Finding adventures with my favorite person and my 4Runner.
Former active duty Marine who went from 170 lbs to 328 lbs and decided that he had to change his life or die. He lost 130 lbs in 1 year through Whole30 and adopting the Paleo Diet without doing any exercise at all. Since starting running, he's lost an additional 20 lbs and is comfortably back in the 170 lbs range. He is a Warrant Officer in the Army National Guard and writes multiple blogs about topics he is passionate about.
Our big trip is coming up in one week. Our route will take us all the way up to the top of Montana and back down again. We will be traveling up through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona.
Sherry has made reservations for us along the way at various National Forests and state parks, and we have purchased the appropriate off-road permits where applicable.
We’ve been preparing for this trip all summer, and the last overlanding trip we made was to test our loadout and was our last dry run before the big trip. We learned a few valuable lessons, and we’ve already made some changes leading up to next week including how we load the cargo area in a way that keeps items from falling forward in the event of hard braking (learned this the hard way), and also found a better way to load up the cargo area that utilizes the space better. We also learned that it’s necessary to have a smaller container that holds lunch support items like plates, forks, knives, napkins, and a cutting board so we don’t have to unload our kitchen box every time we stop for lunch (which, in our optimized load plan, is at the bottom of all the items we pack in).
Sherry already has all her clothes packed and ready to go, while I’ve been concentrating my efforts on preparing the logistics of the vehicle and all the camping equipment. I will be taking the Gunship in for an oil change and tire rotation next week as it’s just about due (about 300 miles early) and I’d rather do it before than after the trip.
I will begin packing up my clothes early next week. I used to travel a lot for work, so I have a pretty good workflow as it pertains to packing up. I also use checklists, and I’ve been working on mine for weeks to ensure I have thought of everything. Of course, I am certain that a few things will have slipped through the cracks, but the intention is to try to reduce the number of things I need to buy on the road once we get going. If I can make it for the entire two-week period without having to buy anything to supplement our loadout, then I’ll be happy.
I know that through this two-week trip, Sherry and I will learn a lot about Overlanding, our loadout, and we will optimize further. I’m also certain that when we’re done, we will have identified areas where we can eliminate or down-size certain items while also finding areas to improve in. That’s part of the fun of Overlanding: finding your optimal setup. What works for me may not always work for you, and vice-versa. That’s why there are so many different builds out there.
I am looking forward to being out in nature, seeing amazing sights, and spending time with my favorite person on the planet. We always have such a great time together, and this will be a great time for us to work together in a way we rarely have to. Setting up and tearing down camp is definitely a two-person job, and we have our roles and our rhythm to perfect. Oh, and we will need to take pictures. Lots of pictures.
This review is uncompensated and unsponsored. We purchased our Tuff Stuff Overland Roof Top Tent at full-price.
Last weekend, Sherry and I got a chance to finally test out our brand new Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent. We left Houston knowing it was going to be a very hot day, and we stopped at a favorite winery to pickup some wine and to have a long lunch. We then drove to San Antonio where we were greeted by a locked gate. We were unaware that the gate would be closed and that we were supposed to get a gate code to get into our reserved campsite. We then headed to Marble Falls, just West of Austin, to the Hidden Falls Adventure Park where we were able to quickly make a reservation for a primitive campsite. The park was very nice to allow us to camp there; they are not a campsite, but an adventure park with campsites. It was a bit pricey, but worth it. We wanted to test out the new tent and our campsite setup one last time before our big two-week trip in September, and this was our last chance.
We arrived just after sundown, and by the time we got out to our campsite, it was getting dark very fast. Sherry and I divided the labor: I setup the Alpha and a tarp to cover our eating area while Sherry got the kitchen setup and food prepared. It was still pretty hot outside (it was over 100 degrees just hours earlier), so I decided to pull the rain fly up over the tent to allow the heat to escape through the roof screen opening.
The Alpha was very easy to setup, and I had it completely ready to go within about 4 minutes. I connected one of our solar generators to the LED lights, and between the light inside the tent and underneath, we had a lot of light for our campsite.
