Words: Pete Ellis
Photos: Aaron Morgan
As an avid mountain biker, I’ve spent lots of time outdoors for many years. I’ve always enjoyed camping and backpacking. When I first learned about this type of vehicle-based adventure, I immediately fell in love, thus General Overland was born.
To understand the name, you have to understand I worked for our student newspaper when I was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University. I mainly worked on the photojournalism side of the house, but also learned a good bit about graphic design. I fell in love with super-boring corporate-style graphic design elements and wanted to give myself an assignment so I could create projects to play with. Anybody who’s been following me for a long enough period will remember the first iteration of my brand as National Wheat (how boring of a made-up company name can you possibly get?).
After finding that others started following the social media aspect of my adventures, I decided that a slightly less-inscrutable name was probably not a bad idea. One night when coming back home from a work trip to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, I started brainstorming some more ideas.
One of the things that really stuck out was the number of companies that have built their names on “General.” I’m thinking General Electric, General Dynamics and General Mills among others. Once I determined that the various social media accounts and internet domain names were available, my mind was set and I went full-in on this new brand.
When determining what vehicle to start an off-road career with, I had experience given to me by a few friends who both had Jeep JKs. Quite simply, I wanted to try something a little different (though still fairly well-supported) and a 4Runner seemed to win out on that.
Before embarking on this project, I never considered myself any sort of a “car guy.” Growing up, my family owned Mercedes, Ford, Subaru, Honda, Chevrolet and Toyota vehicles, so there was never too much brand loyalty. I knew of the somewhat boring reliability associated with Toyota (never a brand for much flash, just make a product that’s quietly good) and that helped cement my decision. I actually enjoy the lack of flashy technology in the 4Runner. I’d prefer to let the factory produce solid, unassuming parts and allow me to swap out things with higher technology as I need them.
The vehicle itself tends to be the platform on which your needs are built. In many ways parts can be as functional as they are aesthetic. While I personally disagree with the purpose of purchasing parts based solely on looks, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that. Some folks’ ends are simply for visual appeal; function is secondary. I prefer a functionally-competent build but am also not disappointed if the end result winds up having some amount of visual presence.
Work And Play
Ha, indeed there’s a lot that I take care of in my big-boy job. I travel a lot for work and have spent approximately 150 nights in a hotel last year, alone. With that travel, however, comes a lot of opportunity to be near some pretty cool places. Normally, I’ll take my company truck on assignments, but if I can swing schedules in my favor, I’ll capitalize on the travel I’ll have to do anyway and fold a cool off-road trip into the excursion, as well.
As far as the work I’m able to do on my truck, I’m fortunate to have a few really good shops in the area to help out. Apex Overland is about 90 minutes away from me in Greensboro, North Carolina, and is the absolute best in the area when it comes to the big parts and pieces on the truck. Combine them with East Coast Gear Supply for driveline components which is only about 20 minutes away, I consider myself very privileged to have access to such top-tier shops. Maintenance and normal day-to-day things I will take care of in my driveway, but for the larger items that pretty much require a lift, I’ll gladly let the real professionals take to it.
Most of what I have is all production-level components. The major exception is the rear axle which was custom-built by East Coast Gear Supply for this exact application. They built a Dana 60 differential into a custom housing with all the mounting points specific for this 4Runner application. It was a complete drop-in replacement that they had on the truck and completed in less than a day.
There’s really nothing quite like being able to take the truck on rough roads at decent speeds and simply float over obstacles. More than a few times, I’ve had folks more-accustomed to straight-axle vehicles ride in the truck and comment how surprised they were with the smoothness of the ride.
Obviously, I have to plug here and say the General Overland TreadKeeper rack is up there on my list of favorite mods on the 4Runner. I started producing and selling those racks about a year ago after getting absolutely hounded with questions about them. I joke that I need to keep a tally clicker in my pocket that I can activate whenever someone on the street asks “Hey, what are those orange things on your hood?”
As far as other mods and upgrades, I really want to streamline and clean up a lot of the electrical work on the truck. As I said earlier, I like swapping electronics in-and-out on a fairly regular basis but to do any sort of electrical work cleanly takes lots of time. I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t considered doing a solid axle swap.
Overland Expo And Beyond
The most memorable trip with the 4Runner was my trip to Overland Expo West last year. It’s the biggest trip I’ve done so far. What made it memorable was not necessarily the destination. It was because of all the people I met and places I visited along the way that made it special. The trip was great in that I had a definite start day of when I could leave North Carolina and a definite end day of when I needed to be back in Virginia for my niece’s wedding. Everything in the middle was made up as I went along. That allowed for a lot of really cool detours and “why not?” sort of side trips.
