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


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.


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.

A decade and a half 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.

Upper control arm.jpg

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.


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. 

Tool boxes 2.jpg

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

Will I ever learn?

Soldering iron.jpg


A cockroach brain has barely a million cells, whereas a human brain has about 100 billion. Nevertheless, cockroaches are capable of learning and remembering things such as mazes.

I'm not sure about myself.

Last week I needed to install a new set of Baja Designs LED lamps on the FJ40—an S2 Sport reversing lamp, and a pair of XLR-Pro driving lamps up front. To incorporate the wiring harness of each into the existing reverse and driving lamp wiring harnesses, I wanted to properly solder the connections to ensure connectivity and longetivity. However, my good soldering gun was out at our desert cottage, 40 miles away, and we needed to stay in town for several commitments. So I thought, I’ll just buy a cheap soldering iron to have here, and ordered one from Amazon with next-day delivery. Just $19.99. You can already see where this is going, can’t you?

Indeed. The kit arrived, in a plastic box with a coil stand and some accessories. Next morning I got to work—and the iron proved utterly incapable of heating a connector sufficiently to melt flux-core solder on a 50-degree morning. Or, later, on a 65-degree day with a trace of a breeze.

Sigh . . .

So I drove to a hardware store and bought the identical 100/140-watt Weller soldering gun I have at Ravenrock ($36.95) and had the connections soldered in minutes.


Anyone need a heated coffee stirrer?

Buy good tools.


Effective backup lighting


I’ve never met a vehicle with factory backup lamps that were worth a damn, and I’ve never been sure why—granted, we don’t reverse at the same speed we go forward, but there are plenty of bad things that can happen at five miles per hour when your field of vision is reduced to a couple of mirrors, or your neck is craned at 100 degrees and you’re peering out the corners of your eyes.

In the context of a four-wheel-drive vehicle negotiating a difficult trail after sundown, this problem is magnified tenfold. If you’re backing up, it’s often because the trail in front has become too difficult to negotiate, and that means the trail behind you is not that much better. If you need to turn around and the trail is narrow with a steep dropoff, well . . . you’ve probably been there, as have I.

For those reasons, my FJ40 has been supplied with superb backup lighting for several decades, courtesy of a 7-inch round Cibie Oscar halogen fog lamp with a 100-watt bulb. The Cibie provided a massive amount of light, and drew enough power that I had to re-engineer the backup circuit with 10-gauge wire and a relay. But it’s gotten me out of tight spots more than once, and makes reversing in town a breeze.


However, time marches on, and halogen lamps are for many applications being quickly outdated by far more efficient LEDs, which last much longer (50,000 hours compared to 2,000 or so), are more resistant to vibration, and draw a fraction of the power. The Cibie had a very high cool factor in addition to its usefulness, but I decided an upgrade was in order. So I looked up Baja Designs, which in a lot fewer years than Cibie has been around has earned a stellar reputation for its auxiliary lighting systems. A quick browse through the online catalog landed me on the S2 Sport “work and scene” lamp, a two-LED lamp a fraction of the size of the Cibie (2.93 x 1.76 x 1.68 inches), yet which produces 1,130 lumens while drawing an absurd .9 amps, compared to 8.3 for the halogen lamp. 

The Cibie had always been mounted on a tab on the right side of the Stout Equipment rear rack on the 40, which was really not optimal, although it threw enough light that the loss on the driver’s side was minimal. I tried mounting the BD lamp there, but it just didn’t look right and would have suffered the same offset effect, so I remounted it to the bottom center of the rack, where it is well-protected and produces a perfectly balanced spread. I had to carefully trim away come copper filaments in the fat 10-gauge positive wire that had fed the 100-watt halogen bulb in order to be able to solder it into the BD quick-disconnect fitting, but otherwise installation was easy.


