Getting My Truck Ready

In the last two entries, I spared you from the details of the customization work I did on my Toyota Tacoma from early April, when I got my truck, until mid-May, when I left Portland on my road trip. During those six weeks, I worked on my truck more than half of the time, getting it ready for the road. Preparing my truck for this trip was a lot of work, and that's putting it mildly.

I've described that work here in this entry, figuring that half of you (i.e., the guys) would be interested and the other half (i.e., the ladies) maybe not so much. Hope that's not too sexist. But to be honest, rarely has a woman ever come up to me and asked me about the customization work I've done to my vehicle, whether it be this Toyota truck or my previous one. Guys, on the other hand, are a different matter. But ladies, you're more than welcome to read on if you're interested. And I hope you are.

Now, some people think you can just buy a new truck, hop in, and take off on a road trip. Nope. To do a road trip properly, you need to spend a fair bit of time customizing it, preparing it for the journey ahead. But fortunately I’d been through this drill before, back in 1985 with my first Toyota truck, so I knew what to do. 

The first step was getting a canopy for the back. In late March, before I'd bought (or even seen) my truck, I ordered a customized canopy from Leer. Leer canopies are made in southern California, so it took a couple weeks for it to arrive in Portland, even with the expedited delivery that I ordered. To me, the canopy is almost as important as the truck itself because I sleep in the truck on my road trips, rather than setting up a tent every night, so a good canopy is an absolute must. My 1985 Toyota pickup had a canopy so I knew exactly what I wanted: 

  • A high-rise version (so I could sit up in the back)
  • Sliding, screened side windows (for ventilation and to keep the bugs out)
  • Insulation on the inside (to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and it dampens the sound of the rain)
  • A sliding and removable front window (I like to reach from the cab into the canopy, and vice-versa)
  • Dual dome lights (one for the front of the canopy so I can find stuff and one for the back so I can read at night).

 

The Leer canopy, with all the options I'd ordered, cost about $2,400 and it arrived in mid-April. I also bought a Thule (pronounced "TWO-lee") cargo box for the top, where I'd store things that I wouldn't use very often, like my tent, an extra sleeping bag, extra clothes, etc. REI had a "20% off" sale in early April, so I paid about $450 for the box. Now I had four main truck tasks ahead of me before I could hit the road:

  1. Caulking the truck (mostly the canopy) to keep it dry.
  2. Getting a custom-cut foam pad that I could use as a mattress.
  3. Making drapes for the canopy windows.
  4. Building a security box where I could store my equipment.

 

Getting My Truck Ready:  The Canopy and Cargo Box

 

The Caulking

I’ve learned from experience that the caulking issue is huge, because every truck canopy leaks a bit. Leaks aren't a problem if you’re just storing gear in the back of your truck, but if you’re going to be living in your truck for several months, like I was planning to do, even a small leak can be a big problem. For my 1985 truck, I’d spent months (and lots of canisters of caulk) trying to seal it up, but despite my considerable efforts, I never did get it totally sealed. So I was determined to fill every crack and crevice of Gigi – uh, let’s just say “my truck” in this sentence, since otherwise it sounds a bit creepy. 

One big problem was the seal between the front of the canopy and the cab of my truck. My canopy had a front window and my truck’s cab had a rear window facing it (so two windows total), but for some reason, Leer doesn’t seal the front of their canopies snug against the cab. Instead, there’s a 3” gap between the two parallel windows. Both windows slide open, but you don’t want to be driving down the highway with them open unless you want to get lots of rain and dust and bugs in your truck, and I’m not a big fan of that. 

I have no idea what the Leer designers were thinking but this doesn’t make any sense. I wanted the inside of my truck to be a sealed unit, where I can reach from the cab back into the canopy and vice-versa without the rain coming in. And so my solution was simple:  I bought a 6-foot piece of round, rubber pipe insulation at Home Depot for $4, inserted it in the gap, and sealed it with caulk. It didn’t look that pretty (certainly not doing justice to the real Gigi), but voila – now my truck-and-canopy was a sealed unit and I could reach back into the canopy to get things without getting dripped on and without bugs flying in.

