Modifying vehicles for overlanding can lead you onto a slippery and costly slope. Maybe, just maybe, Sand Sherpa got this one just right
We have been busy this last month fully kitting out our Toyota Hiluxes for camping and overlanding. Many years of experience modifying vehicles of various types has taught me an expensive lesson - keep it simple and easy(ish!) to return back to stock.
Everything on our modification list was done for practicality. The Alucab canopy was the first thing to add so we have a more usable bed for the pick-up and could mount our Sand Sherpa roof-top tent and Alucab 270-degree shade awning. It is light with its aluminium construction and very versatile, coming with light fittings and mounts to factory-attachment points as standard, requiring no modification to the truck bed.
The canopy is also great to attach accessories inside the truck, as you'll see below. My favorite is the lightweight aluminum table that slides straight into the roof, which makes for a great party trick when you rock up to camp. We stripped out the bed of the truck early on, removing the plastic tray and sliding tonneau cover that comes as standard in Adventure trim. This saved more than one third of its storage capacity and we added a spray liner instead, opting for the LineX brand. The plastic tray wastes a huge amount of space and I can only think that this part was not originally designed for this model. Just a few weeks' use had also seen it accumulate a large amount of sand in the space between the plastic and bodywork.
Second major install was a drawer system, also from Alucab. These are the perfect size as each accommodates two ammo boxes, which we have found are perfect to stow everything from recovery gear to cooking utensils. I like having drawers as they make your gear very accessible and also secure from rolling around your tray, although there is a weight compromise as each set weighs 50kg.
In the Sand Sherpa camping trailers, we flattened the surface either side of the drawers to create one large, even bed. We then installed compartments for extra storage on either side. For the vehicles though, we wanted the versatility of maintaining space next to them, allowing us to strap larger items to mounting points and keeping them secure by lashing to mounting points on the side of the truck bed, or to the drawers. This works really well, especially when carrying loads such as gas tanks and jerry cans. When taking our vehicles on trips, I have recently taken to using one side of the drawers to keep a dual-piston compressor and recovery gear. On the other I pack an Ooni pizza oven and QuickPitch gas-heated shower unit. These two bits of kit have become the ultimate luxuries in our packing list.
Third install was a dual battery system. I have had issues getting these fitted in Dubai on two previous builds (I have discovered that electrics is not a forte of most garages) and this time I sought the help of Siddarth (Sid) from Overland GCC (overlandgcc.com) to source all the components and he kindly supervised the install from a specialist marine electrician we are lucky to have on the payroll. This proved to be a great decision. We placed the Renogy auxiliary battery in the back of the truck at Sid's recommendation (keeping it cooler than in the engine bay and easier to access) and fabricated a frame for it in-house along with a Renogy DC charger and an inverter. The frame was secured to the canopy and to the drawer system to avoid drilling any holes into the truck itself. We also have an extension plug with additional 220V outlet plugs and USB connections as a charging station.
The dual battery system was needed as we run a fridge on most trips. The vehicles are never sitting long enough to benefit from solar and this now enables us to run them easily for a full day and overnight if needed. For our off-road training vehicles we also fabricated some mounts for a TV monitor which we use for briefings and a tray next to it that covers the battery. Both of these are also mounted into the canopy using the factory provided recess points. This is for both convenience and safety as it keeps the terminals out of the way and the tray is a great place to keep phones etc. while charging.
We searched for various water tank and water pump options. Solutions ranged from AED280 (polypropylene) to AED3K (custom aluminium) for the tank and in the end we opted for an off-the-shelf "Saudi tank" at the lower end of the scale. The only thing that put us off was available space, as it was just a little too large to fit behind our drawer system. The tank we went for has a 105L capacity and fits upright at the front of the tray to keep weight as forward as possible. To solve the issue with the drawers, we removed the standard Alucab handles and moved the unit a few centimetres back, replacing the plastic handles with flexible wire covered in plastic. This gave us all the room we needed and optimised our space to the millimeter!
The water tank is also mounted to the drawer system and canopy to - you guessed it - avoid drilling into the truck. Our water pump also has a custom mount attached to the canopy and a quick release hose connects to a trigger activated showerhead. This can be easily interchanged when using the water heater, which we mounted to a custom fabricated frame that slides straight into the canopy roof.
An 8.9kg Emirates gas cylinder fits like it was tailor-made to the side of our drawer system (we had some luck for once, as this wasn't by design!). I'd prefer something a little smaller, but didn't fancy an inter-emirates commute to refill gas each time with something like a Cadac bottle. We lash the cylinder onto a mounting point for further security.
With the 105kg extra weight in the rear when we have a full water tank (1 litre of water weighs 1kg), drawer system (50kg - static), aux battery and accessories (20kg - static), fridge (30kg - variable), cargo (20kg - variable), rooftop tent (70kg - static), canopy (60kg - static) and awning (24kg - static) meant a static payload of approx. 224kg and variable of up to around 400kg fully loaded. This made the truck sit a little squat at the back.
We did some research and found that Ironman 4x4 supplies complete replacement leaf spring packs that increase the GVM of the vehicle to between 200kg and 400kg. I reached out to Ashraf at Ironman UAE, who really knows his stuff, and we had a kit fitted to one vehicle as a trial, but found that the standard tubular shocks that marry to them were now a little too short for the aftermarket part.
This is where the issue lies with modifications as they can progress like a set of dominoes with one change requiring another. As we planned to lift the vehicles 2-inches in the medium term, we brought that forward to make a lasting change rather than one that saves money now and costs more in the future (as the replacement shocks would be made redundant after the lift). Ashraf offered us a package deal on the four vehicles and we opted for the well-regarded foam cell suspension and haven't looked back. The new suspension has transformed the ride both on and off-road. We barely feel the difference between empty and full payload and the trucks now have enhanced towing capabilities for the Sand Sherpa trailers.
Last in the mix was a winch as it is by far the safest assisted recovery method in most cases. We opted to stick with Ironman and fitted their top-of-class 12-ton synthetic rope winch. We had a custom mounted frame built (also by Ironman) and this is hidden behind the bumper just under the number plate. We love that this is inconspicuous and the truck otherwise looks standard.
There are a great number of smaller additions and modifications that are added to our build, some of which you'll spot in our photos and videos. But - famous last words! - hopefully the bulk of work has been done and these trucks will serve us well on Sand Sherpa trips in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and beyond!
- Rob Nicholas