We have built a lot of Ultimate Adventure vehicles over the years and have learned a thing or two about building a vehicle capable of street driving and extreme trail abuse. All the while this 4x4 has to haul a week’s worth of supplies and parts for two people. We’ve tried a lot of different things—some worked great, some didn’t—so maybe it’s time to jot down a recipe of sorts for building a quality UA machine.
Since we wrapped up our UA coverage last month and many of you are probably scheming for a way to get into the event for 2013, we figured now would be a great time to showcase what we think works and how we would build a 4x4 to survive the UA. Read our ideas, spend some time daydreaming how you can make all this stuff work in your rig, and then get to prepping your own ride. We’re anxiously waiting your application.
What to Start With
We are not going to tell you that any single make or model vehicle is the perfect platform for the UA. We’ve had good luck with just about every make 4x4 and also had problems with most every type. Jeeps are fairly common on the trip and for good reason. From their huge support in the aftermarket to their off-road prowess out of the box, Jeeps are great. But other makes are worth considering too.
The Offroad Design guys have proven that fullsize GM trucks with solid axles work great. Meanwhile, Tim Hardy has repeatedly shown that a well-built Samurai with a carbureted four-cylinder can survive the week with style. Pickup trucks and SUVs can both make the trip, though we’ve seen many a side or back window smashed on tight trails, so a truck with adequate storage may be a slightly better idea.
We will say that independent front suspension has never finished the UA without a failure of some sort, and we have seen everything from lightweight Suzuki to OEM Chevrolet and last year’s over-the-top Ford IFS, which we built (“Ultimate F-150,” July ’11 to Jan. ’12). We’re not saying IFS isn’t possible; it has just not proven itself well on prior trips.
Also, late-model or older 4x4s have both done well, but remember: Body damage does happen, so plan accordingly.
Tire Size & Wheels
Choosing a tire size is important for choosing a drivetrain. We require only that tires be 35 inches or taller. This is important because we hit some really hard trails and anything smaller could be a struggle. Even though the tire size can be unlimited, we’ve found that tires 37 to 42 inches are about perfect depending on wheelbase and drivetrain. Unless you’re wheelbase is less than 100 inches we wouldn’t recommend anything under 37s. At the same time, if you are running a wheelbase over 120 inches you’ll probably want a tire around 40 inches or larger just to keep the belly from bottoming out on break-over obstacles.
We do not require beadlock wheels, and yet most drivers use them on the UA. They do add weight to your wheel and tire combo, but they are helpful for low-pressure off-roading. We have run Trail Ready beadlocks and Walker Evans beadlocks with great success on official UA trucks.
Your tires and wheels will get damaged from rocks, dirt, and trail obstacles, so protected valve stems and wheels with easy-access lug nuts seems to work best.
There are lots of options for axles on a UA vehicle. We like to consider our tire sizes and work backwards, with axles being stronger than engines. One-ton diffs like Dana 60s and GM 14-bolts rarely have issues on the trip, but they are heavy and can be referred to as anchors and plows depending on the terrain. This year’s Spidertrax axles and Truhi-9 differentials worked great, but a low-pinion 9-inch axle isn’t bad (though it does get the driveshaft considerably lower). Dana 44s and Toyota diffs work well up to 37-inch tires. Dana 30s and Samurai axles have attended UAs on many occasions, but without skilled drivers these axles have suffered. We wouldn’t recommend them if you’re building from scratch. Also, realize that vehicles with lightweight axles need to pack light to keep the parts alive; weight kills.
Lockers and gearing are pretty standard suggestions. You need them both, and gearing should be low enough for your tire and engine size. Welded diffs and spools are dirt-simple and have been on many trips without fail, though they will chirp tires on corners and can cause understeer on the road. Selectable lockers are great on the road because you can unlock them, but they add complexity with their activation systems, so route your air lines and activation systems to protect them from heat and snagging trail debris. Auto lockers such as Grizzlies and Detroits are tough and simple, but even tire pressure must be considered for good on-road driving, and these lockers can fail from shock load if an axleshaft breaks.