After our very late dinner, we got into the tent and prepared for our first night of sleep. We found the tent to be very spacious; both Sherry and I had our backpacks in the tent with us as well as our footwear. We were both easily able to undress and get comfortable. The padding of the mattress was firm (very much to my liking) and held us nicely without any bottoming out. My wife found it to be a little too firm for her, but she said she got used to it rather quickly. She said in the future, if it’s still too hard for her, she can always air up an air mattress to make it softer for her.
With all the flaps secured and open coupled with two small USB fans we had, we were able to rest comfortably until around 4 am when the temperature dropped to around 74 degrees. A constant breeze also helped to keep us comfortable, and the generous screen-covered openings of the Alpha ensured that air circulated nicely.
There was no threat of rain, but I figure that I could have had the rain fly down and secured within a minute to ninety seconds, if necessary. Fortunately, that didn’t come into play.
In the morning, we awoke well-rested, and we were easily able to get dressed. Sherry commented that she’d never been in a tent so spacious and comfortable, and the view from the tent, over the trees and out onto the valley beneath us, was breathtaking.
Getting the tent secured takes a bit more effort than opening it up, as it’s necessary to tuck the tent inside the hard cover as you close it, but the more we use the tent, the better at it we are getting and we expect to be experts at it in September. We were able to get everything secured within half an hour (the kitchen takes the longest to get cleaned up, dried, and secured) and then leave the park by checkout time.
What I like
I really like how sturdy the tent feels. From the solid materials and quality stitching to the ladder and the hard-cover, everything feels very well-made. The materials feel sturdy, and there is no part of this tent that feels that corners were cut on.
The mattress is around 3″ thick, and is firm. I weigh around 185 lbs, and I never bottomed out on the mattress. The LED lights are really clever, and while very bright, are adjustable in hue and in intensity. They use very little electricity, and are very useful (especially the lights underneath the tent).
Our Alpha appears to be a newer variant that has rain fly/shade covers over the side windows. These are very useful, and I am glad that our version has these.
Mounting it is easy enough, and all necessary tools are included.
What I don’t like
There are two spots on either side of the tent where the hinge is located that have openings where bugs can get in through. I understand why these openings are there; they’re necessary due to the nature of the folding of the tent. If there were material there, it would bind and/or rip. To keep the bugs out, we keep two small towels that we stuff into these areas at the side of the mattress to keep the bugs out. I’m sure there’s some way to rectify this, but it might be cost prohibitive. It’s a little thing, and very easy to mitigate, so it’s not a big deal. That’s literally the only thing I don’t like.
Why Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha
Tuff Stuff Overland is a relative newcomer to the Overlanding world. They don’t have the longevity of Yakima, Tepui, or iKamper, but they are making a very strong showing with their line of tents. The pricing is very competitive, and with the high quality of their products, I can see Tuff Stuff Overland becoming more well-known very soon. I receive many positive comments when I am out and about with the tent open, and people are very impressed with the quality.
The reasons I chose the Alpha are:
Comfort. First and foremost, it’s a tent for sleeping in. For that, it fits the bill perfectly. The mattress is comfortable, and the tent is spacious enough for two adults to easily move around and even store extras without cramping us.
Price/Value. For half the price of many of its competitors, the Alpha delivers unmatched value.
Quality. I’ve looked at many competitors before purchasing the Alpha, and I have to say that the materials appear to be AT LEAST just as good as the others.
Durability. This is yet to be tested long-term, but based on what I see so far, the Alpha appears to be quite durable made of quality materials with solid workmanship.
Design. The night Sherry and I decided to go with a roof top tent, I showed her the finalists in my evaluations, and she immediately fell in love with the Alpha. I was already heavily leaning toward it, but her enthusiasm for it sealed the deal. I’m glad we went with the Alpha, because it’s fulfilled all our requirements and then some.
