For the first 8 months of living on the road, everything we needed was stored in or on the Toyota 4Runner. We lived in AirBnBs during the work week and slept in the back of the 4Runner on the weekends. This was not at all how I had expected our life on the road to be (read all about that in The Story Behind our Toyota 4Runner).
This crazy and unexpected way of living actually ended up being quite the adventure. Somedays I still crave the freedom of having just the 4Runner to go anywhere and the simplicity of it all. So what was it like to travel this way, and what type of mods did it require? Grab a drink and sit back for a long post. Spoiler, it took several months and four different storage setups to find the right one.
Everything We Had to Store
Fitting everything required a lot of creativity. I did have a storage unit in Texas, which made it a tad easier as I could carry the bare minimum required and leave some personal items behind. However, when you carry everything you need to live, work and camp full-time, it’s still a lot.
The setup for my work computer at the time required ethernet connection, full VPN router, a bulky office style phone, computer monitor and laptop. My work stuff alone took up an entire plastic bin, plus a laptop case and monitor stored on top of it all.
For the animals, I had to carry a litter box, their toys, dog and cat food as well as their daily accessories like leashes. Finally, I needed all my own items, starting with clothing for all weather conditions including shoes from sandals to winter boots. Food, both dry and cold, as well as a way to cook and eat it. Toiletries for daily use, but also extras in case I ran out. And then the miscellaneous type stuff, such as my DSLR camera and personal computer.
Storage Setup #1
Our first trip to Albuquerque, NM was an experiment in many ways. It was my first attempt at living on the road. It was the first time I stayed in an AirBnB for more than a few days. It was the first time Jasper, Napoleon and I lived in one room together. And it was a test to see how we all did traveling together in such a small space.
For this reason, I purchased two large plastic Brute bins at Lowes to fit most of our stuff. For the rest, I simply piled it all in the back of the 4Runner with duffel bags or bins I had from my prior apartment. For the back seat, I placed smaller plastic bins with the pet food and such on the floor.
On top of that I placed a twin 2″ memory foam mattress topper, which was covered with a duvet cover to keep it clean. Jasper’s blue pet blanket went on top of this, as well as his green dog bed. Jasper and Napoleon shared this area which ended up being quite cozy for them to sleep on. I was able to use a seat belt for Jasper, but Napoleon was unsecured in this setup. The cat litter sat at the foot of the front passenger seat. It was cramped, but we fit it all in.
This setup only lasted for the two week trip. One of the AirBnB’s rules was that no pets could stay in the room alone. That meant if I wanted to go explore anywhere, both Jasper and Napoleon were coming along. Since I didn’t want to miss out on seeing Albuquerque, this meant the three of us explored Petroglyphs National Monument, drove to the top of Sandia Peak, went out to eat together and spent a lot of time in the 4Runner.
The second week we spent traveling through New Mexico and headed back to Austin, TX. At this point the 4Runner was just full of stuff, forcing us to stay in hotel rooms every evening. Even staying in cheap motels, this quickly became expensive.
After just two weeks of traveling around, I realized I loved living on the road. We had already seen and experienced so much, and I knew I wanted this to become our lifestyle. Since we were back in Austin near our storage unit, it meant I could re-organize and try to make the setup better.
Storage Setup #2
Back at our storage unit, I moved items we didn’t use over those two weeks (and didn’t foresee us using), into storage. The next step was to store some of the items on the outside of the 4Runner, to free up space for us inside. This led me to our very first 4Runner mod: a rear hitch cargo carrier (which somehow I don’t have any pictures of).
I can’t recall which brand I had, but picked it up for sale at Lowes. It resembled something like this. You can find plenty of options online as well. The one I had was two separate pieces that slid together. My recommendation would be to spend the bit of extra money and purchase a carrier that is one solid piece. Having the two pieces bolted together in the middle meant the carrier ended up sagging after a few weeks.
This hitch cargo carrier allowed me to pile all of the plastic bins on the outside of the truck and tie them down. Since the bins were filled with items I needed everyday, I literally carried them in and out of every AirBnB we stayed in. Therefore, I wasn’t worried about locking the bins down at first.
