Toyota 4Runner build

I have been building out my 4Runner for vanlife. This vehicle is reliable and capable off-road, but quite a bit less comfortable than a van - no standing up inside. But on a 2-month, 6000 mile road trip last year, it performed well. I’m currently working on improving its cold weather capabilities and adding some features.

To sleep two people, I took out the 2nd row seats and put plywood directly on the vehicle floor. After removing the large lower plastic trim panels along the sides of the cargo area, I used OEM bolt holes behind those panels to secure a wood shelf above each rear wheelwell. These two shelves in turn support a large main shelf that spans the rear cargo area. The main shelf is positioned 19" above the floor and does not obstruct the view out the rearview mirror while driving. The storage space above it is about 48" wide, 32" deep, and 19" high. We move gear and supplies from the floor to the shelves at night, so that we can sleep on the floor, with our heads towards the front of the vehicle and our legs under the main shelf. This arrangement allows us to sit up at night when sleeping inside the vehicle. Before driving the next day, we move everything from the shelves back to the floor. A hard-sided cargo case on top of the roof rack provides additional storage space. MaxTrax recovery boards can also go on the roof rack.

A recent tweak on this shelf design is that the main shelf is now in two parts. The rear part, made of 3/4" plywood, is removable and can be mounted securely on the rear bumper, using two stainless steel brackets that I installed in the rear bumper, along with a homemade support bracket that plugs into the 2" rear hitch receiver. In this table mode, the rear shelf becomes a useful platform, approximately 48" x 14", for outdoor food prep and cooking.

To power things, I put two 92Ah LiFePO4 batteries in the 2nd row footwell just behind the passenger seat. This battery bank is charged by the alternator, and connects to a 1200W inverter. The DC-DC charger can also accept solar input. This system powers several useful appliances:
(1) 12V Engel MT17F refrigerator. It fits in the “garage”, next to the rear hatch.
(2) Induction cooktop. At medium-high heat setting, it uses 1100W.
(3) Travel Buddy 12V Marine Oven. Surprisingly spacious, with a maximum temperature around 350 to 375 degrees F, using 10A.
(4) Zojirushi Panorama Window Micom 3-liter water heater, for running hot water on demand. 3 liters of near-boiling water mixed with a similar amount of cold water makes enough hot water for an indoor sponge bath. If about 6 liters of hot water is not enough for a full bath, shampooing hair and washing the rest of the body can be done in two separate sessions, each with its own batch of hot water.
(5) A ventilation system using four computer cooling fans. These are 120mm, 12V Noctua fans, and are extremely quiet and use almost no electricity.

In the ventilation system, two fans bring in fresh air from the front of the vehicle, and two fans exhaust stale air out the rear. This provides a constant but unnoticeable flow of air from head to toe while we are sleeping. The two fans in front are mounted on a plywood board that fits tightly into the opening of the glove compartment. Each night, I empty the glove compartment and remove the cabin air filter behind it. Then I plug the computer fan wiring into a 12V socket that I installed in the side of the glove compartment. This brings in fresh air through the grill at the rear of the hood, near the windshield wipers. It’s very stealthy.

For equal stealth, I removed the two audio speakers in the rear hatch and replaced them with computer cooling fans. They draw air from the cargo area and blow it into the interior of the rear hatch. I then modified two OEM plastic plugs in the bottom of the rear hatch to allow air to exhaust downwards, to the top of the rear bumper. Then I cut matching holes in the plastic rear bumper to allow the exhaust air to escape to the outside. While driving, these holes in the bumper are covered by simple pieces of sheet metal, to prevent road dust from entering the rear hatch. But at night, I simply remove the sheet metal covers from the rear bumper.

This ventilation system avoids having to open the windows at night for ventilation, and provides an unnoticeable but effective flow of air throughout the night to remove water vapor from inside the vehicle. My wife and I have woken up on cold mornings (25 degrees F outside) with very little or no condensation on the insides of the windows.

For privacy, I made window covers from 1/4" Foamular XPS sheets, with dark fabric attached to the window side using 3M 77 Spray Adhesive. These are for all the windows from the 2nd row rearward. They stay in place on the windows by friction fit. A blackout curtain hanging from a piece of paracord pulled from one side of the vehicle to the other, just behind the front seats, provides privacy from the front, leaving a gap of about 3" at the top, where the headliner curves upward.