Speaking of axleshafts, spare shafts and joints are good parts to bring along, as is a pinion yoke if your pinion is low, plus the proper socket for changing the yoke.
The UA covers around a thousand miles of road and trail over a week, and having the right powertrain of engine, transmission, and transfer case is important. We feel these parts need to be healthy and reliable, but not necessarily crazy.
Starting with engines, it needs to run cool. A rowdy 800-1,000hp big-block is cool, but it won’t always run cool on a hot humid day of rockcrawling. Four-cylinders, V6s, I-6s, and small-block V8s seems to work best. Leave the nitrous and lumpy cams at home; you just need something reliable—and tough. Diesel engines have survived many UAs, but they have three pitfalls: weight, noise, and healthy torque that can easily break parts downstream. Loud exhaust is cool in the mud, but can get old on long road days and when you’re trying to hear your co-driver’s spotting suggestions. Fuel delivery can be a problem. We like in-tank fuel pumps to keep the pump cool and happy, and shielded fuel lines to deter vapor lock.
Both automatic and manual transmissions have shined and failed on the trip. If you’re running a manual be sure your clutch is healthy. If you’re running an automatic transmission be sure you have a big enough cooler.
Low transfer case gearing allows better off-road control and reduces abuse of drivetrain parts. The Atlas transfer case by Advance Adapters has worked great on many UAs, as has the Offroad Design Doubler 203/205 transfer case. This is due to their ability for gearing lower than 3.00:1 in low range.
Be sure you protect all of your drivetrain with adequate skidplates. Even an iron transmission can succumb to a serious hit on a big rock.
Steering is the Achilles’ heel of many an off-road vehicle. A steering problem can ruin the trip fast. We have found the best systems to be a simple ram assist, where a ram attached to the axle and tie rod helps turn big tires. One problem we’ve encountered is when the hydraulic lines hit the frame at full stuff of the suspension, so be sure to check this prior to the trip. The full hydraulic setups are finicky and not always safe for street use. A standard power steering setup isn’t bad, but all the stress will be transmitted to the box itself, and broken steering pitman arms and sector shafts have happened in the past with standard steering systems.
Three suggestions: (1) Run a cooler for any power steering system; (2) bring spare hoses and/or rebuildable high-pressure fittings; (3) raise your steering linkage and tie rod up if possible to protect it from rocks. Bringing a spare steering box isn’t really worth the added weight, but be sure you know what model box you need if you need to source one locally.
Brakes are usually trouble-free on these trips, save one recurring problem: broken lines. Throw a couple spare lines in your toolbag along with a hard line flaring kit in case you need to rebuild one. Be sure your lines are clear of tire lugs and routed up and out of the way of any rocks, roots, and brush that could grab them.
You will need to have a parking brake. We have seen vehicles roll down hills and smash into other vehicles, and we prefer not to see it again. So again, you will need a parking brake.
Every type of suspension works on the UA. We have had custom links and air shock, coilovers, coils, quarter elliptic, and mixtures of the three. Leaf springs have attended every year, as have bolt-on lift kits. Every suspension will get scrapped, banged, and abused off-road. This isn’t a car show; we will take you places where your vehicle has to work to make the trail. We won’t chastise you for winching (that’s why we require a winch) or backing off an obstacle that you feel will roll you over or smash your body, but if you expect to arrive home without a single scratch or mud clod in your interior you may be disappointed.
Your suspension needs to be able to flex over rocks, hold up in mud, bomb around in the dunes, and still run straight down the road. And you should be able to repair it if there is a problem. If you’ve been wheeling for 10 years with the same suspension and it works great, then it will probably be fine on the trip. A lot of people think they need to reengineer their whole truck to attend the UA, but that is not so. A good service, replacing worn parts, and fixing stuff that’s broken are important, but a brand-new buildup almost always results in the new-car blues. Stick to the dependable parts that work.
