Revolutionary . . .

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It's not often I use that word. It certainly applied to the introduction of the MaxTrax, and it absolutely applies to this product (displayed by Kelsey Huber) being debuted at the Overland Expo. More about it soon, but it's going to have a massive impact on the practice of vehicle recovery. 

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The 7P Recovery Ring is actually a winch pulley (or snatch block) with zero moving parts. The soft shackle simply slides slowly around inside the opening as the winch line is pulled across the pulley. Surprisingly, there is minimal heat buildup—in testing the Recovery Ring successfully extracted seriously stuck military trucks with no issues. Note the MBS (minimum breaking strength), an astounding 40,465 pounds.

Video to follow . . .

Side slopes . . .

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I've always loved this image of a Series I Land Rover tilted at 45 degrees, with an advisory for drivers that the "safe operating angle" is 30 degrees. When was the last time you saw a consumer vehicle advertise its side slope capability, complete with a photo to prove it?

Negotiating a significant side slope is without doubt the most nerve-wracking maneuver you can do with a four-wheel-drive vehicle—at least it is for me. I remember not too long after I got my FJ40 sticking one of those liquid-filled angle gauges on the dash (Roseann annoyingly referred to it as the "tilt-o-meter"). I took the 40 out on a local trail and put it on what felt like a pretty steep side slope in a rutted section of the track, then looked at the gauge . . . which read 15 degrees. It was humiliating. I drove farther up the slope until I got to 20 degrees, which seemed seriously tipped. At 25 degrees I surrendered, even though I knew intellectually that was well below the danger point for an FJ40. I turned the engine off, left it in gear with the parking brake on, and got out to see what it looked like from someone else's viewpoint.

Oh. Jeez. Seriously? Drawing an imaginary line from the outside tire straight up it was clear there was all kinds of weight left on the safe side of the line. Back inside it stilled looked scary, but significantly less so. 

 Side slopes always look steeper from inside the vehicle. Photo courtesy Matt Scott 

Side slopes always look steeper from inside the vehicle. Photo courtesy Matt Scott 

I've since had the FJ40 tipped somewhat beyond 25 degrees (the "tilt-o-meter," however, is long gone, replaced by an iPhone app when needed . . .), and had a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon to significantly beyond that. But those kinds of angles remain wince-inducing for me.

And that's a good thing, because side slopes in the real world aren't like tipping a vehicle up on a table in a garage for a photo. When you are moving across an incline of dirt or mixed substrate or rocks, that safe-but-thrilling 20 or 25-degree angle can transition to a very-possibly-unsafe 30 or 35 degrees or worse in an instant if a downhill tire hits a divot or an uphill tire hits a rock. The movement of the vehicle then adds momentum to that tilt, exacerbating the situation. Also, if traversing a steep and loose slope and the vehicle starts to slide sideways and then catches grip again suddenly, or the downhill tires dig in, it's as if someone on the high side of the vehicle gave it a really good shove. 

 Negotiating a loose, sandy side slope in Peru above the Pacific. Even a relatively lightweight camper raises the center of gravity significantly.

Negotiating a loose, sandy side slope in Peru above the Pacific. Even a relatively lightweight camper raises the center of gravity significantly.

In the syllabus for the N.P.T.C. (National Proficiency Test Council) certificate in four-wheel-drive proficiency, the guidelines for negotiating side slopes don't mince words: "Avoid if possible" is number one. But what other precautions should you take?

First make sure there is a recognizable track across the slope, to prove others have crossed it successfully. A well-used track also helps ensure there are no surprises in the substrate.

Follow the golden rule of handling any challenging situation in a four-wheel-drive vehicle: "As fast as necessary; as slow as possible."

Watch the placement of your tires to avoid low spots on the low side and high spots on the high side—especially rocks in the latter case, which due to suspension bounce can bump the vehicle farther over than the actual height of the rock.

Prep the vehicle in advance to keep the center of gravity as low as possible, especially if you're carrying gear on a roof rack. If I were forced to traverse a slope I felt was on the edge of safety, I wouldn't hesitate to add some air to the downhill tires and take some out of the uphill pair.

