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Sandy Cats: 2019 Toyota 4Runner

Sandy Cats: 2019 Toyota 4Runner

Words:Oleg Flaksman (@SandyCats_) | Photos: Kevin Sugiyama

I was raised in Brooklyn, NY, and somehow found off-roading on the East Coast in 2007. I then moved to SoCal for off-roading. I used to spend almost every weekend at the Hammers before KOH got big. Eventually, I started returning to my roots and went back to rock climbing and mountaineering. Once I had my first child five years ago, my family decided to get a Toyota and try overlanding. It was a perfect option for an outdoor lifestyle with small children. 


By trade, I am a private investigator. However, I was in the off-road game before the “overland tax,” and the product fluff was real. I started a YouTube channel talking about real expectations from products and overlanding in general. That grew into a few products that allowed me to reduce the overland tax and create more functional products for users.


I also volunteer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Mountain Search and Rescue. I continue mountaineering in my free time but spend more time overlanding with my kids nowadays. So far, I spent six weeks overlanding with my (now) 3- and 5-year-old and my beautiful wife. We usually roll in two 4Runners. 


I’ve been rock climbing since I was a kid. I became bored and started mountaineering when rock climbing started having no risk (due to my increased skill). I need risk in my life. When my off-roading skills improved, I also got bored of the Jeep… I did every challenging trial I could find. With overlanding, I doubt I’ll ever get bored because there are infinite places to explore. Eventually, we will send the rigs overseas when the kids get older.


Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs
Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs

The First 

The first off-road rig I bought was a 2007 Jeep Wrangler JKU. Eventually, that followed me to California, and it’s now a trailer queen on 40s. My favorite thing about the Jeep was that I could take the doors and top off, therefore I sold the doors and top to afford a good suspension setup! My favorite thing about it is that it’s a beater on 40s that I can abuse, and I’m not worried about rolling it, given my Toyota is my main rig now.  I didn’t have an automotive background when I first started,I learned to change the oil on my cars when I was 21 because I couldn’t afford to pay for it. I’m a YouTube mechanic now! [Laughs]

Sandy Cats

I chose the name Sandy Cats for my Toyota. A few friends and I went to rappel a canyon named Boundary in Zion on zero sleep. We were told it was hell to get out. Eight hours into the canyoneering trip, we are on an almost vertical slope, climbing 2000 feet up. The only way to stop from falling is to dig small holes for your hands and feet to use as “steps.” One of us said we looked like cats digging in the sand, and the name stuck.

I chose a Toyota for luxury! I didn’t want to overpay for a new Lexus then; the Toyota was more luxurious than my Jeep! Plus, the KDSS system sounded awesome, but eventually, I ripped it out. Now, I cherish it for its reliability. I wasn’t a fan of Toyota before. I’ve always been a Jeep guy for toys and a Mercedes guy for daily driving. I never owned a Toyota, but now we have three Toyotas and zero Mercedes cars.

Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs

The Build

My initial build was sourcing all recommended parts on forums and YouTube—all bolt-on stuff. Within 10,000 miles, I broke the steering rack twice, blew my rear diff, and went through rear shocks every 1,000 miles. I quickly learned not to listen to forums. I also learned that these rigs cannot handle heavy weight if you truly use them off-road. Therefore, I took two years to rebuild the vehicle entirely from scratch to handle the hefty weight. Now, I believe the vehicle is bulletproof. I chose most of the parts by either going with the strongest parts available or by trial and error (that was costly). My theory is that my rig can carry all the heavy loads, and my wife’s 4Runner will be super light; she will just carry the clothes and bedding. Therefore, I do not need to beef up her rig too much. Ultimately, I built a vehicle that drives exceptionally on the highway, has Toyota reliability, can carry hefty loads, proved its overland capabilities by completing the Idaho BDR recently, and will prove its rock-crawling capabilities by completing the Rubicon trail. 

I started with shops, but once you get this customized, you must do it yourself. I ended up rebuilding the whole rig myself. I would say that ½ of the two years spent on the build was research and testing time (building and rebuilding). I learned to weld on this rig and built a badass shop around this rig. I learned a ton!

Every inch of this rig has custom fabrication except for the front bumper and roof rack. The two most significant projects were the suspension and rear bumper. I wanted a rear bumper with a single swing arm that could hold about 200 pounds (37” tire, 10 gallons of water, 2.5 gallons of diesel, full-size table, propane tank, and a hi-lift). I also wanted a usable tailgate. I built two bumpers from scratch and only upon completion realized they were way too heavy and wouldn’t function as intended. Eventually, I trashed them and ordered an OutGear Solutions bumper that I ended up welding into the frame and reinforcing. It’s solid and works as intended. I only had to compromise on losing the tailgate option. I would say that the project was probably over 100 hours overall.

