The ECOA Overlander Buyer’s Guide

Last week I penned a rather heavy handed and long winded defense of the “built not bought” creed.  I did that because the creed, and those who followed it, had been senselessly mocked.  By no means was it intended to be taken as a subversive counter attack at those that “buy not build.” As I said last time, I have no issue where you’re a builder or a buyer.  My issue is when one side attacks the other.  I don’t like it when people resort to mockery and animosity towards their fellow enthusiast.  Indignation aside, my goal is to stimulate a more positive approach to the topic.  As such, am following up last week’s defense of “built not bought” with a Buyer’s Guide.

Click to read on…

Overland Buyer’s Guide

Let me start off by saying that this is not so much as a guide for what to buy but rather advice on how to buy.  There are plenty of great consumer buyer’s guides full of product reviews.  Some are heavily biased and motivated by external pressures from manufactures (the not-so-dirty secret of the advertising world).  Others are heavily biased by brand loyalty and favoritism (color me guilty on this one).  Some are just biased because the author claims to know more than they actually do.  Regardless, I’m not going down that rabbit hole.  I’ll review stuff every now and then but I could never create anything close to a comprehensive buyers guide.  There are far too many products on the market and I don’t have the budget right now to do side-by-side comparisons of similar products.

I’ll also start by saying I’m not going to list brands either.  While I could do that a little easier than I can individual products, there are still a host of biases and limitations in such a process.  There are a few brands you’ll never see me purchase <cough> Shitybilt <cough> because they are just that bad and their business practices are deplorable.  I also have my own favorites and my own fair share of brand loyalty (as I hinted above) which is based on years of experience.  Not something that is easily conveyed to others.

What I can do though is explain the process I use when I’m buying something. I can give you a few of the things I look for, the intangibles that weigh on into my consideration, and the questions I ask before I finally cough up the cold-hard-cash.  It is my hope that whether you’re buying raw materials for your next DIY project or buying the services of a 4wd shop to build your rig for you there is something below that will benefit you.

Step 1: Start a library

Assuming you’re just starting out, or you’ve been around a while and haven’t really organized your plan, before you start shopping or before you start building you need to do one thing right now: go find a 3-ring-binder and a stack of plastic page sleeves.  From this point forward you are going to create an “owners manual” for your overland rig.  Do it.  Serious.  If you open your glovebox the manufacturer of your vehicle was kind enough to give you an owners manual (whether or not you’ve read it is on you).  What you’re going to do is create an owner’s manual for all the modifications that will be made to your vehicle whether you are doing them yourself or someone else is doing them for you.

What you’ll want to do is divide the binder into a few sections.  Electrical, plumbing, suspension, powertrain, drivetrain, interior, exterior, accessories, and other.  These sections will give you a basic foundation to organize things.  As you buy things you’ll want to stick the instructions in the binder.  As things get wired (like lights, winches, etc) you’ll want to map out a wiring diagram (or have the shop do it for you) and stick it in the binder.  Even if you never hold a soldering iron or use a set of wire crimps, you want to make sure there is a wiring diagram for any additional wiring done to your vehicle.  There are some products on the market, like the sPod that will make life easier, but you’ll still want to include the instructions in the binder.  Here’s why:

You’re on an adventure. Over the past week you’ve ventured further and further from home.  On top of that your miles from civilization.  You’ve done it.  You’ve finally reached an area with no cell reception.  Then the worse happens.  You start the truck one day and hear a zap.  A few seconds later you smell the faint hit of smoke.  Luckily there is no fire, thank god.  However now your auxiliary LED lights don’t work.  Now what?

If you think that scenario is far fetched, you’re wrong.  Something very similar to that happened to me while on the 2016 No Highways Tour when I was in Utah.  I flipped the switch for my ViAir onboard air system.  Zap… puff… no air.  Now ask me where my instructions where with the wiring diagram for the air compressor, switch, and relay.  Nope, not with me.  If I had them with me I would have had a less frustrating afternoon as I traced and retraced wires.  Eventually I was able to narrow down the problem to the pressure shutoff switch.  A quick call to ViAir had one on it’s way.  Sadly it was being shipped home and I would have to finish off the rest of the NHT without air.  Not an ideal situation by any means.

Lesson to be learned: shit will happen while on an adventure.  You need to be prepared. Having a library of instruction manuals, wiring diagrams, and other information about the modifications made to your rig is the first step in preventing a bad situation from becoming worse, or god forbid ending your adventure prematurely.  It might also be the first step toward solving the problem.  Either way, better to have it and have it with you than not.

