My interest in vehicle armor comes from experience with rocky trails out west. The kind that dish out 12″ drops off rocky ledges onto a rock just waiting to crunch your oil pan. Those situations call for more than the original Toyota armor. Aftermarket skid plates, rock sliders, bumpers and suspension all play a role in keeping the rocks away from vital bits of your machine.
I ordered a full set of skid plates from RCI Metalworks in Boulder, CO. Their plates are available in steel or aluminum. I chose 3/8” steel for toughness but in retrospect aluminum may have increased my mileage by another few tenths of a mile because it’s lighter. Either product provides far more protection than Toyota’s stock skid plates. Those are as useful as aluminum pie plates. The plates installed easily. They bolt to pre-existing threaded holes in Bunky’s frame. After installing them, I’m pretty sure I could high point Bunky on a boulder and escape without a dent. They certainly did their job on the Dalton Highway. This road to Prudhoe Bay has long stretches of gravel that tends to get flung up and around your rig. The pinging of rocks off the skid plates was almost comforting.
The stock running boards on Bunky were aluminum and plastic. They are not strong enough to keep rocks away from body panels and would eventually bend and break. That’s why I removed them and installed the sliders from Budbuilt. Bud has 2 gauges of tubing on his sliders. Beefy and Extra Beefy. Again, I went with the tougher set, extra beefy. They proved their worth in the Eastern Sierra and Moab where they kept boulders away from crunching Bunky’s body panels. The second advantage is they are a step up when accessing cargo on the roof rack. I don’t think I’d be able to fold up my roof top tent as quickly if they were not installed. Bolting on the sliders was as easy as bolting on the skid plates. In both cases, the mounting holes lined up with exiting threaded holes in the vehicle frame. Handing big pieces of steel while maneuvering underneath a vehicle was awkward, but with the help of a few jacks and clamps I was able to line things up and bolt them on.
I wanted to install a front bumper and winch on Bunky but Toyota changed the styling of the 4Runner’s front in 2014. It takes a while for fabricators to catch up to new model year changes and nobody was making 2014 4Runner bumpers by the time I left for Alaska. In that regard I may have been better off with a 4Runner that was a few years old but people tend to hang on to them for hundreds of thousands of miles. A front bumper and winch is on my list for the future. The rear bumper comes from CBI Offroad Fabrication in Idaho Falls. After shopping around I thought they had the best design and workmanship. I made the drive to Idaho Falls and hung out for a day while they installed the bumper. CBI’s rear bumper solves several issues. It protects Bunky’s quarter panels and rear, provides storage for fuel/water, hilift jack, spare tire rack and recovery points.
The extra weight of the skid plates, rock sliders and bumper put a little strain on the stock suspension. That weight can be carried better with a set of heavier springs. I chose a set of heavy springs for the rear and medium springs for the front. That’s appropriate for now but I may revisit the decision when I install a front bumper. Lifting the suspension is another tactic that can protect your vehicle by keeping it a few inches further away from the ground. My mechanic installed a 3″ lift from the same company that provided the springs, ARB’s Old Man Emu suspension products. When lifting a vehicle the wheels need to be aligned after the lift kit is installed. The higher the lift, the more difficult it becomes to dial in the proper camber and caster. I was unaware of this, and ARB will say it’s not necessary to make accomodations, but the fact is that changing the upper control arms will allow you to achieve a proper alignment. Installing Light Racing UCA’s allowed my alignment to be adjusted properly.
Things to Come
I kept the stock Dunlop tires. Not because I like them but because it took me a while to lift the vehicle and could not fit much larger tires until after the vehicle was lifted. By the time that happened, I was behind schedule and decided to keep the Dunlops and wear them down. There’s a new, bigger set of tires in Bunky’s future.
The insect ridden swamps of Canada and Alaska require their own protection, too. It’s not uncommon to see some kind of netting over the front grill of vehicles in Canada and Alaska. It keeps the insect bodies out of your radiator. It’s something I’ll do next time.