04 Mar

Bruno the 4Runner

We bought a 2000 Toyota 4Runner with 4WD for the wild roads of Central America, and then named him Bruno. Bruno needs to be in top-shape for the trip because if we run into a bandido road block in Northern Mexico, Bruno needs to be able to pop into 4WD, run over the bandidos and smash through their road barrier without breaking a sweat.

This sounds easy. So how hard can it be to make a fifteen year old truck into a rock-solid bandido destroyer? It turns out to be really quite a lot of work. Bruno had 140k miles on him when he came under our wings, and I planned on simply following some online guides to implement some Bruno-improvements. Neither Amanda nor I have much mechanic experience. I’ve changed the oil in a car before by myself, and I’ve done some medium level motorcycle maintenance before.

Here is a view of Bruno in front of our rental house in Oakland:




We bought Bruno for $7500, and ultimately ended up paying $2500 additional in parts, and for the maintenance we could not do ourselves, $1000 in labor costs. By the end of it all, I would guess that 50 hours were spent working on Bruno. We did a lot of mechanic work in our front yard, and I’m sure our neighbors were getting tired of seeing Bruno jacked up on stands without his rear tires on.

First round of work:

  • New tires (ordered online, then took to tire shop to install/balance/alignment)
  • New lower ball joints (ordered parts online, then followed this excellent guide to install)
  • New radiator (ordered parts online, then followed this guide to do install)
  • New shocks/springs, apparently also called struts (ordered parts online, then removed the front assembly and took it to local shop to have them decompress old springs/shocks and swap in new ones and re-compress. The whole setup for the rear ones are much more difficult to do, so I had the dealership do those).

Everything was looking good. Then, upon having the rear struts done at dealership, they pointed out that the brakes should probably be done, the automatic transmission fluid drain plug was leaking, the rear axle seal was leaking, and the rear differential was making a whining noise.

What the!? Bruno… please tell us these are lies…

Second round of work:

This is when the real avalanche of work began. What exactly is an axle, and what does a differential do?

  • Front/Rear Brakes (difficulty: pretty easy) – ordered parts online, watched some YouTube videos, front brakes are easy, rear drum brakes are a bit more complex but still straightforward.
  • Rear axle seal (difficulty: medium) – ordered parts online, and followed this amazing guide to remove the axle shaft from Bruno. Took shaft to mechanic to have them press on new wheel bearing on the axle. Take back home, discover that they pressed on to incorrect depth, have to take back to them to get it fixed. After that was done, I changed the axle seal myself without the proper tool -much cursing involved-, then was able to re-insert axle shaft and finish by adding the gear oil. Slam dunk.

Bruno kicks me in the face:

  • Rear differential (difficulty: a very serious bummer) – first I had to watch this helpful YouTube video explaining how a differential works. Then took Bruno to mechanic to confirm the problem. Took Bruno home, put up on jack stands, removed back tires, had to pull out the rear axle shafts again after my previous axle seal fix, disconnect drive shaft, then pulled out the rear differential (also called a third member). This thing is EXTREMELY HEAVY. If you were laying on the ground and I dropped this on your chest, I’m pretty sure it would kill you. Or at least break a few ribs. We put it in a bucket and took to mechanic to have them “rebuild” the differential. In the end they recognized that a bearing had died in the pinion component, which was making the whine noise. Now fixed. Took back home and put everything back together.  Hurray! Job complete! All done, right? NOPE. After taking Bruno for a test drive, we discovered that I DID A SHIT JOB re-installing the rear differential and the gasket seal was leaking oil LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS.


We had to take everything back apart (third time removing the god-damn axle shafts) and then re-install the rear differential putting much more effort towards scraping off all the old crusted seal gunk and cleaning the seal area with brake cleaner multiple times before applying the new seal gasket. Sigh. Finally fixed. Super-thanks to my wonderful wife for doing 50% of the work on the second install, as I probably would have given up and accepted defeat without her.  What would I do without her?

 Bruno Gets Ready For Camping:

Now that Bruno is in top-notch mechanical condition, we need to add some camping modifications. Bruno is going to get:

  • A 12v fridge – We bought an Engel MT35F-U1 fridge which cost us $840. We could have gone for a lower cost fridge (a lot of people choose the Edgestar 43 Qt instead), but we wanted a very compact fridge to maximize our sleeping space. The best price we could find was at Compact Appliance – here is a sponsored link to the Engel MT35F-U1 listing on their site.