Speed of deployment/breaking down. This was one of the biggest factors, actually. In watching some video reviews of the Alpha, Sherry and I were struck with how quickly the Alpha could be deployed and then secured. We had been camping a few times before purchasing the Alpha, and the speed with which it could go up and down was very attractive and appealing to us.
Tuff Stuff Overland may be the new kids on the block, but they come bearing big-kid toys that are well-made, fairly priced, and fast and easy to deploy. Rarely can you purchase something for Overlanding that feels like you got a really good deal. The Alpha is one of those rare gems that make you feel like you pulled off a caper and got something truly incredible for an incredibly good price. We highly recommend the Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent.
Late last week, the Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent arrived for the Gunship. With the help of my wife, my son, my brother-in-law, and my friend Doug, we were able to get the tent up and mounted without much difficulty.
Due to my car’s satellite radio antenna being mounted on the back of the roof, I opted to mount the tent a little closer to the front of the car than most people do. Due to the awning and Tuff Stuff Overland Shower Tent being mounted onto our Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone Roof Rack, I had to put some spacers to raise the tent up about an inch. The end result is some whistling at speeds over 45 mph. This is something that wouldn’t have happened if I wouldn’t have raised it or mounted it so close to the front. The solution is to fabricate a longer fairing by about 3″ which will route the air up and over the gap between the tent and the roof rack. I’ve contacted Sherpa Equipment Company about having this fairing made by them. I will hopefully hear from them, soon.
In the meantime, my wife and I have begun getting ourselves familiar with opening and closing the tent. Our first time was interesting and we weren’t very good at it. However, by the second time, it was much easier, and the tent was setup and ready to go within 3 minutes. Putting it away takes just a slight bit longer, but it’s still easy. We just have to work together to tuck everything in neatly.
This is a preview, because we have yet to go camping with it. We have a trip coming up this weekend as a test-run of all the overlanding gear we have purchased over the past few months in preparation for our two-week long trip from Texas up to New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and then back to Texas. We have reservations in numerous state parks and national forests, and we will be putting the tent through the paces.
So far, I can say the quality is excellent, and when I mounted the tent, I broke one of the strap tie-downs that Tuff Stuff very quickly replaced for me. The follow-up post to this one will be far more detailed and be based on actual usage of the tent and our experiences with it on our trip. We anticipate good and comfortable sleep on the 3″ memory foam mattress and protection from the elements.
Our latest adventure took us out of the local area and ended up being one of the best weekend trips we’ve had in a very long time (even before the COVID days). We started the day by stopping at a local Kroger and buying some fresh vegetables and meat to make dinner and breakfast with in the morning. My wife took a 2 lbs flank steak and marinated it with lime and spices in a ziploc bag. We then drove to three wineries on our way to the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, TX.
After tasting and buying some delicious wines, we ended up at Hidden Falls and drove out to the primitive campsites. They were closer together than we’d have expected, but there was enough space around us to still feel alone. There was a lot of noise from the 4 wheeler’s, but it’s to be expected at an adventure park. It was actually a lot of fun watching kids enjoy themselves while their parents worked hard to keep the fun going.
We were rewarded for marinating the meat all day with some of the most tender fajitas I’ve ever eaten. Sherry brought some Paleo tortillas and made grilled mushrooms with onions and green pepper which rounded out the fajita tacos perfectly. Then, as a surprise, she took some Fredericksburg peaches we purchased on our way to the park and made a cobbler with our dutch oven that turned out perfectly!
After doing the dishes, we sat and enjoyed the fire and the beautiful sunset for a while which led to a beautiful and clear starry night. Being able to see stars we cannot see at home brought back lots of memories to both of us. We even saw a satellite pass overhead!
The sleeping arrangements were good. We have good air mattresses, but I had a bit of a hump on the ground which made my sleeping position a little uncomfortable. I made it through the night, but my back was a bit sore. It made me look forward to the rooftop tent we purchased being delivered.