Good examples of a tough, simple suspension are under the Jeeps Chris Durham brings. His suspension doesn’t have million-dollar shocks or crazy whiz-bang parts. He runs stock or minimal lift coils, off-the-shelf shocks (this year from Zone Offroad Products), a 1-inch body lift or none at all, tough long link arms for rock abuse, and well-clearanced steering. The body is trimmed high to fit big tires. The Jeeps sit low for stability, and yet can still run down twisty mountain roads with ease.
Two people living out of a 4x4 for a week while also wheeling and running down the highway is not an easy situation, especially when you consider all the stuff you bring along and where to fit it. A fullsize truck or SUV like a Suburban isn’t bad, but we’ve found that no matter how much space you have, you’ll quickly fill it all up, and the more you bring, the heavier your 4x4 becomes. Here are a few pointers.
Bring fewer clothes. Everyone is going to be dirty by the end of the week, so don’t bring 15 outfits—don’t even bring seven. Two pairs of shorts, two pair of pants, four shirts (you’ll probably get shirts when you arrive), and a jacket. Do pack for a variety of weather. It will likely rain; it always does.
Make sure certain items are within reach at all times and that they are se-cure but with quick access. These include fire extinguisher, winch controller, winching gloves, tree saver (with your name on it), recovery strap and shackle, tire plug kit, and first aid kit. These should never be at the bottom of a pile of stuff! These items must be within arm’s reach of the driver or passenger at all times, as when you need them you need them quickly. Better yet, build a small storage box into your bumper for items like recovery gear and gloves because you’ll want them accessible from outside the vehicle.
You need a spare tire. We don’t care if you’ve never had a flat tire in 50 years of four-wheeling; you need a spare tire, and you need to carry it on your vehicle while wheeling.
Another tip is to build in a cooler and toolbox that you can get to quickly. When it’s hot and you’re tired you’ll want to get food easily, and the same goes when you break and you need tools. We really like the ARB or Engel electric fridge freezer coolers. They are expensive and cumbersome, and usually do not hold as much food as a comparably sized normal ice cooler, but they don’t require ice so your sandwiches don’t end up floating in water when the ice melts. We also use ActionPacker bins by Rubbermaid to store dry food and gear. They are tough, yet easy to open, close, and lash down.
Heavy spare parts can be secured and buried under stuff. Light camping gear and clothes should be up on top of the pile so you don’t have to unpack the whole truck when you get to camp in the dark and want to set up your tent quickly, but keep the tools and cooler clear for easy access.
As a final note on storage, you should be sure you have enough fuel capacity for 150 miles. If not, you’ll need a spare fuel can. Be sure the fuel can is secure and safe in a way that it won’t leak or possibly cause a fire or injury in a rollover.
Tools will be used, if not by you, then likely by someone on the trip, so pack what you need. Spray-paint your tools all the same color to be sure they don’t get lost or accidently end up in someone else’s truck.
If your engine uses metric bolts and your suspension uses standard bolts then you need a mixture of SAE and metric wrenches. Pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, socket, prybars, picks, a hammer, adjustable wrenches, Allen wrenches, a metal file, some electrical repair tools, and a jack are all valuable.
Don’t forget special sockets for your pinion nut, pitman arm nut, lug nut locks, transfer case yoke nut, and hub nuts. If you don’t bring the tool you’ll probably need it, but be conscious of weight—you don’t need an anvil. This year all our tools came from Mac Tools, and we stuffed them in some Master Craft toolbags. We like tools in bags because they are easy to pack, and by labeling the bags we know what’s in each one for quick searching.
The Ultimate Adventure isn’t really about comfort. We don’t stay at fancy hotels all week, eat catered meals every day, or hire trail hands to stack rocks if your rig won’t make the climb or to fix broken parts for you. It’s more like four-wheeling, camping, and being dirty for five to seven days at an off-road camp with your buddies. Some days may feel like a death march, but we doubt you’ll hate it, especially if you are open to adventure and definitely when you realize that you’ll be back at work a week later. You won’t know where you’re going, but if you can let someone else tell you how your day is going to go and you’re just along for the fun, you’ll be fine and probably see stuff you’ve never seen before.