This binder is also a good location to keep your lists.  Lists are great for knowing what to pack and what not to pack.  I good standard of practice (SOP) is to check off items as you use them.  If, at the end of the trip, you have items on your list that you packed and did not use you might want to consider not packing them next time.  It should be noted that a few exceptions like fire extinguishers and first aid kits should be left on the list even if you aren’t using them.  I also hope you’re not using them on every trip.  Same goes for tools.  Some tools may see intermittent use but when needed they are absolutely priceless.  Lists, in general, are great for inventory and prioritizing.  Having them in your library is good practice.

Step 2: Stop Price Shopping

One of the hardest habits to break in this modern consumeristic culture of ours is the predisposition to “price shop.”  The practice of price shopping has garnered too much attention on the bottom dollar.  In the age of Wal*Mart and cheap online shopping it’s easy to look around for the lowest price before buying something.  For some it’s a way to simply save money.  Other’s it’s a necessity because they need to make every dollar count.  There are also some that are just cheap and don’t want to pay full price for anything – ever.  As I mentioned in my article on taking a budget minded approach to overlanding having a budget doesn’t mean being cheap.  In fact, being cheap can cost your more money in the long run despite the money you saved up front.  That’s because there are a host of intangibles that a lot of people ignore when they are shopping.

As a buyer (again, this applies to if you’re buying raw materials or finished products) you need to be informed.  This requires a different outlook on how you value you your money as well as how you value things you don’t normally consider as valuable.  You also need to (re)prioritize things as an overlander in a way that is very different than other 4×4 enthusiasts.  Here’s why:

You’ve spend the last few hours aired down and in four-wheel-drive low-range.  There’s been a shit-eating-grin spread across your face all day.  This is what you’ve been waiting for.  You’re actually doing it.  You’re actually wheeling your rig on an adventure.  You can finally throw it in people’s faces that your rig isn’t a mallcrawler any more.  As you approach the next set of rocks you clench your fists around the steering wheel and ease your foot down on the throttle.  The motor revs, the gears turn, and the tires chirp as they fight for traction on the rocks.  As the vehicle bucks you here a ghastly gnarly pop from the rear.  You get out and find your rear shock has exploded.  As a drop of hydraulic fluid falls to the ground you hang your head in shame wondering if this cheap $300 lift kit was worth it.

For the weekend wheeler this is a bad way to end a day.  They can call it quits, get drug back to the trail head or the parking lot of the off-road park and then sort it out.  Maybe they can call AAA for a tow home or maybe they can thumb a ride and beg a friend for a trailer.  I’ve done both.  I’ve been “that guy.”  However, if you’re an overlander, this becomes a very different scenario.  If you’re 1,000 miles from home in the remote back country the very last thing you want is a lame rig <cue flashback to two blown shocks in Utah during the 2016 NHT; shudders>.  Best case, your rig isn’t 100% immobilized.  Worst case, your stranded.  Now what?

The first question to ask is can such a scenario be prevented?  While every disaster cannot be anticipated or mitigated, you can prevent some pretty easy ones from happening.  One of the most senseless ones to avoid is the failure of a cheap poorly made component.  Equally so the senseless failure of an improperly installed part (no matter how quality the part might be) by a 4×4 shop that decided to cut corners or was too ignorant to install the part properly in the first place.  The key to preventing problems like this is doing your research.

Step 3: Do Your Homework

Before you buy a product or sequester the services of a shop you need to do your research.  Look up product reviews or find owners of rigs the shop has built.  Get referrals.  See what works for people like you who are doing the things you want to do.  If you’re a baseball player you’re not going to ask a tennis player for sneaker recommendations.  Same goes for 4×4’s.  If you’re an overlander you don’t want to be asking a mud bogger about driveline components.  You want to be talking to other overlanders.  Likewise, if you’re a Toyota person you may not want to be asking your Ford enthusiast friend which suspension you should get.  Same goes for shops.  Some shops specialize in rock crawlers, others in pavement princesses, while a small few are qualified to build overland adventure vehicles.  Within a 200 mile range of my house there are at least five shops I’ve visited a time or two.  Two I wouldn’t let touch my rig.  One is a good shop for rock crawlers and trail riders, but isn’t yet up to speed on overland stuff.  Only one actually has a reputation as an overland outfitter.  The last is what I call a “parts pusher.”  When you walk in the only thing they see are dollar signs.  They really don’t care about you as an individual, they just want to sell you all the expensive toys so they can get a fat paycheck.  Not exactly the best approach.  Case in point:

The kid behind the counter smiled when he saw you walk it.  At first you thought he was just being nice.  Looking back on it you must have been an easy mark.  You had just purchased a new 2016 TRD Pro and you were excited to to go try this overlanding thing.  His eyes lit up even more.  You thought it was just because you had a new truck and he was jealous.  He ran you around the shop like a kid in a candy store showing you all the latest and greatest things.  You recognized a bunch of them from that YouTube video series your buddy shared on facebook.  “If it’s good enough for them then it has to be good enough for me,” you thought to yourself.  After a few minutes they kid had a long list of stuff to order for you including a new suspension.  A few weeks later you picked up your truck and man did it look cool.  All the guys at worked complemented it Friday morning when you showed up for a half day because you were “going into the mountains” after work.  Once there, in the mountains, the wife asks you, “So what’s all this for?”  Before you could quip an answer you realized you really don’t know.

