The Ultimate Budget Friendly Adventure Vehicle

One of my all time favourite vehicles is the 3rd generation 4Runner which Toyota produced from 1996-2002. At one point my mother drove a 2002 4Runner Badlands Edition with a hood scoop, fender flairs and All Terrain tires. It was a beast and it is the vehicle I first drove as a teenager. Toyota in general is known for the dependability of their vehicles and the 3rd gen 4Runner ranks up there with their best of all time. For example, one friend purchased a stock 2000 4Runner, which was 13 years old at the time, and drove it all the way from Alaska to Patagonia. The only modification was a sleeping platform he installed in the back. He put 70,000 kilometers on it over the course of the trip and in many cases ended up towing out others with much newer vehicles and expensive modifications.

In early 2016 I sold my ’08 Subaru and purchased a stock 2000 4Runner 4×4 with a 5 speed manual transmission and over 300,000 kilometers on it. I bought the 4Runner for approximately $5000 CAD which by today’s standards was quite the bargain (the popularity of this era of 4Runner has skyrocketed as of late and the price has followed suit). My goal with buying the 4Runner was to have a dependable vehicle for adventures that I really enjoyed driving without having a car payment. With the sale of the Sube I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase the 4Runner outright.

One thing that supported my budget friendly approach is that I have always enjoyed doing my own vehicle maintenance. This approach has allowed me to learn many hands on mechanical skills over the years. I have found that the key is to be patient, find a good manual and take things one small step at a time. Each endeavour may seem daunting but each little step is very achievable, which is not unlike most outdoor adventures. Immediately after buying the 4Runner I replaced the timing belt and water pump which was the recommended preventative maintenance based on the mileage. After this I drove the 4Runner for 4 years and 60,000 km completely worry free with the only other ‘modification’ being a solid set of light truck tires (32″ Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs). Fast forward to early 2020, my water pump began to weep a small amount of coolant so I spent a bit of time in the engine bay again. This time around I replaced the timing belt, water pump along with coolant hoses, oil cooler gaskets and the valve cover gaskets to remedy a few minor items I discovered while in the engine bay. Again this was all preventative maintenance that I completed with the intention of driving the 4Runner for several more years.

Of course there were days when I dreamed of all the modifications I would do to the 4Runner. A lift, custom plate bumpers, winch, snorkel and the list goes on. I even listed all of the modifications out and priced them… $9.5k (almost double the purchase price of the vehicle). Although it’s fun to dream, the practical side of me could never bring myself to spend that kind of money on a vehicle that was working perfectly as it was. I was able to load up my camping gear, hiking gear, bike or snowboard and go anywhere I liked no matter what the weather. Any offroading I did was very minor so between the selectable 4Lo gear ratio and the aggressive tires I was able to go anywhere I liked.

When roof top tents became all the rage I decided that the $3k price tag was another thing I wasn’t willing to pay. So instead I built a custom drawer system in the back that doubled as a sleeping platform and avoided removal of the rear seats (which are often removed for sleep platforms in the 3rd gen 4Runners). I combined various elements of systems I had seen over the years and also leveraged my own creativity to come up with something that worked great for my purposes. I built the entire unit for less than $500 CAD.

Driving an older vehicle was a point of pride for me. I absolutely beamed when driving my 4Runner, especially when I was in 4Lo putting through a chopping looking for a spot to camp for the night while on a bike trip. I was fortunate that I never had any major mechanical failures while out on adventures but I was always prepared either way. I would carry enough tools that I would be able to fix minor things in a pinch but above all I focused on my mindset. I focused on having fun adventures for very minimal cost. I would also remind myself that if my vehicle did happen to break down that I was prepared for it so there was no point stressing about something that may or may not happen. It’s easy to always want the next best thing, be it the brand new bike or the new truck. Sometimes you will tell yourself the story of how if you only had that new vehicle you would be able to go on a more ambitious adventure. I can happily report that driving a 15-20 year old 4Runner for 5+ years did not hold me back one little bit. Often times, even though some of my friends had newer vehicles we would still take my 4Runner. Between my storage system, 6 bike rack and roof box it often made more sense as I was well prepared for any adventure. However, for full transparency, I usually pushed to take my 4Runner for my sheer love of driving it.

In the end I drove the 4Runner for 5+ years and put more than 60,000 kilometers on it with essentially zero problems. I completed preventative maintenance, built a custom storage system / sleep platform and had added more aggressive light truck tires to support my adventures. All together I put approximately $7k CAD into my 4Runner. In my mind that’s an incredible price to pay for such a capable vehicle that took me on countless adventures into the mountains and beyond.

My goal with writing this post is to encourage others who may feel stuck without that new vehicle or new piece of gear to reset their mindset when it comes to adventures. You don’t need all the newest gear to get out and explore. You can do a lot with a budget friendly vehicle, a bit of preparation and a positive mindset. If you have an older vehicle that you love to adventure with I would very much enjoy hearing about it. I encourage you to reach out, tell me your story and share a few pictures. You might even get featured on our Instagram page or in a future blog post!

Happy Trails,

Dave T

Author’s Note: In 2020 I found a great deal on a new Tacoma and reluctantly decided to replace the 4Runner. I plan to drive my Tacoma for 10+ years and log many many adventures with it as well. Since the Taco is my new long term adventure vehicle keep an eye out for photos and articles that feature it in the future. Again I am motivated to see how much I can do with the stock vehicle, although I did once again upgrade to a set of 32” Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs.

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