Every good road trip needs an equally good vehicle. The definition of “good” is a bit different for everyone and every trip, however. Sometimes a good vehicle is the one that breaks down in the middle of nowhere and forces you into an epic adventure that makes for great stories later. Sometimes a good vehicle is the one that sacrifices itself to save your life when an elk emerges unexpectedly from the shrubbery. Sometimes a good vehicle is one that just gets you from point A to point B on time, or has room for your 3 dogs and 4 friends.
For our plans, a good vehicle is a tiny house on wheels.
We did a lot of research when shopping for our vehicle. When our plans involved a trip around North America, we settled on a 1984 Bigfoot trailer, which we intended to tow with our 1997 V6 Toyota 4-Runner. We had a similar (though slightly less fancy) setup for our amazing 5-month road trip in 2007, which took us from British Columbia to the desert Southwest and everywhere in between. So we thought a truck/trailer combo would suit us well.
But plans change. And ours changed pretty drastically.
We decided we wanted the flexibility to stray much further afield. After only a minimal amount of reading, it became abundantly clear that our truck/trailer setup would not be suitable for the Long Road. The rough roads and cultural climate of Central and South America require a more rugged vehicle, and one that does not involve unhitching and leaving our belongings unattended for periods of time. So, more research.
For a traveler with unlimited funds, there are all sorts of options for overland vehicles. Just spend an hour surfing around on Expedition Portal, and you’ll get a good idea of the range of vehicles available. We asked advice from people who were driving the PanAm or who had already completed the trip, we read blogs and surfed the forums for ideas. We had a short list of requirements: 4×4 (or easily convertible to 4×4), under 20 feet long, fully self-contained, and under $20,000.
We considered Tiger Provans, Sportsmobiles, Westfalias, ambulance conversions, and all manner of homebuilt mini-RVs. We had more or less settled on building our own 4×4 conversion van, when a jewel surfaced in our search feeds.
In the 1980s, a series of mini-RVs were built on the ultra-reliable, one-ton Toyota pickups. The ones made from molded fiberglass (much like the popular Bigfoot, Casita, and Scamp trailers) were produced by Sunrader. Fewer than 30 of these were built on an original 4×4 Toyota 22RE, and of those, we heard fewer than 10 are still on the roads in the United States. The ones that did surface (one every year or two), often sold out of our price range. So we had given up on that idea.
But lo and behold, in early October 2013, there she was: a, 18-foot 1988 Toyota Sunrader, original 4×4 22RE with less than 150,000 miles. And well within our budget! We pounced. In fact, we were probably pretty obnoxious about it. The for-sale ad was in Eugene, OR, and we called the day it was posted. My aunt and uncle live in the Eugene area, and we begged them to go buy it for us the next day. The owner said he wasn’t available for a couple days, but we finagled our way in the minute he returned from work. A once-over from my detail-oriented uncle confirmed it needed some TLC and remodeling, but it was in good mechanical and structural shape. We bought it immediately.
It might seem silly that a 25-year-old RV would require such eager action, but there was another buyer in line after us that evening who contacted us later to tell us he was going to flip it for a quick profit. And there were four more buyers in line for the following day. These little Toyota campers, like their trailer equivalents (Casitas, Scamps, et al), have an almost cult-like following. They sell in a day or two if they are in decent shape. Sometimes it pays to be obnoxious.
Anyway, Ben flew up a couple weeks later to drive it home. The trip was uneventful, and the RV had no trouble making the journey. We got to work pretty quickly on remodeling it, and there was a fair bit of work that needed doing. You can follow along on our remodel progress here.