The morning brought us a little bit of a drizzle and light rain, but fortunately, it blew past us within about 20 minutes. We had a nice drive home through the rolling hills and countryside. My wife admitted to me that she had more fun camping than she thought she would, and she is really looking forward to our big fall trip of overlanding up to Idaho and back down again.
For Christmas in 2019, my wife purchased a Yakima Slim Shady awning for me. It was a gift I had asked for, and she told me that while she thought it was silly and wasn’t quite sure how I would use it, she knew I wanted it, so she bought it anyway. Fast-forward three months, and we have been using the Slim Shady awning nearly every weekend and she’s admitted to me that she loves it and the utility it provides our vehicle during our day trips. An added bonus: during the COVID-19 lockdown and with restaurants only being open for pick-up, we have used the awning at the side of a lake close to her office where we take our to-go orders along with a camp table and two chairs. It’s provided some of the nicest and relaxing lunches we’ve had in a long time.
What I like
Right out of the box, I was able to mount this to my 2020 4Runner TRD Pro without problems. However, when I changed from the OEM roof basket to a Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone full-length rack, I had to purchase an adapter/mount from Sherpa. Fortunately, it works great, and mounts the awning very close and firm to the rack.
The material of the Slim Shady awning is very light and durable. It provides good shade and is waterproof. The legs are easy to pull out and lock into place, and the side supports are equally easy to use.
When the Slim Shady awning is tucked up in it’s protective case, it lives up to its name: Slim. It doesn’t produce any additional wind noise (which was a fear of my wife’s since it’s mounted on the passenger side), and it doesn’t rattle, shake, or produce any additional sound, for that matter. The case is waterproof, and has been doing a great job of protecting the awning inside.
The area it covers is good. We were able to fit five of us under it for a meal on Mother’s Day parked in the Bucky’s parking lot (to social distance).
What I Don’t Like
It was hard to find something I don’t like about this awning, because so far, it’s been a solid performer and has allowed us to have shade in some very sunny weather and has provided us protection while having some of the most enjoyable moments this year. The thing I don’t like is very minor, and probably something every awning suffers from: setup can be tricky for one person, especially in the wind. It’s not impossible, and it’s not insurmountable. It’s just tricky. I have found that leaving the table out while I put it away makes folding the legs and guide lines in much easier.
Why the Yakima Slim Shady
It’s not because I’m an Eminem fan (I like the guy, and he’s very smart, but I’m more of an alt-rock guy, truth be told). The reasons I chose the Yakima Slim Shady are:
Solid reviews. I do a lot of research before I buy anything, and the Yakima awnings receive some solid feedback.
Durability. Based on reviews and the personal experiences of people I know with awnings, the Yakima awnings hold up well. In my experience over the past two months of solid use, it’s been doing great. I’ll update in the future with any issues, if they pop up.
Slim and unobtrusive when rolled up. This was a big deal for me. I didn’t want anything that had to be mounted up too high on the rack, or that stuck out too far from the side. The 4Runner is a medium-sized SUV, and I have seen some awnings that stick out much farther.
Price/value. The Yakima Slim Shady awning is very affordable. I felt that it was one of the best deals in awnings for the 4Runner.
Functional. I fly RC planes, and often at the flying field, the tables under the shade are all taken up by other pilots who got to the field before me. Now, I can setup my own awning, table, and chair, and have shade to protect me and my planes.
Not proprietary. The Yakima Slim Shady awning will work with just about any roof rack system out there. I went from OEM to Sherpa Equipment Company without any issues at all.
Of all the mods and add-ons I’ve put on my 4Runner, this is probably tied for the one I use and enjoy the most. My wife would argue it’s the best item on my 4Runner, but I’d remind her that it works exceptionally well with the Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone roof rack. It’s almost as if they were meant to be together.
If you want a solidly made, dependable, useful, and easy to use awning for your 4WD or Overlanding vehicle, you can’t go wrong with the Yakima Slim Shady. I highly recommend it.