If you're on a side slope and the vehicle begins to slide sideways out of control, or heaven forbid, tip, the escape clause is to immediately turn downhill. Whatever danger you might face driving straight down that slope is nothing compared to barrel-rolling down it.

Just before you do that, though, check the tilt-o-meter so you'll know when to back off next time.

Field testing versus Expo testing

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The training area at the Overland Expo is obviously an artificial environment, so one could argue that testing equipment there is inferior to doing so in the field. And indeed I do the latter as often as possible.

But there are advantages to testing under controlled conditions too. First, at the Expo we engineer genuinely demanding scenarios that can be just as hard on equipment as the field—in fact at times it might be harder, since if a student fails at an obstacle he or she is likely to repeat it until successful. Second, we’re always monitoring the proceedings carefully, so when something fails we know exactly when and how it did so, which can be helpful in figuring out why. Was the product overstressed or employed outside the manufacturer’s prescribed use, or did it simply fail due to poor materials or workmanship?

As an example consider the pair of Traction Jacks we’ve been using. I briefly tested these in the field (here), in sand, and they seemed to work well. The folding design had clear advantages for storage, and they seemed stout—in fact they were surprisingly heavy at 28 pounds per pair, compared to, say, MaxTrax at 18 pounds per pair. So I decided to throw them into the mix of recovery gear we use in various classes at the Expo.

They did not last long. The first incident was closely described by instructor Tim Hüber. He was teaching a class in lockers and traction control, for which we use two massive roller assemblies to simulate complete loss of traction. A Dodge pickup was having trouble getting up onto the first roller, and spun the rear tires with the diff locked. So Tim backed the vehicle up, made a ramp with doubled MaxTrax for one front tire, and placed a Traction Jack where the rear tire had spun. Tim estimates there was a depression about an inch deep under  device, which he figured it could flex into without harm. Not so—as soon as the tire rolled onto the Traction Jack it snapped in two sharply, without any sign of flexing or bending first.

The second one broke at some point thereafter, right at the hinge, under circumstances I’ve not yet discovered. The other half of that unit is missing completely.

I checked back on my initial review of the Traction Jack. The model we have is rated for 1,900 pounds per tire according to the manufacturer. The weight over the rear tire on a full-size Ram might well be close to that, but not over by much. So it doesn’t seem like the unit should have failed with the minor flexing it would have experienced—unless the composition of the Traction Jack relies on it remaining perfectly flat and supported underneath when weight is on it. I’ve emailed the company for more information but have not yet heard back. Originally the Traction Jack was offered two weight classes, the 1,900-pound version and a heavy-duty alternative rated to 4,500 pounds; however, I no longer see two models listed on the site.

Our experience with the Traction Jack might be limited, but it is in marked contrast to our extensive experience with the two sets of MaxTrax in our kit, both of which have been used and abused for years, up to and including being employed to recover the BFGoodrich semi from mud.

Until I learn more, if someone asked me about the Traction Jacks as a more compact alternative to traditional sand mats, I would strongly recommend restricting their use to lighter vehicles.

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Shackle destruction test, and thoughts . . .

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The lads at Unsealed4x4 in Australia recently released this video, which shows three types of shackle being tested to destruction. It’s always interesting to see stuff destroyed in controlled conditions, and there is some value here. 

To summarize their results:

  • The tiny unrated shackle snapped at 4,485 kg (9,888 pounds)
  • The rated steel TJM shackle—a standard 4.75-ton WLL example (9,500 pounds if it is a U.S. ton, 10,469 pounds if a metric ton)—identical in spec to what many of us carry, failed at an impressive 35,219 kg, or 77,644 pounds. That handily surpasses the industry standard 6:1 safety margin for rated shackles.
  • The soft shackle, rated at 8,000 kg (17,637 pounds) broke at 9,327 kg or 20,562 pounds when pulled over two rounded edges. However, it broke at just 6,930 kg (15,278 pounds) when stressed over one sharp edge, and at 7,686 kg (16,945 pounds) with a sheath in place between the shackle and the edge. Soft shackles do not yet have an industry standard safety margin; users are expected to abide by the working load limit (WLL) or minimum breaking strength (MBS), which this one easily exceeded when deployed carefully. The below-rating breakages pointed out the vulnerability of soft shackles when stressed over a sharp edge, such as many bumper shackle mounts have.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. Testing one of each piece means zero statistically. The TJM shackle could have been an outstanding example of its type while one of the soft shackles might have had a flaw (not that they in any way “failed” except as should be expected), or vice versa.
  2. The much smaller unrated shackle actually performed pretty well, and would probably have held up in a majority of winching situations—not that it would be a good idea to try it. A much fairer comparison would have been to test an unrated shackle of similar size to the TJM. 
  3. While the TJM shackle failed quite suddenly (admittedly at a very high load), the soft shackles seemed to give clear visual warning of their imminent demise had a spotter been watching. In fact it appeared one of them could have been re-knotted and reused in an emergency situation.

While as I said this test is not statistically significant, I believe it accurately reflects the strengths and weaknesses of soft shackles. Their greater safety factor is a huge point in their favor—just as with synthetic winch line, there is far less kinetic energy stored in a soft shackle than in its steel counterpart. (Notice that the engineers didn't even bother to place a guard over the soft shackle when they tested it.) However, they are not ideal in every situation. In our driveway right now are two vehicles—our FJ40 and our Tacoma—which have shackle mounts I would never hook to with a soft shackle. 

 The FJ40's rear shackle mounts are very sharp-edged. No problem for a steel shackle if the pin fits properly.

The FJ40's rear shackle mounts are very sharp-edged. No problem for a steel shackle if the pin fits properly.

 Likewise, this aftermarket shackle mount for the Tacoma has very sharp edges.

Likewise, this aftermarket shackle mount for the Tacoma has very sharp edges.

Soft shackles are a great advance in safety and ease of handling, but only when used in appropriate circumstances. A complete recovery kit should include both hard and soft versions.

The 2019 Ram 1500

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You know the world of pickup trucks has changed when the central multi-function touchscreen in your test Ram 1500 is as big as the computer on which you are writing the review of it.

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Well, almost—my Macbook Pro’s display measures 13.9 inches—but trust me, the Ram’s optional 12-inch UConnect touchscreen looks massive embedded in the middle of the dash. And I’ll say right off, that screen propels the factory navigation system into a new universe of legibility (It also makes the five-incher on the base Ram look like someone glued a flip-phone to the dash).

Ram (or Dodge if you’re stubborn) trucks have come a long way since 1992, when the company showed a group of potential buyers prototypes of a truck styled like no consumer truck before it. It sported a front end that called to mind an 18-wheeler, with a tall bulging hood and dropped fenders incorporating the headlamps.  According to legend, the reaction was starkly love/hate, and not reassuring: 86 percent of the viewers hated it, 14 percent loved it. The whole idea was about to be scrapped when someone in the marketing department pointed out that Dodge’s share of the American truck market at the time stood at about seven percent. The design was approved, and sales of Dodge trucks quadrupled in three years.

Two decades on, Ram trucks still trail Ford and Chevy but now claim a comfortable 22 percent share of the full-size market (compared with Ford at 44 percent and, for example, Toyota at an undistinguished five with the Tundra). 

Still, third is two places behind first, and Ram executives would love to climb another 10 or 20 percent up that sales chart. The 2019 Ram 1500 launch in Scottsdale was the first salvo in what will be a rolling release of optional engines, followed at some point by the heavier-duty 2500 and 3500 models. The new truck has been comprehensively revised from the wheels up, and cold, hard sales figures will soon tell how well the redesign fares with the public. Our question here is, how might it fare with overland travelers?

The demographics of pickup buyers have shifted massively in the last few decades. It used to be you bought a pickup if you had stuff to carry—a lot of stuff, like construction materials, or, if you were an outdoorsman (and, yes, the operative syllable was overwhelmingly “man” back then), a camper. Or you had a trailer to tow. A pickup was a working vehicle. Air conditioning and cloth upholstery were luxury options. To unlock the passenger door you scooted across the seat and pulled up on the button.