Results? The S2’s 1,130-lumen output is lower than the Cibie’s halogen bulb, which probably put out around 2,000 lumens. However, the fog-oriented focus of the Cibie produced an extremely bright horizontal strip of light about 20 feet behind the vehicle, with less bright light in front and behind, because it was mounted higher than a fog lamp normally would be. The BD S2 produces a much more even flood of light closer to the vehicle, which is slightly less impressive but actually much more useful.

The S2 has an IP69K waterproof rating, which means it is submersible to nine feet and impregnable to pressure washing. It also exceeds the MIL-STD810G rating, which means . . . actually I have no idea what it means, but it should mean this will be the last backup lamp I need to install on the FJ40.

Baja Designs is here. Stay tuned for an upgrade on the 40's driving lamps as well.


Tire repair in the field

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I’d heard the unmistakable hiss of a punctured tire losing air, and alerted my partner, who was driving the Ford pickup we were using to conduct road surveys in southern Nevada. Our job took us down scarcely used tracks with significant incursion from creosote bushes, which leave vicious little daggers sticking out around the base of the plant as the perimeter dies off. This was our third puncture today—and it was not yet 8:00 in the morning. 

Two minutes later we had the tire repaired and had resumed collecting GPS data. We didn’t even bother to add any air, much less replace the punctured tire with the spare.

Tire failure is by far the number one cause of vehicle breakdowns in the backcountry, whether you are exploring Nevada or Namibia. Yet I’m astonished at how many people still rely on a single spare and maybe a can of fix-a-flat as backup on remote excursions far from AAA. The irony is that the farther you are away from well-traveled routes and outside assistance, the higher the possibility of running into projecting root splinters, knife-edged rocks, or even an off-camber rut that can pop a tire bead right off the rim and deflate it instantly. 

Why not be prepared, and self-sufficient? With a few tools, a good air compressor, and a proper repair kit, you’ll be able to repair any tire mishap short of a shredded blowout and be on your way.

Most tire problems result from simple punctures in the tread area, where the tire actually contacts the ground. Close to civilization, likely culprits include nails, bolts, and screws. Farther afield, you might run afoul of those creosote daggers or any number of other biological or geological hazards. At higher speeds, punctures typically occur on the rear tires—the front tire rolls harmlessly over a nail or screw lying flat, but pops it into the air where it can land pointy end up just as the rear tire passes. At low speeds, it’s more often the front tire that will find some projecting bit. A nail that embeds itself in a tire might not make its presence known for hours, since it forms a partial plug and slows deflation. A root end is more likely to puncture and pull out, causing rapid loss of air and possibly an audible warning. 

The easiest and quickest way to repair a simple puncture is with a plug kit (which is what we used in Nevada). A tire plug comprises a short length of rubber-adhesive-impregnated nylon yarn, which is inserted into the puncture with a special tool, after reaming the puncture with another tool. Cheap plug kits are available everywhere, but skip them—plugging involes a fair amount of force, and you don’t want to push very hard on a plastic-handled tool embedded with a steel rod. High-quality plug kits with sturdy tools and better plugs come from Safety Seal and ARB. By far the most comprehensive tire repair kit I’ve used is the Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit from Extreme Outback, which includes not only plugs but an exhaustive assortment of patches, spare valve cores, valve stems, a valve core tool—everything you’d need to be self-sufficient on any trip up to and including a global circumnavigation.

The basic tools in a plug kit comprise the plugs, a reamer resembling a round file, and an insertion tool that has a large, slotted eye at the end. How do they work?

 High-quality plug tools from Extreme Outback.

High-quality plug tools from Extreme Outback.

Picture yourself at the side of the trail with your plug kit and a slowly collapsing tire. You can jack up the vehicle and remove the tire and wheel if access is limited, or leave it on and slowly roll the vehicle while looking and listening for the source of the leak. Let’s assume you spot a nail head embedded in the tread, and it is accessible. The first step to repair the hole is to prepare the plug in advance, to minimize leakage. Pull a plug free from its cellophane packaging—you’ll find it ridiculously difficult due to the adhesive, but surprisingly it doesn’t stick to your fingers. Pinch one end flat, and insert it into the eye of the insertion tool; pull through to its midpoint. You’ll have to pull quite strongly to get it in there. Your plug kit should come with a tub of lubricant; once the plug is positioned in the tool dunk the end in it to adhere a small glob to the plug.

