Stormtrooper 4Runner: First off-road trip report
Off-roading isn’t anything that’s new to me. I’ve been around the hobby my entire life, having grown up with my dad’s lifted YJ Wrangler taking us on weekend excursions to local wheeling spots. I came home from the hospital in a Jeep, spent most of my childhood and young adulthood dreaming of off-roading something of my own. Then my dad sold the YJ and we got into ATVs, engrossing ourselves in a completely different side of the four-wheel-drive world. Over a decade passed between our last trip in the YJ and the events told herein, which marked my first off-road adventure as the driver in a street-legal 4×4.
But things didn’t go just as smoothly as I had hoped. And yet, the day still panned out into a fantastic experience and an afternoon spent happily in the woods at Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. Read on for the story of my first off-road experience in the Stormtrooper 4Runner.
I bought the Stormtrooper 4Runner for little reason other than to go on new adventures. To see sights otherwise unseen, explore new places, tackle obstacles and trails as I’d always dreamed of doing. It only took two and a half months from the day I bought the truck, but finally my first wheeling trip with a street-legal vehicle was in sight.
Having been spent the last decade wheeling and working on (i.e., repairing) my four-wheel-drive quad, I’ve come to form a set of preparatory rituals for the night prior to any trip. Pick, pack, and load up the appropriate tools. Fill the machines with gas. Set the tires at the correct psi. Tighten the lug nuts. Check the valve stems. Little did I know that my proactive, harm-preventing ritual would come back to bite me.
It’s 6:15am on the Saturday morning of the “big day,” two-hundred miles ahead before even putting tires off pavement. Immediately upon hitting the road something seems off: the truck is pulling significantly to the left, or at least enough so to get my attention. I write it off as something having settled in a strange way overnight, and with no coffee in my system yet I let it slip as a hiccup, something that comes with the territory of a modified and beaten on truck. By 7:00am I’m wide awake and excitement has entirely overrun any remnants of the prior night’s short sleep. The truck is humming along nicely and the sun is even poking through the mostly overcast sky. Things are looking good.
A few miles tick by and things straighten themselves out. The truck isn’t pulling too far to the left anymore and I’m making decent time. I stop at a gas station an hour later, walk out of the building and see the immediately noticeable pitch of a vehicle with a flat tire. Left front, leaking air quickly; it’s already looking mostly aired down. Turns out the pulling to the left wasn’t nothing after all. As the visions of a day in the woods begin to fade, I get to work.
Hi-lift jack, which we’ve used countless times on everything from trail-side repairs to changing a trailer tire? Stuck on a rung at the very bottom and not budging whatsoever. OEM bottle jack? Far too short to raise the lifted truck. Incredibly luckily I had signed up for AAA the day prior, so with a helping hand on the way I set to getting the too-big-for-its-allotted-space spare tire down. Once it’s free I break out the portable compressor to air it up (it needed to be at 10 PSI to fit under the truck), which only gets it from 10 to 14 psi in 20 minutes of run time. AAA’s tow truck guy shows up, uses his handy compressor-powered jack to lift the truck up enough for me to change the tire, airs up the tire itself, and I’m ready to be on my way no more than ten minutes later.
Upon inspection there seems to be no hole, slice, broken bead, or any sign of a leak in the dying left front. It’s still early, but not wanting to drive out to PA with no functional spare (and especially not wanting to wheel without one), a quick stop into the Mavis nearby was in order to assess the seemingly dead BFG KM2. They submerge the tire in water to check for a leak, but nothing shows itself. They then separate rim from rubber, also revealing no signs of damage. My pre-adventure “rituals” flash through my mind, among them: tighten valve stems. Something I’ve done a hundred times on the quad, yet did on the 4Runner for the first time the night before, on wheels that I had no knowledge of their prior life. Right on cue, the Mavis employee walks over and tells me the stem is shot. Fucking figures.
They replace the stem, re-mount metal on rubber, and I’m back in the truck no more than fifteen minutes later. Quick decision made, I hit the road again, pointing west towards Shamokin, PA. The truck is running great, spare working well on the left front, my mind fixated on getting a few good hours of trail time in before having to head home. After a solid drive out there, I blast into the parking lot, pay the fee, meet the people I’m wheeling with (fellow T4R forum members) in the lot, air down, and we set out for the trails. The morning may have been wasted, but I’m salvaging every second I can.
Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area is a relatively new off-road park situated in the coal hills of Pennsylvania. Making use of land that was illegally yet commonly used as a dump, you know you’re in for an interesting time from the moment you drive up the shockingly steep road leading to the park to the moment you pull into the lot and lay eyes on an incredible assortment of vehicles in the staging area. From sport quads and dirt bikes to dealership-clean Rubicons and street-able back-country trucks to ex-King of the Hammers competitors and everything in-between, AOAA is one of those places where as diverse as the population is that makes use of the place, everybody is there for the same reason: to push both their vehicle’s and their own limits alike, and to maximize the fun quotient. Your wheels might be different, but everybody there appreciates the same hobby.