Engel MT35F-U1 fridge in 4Runner

Engel MT35F-U1 fridge

  • A dual battery system – This will power the fridge and charge our electronics. This project was complex, since electricity is super tricky. What gauge wire to use, where to put fuses and what size fuses. Took a long time to get figured out, since neither Amanda nor I are electricians. Huge thanks to liferemotely.com who had this guide on installing a dual battery system in a 4Runner. Below is a picture under Bruno’s hood. You can see in the bottom right of this picture is our auxiliary Optima YellowTop battery, which we ended up buying from Amazon. You can see a bunch of wires going back from the battery to the intelligent solenoid in the top right (the solenoid protects the starter battery from being drained by the auxiliary battery).


  • A sleeping platform – We were prepared to construct our own, but we found one on Craigslist for only $75. Touch down! Only had to make a few small adjustments. We’ll also be using an additional mattress pad on top of the platform for extra comfort. Underneath the platform is space for our kitchen & food bins, tools and camping gear.

Toyota 4Runner Sleeping Platform

Toyota 4Runner Sleeping Platform

Add some curtains, provisions for mosquito netting around the windows, and we’re pretty much ready to hit the road!

  • Frank Hinde

    Hey Guys, Its a lot of work learning how to do this stuff. I’m glad it was only a pinion bearing, if the gears had been worn or chipped you would have been in for a lot more grief money wise. Incidently, I’m sure it was a 4 runner I changed a timing belt on once for a young friend of ours. I also think it was an interference engine.. Namely if the belt breaks it will smash your engine up. If the engine is equipped with a timing belt make SURE you know when it was changed.. And if the change interval is coming up, please change it. You will want to do the water pump, cam and crank seals at the same time.

    • freedomwithbruno

      Thanks Frank, this is good advice! You’ve encouraged me to double-check the maintenance records for Bruno. The previous owner changed the timing belt at 95k (mileage is currently 140k) along with a bunch of other stuff (drive belts, pulleys, cam/crank seals, waterpump, etc.)

      Also, I’m not familiar with timing belt breaks, so I did some quick research and the 4Runner engine is indeed a “non-interference engine” so even if the belt breaks, no damage occurs and the engine just quits.


      • Frank Hinde

        Looks like you got another 50k miles before you need a new belt so looks like your good to go. Nice to see they did a proper job, so often I see people just replace the belt and 10,000 miles later the water pump starts leaking. Considering your driving through a few “dodgy” areas you definitely want a vehicle you can rely on. I will be looking forward to reading details of your trip..:)

  • james

    I see you’ll have plenty of room for me to snuggle up in between you two!

    • Amanda

      Anytime, James!

  • Nebraska

    First, your levels of badassity are off the charts. I didn’t ever get to do a road trip style tour of Latin America. However, I have traveled and lived extensively in Mexico, Guatamala, Belize, and Costa Rica. You guys are going to be awesome and have the time of your life.

    I don’t recommend killing Northern Mexican “bandidos.” Funny. But seriously, I have spent significant time in Chihuahua (i.e. Northern Mexico). I have family (in-laws) in the area. My best advice is to drive when the sun is up and find your place before night settles in. Driving through the mountains in the dark is difficult (at least for a midwesternern). Also, that is what the family that lives there does to stay safe. It doesn’t look like it is on your way, but if you are stop in Anahuac or Cuahtemoc, Chihuahua and need a place to stay (or park!) please feel free to send me a message. Also, if you need a place to stay (or park) in Mexico City please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    Lastly, I totally recommend Moctezuma, Costa Rica for a short visit. Lost of beaches to camp on. They have a waterfall that is 70 feet tall (as I remember anyway). You can jump off it. I did when I was younger (Although, I might now nowadays). Anyway, just a suggestion.

    • Amanda

      We never thanked you for your wonderful comments! We’re thinking about bypassing Mexico City with Bruno (afraid of the traffic) and coming back to visit sometime on foot. Try that great metro system you have. Montezuma, CR will also have to wait for a future trip. There is so much to see and do in this small country, we didn’t get to half the places I wanted to! There will just have to be a next time…

      • Nebraska

        I lived in Mexico City for a year and never drove – so I don’t blame you for bypassing! However, you should definitely put it on your list of places to visit. It is a way under-rated city and cheap relative to other major city peers.

    • Frankee Bubbee

      i’m planning the same from San Diego California to Costa Rica… i need help i’m pretty scared to where to park and sleep. i have a 26ft RV and two little dogs.. i might have company but might go alone. Im a 43 yr old female…lol i want to know if there is a ferry going there from maybe baja cali…? any ideas please help… my email is Frankeep96@gmail.com i wish i can find a website to find people that are going to do the same so we can follow one another… xoxo thank you.

