February 25, 2022
Upland hunting? You’re probably thinking, “What more do you need besides a shotgun and some shells?” Those two things are indeed very important for wingshooting, but add to the mix some unmaintained Forest Service roads, a couple of dogs and their gear, camping equipment, and maybe a buddy and your vehicle just got that much more important on your kit list. Chasing upland birds across the Mountain West has captured the hearts of many hunters—this one included. To adequately, safely, and successfully fill my bird vest, over the years, my wheels have had to be upgraded from a stock daily driver to a capable overland vehicle.
Early in my hunting career, my Toyota 4Runner was more than enough vehicle for my cross-country hunting adventures. With a few modifications, I turned my stock SUV into a perfectly proficient hunting rig that was an ideal size for me, my Lab, and our gear. We’d embark on multiple hunting excursions each fall with our camping done in a small A-Liner trailer we towed behind.
However, when I moved permanently to the West and added another gun dog to my pack, I realized my SUV just didn’t offer enough room for two dogs and gear. I needed a truck. A stock truck would probably get me through okay, but when you’re on backcountry adventures in pursuit of wild game, who wants just “okay” capabilities? The mountains are unforgiving on vehicles—it’s common for BLM and Forest Service roads to have not seen maintenance in many years—and let’s not forget unpredictable weather that can leave your truck belly deep in mud. (Just ask the editor of this publication about that.)
Simple modifications would transform my stock Toyota Tundra into a capable upland truck. Luckily for me, I had moved to Utah, the state where truck mods are second nature. I needed a reputable garage for my build, and a recommendation from my friend Julie with Toyo Tires sent me in the direction of Nish Bekearian with Ultimate 4x4 & Accessories.
A chat with Nish confirmed that he and his team were experts on all things overland-truck related. “You don’t want that much off-set on your tires and here’s why,” “Those steps are durable, these aren’t,” “You need a spacer up front,” “That lightbar won’t fit,” and on and on. After an hour-long phone call with Nish, I had my gear list of what to add to my truck to make it perfect for my needs and upland pursuits.
My rig is now built for storage, safety, and off-road capabilities. Paired with my lightweight camping trailer, I’ve turned my stock truck into a fully capable upland rig ready for adventure at a moment’s notice.
I started with the basics. The stock wheels and tires had to be replaced. I had run Toyo tires on my 4Runner, and they had lasted me tens of thousands of miles. So Toyo was the obvious choice for the Tundra. The new Toyo Open Country A/T III offered me a rugged tire with aggressive sidewalls for off-road driving coupled with a smooth ride while travelling on-road. The designers behind Toyo enhanced the tread design of the new A/T III’s to give you 3-D multi-wave sipes and staggered shoulder lugs to enhance off-road traction.
I paired the tires with 17-inch KMC KM544 Mesa Wheels. They’re built with a one-piece cast construction, making them extremely lightweight yet strong—just the extra durability I needed for the backcountry.
The lightbar on my 4Runner had helped me find camping spots on public land late at night, as well as helped light up backcountry roads for safety against big-game ditch grazers. I had considered several lightbar manufacturers, but the Tundra front bumper comes with an opening perfect for a Rough Country 30-inch LED Light Bar. For less than $300, the lighting kit mounts with a simple and easy installation that doesn’t require you to remove your front bumper, brightly lights up the road, and is controlled by an on/off switch that sits on my steering panel for quick illumination when needed.
My stock Tundra didn’t come with steps, and after adding the Toyo tires and a spacer to the front suspension, my rig now sat three inches taller, making it a long way up to get behind the wheel and a long way down when exiting the cab. The Rough Country Cab Length AL2 Drop Steps fixed the problem of having to leap into my truck and also provided a spot to scrape mud off my boots after a long, wet day afield before entering.
When you’re off backpack hunting for a few days at a time in an area with no cell service, you don’t always remember all the roads you drove in on. A factory built-in GPS system in the Tundra was an option only if I had upgraded models. That’s where the Garmin Montana 700 saved the day. This GPS unit provides typical step-by-step road navigation, as well as topographical maps, public land boundaries, weather, and even dog tracking when paired with the Astro or Alpha series collars. It also offers InReach technology for two-way messaging and SOS capabilities to stay in touch with loved ones when you’re off-the-grid.
As an additional safety net when traveling off-the-grid, I mounted an ARB High Output On-Board Air Compressor in the engine compartment. For just $300, the compressor gives me instant air in case of a flat tire, allows me to inflate or deflate my tires based on the terrain I’m traversing, and also allows me to pressurize things such as my RoadShower for a quick rinse in the backcountry or a packraft for a river crossing.
Bed Protection and Storage
A truck bed cap wasn’t ideal for my needs for many reasons, and frankly, I didn’t want one. But I did want something to protect gear that I store in my bed from weather and prying eyes. I opted for a DiamondBack HD cover. The aluminium-alloy cover provides bombproof protection for precious cargo while giving me more hauling space. The HD includes up to 12 anchor cleats to strap down up to 1,600 pounds of gear on top of the cover, which means I can easily strap dog kennels, coolers, gear boxes, and even my rooftop tent for early-season hunting (see sidebar), and more. The HD opens in two spots, making it easy to access equipment stored in the front or back half of my bed, and two deadbolt-style locking systems keep my kit protected when I’m away from my truck.
For extra storage and organization, I added the DiamondBack Cross Bin 8: an eight-inch-deep storage drawer that sits under the HD cover, which makes for a great spot to store essential gear such as tools, air compressor hose, jumper cables, dog leashes, first-aid kits, and more. DiamondBack also offers a ton of accessories to add to the underside of your cover, including a toolbar to hold items such as a shovel, recovery equipment or even your shotgun or rifle. To light up your truck bed for an early morning gear check or late at night at camp set up, DiamondBack offers a polycarbonate LED strip light powered by AA batteries with a simple touch on/off switch.
To add more organization to the bed of my truck and for gear that I need to access quickly, I added Victory 4x4 MOLLE Bed Paneling to the driver and passenger sides of my truck bed. These panels are CNC machined from heavy-duty steel for durability. Best part: I was able to mount them using my already included bed rail system. Both panels add extra storage space for gear such as dog collars, check cords, a gun cleaning kit, hunting knives, a hatchet, and more.
Diamondback Rack System
When I upgraded to to the Tundra, I decided against mounting my rooftop tent on the roof of the truck. I had done that for years on the 4Runner, and user insight is that it’s a pain in the ass to get on and off at that height.
My desire for a truck bed cover made things interesting when I tried to figure a way to mount the tent over the bed of the Tundra. There aren’t many manufacturers that make racks that fit under tonneau covers without some manipulation, and I wasn’t interested in that.
Cue up a Front Runner and DiamondBack collab and my problem was solved. The two manufacturers teamed-up to fix a problem many overland enthusiasts share. The Front Runner x DiamondBack Rack System is designed specifically for DiamondBack HD and SE covers. Six individual tracks mount easily simply by drilling into your cover, which allows two load bars to hold your rooftop tent, Slimline II roof rack, or other rack accessories.