The bins I used were also heavy duty Brute containers that I found at Lowes. Those things were solid! Since I didn’t have any type of weather proofing other than the bins, I made sure to only store items on the rear cargo carrier that would not be destroyed in the event they got wet. These were things like my clothes, food, cookware, dog food and such.
The other item I upgraded at this point was a car seat for Napoleon. This allowed me to buckle him into the front seat, to protect him in case of an accident. You can find out more about that carrier in Pet Seat Belts for Road Trips.
I didn’t have a plan of where to go next and the Holiday season was coming up. I rented a few AirBnBs in Austin for several weeks and plotted my route to head back home for Christmas. The plan was to stop in Nashville, TN to meet up with some friends, and then head on back to Central New York.
There was still no place to sleep in the 4Runner so I booked AirBnBs along the entire route. I reached out to many along the way and asked if they had ethernet hookups, high speed internet, and allowed a dog and cat. Oh, and it had to be under $40 per night which was my budget. Only about 20% of the AirBnBs I reached out to accepted our bookings, so it took a lot of messages and several days to find our route home. But finally, we were booked and ready to go.
The 4Runner’s Second Trip
The trip from Austin, Texas up to Central New York proved to be another amazing learning experience. Nashville was an amazing time, and then we drove straight to an AirBnB in Kentucky. It was November, and it was cold! Too cold to really explore the local area, so we spent a lot of time inside watching TV.
From there, we still had almost 800 miles to make it back to my parents’ house. This was a 2 day drive for us, so after finishing the workweek at the Kentucky AirBnB, we packed up the 4Runner and set off. We made it halfway, to Ohio, and then looked for a hotel to spend the night. All of the hotels were well over $100 and I didn’t want to spend that much. So we pulled into a Walmart parking lot, I reclined the front seat, and we slept.
Waking up, I put in my contacts, brushed my teeth out of my window, stopped at McDonald’s for a breakfast and took off. I loved the ease of just sleeping in the truck, but my back and neck were not happy about the front seat. Making it to my parents’ and sleeping in a real bed after that felt amazing. I knew the next modification I needed was a sleeping area in the 4Runner.
Storage Setup #3
If you lay the backseat of a 4Runner down, it does not lay level with the trunk. The trunk space is still a few inches lower. The models with the built in cargo tray will solve this issue, but when I had been shopping for a 4Runner, this would have cost me several thousand more, so I did not get that option.
Now that I wanted to put a mattress in the back, it meant the first thing we had to try and do was create a level area. After doing some research online, I found several forums that showed other owners making wooden sleeping platforms. I didn’t want a full platform with storage underneath, so my Dad and I designed one to just fit in the trunk.
The starting point was to put down a rubber floor liner in the trunk (I also purchased the full set for the front and back seats). I did this simply to protect the carpeting, as I had learned how dirty the 4Runner got from us living out of it. Having the rubber mat in there allowed us to take proper measurements to build the platform.
To say the platform was tedious is an understatement. It took a lot of trial and error to get the curves of the supports just right. With the rubber mat, there were interesting curves that we needed to follow in order for the weight to be evenly distributed along the entire platform leg, and not in just one small section.
Eventually we got it to work and the foundation was built. We sanded it down until it was smooth and then painted it black to fit in with the rest of the interior. On another trip to Lowes, I purchased a large rubber mat which fit across the entire area. Now with all the pet hair and dirt, the back of the seats would be protected when they were folded down. Finally, the 4Runner had a large flat sleeping surface.
By putting down the seats, I ended up losing a lot of storage. I didn’t have any of the roof racks at this time, so it meant we had to get a bit more creative. After doing more research online, I found that it was common to put an “attic” into the 4Runner. Purchasing one of these systems would have been between $200-$400, and most didn’t have the best reviews. My Dad is quite creative, so we set out to making a cargo net of our own.
This net was another tedious task as it required cutting each nylon strip to size, then laying it out in the pattern we wanted. Each piece was measured so it was equidistant from each other. These were then pinned and sewn together. In order to attach to the ceiling, we needed anchor points. I replaced the coat hangers with the Toyota FJ D-rings. Then we attached the netting to those with simple carabiners. For the front of the net, we sewed part of the nylon to quick release belt buckles and secured the other end to the passenger handles. Finally, in order to help with any sag, I took some bungee cord and CamJam carabiners to run along the bottom to support everything. I have now used this netting for over two years and still love it.