Not any more. Ford now sells two and a half thousand F-series pickups every day, and while their ads still stress the manly aspects of pickup ownership, most of them never carry a load larger than a pallet of Costo toilet paper. The pickup is now a lifestyle choice much more often than it is a practical necessity, and increasingly the competition among truck makers is as much about making a pickup not feel like a pickup as it is about making it function like one.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t overlanding a lifestyle choice? Absolutely true; however, in our defense we do actually need the functional aspects of a truck—load-carrying ability, reliability, durability, off-pavement capability—as much as we secretly hanker after the non-truck-like aspects prioritized by the guy down the street who wouldn’t know a GVWR from a GMC. 

I can loftily claim to be conversant in both aspects of pickup ownership: We use a Ford F350 to tow the 10,000-pound Overland Expo equipment trailer to the shows in Flagstaff and Asheville, while our Tacoma permanently carries a Four Wheel Camper. But I remain much less impressed by car-like interior features than by high-quality engineering. So let’s start with that—specifically, the chassis of the new Ram.

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Naturally, it remains a fully boxed structure. (Toyota is the only manufacturer moving backwards in this regard, with its “Triple-Tech” design that leaves the rear third open-channel, to the detriment of chassis rigidity.) Additionally, the Ram frame now comprises fully 98 percent high-strength steel (not sure why two percent remains “normal” steel?). Crossmembers extend through the side members and are welded on both sides. The result is increased rigidity compared to the previous Ram, yet a full 100 pound savings in weight (FCA claims a total 225-pound weight savings for the new model). That stiff frame contributes to—depending on the specific option package—a maximum 2,300-pound payload and a maximum towing capacity of 12,750 pounds. (By way of comparison our 2004 F350—a one-ton truck, mind you—is rated to tow 12,000 pounds.) Wheelbases range from 140.5 to 153.5 inches.

The frame rails in front of the engine splay curiously outward at about a 15-degree angle, a feature Ram says helps with crash protection, and is patent-pending. Below those rails is another feature standard on all new Ram pickups: a composite air dam that lowers automatically at speeds over 35 mph to reduce drag. Lest you think that such insignificant details could hardly make a difference, note that the dam combined with the body design results in a drag coefficient for the new truck of just .357, the lowest of any full-size truck. By comparison, the drag coefficient of my 1982 Porsche 911SC is .40 (although it of course has a fraction of the frontal area, which must also be figured in to arrive at the total drag on the vehicle—but still . . .). 

More chassis tidbits: A pair of discs that resemble weights for a barbell, on either side of the frame under the passenger compartment, are actually “active tuned mass modules” that reduce vibration, especially when cylinder deactivation kicks in on the V8. The transmission and front suspension crossmembers are aluminum. Steel bars behind each front wheel deflect them outward in the event of a frontal offside collision.

Below the chassis sits a suspension comprising either progressive-rate all-coil springs or an optional all-air system, a first in the pickup market. The air suspension combines automatic load-leveling with manual control—Ram engineers demonstrated one advantage of the latter by hooking up a trailer: The driver reversed using the backup camera, lowered the hitch by deflating the rear air bags, and once the ball was under the tongue simply raised them again, coupling the trailer and lifting the tongue jack off the ground—no cranking necessary. The height of the vehicle can also be adjusted for easier passenger entry or greater ground clearance. The springs combine with new “Frequency Response Damping” (FRD) shocks incorporating internal bypass valves to improve ride and made by, I believe, Hitachi. Go figure.

The five-link suspension on the rear axle has been updated for more travel. The front combines aluminum lower control arms with upper arms comprising steel and—ready?—structural composite. That’s right: plastic. The composite wraps the steel so it looks like there’s nothing but plastic in the piece, a slightly unsettling illusion.

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Outboard of the front control arms are brake discs a massive 14.9 inches in diameter, the largest in the class. The parking brake on the rear discs is now electric—another bit of weight saving.

Are you getting my picture? Just as with the redesigned Wrangler I reviewed here, a substantial part of the Ram’s redesign took place in spots invisible under anything but an on-the-rack inspection—or on the exposed chassis FCA had displayed for us at the launch. It was impressive.