This morning, I went out for a few flights with my RC planes. It’s been a long time since I last flew them, and the mandatory shutdown orders due to COVID-19 have kept our field closed until this past weekend. That was welcome news, and flying RC planes is a very socially distant activity.
When I got out to the field, there was no one else out there. I immediately setup and found that I’d left all my charged batteries at home. No problem! I had my solar generator (fully charged) and battery chargers along with some batteries that needed charging, so I pulled out a chair (not in the photo) and sat down while two batteries charged. Once complete, I flew the P-47D Thunderbolt (the plane on the table) for two full flights. The first takeoff was ugly in the crosswind, but the landing was as smooth as ever and very nice. I wish I’d have brought my Osmo Action camera with me to get it all on video!
The second takeoff was very nice (I remembered how to take off in a crosswind) and the second flight was very pleasurable as well. I finished off the day’s flying with a greased landing (which is to say, very smooth).
The stars of the show today were the Yakima Slim Shady awning and the aluminum table that my wife bought recently. It’s the Portal Outdoor Folding Portable Picnic Camping Table (wow! What a long name!). It sets up fast and easy, and is very sturdy. You can’t use it to stand on, but for a camping/picnic/RC hangar table, it’s perfect!
Adventures aren’t always off-road or in a campground. Sometimes, you find it down the street at your local RC flying field.
I was talking to a friend the other day about my transition from owning an Audi A4 (an incredible, fine automobile with comfort, style, and amazing road handling) to owning a Toyota 4Runner. I told him that while there are things I really liked about the Audi, I absolutely adore the 4Runner. “But didn’t the Audi get better gas mileage?” he asked.
If what you’re after is good gas mileage, then you’re missing the point of a 4Runner. It’s about the capabilities, not the fuel economy. Some are quick to point out that there are other SUV’s out there that get better gas mileage, and it’s true. However, I challenge any of those vehicles to be as capable, long-lasting, and have better aftermarket support than the 4Runner. Oh, and we won’t go into which vehicles hold their value over time better.
You see, owning and driving a 4Runner really is a lifestyle choice. It’s also not the least expensive choice. My 4Runner cost more than my top of the line Audi A4 and is more capable in varied environments. Well, except for handling corners at high speeds and acceleration, that is.
You don’t buy a 4Runner if you want fuel efficiency. You buy a 4Runner when your life is about exploring, adventure, and being prepared for anything life throws at you. For me, it’s the perfect vehicle.
Sometimes, adventures don’t turn out the way you planned. Sometimes, whole new adventures appear when one slips away. That happened to us this weekend. We set out to go to a National Forest in Huntsville that was reported to be open (including a phone call to them confirming their being open) to ride our mountain bikes. There are lots of trails and wooded areas we were looking forward to riding through.
When we arrived, however, we found the gate chained. Not to be deterred, we drove down the road some more and found another park, but this one was closed for day-use and restricted to RV overnight use only. Running out of options, we found a boat launch that had a nice long wooded road that we were able to set up our lunch at. We opened up the awning, pulled out our food, and had a lovely time looking at Lake Livingston and watching some people catch fish. I rode my bike for just a little bit to stretch my legs, but the day’s trip turned more into driving than riding bikes.
The highlight of the trip for me wasn’t the beautiful and scenic views or listening to the birds chirp. It was when my wife told me on our way back home that when I first told her I wanted to get a 4Runner to go off-roading and do overlanding, she was skeptical and wasn’t enthusiastic about it. She said she preferred hotels and wine trails over the outdoors. But then COVID-19 changed everything, and the types of places she likes to go to were unavailable, yet she still wanted to get out of the house. She said that the 4Runner has really opened up the world to us, and it allowed us to go out and do things we otherwise would have been unable to do. She is now enthusiastic about picnics, camping, off-reading, and she even bought two Tucktec kayaks for us!
I knew I’d enjoy having a 4Runner, but I didn’t realize how dramatically it would change our view on adventuring and how my wife and I spend our spare time together. I am looking forward to going on wine trails and staying at bed and breakfasts in the future, but now we also have the option of camping, going off-road, and seeing things that wouldn’t be possible in the old sedan.
