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. 

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Will I ever learn?

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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.



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Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, prefer to keep your equipment looking good as well as performing properly. The other day I needed to polish the lovely English-made brass bell on the Thorn Nomad, and remembered to dig out the Simichrome polish. This stuff has been around for ages, but there's still nothing to beat it for shining up virtually anything that should be shiny, from bicycle accessories to chrome bumpers. Just look at the mirror finish on the bell:

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Trust . . .

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For the first ten or so years of our marriage, not another human besides me touched the mechanical components of our vehicles. I rebuilt the engine of a BMW 2002 we bought in pieces in boxes; I changed the clutch on our first 2wd Toyota pickup literally in the street in front of our first house; I swapped the engine and transmission in our FJ40; rebuilt the knuckles on our FJ55—many more fairly major jobs besides the gentle but regular tides of normal maintenance.

Mind you, I am most definitely not an expert mechanic. “Competent amateur” would be the highest category with which I’d be willing to label myself. Nevertheless, while we were still in school and then striving to build careers freelance writing, and thus too poor to afford “real” mechanics, I was able to keep our various vehicles mobile.

Things began to change once we started making better money, and changed more quickly once we’d established ourselves as writers, and later when the Overland Expo began to grow so quickly. I found myself in a position in which I actually saved money by taking our vehicles to a mechanic, so that I could continue my main functions in the business. Fortunately, by that time we’d found (and made a dear friend of) a master Toyota mechanic named Bill Lee, someone in whom we could place implicit trust on any mechanical matter. We got to know him as a mechanic at a Toyota dealership, when he rebuilt the engine of the FJ55 we’d just bought that had been traded in. Once he opened his own shop, we didn’t need to think twice when we needed work on the 40 or any of the Toyota pickups we cycled through.

Then the bastard moved. First 250 miles away, then 500, to northern New Mexico. We shipped the FJ40 to him when it was time for a complete powertrain renewal, but for more run of the mill procedures that’s a bit much. So on advice of another friend we took a 2002 Toyota Tacoma Prerunner we had bought for the business to a prominent local shop for a major service. 

Something over $2,000 later it was back (and had me reconsidering whether we were actually saving money with this approach . . .). All seemed well, but several months later we decided the Prerunner was just not the right vehicle for what we needed at the Expo, and sold it to a friend of Bill, who needed a solid truck on which to mount a Four Wheel Camper, but who did not require four wheel drive.

Needless to say, Bill gave the truck another thorough going over with his own critical eye—and sent me an email that was disappointing. Checking over what had been done by the Tucson mechanic, he found a $5 generic PCV valve for which we had been charged the Toyota price ($25.56), and a Toyota part—a window master switch—which lists for $403.20 but for which we paid $535.71, not counting labor. Also, the intake boot, which was rotten and torn and should have been replaced, had been “repaired” by wrapping it with electrical tape. 

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Sigh . . .

Is this what so many vehicle owners have to put up with on a day-to-day basis? Not knowing if your mechanic is trustworthy? I know it’s possible to make an honest living as a mechanic because Bill does so, even in a remote one-horse New Mexican town which is (did I mention this?) 500 miles away from a perfectly decent supply of loyal customers in Tucson.

Trust. Notice that once it has been compromised by a single incident, it is essentially gone? One can be pretty certain that a shop does not overcharge on a factory part just once, or install an aftermarket part and charge a factory price for it just once, or bodge a repair just once. It’s like discovering a lie told you by a friend or business associate. Once you have that proof of duplicity you quite rightfully doubt everything.

Fortunately the diesel mechanic who takes care of our Ford F350 has proven to be not only competent but honest to a fault. But a 50-percent success ratio is nothing to brag about. In the meantime, I wonder if I lodge enough false complaints about Bill Lee on Yelp, he’ll lose business in Farmington and have to move back here?

Decisions . . .


It was getting late in the afternoon of what had been a long day driving down the west coast of Tasmania. We were exhilarated but looking forward to camp, sundowners, and dinner. 

We had two choices. Our map showed a developed campground near Zeehan, just a few minutes away. We’d found these surprisingly nice in Tasmania, with decently spaced sites and good facilities—not bad for a transit stay as we needed. We could be set up and relaxing with plenty of daylight left.

However, the map also showed an intriguing spot on the coast called Trial Harbor, about 25 kilometers down a winding road. But it would add at least an hour to the day, and while our map indicated there was camping available, it gave no further information. We’d have to chance that there would be a spot left. 

How often have many of us faced similar dilemmas? It was a close call, but the coast beckoned, so we turned off the C249 and headed west. The road was convoluted but, at first, surfaced, and it immediately dived into a verdant eucalyptus forest. There was a heart-stopping moment when an echidna ambled out in front of us and the Troopy’s brakes—all disc but still less than superb—barely spared the spiny little thing as it did a slow U-turn and waddled back into the undergrowth. Then we broke out into open hills fringed with massive forests blanketing the slopes. The surface turned to gravel, and with zero opposing traffic we wound our way into shaded ravines and out and up again under fast-moving clouds. 