Less impressive, from a what’s-new standpoint, was the drivetrain—at least the engine, which, for this session was limited to the existing 5.7-liter hemi V8. The 5.7-liter eTorque and 3.6-liter V6 eTorque “mild hybrid” engines will be introduced later, although they were there on stands for us to admire.

 Soon-to-come 5.7-liter eTorque engine. The eTorque module is the Ram-branded device at top front.

Soon-to-come 5.7-liter eTorque engine. The eTorque module is the Ram-branded device at top front.

If you’ll allow me an aside on that heavily hyped “Hemi” engine: hemi is short for hemispherical, which refers to the shape of the combustion chamber in a hemi, almost literally a dome shape. The hemi head allows for very large valves, which are placed across from each other, with the spark plug in between. So it’s a good way to develop a lot of power (thus the mythology)—the catch being it’s a good way to develop a lot of power from a two-valve-per-cylinder engine. You can’t put four valves in a hemispherical combustion chamber—the angles would be impossible to manage. For a four-valve engine you need a pent-roof combustion chamber. And four valves are better than two at developing power. Thus, evaluated objectively, the hemi produces decent power while avoiding the complexity of a four-valve head.

Where was I? Right: The standard 5.7 (395 hp, 410 lb.ft.) is a fine engine, and moves the Ram along briskly with the upgraded eight-speed 8HP75 TorqueFlite transmission. Shifting on all these new multi-speed transmissions I’ve tried recently is so seamless they are difficult to critique. Downshifting for passing seemed to lag just a bit, otherwise the drive was faultless. If any cylinder deactivation occurred during my drive I didn’t notice it (it only engages in third gear or higher). I was impressed enough with my short experience in the Wrangler with its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder eTorque engine that I look forward to trying the larger versions. In the Wrangler the eTorque seemed to add noticeable torque right off the line, before the internal-combustion partner climbed into its own torque curve. The fuel economy of these engines might determine their reception in the market.

Okay, so let’s plop the body of this truck on that impressive chassis (let me tell you, it was really hard driving the truck without it). The first thing I noticed is that the 18-wheeler look has been smoothed over so much it’s simply not a feature any more. There’s still a prominent power bulge to the hood, but the headlamps are now even with the top of the grille rather than the bottom. I bet the stylists figured Ram has enough market presence now to stand on its own, so they went for a smoother, more aerodynamic front end. It’s attractive, but not as Smokey-and-the-Bandit butch as the original—you decide whether that’s good or bad. It seemed more grown-up to me, and I liked it.

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The high-end option packages such as theLimited and Laramie Longhorn incorporate sleek LED headlamps that swivel with the wheels. Substantial recovery hooks peek out from nacelles in the bumper, whether chrome on the Laramie or matte on, for example, the trail-oriented Rebel. 

My first interior experience happens to be with the Limited. I open the door, climb in, shut the door. I check the rear-view mirror: Yep, there’s a cargo bed back there. But I’m fully ensconced in the not-like-a-pickup end of the new Ram’s design. Want some details on how not-like-a-pickup it is? Consider these features:

  • Leather—lots of it. Ram assures me there is substantially more than I could find in a Chevy or Ford.
  • Seating. The seats recline. So what, you say? I’m referring to the rear seats. The front seats adjust a bunch of different ways, and they’re very comfortable, although, as with most seats these days, built for people significantly wider than I.
 The Laramie Longhorn has slightly tacky alligator-pattern leather bits, but genuine wood trim.

The Laramie Longhorn has slightly tacky alligator-pattern leather bits, but genuine wood trim.