This past weekend, my wife and I took some time to get out of the house and socially distance in the Gunship (our 4Runner). We drove from Houston down to Galveston and then went West along the coast until Freeport. From there, we went inland and then back down toward Matagorda. Once there, we went to a public-access beach area that was open and allowing vehicles to drive on the sand. This gave me an opportunity to put the Gunship into 4WD (4-Hi) and go through some soft sand. I didn’t air down, and fortunately I didn’t need to. The sand was soft and I did have to make sure to keep momentum and speed up, but the 4Runner made it through without nary an issue.
We ended up stopping for a picnic lunch close to an inlet to the inland waterway that extends along the entire Gulf Coast and then up the East Coast. The weather was very windy, and I was worried that our Yakima Slim Shady awning wouldn’t be able to handle it, but I was wrong. I was able to use the anchors (long tent poles) that came with the awning and they held in the sand just fine.
Our lunch was delicious, and the views were amazing. We watched a herd of cattle on Matagorda Island, just across the inlet, wandering, mooing, and even getting into the water to cool themselves. We watched a squall line pass to the North of us, and fortunately miss us with its downpour. After eating our lunch, we drove straight up back to Houston. I then took time to wash the Gunship off and make sure that all the salty sand was off the underside while cleaning off the 400+ dead “Love Bugs” from the front-facing surfaces of the vehicle. I made it just in time; drops of rain started falling the moment I pulled the Gunship into the garage.
This is the second time I’ve been able to take the 4Runner out and get off-road, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. Even my wife, who was rather skeptical of going off-roading and of me getting a 4WD vehicle, has admitted she’s enjoying our adventures. I look forward to far more as more parks open and we return to a semblance of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic winds down.
My son gave me some X-Bull Recovery Boards (also known as Recovery Tracks) for Christmas, and I was very happy and grateful to receive them. I plan on doing a lot of four-wheeling and overlanding, and I want to be prepared for soft ground. Recovery boards help get you unstuck quickly. The problem with these recovery boards, however, is that it’s impossible to find any mounting system for them. There are lots of folks online who have found ways to make their own mounts, but they are, frankly, not nearly as professional looking or sturdy as I’d like for my vehicle.
I was talking to my son about the lack of mounting solutions when he remembered that his best friend from junior high school’s family owned a hot rod custom shop nearby. He contacted his friend who told us to come on by.
We drove to Bruce’s Rod Shop in Spring, TX where we met with Danny who gave us a tour of the shop, the showroom, and the facilities. We got to see many really net hot rods including one that was stolen by Bonnie and Clyde during their robbery spree through East Texas.
After the tour, Danny asked me what exactly I was looking for. I showed him the X-Bull recovery boards and the mounting holes. I showed him the mount that I purchased that turned out to not work due to the bolts not lining up with the holes in the board, and he said, “Give me a few minutes.” He disappeared into his office and within about 5 minutes came back out with a sheet of paper with a printed image of a mount on it. “Will this do?” I said, “Absolutely!” He told me to come back Monday afternoon and he’d have them done for me.
Monday afternoon came, and I drove over to Bruce’s Rod Shop. Danny was just finishing up the first mount. It was amazing. I then got to watch the second mount being made in the CNC machine, milled from a solid piece of half-inch thick aluminum. Once he was done with both, I paid for mine and went home to mount it to my Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone rack.
I ended up mounting them on the driver’s side rear portion of the roof rack. In this location, it will be easy to get to by standing on the Shrockworks rock slider and up onto the driver’s side rear tire. They screwed in very easily and the boards mounted flawlessly. They are on the rack very solidly, and I have no worries about them moving or coming loose. Oh, and they look great, too!
Danny at Bruce’s Rod Shop told me that he can make these for anyone interested. He can customize it as necessary for different boards, different bolts, etc. Give him a call at 281-376-5932. Please tell him E.J. (me) sent you.