Now you’re ready to prepare the hole. With a multitool or pliers, yank out the offending bit (the ARB kit thoughtfully incudes needle-nosed pliers). The next step is completely unintuitive: You’re going to make that hole bigger, so the plug can fit. Insert the toothed reamer into the hole—it might take some real shoving—then work it in and out briskly a few times. Don’t be gentle; move it around and twist back and forth. If the puncture is in the tread area you’ll be able to hear and feel the steel belt as the reamer rasps through it.

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Once it moves back and forth easily, set it aside. Insert the tip of the tool and the plug into the puncture. Again you’ll need a strong shove to get the tip and the doubled plug into the tire. Push until just a half inch or so of the tips of the plug shows above the tread, then pull the tool straight back out—no twisting on this. The split edge of the eye will first pull the middle of the plug back into the puncture, packing it tightly with vulcanizing material, then free the plug so the tool pulls out, leaving the plug in place and the puncture instantly sealed—no waiting for glue to dry. Trim the plug as flush as possible with a knife or razor blade, and you’re finished. The tire manufacturer will warn direly that this is a temporary repair, but I’ve known tires with just a few hundred miles on them repaired thusly that went on to live out their full tread life. If the tire has deflated enough so that pushing on the insertion tool just pushes in the face of the tire, add some air with your compressor to give it more resistance.

 Push the plug in until the ends stand just clear of the tread.

Push the plug in until the ends stand just clear of the tread.

What if the hole is larger in diameter than one plug will seal? Try two—or three, or four. My friend Tim once repaired a sidewall split with no fewer than five, and it got him back to civilization. While we’re on sidewalls, note that a plug repair there really should be considered an emergency fix only. The sidewall, even on a sturdy all-terrain tire, lacks the structural integrity of the belted tread area—it’s designed to flex, and can’t support the plug as well. Nevertheless, a sidewall plug repair should hold just fine for the length of a trip. (Also note that, as excellent as plugs are, they won’t seal every puncture. Recently on a trip to Mexico a friend holed a tire with a sharp branch right at the corner of the tread and sidewall. The result was a flapped triangular hole that I simply could not get to seal, even with three plugs. It happens.)

Tim’s five-plug repair notwithstanding, a much better way to repair a sidewall split (sidewalls collect splits from rock gashes and pinching more often than they do simple punctures) is with a patch on the inside of the tire. To do that you’ll need access to the inside, which means you’ll need to break the bead, a procedure that sounds alarming but really doesn’t break anything. 

The inside edges of an automobile tire, where they grip the rim of the wheel and seal the air inside, are each reinforced with a very stiff wire cable embedded in thick rubber—the bead. The wheel is made with a corresponding groove running around its inside and outside edge. When your local Discount Tire store tech mounts a tire, his fancy machine first levers the tire over the rim so the beads are inboard of the grooves. He then applies a sharp blast of high-pressure air, which pops both beads outward and into their respective grooves. The tire can then be fully inflated. The grooves hold the beads very tightly—even running for some time on a flat tire will rarely unseat them.

When your tech needs to remove a mounted tire, his machine pries the beads loose with a powerful automatic lever. In the field, you’ll need to be more creative. Trust me, just jumping up and down on a deflated tire won’t work. (Important note: Those of you with shiny alloy wheels—or shiny steel wheels for that matter—will find that some of the following techniques might scratch and gouge them. I hereby absolve myself from responsibility.)

