It took me a while to find the ideal vehicle to take along in my trip. The vehicle I was looking for needed to:
1) Be a SUV-type vehicle
2) Have 4×4 (all-wheel traction) capabilities
3) Be of a 4-door variety with enough cargo space (no small SUVs)
4) Cost less than $5,000 dollars
5) Be reliable, in great mechanical shape and with an engine no larger than 6 cylinders
6) Well-known name brand (for parts availability)
This ruled out a lot of great number of awesome, capable vehicles, such as Land Rovers (part availability concerns), Suzuki Samurai (awesome, but too small), and Toyota 4Runner (my ideal vehicle, but way over my budget for a reliable model).
Dan, from TheRoadChoseMe.com made the entire trip, with great success, in a 2-door Jeep Wrangler. One of his main issues was the lack of space and inability (due to the size of the vehicle) to get a comfortable night’s rest inside, should the weather or other situation require it. I decided to heed the lesson he learned and stick to a larger vehicle.
Much searching was done on Craigslist, newspapers, and magazines, until it became clear that the best chance to meet all the requirements I was looking for would be served by obtaining a 4-door Jeep vehicle. Since Jeep is an American brand, I’d be avoiding paying premium over a similar foreign vehicle.
After comparing the two options, Jeep Cherokee (XJ Model) vs. Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ), I made the choice to stick with the XJ mainly because of its retro looks. The Cherokee’s basic design has been around since the XJ was first introduced in 1984, which for me it was a plus, since it would not (hopefully) attract attention like a newfangled vehicle would. It was only icing on the cake when I found out that the Jeep Cherokee had been called as one of the 20 greatest vehicles of all time.
I spotted the vehicle I would ultimately choose in a Craigslist ad. After test driving it, I agreed to buy it for $4,500 dollars. While this was on the high-end of going prices for XJs, this particular 2001 Cherokee Sport model was very well-taken care of. The vehicle had approximately 165,000 miles on the odometer, did not have any rust, leaks, and significant parts had already been replaced. I figured getting a vehicle in great shape would be cheaper in the long run than getting a fixer-upper.
(UPDATED 05/01/2012: I’ve updated the pictures and descriptions below to reflect the current state of the vehicle, since this will be the main page for those looking for information on the vehicle I used)
Below are the pics of the rig before embarking on the second leg of the trip. I added an inexpensive rooftop carrier to load the second spare tire onto (the main spare tire is locked inside the car, in the rear compartment). I also strapped on top a Hi-Lift jack to use as a winch.
Before I left, I had debated on whether I should add an electric winch to the front. The cost to upgrade the electronics of the car (bigger alternator, second battery, new bumper) and the added weight to the front of the vehicle, did not justify the added cost. It may well be worth it, however, if you plan on off-roading or exploring really bad roads. I have yet to once use my Hi-Lift jack or even put the vehicle in 4×4 mode (knock on wood).
There were a couple items that I felt were necessary to add. The Jeep (now christened as Mister Boxy), did not have a trailer hitch, nor did it have recovery points in the front. Without them, it would almost be impossible for another vehicle to pull me out if I ever got in trouble. I added a Curt Manufacturing 13160 Class III Receiver.
The hitch bolted somewhat easily to the frame. When coupled with a Smittybilt 29312B receiver hitch D-ring, I now had he option to pull the vehicle from the rear if I ever got stuck in a ditch. With the rear towing point taken care of, I turned my attention to the front.
There were a number of solutions available, each one costing more than the next. The sturdiest solution was to replace the entire front bumper and install a heavy-duty bumper with a built-in winch, or at least recovery points. I did not want the extra cost or added weight (reducing my fuel economy), so I decided to add front recovery points, which mounted to the vehicle’s frame. I chose to install a pair of Rugged Ridge 11236.05 Black Front Tow Hooks, which would allow me to pull the vehicle forward if stuck. This was the most cost effective solution I could find.
Another non-maintenance mod was the addition of a removable sleeping platform. Unfortunately, the backseat of the Jeep did not fold down to form a flat surface suitable for sleeping and the seat bench got in the way. Having a place to crash was one of the reasons why I went with a larger, 4-door SUV.
I looked for a solution and found a fellow traveler, from RambleWriter.com, who built a sleeping deck on the back of his Toyota truck. I was somewhat hesitant to tackle this project. It took me about 4 hours at a hardware store to figure out what size/type screw to use, how thick of a plywood piece I’d require, what glue to use for the waterproof marine carpet I was going to coat the wooden boards with, etc. While it did seem complicated at first, I was able to finish the entire thing in one weekend. Not bad for a first time project.
The original plan was to bolt the flanges of the rear seat to the floor and create a cage of sorts by locking the hatch door with a padlock on the outside and locking the rear seat in place with yet another lock. In the end, I decided to not do this for the sake of being able to easily remove both platforms whenever necessary. I yet may do this in the future, but as of now I haven’t found it necessary to do so.
The front platform (closest to front seats) was built a little differently, with a support board attached with metal hinges. The reason for this was to even both platforms, since the front part of the sleeping deck rested on the slightly higher backseat.
Another important item was the installation of a $50 transmission cooler. The cooler works by keeping transmission oil cool under extreme weather and heavy loads. I installed it myself in under 2 hours, despite never having done anything like that in the past.
Regular maintenance items included two new tires at $150 each. I also had the engine-driven belt replaced and new rotors and brake pads installed in the front.
To avoid any delays finding parts, I also purchased replacement radiator hoses, air filter, belt, light bulbs for front and rear, as well as a battery jump-starter and an air compressor. I also carry a big automotive tool-set, spare gloves, and assorted recovery gear.
For medical emergencies, I acquired a medical kit and a 5-gallon emergency gas can. A locking gas cap, bottle jack and tire repair kit was also added. To avoid issues with police, I also added a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles. For comfort, good ole’ folding chairs.
Other items I purchased specifically for the trip were an Eureka tent, inflatable sleeping pads and sleeping bags. There were many assorted small items on the list, which I’ll mention later if they warrant it.
Based on my experience so far, one can easily get carried away planning for every contingency and possible emergency. Truth is, inconveniences are going to happen when you least expect it and usually, for things you didn’t foresee happening.
Carry the basic repair items that will get you out of tight spot and more than likely you’ll find the solution with the resources you’ll find nearby. Be prepared, but roll with the punches. The trip is supposed to be about all the crazy adventures you’ll tell your friends later, right? ;-)