Every year we get together with our friends and go beat on budget-built trucks in an event we call the Cheap Truck Challenge. Over the years we have had mud bogs, hillclimbs, rockcrawling, and even a milk jug challenge. While the competition aspect is fun, we aren’t competitive enough to really care who wins. Much of the real fun takes place off-camera, when we can just relax and hang out with our friends.
So this year for Cheap Truck Challenge we changed things up. Less emphasis on challenges and more emphasis on camping, having fun, and helping each other out. Think of Cheap Truck Challenge 2015 as a low-buck Ultimate Adventure, one that you could easily duplicate with your friends. The premise is the same: Go wheeling, cover some ground, and sleep in the dirt. This is just the beer version instead of the champagne edition.
This year we started in the town of Winslow, Arizona. From there we hit backroads, stopping along the way to take in the scenery and fix Jeeps. While the trails were not particularly hard, covering miles of washboard road is a great indication of just how reliable a vehicle is. The competitors had to use a map and compass to find their way to a campsite, giving a distinct advantage to the two-man teams. See, it pays to bring a buddy along on the trail. We found a secluded camping spot and made dinner over the fire, swapping stories and jokes well into the night. This is what 4-wheeling is all about.
The next day we continued on towards the Mogollon Rim, with higher elevations and cooler temperatures. In fact, even though we were in Arizona in the middle of August, we got caught in heavy rain. The open-topped Jeeps were at a severe disadvantage to the Dodge (and to a lesser extent the Kia), and all of that gear we brought along got nice and wet. The good thing about rain is that it makes mud, so we found some mud holes to test our cheap trucks and vie for bragging rights. With wet (and now muddy) camping gear we wimped out for the night and decided to get a hotel room and a hot shower.
Refreshed, and perhaps too full of vigor, on the third morning we headed for some rocks. That is when all hell broke loose—or, when we started having fun with our buddies. It is really all just a matter of your perspective.
A CJ-5 with two dudes in it doesn’t leave much room for gear. No wonder four-door JKs are so popular. We wonder how families used to use CJ-5s for backcountry exploring.
Verne Simons’ Kia Sportage was not much better than the Jeeps in the cargo hauling challenge. Fortunately for him, he was by himself. He actually took all of this gear out of the Kia when we camped and managed to sleep in the back (and the middle, and the front).
The Dodge Power Wagon definitely offered the most storage space. This is a perk for camping, but the larger dimensions limit where you can take a fullsize truck compared to a Jeep.
This photo was taken from the comfort of the Daystar Super Duty. The wet conditions were much harder to tolerate in the open-topped Jeeps. The Kia seemed to strike the balance, with an open rear section but with a heater and full doors and windows.
Cheap Truck Challenge started with each team navigating to their camp for the night. There were no points or winners awarded though, so they worked together to find a great campsite. This was a bigger challenge for the participants than the vehicles; we would wait until later to beat on the trucks.
Joe Fernandez navigated for Rob Peterson in their early CJ-5. Peterson is an Eagle Scout and master of orienteering, so the two had no problem finding their way around the trails. Keeping the Jeep running was a different matter entirely.
Rain made for muddy trails. The skinny BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires on Fred Williams’ CJ-3A were able to cut through the mud and get to the firm bottom under the water.
Verne Simons attacked the mud with a vengeance in his Kia Sportage. While there is very little aftermarket support for this pint-sized wheeler, Simons added 31-inch-tall mud tires to his Kia and Daystar is developing a suspension lift. The added traction was key in the mud and rocks.
Peterson didn’t invest in tires on his Jeep. A couple of his old tires looked a little dubious, but all held air until the end. Instead of rubber, Peterson spent his money on a Warn winch to get him out of trouble when the tires stopped grabbing.
Few things are better than setting up camp for the night under the stars. Driving a 4x4, even a cheap one, will allow you to get to remote campsites that cannot be reached by a Prius. Plus, you don’t have to listen to the generator in the RV next to you, because no RV is getting to where we camped.
We enjoyed a dinner cooked over the campfire and there was plenty of food to go around. We aren’t sure if we overpack food for camping trips or eat less on the trail, but either way no one ever seems to go hungry.
In the morning we made certain that the campfire was completely doused and cool to the touch. With drought conditions in many regions, this cannot be emphasized enough. No one wants to be responsible for starting a forest fire.
After getting our fill of mud and campfires, it was time to hit the rocks. We love rockcrawling, but nothing will expose the weaknesses of your vehicle more quickly. That is why we saved the rocks for last.
Despite its small tires, Simons’ Kia did an excellent job in the rocks. The light weight and small size offset the lack of gearing and small tires. The biggest issue with the lack of ground clearance was that his rocker panels took a beating.
The Jeep that started it all! The simple drivetrain and solid axles under Williams’ flatfender make it nimble and capable in the rocks. A set of Detroit Lockers would have made it go even farther up the trail.
Williams’ day came to an end when his transfer case decided to eat one of the bearings for lunch. The Spicer 18 gave him plenty of notice, but he kept pushing until the Jeep would not go any farther. We expect him to pull the Jeep apart now and have it sit in pieces for the next several years in keeping with tradition.
The hood was up on Peterson’s CJ-5 more than it was down. We feel this vehicle offers more potential for wheeling fun than Simons’ Kia does, but you would have to spend more money updating it and making it reliable. Without that sort of budget, Peterson was wrenching more than wheeling.
The CJ-5 suffered from fuel delivery issues and did not want to stay running. Was it a clogged carb? Dying fuel pump? Bad gas? We don’t know, but by the end of the trip the Jeep did not have enough power to move itself up the slightest of inclines.
Simons started to get a little too cocky in his Kia and eventually found himself stuck between two boulders. Rob Bonney was happy to come to his aid with a Voodoo Rope, heckling Simons the entire time. Isn’t that what friends are for?
Rob Bonney’s Dodge Power Wagon was the biggest vehicle in the test, but it also had the biggest engine, transfer case, and axles. Denting sheetmetal is a bigger concern than breakage when you start with a fullsize truck.
The long wheelbase on Bonney’s Power Wagon allowed him to climb steep obstacles that left the Jeeps behind, but that long wheelbase worked against him when his driveline hit a rock and twisted up like taffy.
When the dust settled, the Kia was the last vehicle running. Simons even drove it over 100 miles home on the freeway once Cheap Truck Challenge was over, so if we had to pick a winner we’d suggest you investigate these little Kia as your next cheap wheeler.