      • Amanda

        Hi Frankee! What a wonderful adventure you are about to embark on. I have the greatest website to alleviate your fears on sleeping & parking: http://www.ioverlander.com You will find many travelers by staying at some of the same places on this map! Two other recommendations that will help find other folks and LOTS of info about the Baja Ferry – get on Facebook and join the following groups: PanAmerican Travelers Association and Overland Sphere. If you aren’t on FB, http://overlandsphere.com/ I wish nothing but wonderful experiences for your trip!

        • Frankee Bubbee

          Thank you so much Amanda….xoxoxoxo

  • Jamie

    I think its a great idea for you to do your own work on the car. Not only will it save you money, it will give you skills and knowledge that might help you on your trip if things go pear-shaped with the car.

    • Amanda

      This was exactly the idea behind doing maintenance ourselves (second to saving the cost of paying someone else to do it)! We haven’t yet had to do much work on the car, but when we’re climbing around on really rocky terrain, I love thinking that the new suspension system WE installed is working great!

  • So how often have you used Bruno for sleeping? I saw one of the posts that mentioned a 70% Airbnb and 30% Camping, does camping include Bruno?

    • Amanda

      When we say camping, we definitely mean ‘in Bruno’. We don’t have a tent with us, so sleeping in Bruno and cooking meals outside constitutes camping! We plan to camp more than 50% of the time on the way back up to the US, and further save on costs. Sometimes it’s just more comfortable to sleep in our “own bed” than at hotels/hostels!

  • systemBuilder

    I would like to know more about the sleeping platform – is it a well-known improvement? Is it bolted in or easily removable (how often do you remove it)? Is it easy to use(i.e. climb into, climb out of, enough vertical clearance to crawl around easily)? How do you access all the storage areas? Thanks.

    • Amanda

      First disclaimer: we didn’t build it. There were lots of YouTube videos and blogs about people outfitting their 4Runners with sleeping platforms. We got lucky and someone was selling one in the Bay Area when we left. It comes apart into 4 pieces and it’s not bolted in. We didn’t have any reason to remove it on the trip, but could have. There are more pictures in this post: http://freedomwithbruno.com/brunos-next-big-adventure-costa-rica-to-nova-scotia/

      While driving, everything was slid to the back so that we could access our fridge, food, and travel books. When the platform was in place, it fit perfectly over our refrigerator, leaving us enough space to sit up on one elbow (maybe 1.5 ft above our noses?). We accessed it from the side doors when we were ready to sleep. I’m about 5’3 and Travis close to 6’0, so maybe I felt like I had more space, but we both did it! Storage areas are just plastic bins that fit underneath the platform and accessed only from the rear, so when you’re in for the night – you’d better have everything you need! Any other questions, just ask!

      • systemBuilder

        One last question, could you get to sleep while the fridge was running? Or did you have a mechanism to turn it off – temporarily – near bedtime (maybe a wind-up timer or something?) My wife is a very light sleeper …

        • Travis

          We had a bit of padding between our sleeping frame and the fridge. Whenever the fridge’s compressor would kick on (every 15 minutes or so, depending upon the temperature), it would make a low humming sound. I usually wore earplugs so often I would not be aware of it. I think your wife would be okay with the noise level, but it’s hard to tell. Good luck!!

  • Cacio

    Travis and Amanda. Whenever you decide to come to Brazil, let us know. Specifically Porto de Galinhas, Recife-Pernambuco (google it). We have a place for you guys to stay. Surfing, kitesurfing, snorkling and paraglyding. Shoot me an email at mamacenter@gmail.com. Best Brazilian regards, Cacio & Mila

    • Amanda

      Amazing, thank you very much for the invite! Saúde!

  • Hi Travis and Amanda,

    I have been reading about your travels and I am so inspired. I wanted to send you an email. But I couldn’t find a contact page so hope this reaches you.

    I was wondering if you are attending FinCon this year. I really want to meet you and hear about your travels specifically about el Salvador. I am planning a trip and would really Like to hear your perspective.

    • Travis

      Thanks Roamer! We won’t be at FinCon this year (too far away, and we’re just getting settled in our new home). El Salvador was fantastic, beautiful, and safe – although we stayed out of San Salvador. Although I’m sure you’ve already seen them, you can see our El Salvador posts here: http://freedomwithbruno.com/category/el-salvador/

      Let me know if you have any specific questions, we’d be more than happy to answer!

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