Each location I go to on a fairly regular basis has its own unique draw. Uwharrie National Forest is only a 2 hour drive and has a pretty diverse trail system with some fun technical challenges. The North Carolina Outer Banks offer camping and beach driving and is a great place to hang out at when the weather gets warmer. The National Forests of North Carolina and Virginia offer a more-backwoods kind of feel and are also a great place to cool off whenever the weather gets to be warmer in the lower elevation areas.
Some of the trails at Uwharrie National Forest have their own amount of storied history, especially with some of the more challenging “bonus lines.” After one visit up those trails, I had to do some trail repair on parts of the steering system. During a visit to Alabama, I slid off a solid rut and down into a pretty huge downed oak tree. A really clutch recovery effort by the group I was with helped get the truck out of that with only a minimal amount of paint damage. Finally, the trails at Windrock Park in Tennessee have to offer some of the highest-level technical challenges that I could hope to execute in the truck.
It’s in the planning stages right now, but I will be doing a return trip to the 2020 Overland Expo West. For those who remember last year, I had the privilege of meeting a lot of really great people along the way. I really want to be able to do the same thing again this year while exploring some new regions of the country.
Another more-local trip I hope to be able to take is to Cape Lookout National Seashore along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This island is only accessible by ferry and allows for completely primitive camping along the beach for up to two weeks at a time.
For the most part, a lot of trip planning details can be found as public information. A lot of the routes I take are on public land. Around the East Coast, most of that is U.S. Forest Service roads. The freely-available motor vehicle use maps are invaluable in looking for routes to take. I’ve also had so much fun pointing to a corner of a forest on a map I’ve never been to before and just driving around. Often when just wandering around, I’ll come across a feature or overlook that I otherwise hadn’t known about. Using map pins on the various software around makes coming back to these locations a breeze on future trips.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of talking to people. Some of the best places I’ve been have been from either joining other folks on trips or hearing what they have to say about cool places to go. Develop a network of friends and share from each others’ experiences!
I mainly make sure all the normal boxes are checked when I prepare for a big trip. Maintenance-type things. Torquing bolts and nuts on any sort of suspension components doesn’t hurt. Lubricating bushings and bearings that haven’t been touched in a while. For the most part, I like to stay up on normal preventive maintenance so whenever some buddies want to head out for a weekend, I shouldn’t have too much to do.
2017 Toyota 4Runner SR5 Premium
Armor, Bumpers, Sliders
Budbuilt Complete Skids
Budbuilt Beefy Sliders with Diamond Plate and bump-out
Front and Rear Bumpers from Proline 4WD Equipment
McQueen Prototype Design Fiberglass +4-inch Fenders
General Overland TreadKeeper Recovery Mat Rack
Total Chaos Fabrication +3.5″ Race Series Long Travel Suspension
RadFlo 2.5″ Coilovers with Adjustable Damping on Remote Reservoirs
RadFlo 2.5″ Dual-Bypass Secondary Shocks
Dobinsons 701V Springs
Dobinsons Adjustable Lower Links
RESZ Fabrication Fixed Upper Links
RadFlo 2.5″ Smooth-Body Shocks with Remote Reservoirs
Metal Tech 4X4 Extended Bump Stops
Lighting and Mounts
Apex Overland Dual-Stage 40″ LED Light Bar mounted to roof rack
Apex Overland Dual-Stage 20″ LED Light Bar mounted to front bumper
Apex Overland Ditch Lights with CBI Ditch Light Mount
Apex Overland Dust Light mounted on rear of roof rack
Rigid Industries Spot Fog Lights
Rigid Industries Flood Backup Lights
Warn Zeon 12-S Winch
ActionTrax Steel-Studded Recovery Mats
MORRFlate Tire Inflation System
Gear Storage and Organization
LFD Offroad Full-length Storage Roof Rack
Goose Gear Rear Seat Delete Platform System
Akro-Mils Attached Lid Containers
Rago Fabrication PSD Storage Racks
1UP USA Bicycle Transport Rack
4.88 Front Gears installed by East Coast Gear Supply
ARB Front Air Locker
Custom Dana 60 Rear Axle built and installed by East Coast Gear Supply
ARB Rear Air Locker
ARB Dual Air Compressor for air lockers
Tires and Wheels
Method Race Wheels MR106 Beadlocks
Cooper STT Pro 37×12.5×17
Electronics, Communication, and Mounts
Jackery Explorer 500 Power Station
Jackery SolarSaga 100W Solar Panel
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 10″ Android Tablet
Kenwood TM-D710A Dual-Band Ham Radio Transceiver
Helinox Chair One XL Folding Chair
Tepui Ayer Tent
Mr Heater Portable Buddy Space Heater
Camp Kitchen Gear
GCI Outdoor Master Cook Station
GasOne GS-3400P Dual-Fuel Stove
Rotopax Fuel and Water Storage Containers
EPEVER Solar Charge Controller
Anntlent Cellular Amplifier
Thunderbolt AGM Solar Storage Battery