The first step is to remove the valve core to ensure the tire is completely deflated and to easily let out additional air as you compress the carcass. Both the Extreme Outback and ARB kits come with a valve core removal tool. Mark the tire and wheel with chalk or anything handy, to make sure you re-install it in the same place and don’t mess up the balance (the EO kit includes chalk). To “break” the bead you need to apply inward force to the sidewall of the tire as close as possible to the edge of the rim, in order to force the bead out of its groove. One effective way to do so is to lay the tire and wheel on its side under your vehicle’s bumper, then position a Hi-Lift or bottle jack with the base plate on the tire and the lifting tongue or post under the bumper. Crank up the jack and the base plate will push the bead out of its groove. You generally only need to do this in one spot as the bead will easily pop out of the rest of the groove when stood on. Always break the bead on the outside of the wheel first; the groove on the inside has a ramp that makes it more difficult. 

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An elegant enhancement to the Hi-Lift technique is the Extreme Outback Beadbuster, which attaches to the jack’s base plate and incorporates a curved spade to precisely bear against the tire close to the rim, reducing stress on the sidewall. The opposite, cruder end of this spectrum is to lay the tire on the ground and simply drive over one edge of it with the help of a spotter. Effective, but a bit hard on the tire.

 The Beadbuster makes beadbreaking with a Hi-Lift jack easier on the tire.

The Beadbuster makes beadbreaking with a Hi-Lift jack easier on the tire.

By far the quickest—and most stylish—way to break a bead is with the Australian-made Tyrepliers. This cunning tool, which adjusts to fit wheels up to 19 inches in diameter, frees the bead using good old Archimedean leverage. It’s nearly foolproof, and so universally respected that it carries a NATO stocking number. I’ve lost count of the onlookers and students I’ve amazed by popping the bead on a tire in about ten seconds flat. You stand on the tire and use one foot to push the fixed hook of the tool under one edge of the rim, then work the lever hook under the opposite side with the paired handles. Push down on the lever handle and voilá. It’s not only fast, you’re bearing only on the actual bead, so damaging the sidewall is virtually impossible.

 First lever both hooks of the Tyreplier under the rim.

First lever both hooks of the Tyreplier under the rim.

 Then push down on the outside lever to force the bead out of its groove.

Then push down on the outside lever to force the bead out of its groove.

Once the first bit of bead pops free of the groove, it’s generally possible to stomp the rest of it out around the circumference of the rim. If that doesn’t work, reposition the jack or Tyreplier.

Once the outside bead is free, turn the tire over and do the same to the inside bead. The tire will now be loose in the well of the rim, but you still will not have access to the inside of the carcass. For that you’ll need a pair of automotive tire irons, which look like and are just butched-up bicycle tire irons about two feet long, and work exactly the same way. (Extreme Outback's Deluxe model is the best I've used.) Start near the valve stem, insert one iron and lever the tire over the wheel edge. Insert the next one near it and lever that section of the tire over. Leave the first iron in place as you proceed around the tire until it pops free. With one side of the tire off the rim, you’ll have adequate access for most repairs; if not, you can use a tire iron and a dead-blow hammer to take the tire completely off the wheel. But getting the second bead over the edge is significantly more difficult.

 Using tire levers to pull the bead over the rim.

Using tire levers to pull the bead over the rim.

If the sidewall split is short, you can simply patch it from the inside; again think glorified bicycle repair. The patches in the Extreme Outback kit cover a range from small to terrifyingly huge. If the split is severe, you’ll want to stitch it to hold the edges together and reinforce the patch—yes, more or less like a surgeon would do with a bad cut. I use a cordless drill, or an awl with a cutting edge, to make a line of small holes on either side of the split, an inch or so apart and a quarter inch from the split, then stitch it together tightly with whatever is handy. Small-diameter wire works best; heavy fishing line works too but is difficult to knot. (I’ve heard of people using dental floss, which might work if it were tripled or quadrupled.) With the slice secured, you can roughen the area behind it, spread cement on both tire and patch, wait until dry, then apply (obviously your patch needs to cover the stitch holes). This is another repair to be considered only in a fix-it-or-walk-home situation, but I know of stitched tires surviving dozens of rough miles. Incidentally, if you have a tire off the rim and you’ve done any plug repairs, note that now is a good time to trim the plug and install a patch behind it for ultimate security. 