 

  • Quietness. How about active noice cancellation? Acoustic glass? Ram claims a 66.6 db cruise. I think our old F350 is louder than that parked. With the engine off.
  • That giant uConnect touchscreen is surprisingly practical. First, there are redundant manual controls alongside it for the climate control and sound system. Three cheers, because no multifunction touchscreen will ever match the speed of reaching down and turning a dial. With that said, the rest of the touchscreen’s functions are easy to access; you can even split the screen into still-quite-readable halves. And in navigation mode it is simply brilliant. (The bird’s eye perspective is cool too.)
  • Did I mention sound system? This one is a Harmon Kardon, with 19 speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer. The only downside is, it’s not removable so you could use it in the living room too.
  • Driver-assist features: Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, brake assist, surround-view cameras. 
  • Parallel and perpendicular park assist. You work the gearshift, throttle, and brake while the truck turns the steering wheel to maneuver you into a parallel spot (on either side of the truck), or to back you into a perpendicular space. My question is: Would this count for a 16-year-old trying to pass a driver’s license test?
  • There’s more, especially a bewildering array of interface possibilities, with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, fourth-generation Sirius XM Guardian Connected Services, which can provide a 4G wi-fi hotspot, all controlled through the uConnect touchscreen. The truck sports a raft of USB ports, and an optional wireless charging station (which is labelled “Ramcharger”).
  • On a more practical note for long-distance travel, the new Ram 1500 has a two-level glove box . . . and the most spectacular center console I’ve ever seen on a factory truck. It’s massive—Ram says it’s twice the size of anything from competitors and I believe them—and boasts so many sliding trays and bins you could lose a chihuahua in there. An iPad fits in a special pocket, there’s 110VAC power available—400 watts worth—cupholders, coin holders, and a “feature” that I have to say was the silliest on the entire truck: On the bottom of one hinged lid is an engraved contractor’s conversion chart with a ruler and compass. I strongly suspect every contractor in the country has this on his or her iPhone and does not need to look at the bottom of the center console for the info. It took five minutes for my eyes to roll back down.
 Brilliant and massive center console, but . . .

Brilliant and massive center console, but . . .

 Hmm . . .

Hmm . . .

On our paved drive the Limited exhibited genuine carved-from-marble solidity and a taut ride at least as good as that of the Nissan Titan XD I reviewed some time ago, which at the time I thought exemplary. And by golly the thing is quiet. It handled the short stretch of dirt road to our press lunch spot with barely any increased noise.

After lunch we took turns on an off-pavement loop course in several examples of the Rebel, the trim level I suspect many overlanders will gravitate to. In addition to LT275/70R-18 Goodyear Wrangler tires and Bilstein shocks (with external reservoirs on the rear), the Rebel gets an electronic locking rear diff, hill-descent control, a one-inch suspension lift (if you don’t get the air springs), and several skid plates. You also get an interior that is any color you like as long as it is red and black, with Goodyear Wrangler tread pattern embossed on the seat upholstery. You also cannot get the 12-inch touchscreen with the Rebel (yet, at least), although the smaller eight-incher is just fine unless you’ve been pre-prejudiced by the bigger one.

Interestingly, I was told that an “off-road” package incorporating most of the Rebel options will be available on other trim levels. If this is so, you could conceivably equip your leather-clad, 12-inch-screen Limited or Laramie Longhorn with the good stuff. 

The driving course we were set loose on in the Rebel was clearly meant to be driven quickly, a suggestion many in the press pool took to heart, especially since there were several videographers along the way to film our prowess. I thought the format might have been a mistake, since the Rebel is obviously not intended or equipped to compete with Ford’s Raptor in the wannabe desert racer category. Indeed, the example I got, previously flogged by who knows how many hot-footed journos, displayed a worrying banging noise in the left front suspension area when pushed, so I took it easy. I later rode in the same truck and the new driver noticed it as well. (From a quarter view behind, I watched one truck on the course approach a “Slow Down!” sign warning of a sharp, angled pair of ditches where water had flowed into the main wash course. The driver didn’t lift off a bit, and the front suspension slammed to its bump stops and tossed the truck in the air. This is why manufacturers don’t think highly of most automotive journalists.) With that said, the Rebel would clearly be right at home exploring back roads at sane speeds, and capable with the locker and hill-descent control of going anywhere most overland travelers are likely to. 