The detour had already proven its worth, but then we turned a corner, topped a rise, and beheld the Southern Ocean stretched in front of us, surprisingly only 50 meters below. Whitecaps hyphened the sea into distant windblown salt mist—sail west from here and your next landfall would be Tierra del Fuego; head south and only icebergs would prevent you running into Antarctica.

A sparse scattering of red and green prefab houses clustered behind the breakers—we later learned that Trial Harbor boasts 19 permanent residents. But camping? A hand-lettered sign pointed right. We followed it down a muddy single-track through the brush, spray from waves nearly misting the windscreen. And then there were openings, and a few campers: a Troopy with a pop-top remarkably similar to ours, a Mitsubishi Delica van—and a miraculous open space at the very end of the track, out of sight of anyone. The ocean crashed on to a rocky beach one wrong sleepy step below, and—more miracles—a gin-clear brook tumbled out of the hills just over a rise behind us. Incredulous, we raised the Troopy’s roof, staked out the Eezi-Awn Bat awning, and went looking for where to pay. There was nowhere to pay, just a clean outhouse reached via a charming wooden bridge, and another hand-lettered sign directing us to the “Ringing Rock”—an F350-sized boulder on the beach, decorated with ancient circular Aboriginal carvings, and which, when tapped with a small rock, rang like a metallic gong. (We found out later these are called lithophones, and are know from anthropological sites around the world.)

Back at the Troopy, we had a visit from fellow campers, a hilarious couple of gay Australian men in their 60s, who joked about whose turn it was to play “wife” and wash dishes or fetch water. I broke out the rum and mixed Dark’n’Stormies—appropriate given the setting—Roseann grilled the lamb we’d kept frozen from the superb Springbok’s Delight butcher shop in Sydney, and I played “wife” and washed up before we gazed up one last time at the Southern Cross winking in and out of view behind the clouds. The crashing surf became white noise as we drifted off to sleep.

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Before we left next morning, we visited the town’s museum, run by resident Shirley Smith. It was a one-room marvel crammed with photos, memorabilia, and history from Trial Harbor’s early and recent days, along with the occasional curiosity such as the giant sunfish eyeball floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Cost? No cost, just a donation box. We left a lot, then turned the Land Cruiser back up the winding road, taking one last look as the colored houses of Trial Harbor faded into the ocean mist.

The moral of the story? I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now.

Take the road.

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Headlamp restoration

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I hate plastic headlamps.

Mind you, I’m delighted with the output and beam pattern of most modern headlamp* assemblies, which are as far ahead of sealed-beam technology as sealed beams were ahead of acetylene. But plastic is plastic, and while you might argue that polymer headlamp lenses are more resistant to stone chips than glass lenses, they eventually will discolor, renedering them semi-opaque and compromising their otherwise excellent performance—and also making them look like crap.

Our 2002 Tacoma Prerunner’s lamps were already well into the jaundiced phase when we took it over from my brother, and I recently decided to do something about it. So I went to the Griot’s Garage site.

I remember the early days of Griot’s, when most of their offerings were exotic and superb tools not available at Sears. My first exposure to Facom and USAG tools were through Griot’s. However, as time went on, Richard Griot (pronounced gree-oh) obviously discovered that the real money was in boutique car-care products such as cleaners, waxes, polishers, clay bars, and a myriad of accessories down to the level of oversize Q-tips for cleaning those pesky crevices in your alloy wheels. Only a few token mechanic’s tools remain among the latest offerings, but you can choose from among no fewer than five power buffers.

Still, any product I’ve bought from Griot’s has been first rate, so I ordered their headlamp restoration kit and set out one afternoon to see how it worked.

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And it did, excellently. The entire process—masking the surrpunding trim, wet-sanding the headlamp lenses until the slurry turned from yellow to white, drying them off and prepping with an alcohol pad, and spraying on the new coating—took less than 30 minutes, and it was satisfying to watch the lenses, alarmingly cloudy-white from the wet sanding, turn sparklingly clear under the coating (said to be good for 24 months).

Was it worth $29.95? In terms of sheer results and ease of application, sure. Yet I found myself bemused by the contents of the box, which totalled:

One two-sided sanding pad, helpfully labelled “driver side” and “passenger side”

A couple of lint-free paper towels

Three alcohol prep pads

One 1.5-ounce spray can of the magic coating, good for exactly one set of headlamps

Coating aside, it would be stretching it to claim there was a dollar’s worth of material in the box. That leaves twenty nine bucks for an ounce and a half of coating. It works, but I suspect Griot’s is printing money on this kit.

*As an aside, technically the correct term for the device that lights the road in front of your vehicle is headlamp, not headlight. 