Now you have to put everything back together. Starting this time opposite the valve, use the tire irons to pry the bead or beads over the rim and back into the well of the wheel, so you have a loose tire completely inside the rims. Remember the fancy machine the tire tech used to blast air into the tire and seat the beads? Again, we’re going to improvise. 

There’s a long-standing myth that you need a very large volume of air (or hold-my-beer pyrotechnics with starting fluid; see below), to reseat beads. But I’ve done it with very small compressors and proper technique—as long as the wheel is not too wide for the tire. If you run showpiece alloy wheels ten or twelve inches (or more) in width, so your tires’ sidewalls barely protrude past them, you might have a devil of a time reseating beads in the field—and you’ll also stand a much greater chance of damaging a wheel rim on the trail, since there’s no protection offered by the sidewall. The steel wheels on our Land Rover 110 and FJ40 Land Cruiser are 6.5  inches wide, and I can easily reseat beads on 255/85/R16 BFG tires (higher-profile tires help as well, with their more flexible sidewalls).

I mentioned that I’d reseated beads with very small compressors, but the larger volume of air you have, the easier and quicker the process will be (see sidebar on compressors). A CO2 tank will work very well, but be aware that CO2 can leak out of tires over time.

Here’s how it’s accomplished. Stand the tire and wheel upright, and center the tire as evenly as possible in the wheel with your chalk marks aligned. If tire and wheel are well-matched the tire’s beads will naturally bear against the inside of the grooves and form a partial seal on their own. Use water, with some detergent in it if you have it, to thoroughly soak the perimeter of each bead—this functions more as a lubricant than a seal. In a pinch any liquid is better than nothing—my nephew reports that Keystone Light beer works well, which is as far as I’m concerned the best possible use for Keystone Light.

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Your valve core is still out, right? Apply the air chuck to the valve and start inflating. If the tire is not centered properly you’ll see a lot of bubbles in one spot; stop and reposition. If the seal is good you’ll see the tire’s walls expand slowly until, with a distinctly alarming metallic PING, they will seat in turn, usually the inside one first because of the ramp. Release the chuck—air will rush out but the beads will stay put. Re-insert the valve core, inflate, and you’re finished.

Some bush mechanics suggest running a ratchet strap around the circumference of the tire and tightening it prior to setting the beads, the idea being that it will push the beads outward and making sealing easier. I’ve tried it with and without and never noticed a difference, even with a big strap—and to me the strap just adds one potentially dangerous bit to fly off if something goes wrong. The other seating technique is the infamous starting-fluid routine, which involves spraying starting fluid or another flammable aerosol around the bead of the tire laying on the ground, then tossing in a match to create a minor explosion that blows the beads onto their grooves in a split second. When this works it is a crowd-pleasing spectacle, but search YouTube for videos and you’ll find plenty of crowd-pleasing, spectacular failures as well. I prefer the more civilized approach.

There is another situation in which you might find it necessary to reseat a bead. Occasionally on very rough trails a rut or rock will catch the side of a tire with enough force to knock a bead loose and produce a startling whoosh as the tire deflates. This seems somewhat more likely to occur if you have aired down to enhance traction (or if you’ve been indulging in a bit of Baja 500 hooning). Frequently only one bead—usually the outside one—will be pushed off. While it is sometimes possible to reseat the bead with the wheel still on the truck, you might find it necessary to remove the wheel and actually unseat the opposite bead to get the tire to sit properly for reseating with an air compressor.

Once you’ve mastered the art of demounting tires and reseating beads in the field, dealing with simple punctures will seem like child’s play. That day in Nevada? If memory serves, we collected four more punctures before the day was out, and each one was repaired in a couple of minutes. We never even considered putting on the spare tire. That would have been way too much work.

 Just part of the contents of the  Extreme Outback  Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit (about $100).

Just part of the contents of the Extreme Outback Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit (about $100).

  . . . and the also-excellent  ARB  kit, well-organized in a blow-molded case ($42).

 . . . and the also-excellent ARB kit, well-organized in a blow-molded case ($42).