JATAC Build : Intro

JATAC Build : Intro

JATAC Build“Oh—just a Tacoma.”

 That’s what a forum member posted after Roseann and I announced that the replacement for our classic, turbodiesel-powered 1984 Land Cruiser was to be “just” a U.S.-market Toyota pickup. That post inspired the nickname for our new vehicle: the JATAC, for Just A Tacoma And Camper.

 To be sure, we had considered other options, chief among them a 79-Series Land Cruiser pickup. Our conservation work in East Africa has afforded us thousands of miles of experience using Toyota’s world-market Land Cruiser workhorse Troopie and pickup, and our admiration for the breed has few limits. The 79 has of course never been officially imported to the U.S., but a contact in California had an opportunity to bring in, through Florida, a used but recent example from the Middle East, with left-hand drive and the brilliant 1HZ diesel engine, for right around what an average new 4X4 would cost. Very tempting.


 Two things dissuaded us. First, while our contact had accomplished the importing trick before, and we knew the vehicles left Florida with a valid title (and registering them in rural Arizona where we live would be a simple mail-in procedure), we would nevertheless be circumventing U.S. laws and emissions regulations. More importantly, whatever vehicle we chose would be expected to be a centerpiece at the annual Overland Expo show in Arizona, which we run. And the more we thought about it, the more we realized a 79-Series pickup, however spectacular as a display, would project a “look what we have that you can’t get” attitude we found objectionable.

 In the meantime, both of us have always agreed that the very best combination we ever owned for long-distance travel and back-road exploration was our 2000 Tacoma and the lightweight pop-up camper from Four Wheel Campers we mounted on it. The camper had already traveled over 100,000 miles on our 1992 Toyota pickup equipped with the durable but overmatched 22RE four-cylinder engine, and the move to the Tacoma with its 3.4-liter six, even with an automatic transmission, resulted in significantly better power and exactly the same fuel economy (18 mpg) that the struggling 22RE had managed. However, we eventually sold both Tacoma and camper to pay off our land—and ever after missed the pairing of comfortable and reliable truck with an instantly deployable home-away-from-home.

 In the succeeding years, the Tacoma has grown in size and power, and the Four Wheel Camper has benefitted from many upgrades too. The combination might lack the exotic flair of a 70-Series pickup or even a turbodiesel-powered FJ60, but as an affordable—and attainable—rig, suitable for remote exploration anywhere in the world, we could think of nothing better.

 Something else has changed in the past decade: information technology. The work Roseann and I do on a day-to-day basis, in electronic media and digital imagery, is now essentially free from the need for a fixed office. Given sufficient power and satellite connectivity, we can work anywhere we park. That fact, and the experience we’ve gained driving, owning, and reviewing vehicles here and abroad, helped us decide on the priorities for the JATAC:

  • Complete self-sufficiency in terms of 12V DC and 120V AC power, via photovoltaic generation, an AGM battery bank, and inverter. We want to be able to park in one spot for a week or more and run the camper’s fridge, water pump, and lights, power our two laptop computers, and recharge camera batteries, without having to run the engine to recharge the batteries (a very inefficient approach).
  • The ability to remain connected via the Internet and telephone anywhere we travel, including Africa.
  • The camper must be functional as a living and working space for extended periods. Frequently our work might involve camping outside a city for several days, then visiting a business or interviewing someone in town for an article. We want to be able to show up not looking (or smelling) like we’d been camping for days.
  • Since we frequently travel as a solo vehicle to remote areas, we want the truck to have adequate off-pavement ability and excellent self-recovery potential. This will involve upgrades to the tires and suspension, a rear locker, recovery points, an aftermarket front bumper with winch, and several accessories we’re in the process of reviewing now.

Over the next few months we’ll be tackling these goals, and reviewing the products we decide on (and against). We plan to have the truck and camper essentially completed (although is any such thing ever really completed?) by the next Overland Expo in May.

Jonathan Hanson has been a freelance writer and photographer for 25 years. He was the founding editor of Overland Journal magazine, and now owns the Overland Expo with his wife, Roseann, and manages the Overland Tech and Travel website. The Hansons also run a small non-profit, ConserVentures, which assists community-based wildlife conservation projects on several continents. The JATAC will be the latest in a series of expedition vehicles built to support their research and development efforts. It will be featured at the next Overland Expo, May 17-19. Find out more here.

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