I wanted to be a crawler, an overlander, and a Baja racer all at the same time while carrying 3000 pounds of extra weight. I chose the Marlin Crawler RCLT suspension kit because it is the only kit on the market (to date) that utilizes a beefier rack (LC200) and considers all the proper geometry to get the rack to function as intended. I wanted a secondary shock for adjustability as I am not running a front sway bar. I spent a month figuring out the proper geometry to fabricate a secondary shock into the kit and get whole travel usability. 

I wanted to move my lower shock brackets to axle height in the rear, as I had already broken my factory brackets twice. I also didn’t want to cut into the cab for the upper mounts. Then, I wanted to add an anti-rock behind my LRA tank. This was a difficult task with what seemed impossible: packaging. I ended up cutting all the factory mounts off my frame and building all new mounts from scratch with a hooped upper shock tower. Eventually, I was able to package everything as I wanted. Then, I had to build a custom panhard bar between my Dana 60 pumpkin and my LRA tank. 

Ultimately, I ended up with 10” of rear shock travel. Once on 37s, I had to cut the quarter panel a bit for clearance, and my down travel stops when my upper control link hit the gas tank. Therefore, I utilize 100% of my travel on my factory 4-link. I decided not to three-link the rig because I wanted to keep stock geometry. I can’t bomb in the desert, but I go 60, no problem. I can’t be a Hammer rig, but I did John Bull in two hours without a spotter. And I can still comfortably drive 80 down the freeway on long trips. I’m stoked with my compromises.

I just installed a TacoBox with a triple shifter, and I am done with this rig. The overlading setup can’t get better with all the time and thought that went into this rig. And everything else for rock crawling (three-link or portals) will take away from the overlanding. I feel I found the happy place with my rig.

As of now, this is for family travel. We spent six overlanding trips out of this rig last year and plan on increasing our time. We find our kids grow and mature so much faster when overloading. The first five days are always tricky, but then everyone finds their rhythm, and it becomes home. Eventually, we plan on more extensive trips, including mountaineering in the itinerary. 


Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs
Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs

The Faves

These are my favorite mods on the Toyota:

Long Range America Tank: I now have about 50 gallons of capacity. I stop less at gas stations. I never get range anxiety on the trails. And I can fill up before driving into CA and use that gas for a while… the tank already paid for itself!

Camplux hot water heater paired with my Sandy Cats water system: We always have instant hot water on board. I get out of the driver’s seat and just press a button on the bumper, and it’s instant—zero setup time. You don’t know what you’re missing until you have it! It makes it so my wife and kids can go on two-week trips, and it feels more like home than camping.

Air-conditioned seats: Need I say more?

OutGear Solutions bumper: With my setup on the bumper, it changed our kitchen game. We went from a 5-minute kitchen setup/takedown to 30 seconds. 


Front/Rear ARB lockers: I never trust factory lockers to work when needed. With the ARB lockers, my crawling game is so much better due to the confidence they bring. 


Airbags: I installed airbags in my coils with a controller for each bag. I modified the controller for more control. On the Rubicon trail, I was using these all the time! I can fill when needed, make my off-camber feel like it’s back on the camber, and climb waterfalls by lifting my rear.

Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs

The Best Memories 

Since I finished the build in June, my time with it has been limited. The Idaho BDR was an amazing trip. We drove to Boise, then did 1360 off-road miles to the Canadian Border. Two rigs, 13 Straight days in a tent with my wife, two kids, and best friend (he had his tent!). Our time as a family and watching my kids handle the challenges is unforgettable. I never remember the final destination… the journey is what I am always chasing. 


My favorite all-time trip on the rig before it was built was in Baja. We slept on the beach, woke up to a hurricane, and got lost in the northern Baja mountains on horse trails. We spent hours building (widening) trails and sleeping on trails in sketchy spots. And we barely made it home with all the rigs. 


My favorite spot I’ve ever camped at was the Deadwood Reservoir in Idaho. Coyote flats in the Sierras were great, too. We spent so much time exploring locally that we burned out. We travel at least 1000 miles from home whenever we start an overlanding journey.


Challenge Accepted

I’ve done almost every trail in the Hammers, Calico Gatekeeper up and down, put the Jeep on its side somewhere near Truckhaven, Rubicon trail, and Fordyce trail multiple times. The scariest trail was Black Bear Pass Through! I was with my 17-year-old daughter, two-year-old son (at the time), and best friend, Ryan. We were in my wife’s 4Runner on 34s. We started late during monsoon season and saw the storm coming. I raced up the mountain and passed a few suited-up rigs doing a world tour from South America. We did the entire trail in about 45 minutes. It started storming on us during the final switchbacks, but we made it down. We later learned on IG (we followed the world tour guys) that they were stuck at the top and were rescued by search and rescue. They left their rigs up there for a few days.