Homework isn’t a task to be done out of shame because you’re afraid or unwilling to admit what you don’t know.  Homework is a task of responsibility to help you be prepared.  Knowing why you are buying something is an equal part to knowing what you are buying.  Far too many people use the “ready; fire; aim” method of buying gear.  They see what other people have and assume they needed it.  Not everyone travels the same.  So what works for me may not work for you.  We also have differing levels of comfort.  I grew up a boy scout and later trained with the military.  I can sleep in a hole in the ground if I need to.  Not everyone is like that.  Some people can only get a good night’s sleep on a pillow top over-stuffed mattress (which I’m starting to see the appeal of, so wait till you see the new mattress going into the poor-man’s-teardrop).

Step 4: Be involved in the process

If you fall in the “bought not built” camp (for whatever reason) you need to be involved in the build process.  That’s not to say you need to spend every waking hour looking over your mechanic’s shoulder (hint: they don’t like that).  This just means taking the time to hammer out a build plan before the first wrench is turned, setting standards for the gear that will be bought, as well as establishing expectations in terms of the final fit and finish of the rig.  Checking in from time to time is a good idea since it will give you an inside look at your rig (especially during modifications where some disassembly is required before reassembly).  You’ll also want to have an exit meeting once the rig is finished.  This is when that binder from Step 1 comes into play again.  Have the shop representative sit down with you and go over each individual system with you.  Explain the basics and then show you where the various components are.  Most often most buyers just want to know where the on switch is and if it works.  However, in the event of a failure, having the ability to convey to a mechanic what’s wrong and where the system components are in the rig can save a lot of headache.  Doubly so if you have all the associated paperwork on hand.

Step 5: Be willing to learn

I’m probably beating a dead horse at this point, but it’s never too late to learn.  If you are finding yourself buying rather than building due to a lack of skills then take the time to learn some.  It doesn’t mean you have to learn them over night, but be willing to set aside a little time here and there to pick up small skills.

For instance, if you’ve never changed the oil on your rig this is probably the best time to do so.  A secondary thing to changing the oil itself is being under your rig at regular intervals and noticing if anything is bent, broken, leaking, or otherwise not how it should be.  If you’re the one under there ever 3,000-5,000 miles then you can pick up on things.  If you need to take a few photos and compare them to older photos.  This is also a good time to not-and-bolt suspension components and accessories like winches, bumpers, and the like.  A little intimacy with your rig goes a long way to preventing one loose bolt from becoming a major catastrophe.

Conclusion

Buying rather than building isn’t a taboo.  As I said, just because I ascribe to the “built not bought” creed doesn’t mean I don’t see the appeal of buying a finished turn-key rig.  If I had more money than time then it would be an easy choice.  I can also see, as I get older and get more and more frustrated working on my own rig, how the appeal of doing all of one’s own maintenance can loose its appeal over time.  There have been times, on rare occasions, when I’ve looked at a rather daunting repair and admitted it was, “above my pay grade” or “outside my skill set.”  There have also been a few times I’ve looked at something and recognized the likelihood of me making things worse is much higher than getting it fixed right the first time (which actually just happened).

Hopefully these few trips on how to handle the “bought not built” approach can help you be an informed buyer.  I cannot stress enough how important and powerful knowledge is when you’re in the backcountry.  Being on an adventure means flirting with the fine line between success and disaster.  We’ve all had our “Murphy’s Law” moments.  Know what’s on your rig, how it works, and having a cheat-sheet like a binder of information can often help you – or a local mechanic you find along the way – get your rig back up and running.

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I know this was an odd way to kick off the new year.  I’ll admit this wasn’t at the top of my list for article topics to cover.  That said, the opportunity was there and I also needed to stall.  I had a few packages in transit the last few weeks and I’ve ben waiting for everything to show up.  The last one arrived this week and – if all goes well – next week will be a great topic and some good news for the 2017 ECOA and NHT season.

As always, if you have any questions feel free to contact me.