So . . . to that point, several things come to mind. First is wondering whether the optional air suspension has the capacity to compensate for the weight of, say a Four Wheel Camper, while retaining a decent ride when the camper is off. I asked of FCA, but the we-can’t-authorize-that liability/warranty clause kicked in immediately, which I more or less expected. The top-level 2,300-pound payload is technically up to the task of camper transport, but technical capacity does not always translate to practical (safe) capacity. Still, it would be worth the experiment, except if it didn’t work you’d have spent the extra money for nothing. Having to change out the air springs for coils to accept a camper would be at best expensive and at worst impossible. The air system is certainly adequate to handle lesser camping loads, or a rack carrying a rooftop tent, for example, while maintaining proper ride height and safe handling.

For general overland travel, the new Ram—in any of its guises but especially the Limited and Laramie versions—represents a new high water mark in the evolution of comfort in a pickup truck. After all, even for the most adventurous of us, 90 percent of our travel—even while actually on a journey—is usually on pavement. I’d think little of tackling an 800-mile freeway day in the new Ram to get somewhere interesting.

That brings up the subject of fuel economy. Numbers are not yet out for the eTorque engines, but for ultimate economy the answer will still be a diesel, and I did not hear any information about when (or, actually, even if) the new Ram will get one. 

My lasting impression from both the Ram and the previous Wrangler launch is that FCA is genuinely throwing a lot of thought and engineering into its redesigned working vehicles. The new Wrangler retained its spot in my opinion as America’s own world-class expedition vehicle. I think the new Ram 1500 can stand confidently alongside America’s Big Two half-ton pickups, and all three are ahead of the import competition.

So much wrong here

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I copied this photo from the excellent American Adventurist site, where it was posted as an example of how not to rig a winch.

Indeed. Yet this is not some low-budget bodge job on a winch installation. There are quality products represented here—a Warn winch and synthetic line. But several things set off alarms.

Let's begin with the least-egregious aspect: that winch hook stuffed into the recovery loop. There is nothing wrong with the standard open winch hook, although aside from being quicker to deploy it suffers when compared to a closed thimble, which is positively connected to the winch point with a shackle and cannot come loose inadvertently. What worries me here is that the spring-loaded safety tab could easily be stressed and bent the way it is forced open, possibly interfering with its effectiveness or even damaging it.

Next there is the hawse fairlead. As with the hook, there is nothing wrong with a hawse fairlead, although it is a myth that you should use only a hawse fairlead when running synthetic winch line. A roller fairlead is fine for synthetic line and is in fact easier on the line. The problem with this particular hawse fairlead is the extremely shallow chamfer on the opening, which will severely stress the line when used on an off-angle pull. The chamfer on such a fairlead should ideally have a radius six times the radius of the line itself. Here is a much better hawse fairlead:

Hawse fairlead and Viking Dyneema winch line

The real disaster here, however, is the line, which is spooled over the top of the drum rather than under the bottom. Besides causing the remote to work backwards—"in" will spool out and vice versa—and the fact that the line has a much more acute angle to travel through the fairlead, there are two genuinely dangerous results. First, pulling in line over the top of the drum on a winch mounted this way, with the feet down, moves the center of force farther away from the mount, increasing the stress on it. Second, the brake will not operate correctly if, for example, the operator needs to lower a vehicle down a steep incline, although Warn tells me the winch will still not let the vehicle free-fall.

A vehicle-mounted winch is not a tool to be installed casually or carelessly. I worry that the person to whom this one belongs will have taken the same approach to learning how to actually use it. Not a good scenario.

Tool storage

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Carrying tools in a vehicle is always a balancing act. 

First you have to decide how many to bring. Do you go with some screwdrivers and a pair of pliers, or do you go the one-case-tool-kit route discussed here in the past, and wind up with a comprehensively stocked but 62-pound-heavy Pelican case? 

Then you have to decide how to carry them. A hard case such as the Pelican is durable and easy to secure, while a soft case saves weight and can be quieter. You can go with a steel chest with a top compartment and drawers, which is excellent for organization but very difficult to keep from rattling. 