That said, there are a few things you can do to make your vehicle more comfortable. We prefer an open vehicle to an enclosed cab. This allows you to see more, experience the road and scenery better, and really get to know the terrain and environment we’re wheeling in. Yes, you’ll get dirty and wet and there will be a lot of wind noise and you may get suntanned, but believe it or not, that is fun. We’re not saying a cab is bad, but tube doors or half doors or no doors at all really make the trip fun. An open cab also allows floorboard and firewall heat to escape better than a cocoon of a cab.
Air conditioning and heat aren’t a bad idea, but running them with the windows down is the more dignified way on UA. That way you won’t get dirty looks from your fellow adventurers who don’t have A/C. Plus, mud can quickly clog A/C condensers, and we always find mud. Floor mats, firewall insulation, and any way to help the heat escape from the engine compartment without entering the cockpit are great ideas.
As for camping, everyone has their own level of comfort. The more gear you bring, the more gear you have to carry and the longer it takes you to set up and tear down camp. Be sure you know how to set up your tent and gear before you come on the trip; you’re not going to want to learn how to do it in the dark and rain the first night. If you’ve never gone to the bathroom in the woods, figure it out before you come on the trip. If you don’t know how to cook over a camp stove or manifold, then don’t expect a hot meal. If you need to wash your face every day, then integrate a water can, cooler, or jug into your vehicle storage system. If you think you want to drink a beer, then you better be of age, be in camp, not be driving, and do it responsibly. If you need coffee daily, learn to make it; we won’t be visiting Starbucks every morning. If you need to do illegal drugs, stay home; you’re not welcome on the trip.
We’re not going to kill you on the trip, but you will be roughing it and taking care of yourself a fair bit. Our kit usually includes a small tent or camp hammock, a sleeping bag, a small sleeping pad, a few changes of clothes, boots, sandals (for hot road days or mud slogging), rain gear, a sweatshirt, a small camp stove, food, and plenty of water. You need to stay hydrated, as our trip is usually in the middle of summer and often sees triple-digit temperatures.
The Chosen Few
Ultimate Adventure is not an easy event to come along on, but it’s not impossible either. You apply, we pick about five readers, and you come on the trip. But what exactly are we looking for when we chose the readers?
First of all is a cool truck. We like oddballs, bright colors, and something that looks like it has proven itself off-road before. We’re not saying that a black Jeep Wrangler won’t get chosen, but a shot of a bright orange Dodge Carryall with a few dents and dings on a gnarly trail usually gets the judges more excited. Bright colors show up in photos better, and ultimately we’re looking for an exciting group of trucks to showcase in the magazine.
We look for variety. Even if the trip is sponsored by an OEM, we’ll still pick readers with a variety of trucks. We’re not looking for five identical white trucks; variety makes the event more fun. For example, this year we chose a long-wheelbase Samurai and a TrailBlazer partly because they were unique and different.
We also look at your personal experience, and again we want a variety of backgrounds. A doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a contractor, a burger flipper, a college student, a farmer, a magazine writer…We’re looking for a variety of ages, occupations, and experiences to make a well-rounded group.
The same goes for vehicle hardware. We’re willing to invite just about any make and model truck with just about any setup or upgrades, but if we read about your 1,800 ft-lb diesel engine, 44-inch tires, and light-duty Dana 30 axle, we may question your preparedness. If there’s a built Dana 30 with a four-banger and some 35s in the picture of you wheeling deep in the Canadian forest in a lightweight yet properly stocked 4x4, we will be more likely to pick you.
And again, paint it or wrap it in a bright color. Orange, red, yellow, light green, and electric blue all show up better than brown, black, or dark gray.
Want to Go?
There you have it, plenty of info to dwell on as you begin building your own Ultimate Adventure vehicle. That ought to you keep you distracted from the daily grind, whatever yours may be. Now go to this website, read the rules, fill out the form, and send it in: www.4wheeloffroad.com/ua13_app. We may just be calling you next spring to join the adventure.