I had been to AOAA on my quad quite a number of times before. My father and I have explored nearly every trail in the place, pulled each other out of countless mud pits, had days that we’ll talk about forever. The park, while a horrible prospect to anybody who fears mud or dirt, is an absolute gold mine for off-roading good times. There’s mud deeper than you can imagine (ever seen a lifted Suburban on 37”s stuck half-way up the doors?), rock crawling sections that work suspension and driveshafts to their breaking points, hill climbs that test your 4WD as much as your gusto, fast sections, and so on. It’s a wide expanse of land that has something for everybody. On a quad, it’s a blast. In a truck, as I found out, it’s much of the same.
It’s funny, looking at the same trails from higher up and the comfort of what was once (and still somewhat is) a luxury SUV. An entirely different experience, something which I’ll write about in the coming weeks, but one that’s nothing short of a freakin’ blast. We drive cars, trucks, SUVs every day, and making use of them off-road– seeing what they’re truly capable of– is an extremely rewarding feeling. It’s the equivalent of taking a GT3 out on the race track after having driven it solely on the street; you never really know what a vehicle is capable of until you put it in its element.
The trails we chose were a little tight for our full-size SUVs, especially the two fourth-gen trucks, but that didn’t stop us from going anywhere we pleased. With a fairly extensive knowledge of the park, I soon found myself leading our little group despite not having much real off-road experience in a truck. And yet, wheeling a 4WD SUV proved to be much easier than I expected aside from having to manage the large physical size of the thing.
The first trail we turned onto off the main coal road caused momentary concern. We found ourselves face-to-face with an omni-present dilemma: left or right? To the right lay a mud pit of seemingly unknown depths, to the left a go-around with a quick off-camber climb. Ahead of either was a short, steep hill– something bound to test breakover angles– with sizable rocks strewn about. It’s not that it was a hard obstacle, but it was the first we’d come across; they always look bad for the first time on a given day. Left yielded too tight between the trees for even the narrower 3rd-gen that was leading at that point, so we scouted out the mud. Once I got my bearings it hit me: I’d been down this trail before, probably a dozen times, but had come the opposite way. If the quad could do it, the truck certainly should be able to. We tested the depth quickly with the highest-tech device known to man (a branch), and then I went for it. Pulling into the muddy stretch, the truck crawled easily over the rocks that lay below the surface. One tricky part remained, the berm at the end, which was barely wide enough for a full-size vehicle and had a tree on the left and a five-foot drop-off on the right. No room for error. The KM2s easily clawed their way up the terrain, pushing the 4Runner over the top and to the surprising downhill on the other side. Ecstatic, I jumped out and ran back to grab photos of the other trucks doing the same. This was a freakin’ blast already.
We navigated rock scrambles, hills and streams, and mud pits galore. Nobody so much had an issue, which was a good thing given the limited difficulty of the trails we ran, but the 4Runners performed flawlessly. The deepest mud pit of the day was one that crested the bottom of the doors of my lifted, big-tired truck, and even splashed onto the hood of the 3rd gen in our group. All in all though there were few spots where 4WD was even needed. A few hill climbs made slick by the melting snow and rainy conditions were tricky, but overall the trucks made it seem like a walk in the park.
The hardest spot of the day was a steep-ish climb on the easternmost side of the park, a hill that on my quad, on which I have thousands of miles of experience, I wouldn’t have thought twice about climbing. But in the truck, a wholly new experience in itself, there was cause for second thought. As somebody who is adamant about trying obstacles in 2WD on the ATV before having a go at them in 4WD, I considered attacking the steep, rock-strewn, wet climb with just the rear tires propelling the vehicle but reconsidered after a quick walk up to the top and a re-thinking of the possible repercussions on my expensive tires and long drive home. I twisted the knob to 4HI and made my way towards the top, where a one foot ledge lay perfectly placed for the left side tires. With as little throttle input as possible so as not to spin the KM2s, I proceeded to do just that on the slippery boulders. Remembering my out-of-AAA-length drive home, I backed up a bit, put it into 4LO, and proceeded to walk the truck right up the obstacle. Easy as pie. The 4Runner impressed me on many levels, and this was the peak of how it did so.
We made our way back to the parking lot after this and spent fifteen minutes talking before airing up and going our own ways. It’s always great to spend a day in the woods, and especially so when the people you spend it with are easy to be around and fun to wheel with. It makes the whole experience that much more pleasant, and just that much better.
Pulling out of the lot, it was impossible not to reflect on the day. From damn-near failure-to-launch to enjoying an incredible afternoon off-roading, it was truly a long and taxing Saturday that proved monumentally rewarding. It proved that the Stormtrooper 4Runner is extremely capable as-is, and that off-roading a full-size 4WD SUV is just as entertaining, exciting, and outright fun and enjoyable as I had hoped and expected. But what says it all is that our little group is already talking about another outing to further push our trucks’ and our own limits, to see and experience new things once again. Off-roading continues to be one of my favorite things in life, and doing so in a street-worthy vehicle only opens up that many more possibilities. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I can’t wait to dive even deeper into the wide world of wheeling. Next up: Rausch Creek at the end of April. Bring it on.