Griot's Garage is here.

Quality camping gear: when (and when not) to economize

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A recent Facebook dialogue regarding the post “OCTK Lite part 2,” and its comparison of quality in outwardly similar tools, reminded me of a column I published in OutdoorX4 some time ago regarding equipment quality in general. I thought it was worth revisiting. Herewith:

I’ve been reviewing outdoor equipment for 30 years now, and using it for a lot longer, in conditions ranging from 115ºF Sonoran Desert summers to Beaufort Sea storms. In a few situations I’ve felt the sharp realization that my life was quite possibly hanging on the quality of my equipment—lost in a winter storm skiing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, caught seven miles offshore in a sea kayak in a Sea of Cortez chubasco—but in the overwhelming majority of circumstances it’s only been comfort, or the lack thereof, that has been affected by the gear I was using.

Nevertheless, in that time I’ve become convinced of the near-universal truth of this axiom: The best gear is also the least expensive in the long run. Spend more in the beginning on a quality piece of gear, and it will not only perform better, enhancing your comfort (and potentially your safety), it will also last longer, justifying its price over and over. Just one example is the Marmot Gore-Tex Grouse goose-down sleeping bag I bought in 1983. Scandalously expensive at the time on a penurious college-student budget, it has since seen untold nights of use, and has lost, as best I can estimate, perhaps a half inch of loft. I could go on with many other examples.

Okay, as I’ve been adminished many times, that’s fine in theory. But what if one simply does not have, say, $500 to spend on a sleeping bag, and $200 on a stove, and $50 on a double-wall titanium coffee cup? Am I suggesting that person stay home and leave travel to those who can afford bespoke equipment?

Not at all. My overriding goal in being in this business is to encourage people to get out exploring. One can only truly appreciate something if it is experienced in person, and if we are to preserve the most beautiful parts of our country and the world, we need people there seeing those parts and developing a bond of stewardship. And traveling and experiencing other cultures is the best way to stave off the xenophobia and isolationism that seems to be gripping our country these days.

Thus when I offer equipment advice to those just starting out, or looking at replacing worn out gear, and who are on a budget, I emphasize a strategy of priority. There are areas where economizing can be done without much compromise in comfort (or safety), and others where compromising would be foolish. Here are my ideas of where you should and shouldn’t economize. 

Tent: This is the big one. While traveling and camping your tent is your home—your last line of defense against rain, snow, wind, and bugs. You can survive with a cheap sleeping bag, but if your $39.95 dome tent leaks in a shower, or collapses in a breeze, the best sleeping bag in the world won’t keep you comfortable—or safe. Whether you’re after a lightweight backpacking tent for motorcycle or bicycle travel, or a room-sized, stand-up model to carry in a vehicle, buy the best tent you can afford, and care for it well. (For an in-depth look at how to choose a good lightweight tent, see here.)

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

These are not good tents.

These are not good tents.

Sleeping bag: I own an exquisite, U.S.-made Western Mountaineering Sycamore MF sleeping bag stuffed with superb 850-plus fill-power goose down. It’s spacious, has a waterproof shell, is rated to 25ºF, and weighs barely two pounds. It cost $460, and I fully expect it to last the rest of my life. Yet, quite frankly, the $55 synthetic-fill Blue Jay bag from Wenzel, rated to the same temperature, would be just as warm, and cozier given the flannel lining. No, it won’t last as long, and it weighs over five pounds, which would be an issue if you’re motorcycling or pedaling, but for tossing in the back of the Tacoma, it’ll work just fine.

Sleeping pad: Yes, that $130 Thermarest LuxuryMap inflatable mattress is a dream to sleep on. But for about $70 you can buy a queen-size three-inch-think memory foam pad on eBay and cut two 30-inch wide sleeping pads from it.

Stove: Connoisseurs of outdoor cooking swear by the dual-burner Partner Steel stoves, made to survive professional river guide abuse and stout enough to be employed secondarily as a tire ramp for working under your vehicle. But in my FJ40 I keep a single-burner Stansport propane stove that cost me $12.50 ten years ago and is still going strong.

Camp chair: No matter how active you are, you’ll spend a lot of time in camp sitting. Do yourself a favor and skip the $20 specials with 30 plastic joints on them. I’ve lost count of the broken ones I’ve encountered—cleaning up after each Overland Expo we always find a half-dozen of them in dumpsters, a criminal waste of the planet’s resources. Look at the brilliant (and handsome), made in the U.S. Kermit Chair, which can be carried on a motorcycle or transformed into a full-size chair, the fine GCI Pico, or the bulkier but sturdy Picnic Time Sport Chair with its built-in cocktail table.

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Coffee mug: Motorcycling or bicycling? Go for that Snow Peak titanium model. Driving a truck? If you spent more than $10 you’re just showing off.

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45