Due to the popularity of the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger, mid-size truck campers are in high demand. It seems like every mid-size truck owner wants one. The problem with designing such a small camper, of course, is the minuscule payload rating of each truck. In the 1970s and 1980s, builders opted to go with a chassis-mounted approach to save on weight. The Toyota Chinook, which debuted in 1976, was one such camper. Due to its unique shape, compact size and retro look, the Chinook has built up a cult following making the task of finding one even more difficult. As a matter of fact, the Tacozilla, which was revealed at the 2021 SEMA Show, was inspired by this old classic. Austin Mahler and Ashley Stark were lucky enough to score on a 1978 Toyota Chinook and convert it into a 4WD overland truck camper. What’s it like to restore and live in one of these old classics? Austin and Ashley were kind enough to share.
How long have you been full-timing in your Chinook? What do you do for a living?
Austin and I have been full-time in our camper for five months. Before leaving, Austin worked as a heavy equipment mechanic at a gold mine and I was a field technician with Alaska Fish and Game. Since, obviously, these jobs don’t translate into online work, we spent years saving up before quitting our jobs and hitting the road.
Can you tell us about your Toyota Chinook?
Our Chinook (fondly referred to as “Mako”) is really a Frankenstein creation of three different vehicles: 1982 Toyota Hilux, 1978 Toyota Chinook, and a 1999 4Runner drivetrain. While the original Chinook made for an excellent camper, it left a lot to be desired for the full-time overlanding lifestyle, under powered and only two wheel drive compatible, we set out to reconfigure this classic into a rugged powerhouse.
How did you find it?
While we had heard of the Toyota Chinook before, we never actually thought we would own one of our own. They’re relatively hard to find these days and many of the ones that are up for sale are too rusted for much salvation, we’d actually been considering a Sportsmobile when we saw a Chinook pop up for sale on Craigslist. There was no discussion, we just nabbed it immediately. Even better, the Chinook was being sold along with a 1982 4 wheel drive Hilux, exactly the platform Austin wanted to swap the Chinook onto, it felt like fate. They both needed a lot of work, but Austin estimated he could pull it together in about six months, this was a huge miscalculation.
How long did it take for you to restore your Toyota Chinook?
Between college, and full-time jobs, it was a total of four years before we officially completed it. If we were to do it all again, no distractions, I doubt it would take longer than 8 months to churn another one out. There were many instances in the build process where we were just figuring things out as we went along, neither of us are what you would call a talented carpenter or electrician and the whole concept of sewing three different trucks into one is not commonly enough done for there to be very many resources on it. Unfortunately, a side-effect to pioneering a build like this includes getting it wrong and re-doing things from time to time, our first engine, for example, only lasted a mile before locking up and we had to rebuild a whole new one.
Did you have any trouble finding parts for it?
Yes! Vintage camper parts are hard enough to find without the added issue of building out of Alaska, a state that many shipping companies consider “not part of the U.S.” and therefore refuse to ship to. On a number of occasions we had to rely on friends, family, and even strangers, in the lower 48 to pick up a part for us and then personally ship it to Alaska. We had already been traveling three months before we managed to find a compatible AC system for the 1982 Toyota cab, and to this day, we are still on the lookout for hood dampeners and other little odds and ends that we never did track down.
What upgrades/mods did you made to your Toyota Chinook?
To begin with, we swapped the entire Chinook shell onto a 4wd chassis, a monumental undertaking given that we wanted to preserve the pass through style of the camper. This meant sawing a huge hole into the new cab and crossing our fingers that every measurement was indeed perfect. The next biggest upgrade was the engine swap. We replaced the original 22R with a 3.4L V6 that we extracted from a junkyard 1999 4Runner. From there, we’ve upgraded or customized almost every single component, from the bumpers to the axles. The most important upgrades, however, were the small ones that make overlanding full-time possible: we have an onboard air compressor, 6 gallon tank hooked into a water filter, charger ports, more lighting, fully adjustable seats, and a couch that comes apart and reconnects above the cab to become a queen sized bed. Improvements and additions are still being made as we travel, we are currently trying to work out a way to engineer a snorkel set up, despite the fact that the intake is on the “wrong” side for a classic installment.
Do you use solar power or a generator to keep Chinook’s batteries topped off?