Going down the shelf road right before the right turn on Black Bear Pass… looking down at Telluride with my kids in the car and no one else on the trail (that we saw) was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done off-road.

Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs

Plan & Prep

I come from a mountaineering and search and rescue background; therefore, my trip planning is very detailed. I start by downloading as many variations of the route as possible. I then use OnX Offroad and Gaia for GPS files and downloads. I plan the entire trip with routes, campgrounds, and stops. Then, I make three backup campgrounds and routes. That only failed me once (in Baja when the roads were gone). Everyone who goes on trips with me feels like we get fortunate with on-the-fly preparation and campsites –  that’s just because I am OK with changing plans multiple times as the backups already exist in my head, but no one knows about them! And we always have Starlink and Gaia Inreach with us. We always have three days of food, water, and shelter.

Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs
Sandy Cats Toyota 4Runner | Adventure Rigs


2029 Toyota 4Runner “Sandy Cats”


Wheels & Tires

  • 37 x 12.5 x 17 Toyo Open Country RT Trails on Method 108 Beadlocks (my daily setup)
  • 37 x 12.5 x 17 Cooper STT Pro’s on Black Rhino Primm beadlock wheels  (my crawling setup)
  • 35 x 12.5 x 17 Toyo Open Country RT Trails on HDR beadlock wheels (my long-distance setup)


  • Magnuson Supercharger with YotaWerx tune
  • AFE Cold Air intake 
  • Safari Snorkel
  • Borla Exhaust
  • CSF Aluminum Radiator
  • 4 Transmission coolers + fan
  • Large power steering cooler + fan


  • Dana 60 Rear with 40 spline
  • 4.56 Nitro Gears
  • ARB Front and Rear air lockers
  • RCV Axles in front


  • Front: Marlin Crawler 2.75 RCLT kit with Land Cruiser 200 steering rack. Custom-built secondary shock mounts. Radflo coilovers on 650-pound springs. Radflo 2.5” double bypass secondary shocks. Radflo hydraulic bump stops.
  • Rear: Custom hoops/ raised lower shock mount at the axle. 3.0 Triple bypass Radflo shocks. Radflo hydraulic bump stops. Metaltech lower and upper rear control arms (to push rear axle back). Dobinson 849V Coils with Airlift 60769 airbags. Airbags are controlled in the cab with custom switches that allow constant depression while crawling.
  • Sway Bar: Removed KDSS and utilized only the rear anti-rock sway bar custom-built by TK1 Racing.
  • Limiting straps all around

Exterior Mods

  • Custom wrap by Pureblind
  • Custom aluminum fender liners
  • Velox Gullwings (both sides)
  • Custom-designed wrap by Pureblind Wraps


  • Baja Designs XL Pro (pair), Squadron Pro (pair), Squadron SAE (pair), and S2 Sport (pair) on the front bumper – all Yellow
  • Rigid 30” white lightbar on the front bumper
  • Baja Designs S2 Sport on the rear roof rack
  • Baja designs S2 Sport cut into the rear factory bumper
  • 8 Baja Designs Rock lights 


  • Smittybilt X20 12,000 pound winch
  • Maxtrax Boards
  • Hi-Lift
  • Sandy Cats Kinetic Recovery Rope and Soft Shackles
  • Various Tree Savers


  • Two 95L Roam cases
  • Southern Style Offroad roof rack
  • Goosegear drawer system
  • ARB Awning with awning room

Electronics, Communication, In-Cabin Accessory Mounts

  • Switchpros Switch System for all my lighting
  • Amazon 8 Switch Panel for all my fans, air and lockers
  • Dual ARB air compressor
  • Custom-built air system for rear airbags
  • Rago Fabrication mounts
  • Garmin Inreach
  • ScanGuage 3
  • Ipad for navigation
  • Icom 2730 for communications
  • WeBoost
  • Starlink
  • RedArc BCDB1240
  • Victron management system
  • Victrom 400W Inverter
  • EcoFlow 100 battery (backup)


  • Alpine Halo 9 Head Unit
  • 6 Focal Speakers
  • Alipne PSU-300FRN Subwoofer
  • Anytime backup camera
  • Sound Deadening throughout

Camping Gear

  • Devos lighting
  • My media kit
  • XVenture Diesel Heater
  • Sandy Cats Roof top tent
  • MSR 8-person ground tent
  • Exped Mattresses
  • Jetboil Stoves and burners
  • Sandy Cats Water and Shower System (10 gallons)
  • Camplux Water heater
  • ARB Zero 73 Qt fridge
  • ClearView Easy Slide fridge slider (customized)

Miscellaneous Gear

  • Custom Leather Seats and door upholstery
  • Mercedes headliner
  • Heated and cooled front seats\
  • Ceramic Tint
  • Long Range America 24-gallon gas tank
  • Dominion Offroad shovel
  • Agawa Saw



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