Some months ago I began assembling a tool kit that went the middle route in terms of contents. I tried to include everything I would want to do minor repairs up to and including such things as replacing a serpentine or timing belt, an alternator, or a water pump, and fit it all in a Blue Ridge Overland Gear Tool Bag (see here). After some experimentation that kit now comprises:

  • Set of screwdrivers
  • Combination wrenches from 8mm to 19mm
  • 3/8” socket/ratchet set, standard sockets 8mm-19mm, deep sockets 10mm-19mm
  • 1/4” socket/ratchet set, standard sockets 5mm-15mm
  • Channel-lock pliers, Knipex pliers, needle-nose pliers
  • Side cutters and wire stripper/crimper
  • Ball pein hammer
  • Box knife with spare blades (which function as gasket scrapers, etc.)
  • Hex keys

That totals 15.4 pounds with the bag—not bad at all. And it has been working very well for minor repairs. However, it is near capacity. I could fit in a few cold chisels and a circlip plier, for example, but that would be it. If I wanted or needed to carry more tools I’d need another solution. Of course I could add another Blue Ridge bag, but I’d still be limited in my tool selection by things that simply wouldn’t fit—a hacksaw, for example, or my 18-inch 1/2” Snap-on ratchet, or a big no-bounce hammer such as the Park model here

Alternatives? A smaller Pelican case than the 1550 is an obvious and excellent choice, but I wanted to try something different.

I’ve always been attracted to cantilever tool boxes. I like the elegant way they bloom open, and the organization offered by the trays, whether it’s a two- or four-tray model. Perusing the usual sites revealed lots of Chinese-made versions for under $30, but the innate complexity of a cantilever box made me leery, and one I inspected at a hardware store did nothing to relieve my prejudice. So I landed on an $80 Italian-made Beta C20 four-tray box on Amazon (“Tools not included”), in can’t-miss orange. I was impressed with the quality, which seemed a definite step up from the cheaper models. 

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Compromises immediately became apparent compared to the soft case. Noise, chiefly—I could strap down the Blue Ridge bag so it barely tinkled; not so the steel box. I’d need to use One-Wrap velcro straps to bind wrenches and things to cut down on the racket on a bumpy road with the box in the back of the FJ40 (in the bed of a pickup or elsewhere more isolated it wouldn’t be a problem). Weight was also an issue—with the same contents as the Blue Ridge bag it was eight pounds heavier. Since I always secure tool cases with a ratchet strap, I don’t consider the steel box to be significantly more of a hazard in an accident—you wouldn’t want to be hit in the head with a “soft” case filled with 15 pounds of steel—but it does need more of its own space, and could conceivably gouge other equipment if not packed carefully.

On the other hand, the organization of those top trays is a wonderful feature: Grabbing frequently used tools such as screwdrivers or wrenches is easy. And the capacity is vastly up on the bag; my long ratchet, hacksaw, and hammer fit lengthwise easily, and the volume in the main compartment would allow me to carry significantly more tools if I wanted or needed to. It wouldn’t match the capacity of the Pelican 1550, but then I couldn’t stuff enough into it to match the weight either. So I call it a viable alternative for a mid-sized tool kit, and worth considering depending on your own needs.

 The four-tray cantilever box containing the tools from the Blue Ridge bag. Plenty of room left over. 

The four-tray cantilever box containing the tools from the Blue Ridge bag. Plenty of room left over. 

Battery decluttering

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Even in a vehicle as electrically antediluvian as a 1973 FJ40, connections to the battery can get out of hand with the addition of just a few accessories. For many years, I’ve used battery terminals incorporating a threaded vertical post to secure positive and negative cables and wires, both for basic functions (starter, etc.) and accessories such as the 2-gauge cables powering the Warn 8274 winch, and the 10-gauge connection to the auxiliary driving lights. 

But over time the connections have been stacking up—there’s now a separate cable to charge the auxiliary battery, and another for the ARB compressor.  Even with the installation of an Optima yellow-top battery with redundant side terminals, it was beginning to look cluttered, and probably doing nothing to maintain adequate current flow.

So I ordered a pair of Pico 0810PT “Military style” (their words) terminals from Amazon. Nothing fancy—no gold plating or built-in digital voltmeter—but substantial, and the horizontal bolt not only doubles the available connections but is far more secure than the wing nut on the old terminals. At $10 for the pair it was a bargain for a significant improvement in my wiring. 

Battery declutter 2.jpg