It was now after Christmas and I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to do for a bed. During this time, I had also received a job offer from my company to move into a process consultant position starting at the beginning of February. I needed to be in San Antonio, Texas on my start date, giving me only a month of traveling time.
I booked my next AirBnB route out Colorado, down through Santa Fe, NM, and back into Texas. With no time to continue the bed setup, I popped the seats up as they were before and we took off.
Storage Setup #4
Back in Texas, I rented an AirBnB for two months so I could slow down and focus on my new job. One amazing benefit of the job was that I could work with just a laptop and wifi. No more computer monitor, phone, ethernet connection or VPN router to deal with! It was such a relief and eliminated an entire plastic bin of stuff I had been carrying around.
Staying at the AirBnB meant I had a shipping address. And with being there two months, I would have plenty of time to finish the bed setup and completely re-organize the 4Runner. I started doing some research and created what was to become my favorite setup.
The first item I put on was a StowAway hitch cargo carrier. This solved all of my prior issues with the rear hitch carrier. First, it was waterproof and had a lock on it. The other huge benefit is that you can purchase it with a swing out arm. That way I could simply unhook the arm, swing the carrier around and still get into the trunk. No longer did I need the large plastic Brute bins. Instead, I put duffel bags and items directly into the carrier, thereby saving a ton of space.
Next up was adding storage along the rear windows to hang some of the smaller items and remove even more of the plastic containers I was carrying. I went with the Rago Modular Storage panel system. Although expensive, I still have these installed to this day and love them. They are solid construction and hold a ton of gear. Another expensive part of this setup was buying all the different OneTigris molle pouches to hang. Although they are great for hiding the gear, you can also just bungee your stuff to the panels and save a ton of money.
The other place in the 4Runner that you have a good amount of storage is the center console and glove compartment. I purchased a tray, console organizer and glove box organizer which allow for better use of all this space. The glove box then fit wet wipes, tons of protein bars, napkins and paperwork for the 4Runner. The center console could hold so many of the little items, such as my GPS, tools and of course, chapstick.
Next came what I had been waiting for: a mattress. Since I knew we would be sleeping in the 4Runner quite often, I went with something comfortable. I purchased a twin-sized folding mattress, as a regular one would have been too long. By having the folding version, I was able to cut off one of the smaller pieces in order for the mattress to fit perfectly.
Then I took the 2″ memory foam Jasper had been using in the backseat for our few months of travel and laid that on top of the mattress. To protect it from all of the pet hair and elements, I put a waterproof mattress protector that zips over both. Add on a normal set of sheets and my favorite sherpa blanket, the rear of the 4Runner now felt like a comfortable little home.
Finally, after many hours re-arranging the 4Runner we had our long-term setup. Although it cost quite a bit of money to build this out, we spent many nights camping out of the back. This saved us more than we would have spent on hotel rooms and eating out. The boys also had a large area to spread out in while we drove, and they seemed overall very comfortable. Napoleon’s blue litter box was also easily accessible, so he could use it as we drove, which he seemed to think was a benefit (Jasper and I did not). There were many times that I had to quickly pull over to scoop out the box before the smell overwhelmed us all.
After leaving Texas, we ended up traveling through many areas of the West with this setup, staying between AirBnBs and the back of the 4Runner. We slept out in the mountains of Sun Valley, Idaho, waking up to the bugling elk. We ventured up to the Grand Tetons and fell asleep to the mountains right outside of our door.
Although the AirBnBs gave me the comfort of showers and a table to work at, I preferred our weekends out camping. Slowly we began spending more time camping, and I became more comfortable working from the road. I took meetings at campgrounds, in parking lots, and at different town parks.
When building out a vehicle to travel in, it will absolutely take trial and error to find the setup that works best for you. Although our initial setup was functional, it was nowhere near as comfortable as what we ended up with.
In the end, some of my favorite memories are of Jasper, Napoleon and I camping out of the back of the 4Runner. We had everything we needed, and the 4Runner took us to any boondocking spot we wanted. Even after purchasing the Basecamp, I have still taken the 4Runner out by itself for some beach side camping.
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