it is. A low-mileage 4Runner with crawl control and lockers will scurry up most trails without hesitation, which means you never have to learn how to tackle an obstacle at the far reaches of your vehicle’s capabilities. It’ll do so reliably for years, becoming so trusty that you never have to plan around breakdowns. And it’ll do so while hauling a variety of purpose-built overlanding gadgets that ensure running water, cold drinks, hot food, and great sleep.
In short, it’ll make sure you don’t learn anything from the vehicle side of the experience. When there finally is a problem, you’ll realize years of problem-free “adventures” have left you entirely unprepared for fixing them. If by some unlucky star you end up facing a surprise storm, a blocked trail, or a dead battery, you’re unlikely to have the tools, experience, or problem-solving ability you need.
You haven’t been relying on yourself, you’ve been relying on your rig.
To solve for this, I’ve bought a 2001 Chevy Tahoe that I can’t wholly rely on. It’s a Chevy truck without rust, so it’s unlikely to strand me often, but it’s far from factory fresh. The truck has over 200,000 miles on it, or so I’m told, but I can’t be sure because the odometer doesn’t work. The window motor on the back right door doesn’t go up or down; the one on the left does, but that one doesn’t have a switch. The passenger-side rear door handle is also broken and, as I discovered after replacing it, the internal part that links it to the mechanism is gone. The air conditioning never gets cold and blows from the main vents regardless of what you select on the dial. One rear seatbelt doesn‘t come out, another one never goes all the way back in. The third row is gone, the windshield is cracked, and the back left tire deflated within a week of purchase.
And I couldn’t care less. The 5.3-liter V-8 still pulls with righteous anger, the transmission feels fresh from a claimed rebuild, and the 4×4 system engages without issue. It’ll swallow the gear and people I want to bring and—now that I’ve put a set of Firestone Destination XT tires on it—get us to just about any part of America, regardless of weather. If it does break, it’s simple enough to patch together on a roadside, and common enough to be worked on anywhere, by anyone.
I’m attempting to prove that. I have almost no experience wrenching but, armed with a starter toolbox courtesy of GearWrench, I’ve started to tinker with the Tahoe. As of now I’m focusing on simple jobs—propping the broken window, fixing the door handle, replacing the climate control blend door actuators—but everything looks so simple that I’ll soon summon the confidence to attack bigger jobs. First, though, I might get a full health report from a competent shop, both to figure out what to prioritize and to handle any work that requires a lift. (Editor’s Note: Some buyers have a used car inspected before purchasing it. We call these people “normal” or even “wise.”)
Even if I spend $2000—a tough feat when parts are this cheap and plentiful—I’d still be in less than $5000 deep on a rust-free truck with great all-terrains and an engine that’s always worth fixing. Crucially, though, I will have to rely on myself as much as the truck. Instead of charging headfirst into the backcountry, I’ll tip toe my way out of my comfort zone. The first five-hundred mile camping trip is already done, with a one-mile section on unmaintained but easy dirt. The next trip will likely push deeper into the dirt, then onto rocks, but still within hiking distance of civilization.
True days-away-from-civilization trips won’t start until I’ve handled bush repairs, recoveries, and adverse weather on my own. Any cosmetic damage along the way won’t matter because the truck barely has paint to protect, and any bigger damage will be to a $2500 beater rather than a $50,000 investment. Since I didn’t spend all of my budget on the rig, I also have savings left in case I need an emergency recovery, hotel stay, or big-ticket repair. The limiting factor for now is time as, like most Americans, I can’t consistently take week-long off-grid trips. When I eventually work my way up to one, it’ll be with other vehicles for redundancy, emergency supplies for getting stranded, and emergency satellite communicators to call for help. I’ll set out not for the most ambitious place I know I can reach, but the most ambitious place I think I can reach.
That is the goal. But there’s no rush to get there. Adventuring isn’t about cutting a check to the car manufacturer or upfitter who solves every problem for you. It’s about encountering problems, learning which ones you like solving, and solving them. Not finding new views, but earning them, through ingenuity, preparation, and gumption. A vehicle that gets you there without fuss or difficulty is a helicopter. A vehicle that gets there through thoughtful preparation, limit-pushing terrain, and sheer force of will is an adventure rig. After all, if my dried-up worn-out Tahoe ever gets to the summit of a 13,000-foot mountain or the top of a treacherous canyon or the gates of the Arctic, it’ll be because I got it there.
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