We are running a 400 amp hour battery bank complimented with a 100 watt solar panel, managed by a smart isolated solenoid that allows the engine to charge the batteries while it’s running. We, so far, haven’t had need of a generator or a more complex system, however, if we ever needed to replace our batteries we would go with lithium ion in order to shave off a few hundred pounds. Our current battery bank weighs nearly 400 pounds, that same amount of power on a lithium ion set up would barely reach 100 pounds.
Can you tell us about more about the truck? It’s a Toyota Helix, right?
Yes, the truck is a 1982 Toyota Hilux with a long wheel base. The primary reason for choosing this chassis, was a desire for a 4WD set up that wouldn’t take from the classic 80s appearance of the camper. More than just exterior upgrades, in the cab, we did a lot of work on the dash and center console, meshing modern luxuries like touch screen navigation, a back up camera, and a check engine light with the old 80s style interior.
Have you made any upgrades and/or modifications to the truck’s suspension?
With South American parts availability in mind, we chose to keep the suspension fairly simple, only upgrading to more heavy duty springs and shocks from Old Man Emu. The benefit to using Old Man Emu, is the ability to easily switch them out with stock parts, should we ever find ourselves in a pinch.
Do you have any regrets in your choices? Anything you wished that you had done differently?
Other than a lighter battery bank and perhaps a bigger fridge, we are extremely happy with the way things turned out. There were many times over the four year build process where we worried that we were putting all this time and effort into something that might not suit us in the end, it has been so satisfying to find that Mako has been a perfect fit. Even when compared to hundred thousand dollar, state of the art builds, we have never seen a single vehicle that we would want over our own.
What was the biggest challenge during the restoration?
The biggest overall challenge, and a huge reason that our build took so long, was the fact that we were building in a relatively small Alaskan town. It was impossible to find anything we needed right there in town so we were either driving six hours to Anchorage (the biggest city in Alaska) or waiting weeks for parts to come in by mail. Additionally the cold presented a huge problem, we once paid over 400 dollars in a month trying to heat the shop we had rented and still barely managed to keep the temperatures above 50 degrees.
Have you made any mistakes relating to the restoration and use of it that would help our readers?
Absolutely, for example, we left Alaska without a working AC system, thinking that we would be just fine. Fast-forward to Death Valley and we were so desperate for cool air, we ended up wasting a lot of time and money hacking a window Ac unit into one our cabinets. Had we taken the time to make it a priority beforehand, we would have been able to work out something much more elegant and saved all the discomfort. Another early on mistake was to installing all new OEM brakes, after only a week, they were worn out and warped, it hadn’t been enough to handle how much extra weight was now on the truck. We wound up upgrading them a second time to a bigger and stronger brake design.
What kind of mileage are you getting?
We average about 14 mpg, though with a good tail wind we have seen Mako get almost 19 mpg.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run?
We run BF Goodrich ko2 tires sized 33×10.5 R15 at 45 psi on pavement and about 14 psi when running off-road.
Do you have any favorite places or trails you like to explore? What was the most difficult and challenging?
So far, Washington and Arizona are the states that have given us the most to explore. We completed the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route with the only casualty being a popped a tire, and the Devil’s Bridge trail in Sedona, Arizona is about as close to rock-crawling as we want to get in our home. The most challenging trail by far, is the one we recently did in Mexico, at the end of the road we found that the motor mount had broken, causing the fan to push into the radiator. In addition to using pig puddy for the pin-hole leak in the radiator, we had to ratchet strap the motor down and slowly make it off the trail in pitch darkness, crossing our fingers that nothing else would go wrong.
What are the challenges living in it?
The big challenge for us is hygiene. We don’t have anything at all set up for an on board bathroom and with only a 6 gallon tank we are better equipped for rinsing off than actual showers. Also, should anything break on the truck, it can be extremely difficult to find a place to go fix it. It’s been an unexpectedly humbling experience to have strangers so willing to help us out when we’ve run into trouble. In Salt Lake City, Wasatch Overland lent us their shop when we needed to pull the transmission and replace a leaking seal. In Arizona we camped in @sunroameroverland’s backyard while replacing head gaskets, and most recently, @longbeachracers offered us a beautiful place to stay while we patched up our radiator and motor mount in Baja.
Have you done any off-roading with your truck camper rig?
Yes, with such a tight budget, we try to stick to free-camping spots, which are almost always well off the road. This means that, to some degree, we are taking Mako off-road at least twice a day. Off-roading was a bit of a gateway drug on the road to full blown overlanding, we’ve been doing it together since we met in high school and it remains one of our favorite things to do, nine years later.
Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited so far?
Arizona in general was breathtaking, with a wealth of off-road trails, dispersed camping, and a deeply fascinating history, I would move there in a minute. The stretch of Highway 89 from Flagstaff into Sedona is one of the most beautiful of our trip (we’ve done it five times now), second only to the oceanside cliffs of Highway 101. More than just being beautiful, Baja, Mexico, has been exactly the adventure we had been looking for, everyday is a challenge wrapped in about seven layers of beautiful.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Roughly 120 days of traveling and I’ve only felt fear in two of them, the first was on a beach in the Olympic Peninsula. Having never spent the night on a beach before, we didn’t know to check tide charts or any of the other safety precautions, we merely set up camp well above the high water mark and thought that would be good enough. That night, we woke to find the tide had risen much further and much more rapidly than we had anticipated, so much so, that our way off the beach was now blocked by water and a massive tree trunk. We passed the night pacing around truly worried that we were going to lose Mako to the all-consuming tide. In the end, the water stopped rising about two feet from our tires and everything was okay, but we learned a lesson we won’t soon forget about tide charts and moon cycles. It turns out, we had been beach camping on the night of a supermoon.
The second took place in a small town in Kentucky. Driving through, it was eerily empty, not like it had been abandoned years previously, but like everyone had up and left just hours ago. Forty minutes in this town and the only life we saw had been a Toyota Tacoma that had been behind us for the last 100 or so miles. We stopped to take pictures in front of one of the creepy stone buildings, but we both had goosebumps, our phones weren’t working, and our dog, Ivy, was acting really strange. We started to drive out of town and suddenly that same Tacoma appears out of nowhere in the rear view. At the time, we had been having issues with our engine fan, so as we started to overheat we pulled over to the side of the road and, to our dismay, the Tacoma followed our lead. At this point it was weird how long they had been behind us and they had pulled over awkwardly so that they were now facing us. We didn’t want them following us all the way to our camp that night, so we figured we’d just wait until they left first. It was a full hour of sitting there before the Tacoma finally sped off back in the direction we had come from. Long story short, we wound up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot that night and, for the first time in the history of Walmart camping, were extremely happy to safely be there over the spot we had chosen in the woods.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
The outdoors is a major reason we love this lifestyle. We are always on the lookout for great hiking trails, and thanks to the America the Beautiful Pass, have enjoyed exploring over 20 national parks so far. We decided against bringing our own kayaks on the trip, as it added way too much height/weight, but we did keep the kayak mounts attached so that we could easily rent them wherever we go. Diving is another big hobby of mine, when we were in the thick of planning and building Mako, I tried to convince Austin that attaching an on board air compressor for filling dive tanks was a reasonable idea.
Do you have any advice for those thinking about buying living full-time in a truck camper?
Buy Once Cry Once is cliche for a reason. For example, we went cheap on recovery boards, and they broke the first time we used them. We upgraded to the more capable USActiontrax and even when we put them under a 20,000-pound motorhome, we were not disappointed. This same principle has applied to our foldaway chairs, compact towels, battery bank (should have gone with lithium!) and hiking shoes. Another one is not to feel pressured over doing and seeing everything. The first couple months of our trip, we spent all our time racing from point to point and eventually we realized that we weren’t really enjoying it, we were merely checking boxes on a list of places we wanted to see rather than really experiencing them.
Do you have any advice for those thinking about buying a classic like the Chinook and restoring it?
When buying a classic, like the Chinook, be prepared for a lot more part searching/work than with a newer rig. Don’t be discouraged if it takes much longer than expected, it took us eight times longer to finish ours. It’s a process, and rushing it only creates more work. We didn’t plan to strip the entire truck down to the frame, but the further Austin inspected the more damage he’d notice. Since this would be our home, we replaced every nut, bolt, and bushing, this may not be necessary if you aren’t planning on putting it through the wringer. To that point, once you “finish” a restoration like this, don’t expect the work to be done or discouraged if it’s not. I’m currently writing this from a guest house in Mexico where we are stranded until we find an aluminum welder for our radiator. We are constantly improving or fixing things and, at first, this really got us down, it felt as though we had failed. Come to find out, that every full-time overlander or classic vehicle restorer had gone through this exact phenomena, we are reimagining relics of the past and working them harder than most modern cars ever will be. Things happen, and it’s an adventure when they do.