The Mattress

Another important issue – again, knowing this from my previous experience – was the mattress. Since I‘d be sleeping in the truck’s bed for 8 months, I needed something comfortable and durable to sleep on. A regular mattress won’t work for various reasons, like size, clunkiness and the possibility of it getting wet. 

I’ve tried a lot of bedding methods in the past but the best solution I’ve found is a piece of quality foam, 4 inches thick and custom-cut to the truck bed’s dimensions. I’d bought a foam pad for my ’85 pickup and it lasted for many years and worked great. These pads aren’t cheap; they cost around $300, but they last a long time. And fortunately, I had a foam pad about this same size -- though it was currently somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean on a container ship from Qatar, along with all my other stuff, heading for U.S. Supposedly my shipment would be arriving in Portland on May 4, so I decided to wait until then before taking off on my road trip so I could get my foam pad. Besides, I had a ton of things to do before I left.

The Drapes

Item #3 was the drapes. Canopy drapes are critical for any road trip because they 1). Provide privacy at night, 2). Help hide your gear from prying eyes, and 3). Keep the light out so you don’t wake up each morning at 5 a.m. Unfortunately, you can’t buy customized drapes anywhere because each truck canopy is sized differently, so I always make my own. 

I went to Jo-Ann’s Fabric store in nearby Tigard and wandered around for 30 minutes looking for the ideal fabric. While I was strolling through the aisles, I heard my name:  “Del!”  Then I heard it again:  "Del!" (not many people knew I was in Portland so I wasn't expecting to hear my name anywhere). It was Katie, a friend and former colleague of mine from my days at Otak, a Portland engineering firm. Katie is always a crack-up and she hadn’t changed since I’d last seen her, about six years ago. That was a pleasant surprise and it was great to see her again, and we talked for 10 minutes, getting caught up.

Now, getting back to the drapes:  I knew from my previous experience with truck drapes that you need a fabric that’s heavy, dark, and flexible. I decided to make double-layered drapes, with a dark blue denim on the outside and a lighter blue denim on the inside. Yeah, double-sided drapes would be a pain to sew together, but I wanted good drapes that would last a long time. I hand-stitched them together, making a total of four drapes (front, back, left and right) and altogether I spent about 40 hours cutting them, hemming and stitching them, stitching on Velcro, and applying stick-on Velcro to the inside of my truck. So yes, making good drapes is a lot of work. Oh, and before I cut the fabric, I washed the large sheets of denim in hot water (twice) to prevent shrinkage during future washings, because I’ve made that mistake before. 

Making the drapes was a lot of work and they took a long time, but they turned out great and will hopefully last as long as my truck – or, possibly, me!

The Security Box

Item #4 was the security box. If you go on a long road trip, it’s important to have a secure place to store your valuables; a locked trunk or glove box won’t cut it. You want something that will prevent the “smash-and-grab” type of thefts. I had built a security box for my 1985 pickup and it worked well, so I did the same for Gigi. I spent a couple days building a box out of 3/4-inch plywood, and I designed the box so it would fit snugly behind the passenger seat. 

My neighbor, Dave, kindly loaned me his driveway for a couple days during the construction project. I secured the box to my truck with six 1/2" bolts so no one can lift it out and I put three padlocks on top, so it was something akin to Fort Knox. The space was tight behind the passenger seat, but I designed the box to provide just enough room to store my laptop, cameras, GPS, and other valuable gear. It’s hard to create a secure place in any vehicle for valuables, but this box – though not entirely theft-proof – was about as secure as anything you can make for a vehicle. And it would give me a lot of peace-of-mind.

So that’s how I spent most of my six hectic weeks in Portland, getting my truck prepared for the trip. And now I was ready to go!

Getting My Truck Ready:  The Rest of It