I made a portable toilet out of the aluminum tubing frame of a folding camp stool and some 2" polypropylene webbing to support a standard round toilet seat, and it works very well. But we will be trying a Trelino Evo S portable toilet, only 11.7" high. When in use, it will go on the 2nd row seating area floor, behind the driver’s seat.

With sleeping bags, two layers of wool socks, and a wool hat, our bodies are warm enough in the winter. The main issue at this point is trying to keep the air that we breathe warm. We don’t have a diesel heater or propane heater. I am experimenting with a 3’ x 3’ reflective aluminized panel on each 2nd row door and a 3’ x 4’ reflective panel on the headliner above, to reflect heat back towards our heads while sleeping.

I am also working on a folding table to place in the 2nd row footwell behind the driver’s seat, to use for multiple purposes: food preparation, cooking, and working with a laptop. I am considering cutting a 4" hole in the roof above this space and installing a 120mm Noctua fan to exhaust cooking fumes - a scaled down version of a MaxxAir fan, for a scaled down space.

I admire the many creative and beautiful van builds that people have come up with. A 4Runner as the base platform has certain advantages, and the build can serve two people well with good functionality, but at a definite cost in the level of comfort due to the much reduced interior space.

Is is plausible to add a commercial sunroof or moonroof, or make your own equivalent, under which you could stand up, dress and take showers?

I realize that would be somewhat inconsistent with your stated goal of improving cold weather capabilities, and that it would make the van less stealthy.

A long time ago I had a VW Vanagon Camper, that I often used for car camping, especially on winter ski/camping trips, that I sometimes used in sub-zero (F) temperatures. I discussed adding a shower with someone who worked in the trades. It was his opinion (though he wasn’t an expert in this particular field) that that would create mold and mildew inside the camper. However, I have wondered whether an open sunroof or moonroof (with mosquito and no-see-em netting) would have provided sufficient ventilation to work well - or I could perhaps have used the canvas pop-up roof for ventilation.

Of course you would lose all your stealth if you use a moon-roof or sunroof (or your own equivalent) this way. But you could perhaps use it when you aren’t trying to be stealthy.

You could put roof racks on top of your truck. And when you aren’t being stealthy, you can empty out much of your gear into waterproof cargo bags that you put on top(be careful - some nominally waterproof bags aren’t all that waterproof). If you get into paddling or skiing, a roof rack might be very useful for that too. (However, remember that any competent thief, or most any ordinary trades person, has the knowledge and skills to remove roof racks, break their locks, or for that matter, break into a vehicle, perhaps roughly as fast as you can use your keys. Paddled boats aren’t often taken, but skis might be, more often.

I don’t know where you live or play, so I don’t know if bears or other large aggressive animals are an issue.

There are some issues if you go camping in bear country. In particular, if food goes inside, I doubt even a black bear would have trouble tearing apart a cargo bag - and grizzly bears have occasionally been known to tear apart vans and trucks with food inside. It’s one of the reasons campers often put food in “bear barrels”, which they hang from a tree - though bears sometimes get at those too.

Am I correct in saying that your 4Runner handles high winds better than a high van would?

Over the years, Toyota trucks have become pretty common in rural areas of the U.S.A., including 4Runners - maybe not quite as common as Fords, but common enough for you to find mechanics who know how to repair them, and local sources of new and used spare parts. They are expensive to maintain and somewhat difficult for self-service repair, but the good thing is that they require less frequent unplanned maintenance than most vehicles. (Unless of course you are serious about off-road stuff - in which case there are no reliable vehicles, AFAIK - though I never got into that. In which case you may be more of an overlander than a vanlifer.) It’s probably a pretty good choice in some ways.

Assuming you have 4WD, your vehicle is probably well designed for some of the rougher river put-ins and take-outs, and XC ski destinations, that require driving on Jeep roads.Since you do off-road, I’m sure you already know about off-road traction things, like good bidirectional tires, emergency chains or equivalents, traction mats, possibly a come-along winch (I never got one of those - you can’t use them across roads other people will be driving on), etc. And that you have a full size same type spare wheel and tire. And maybe a telescoping or removable antenna, for traveling under low branches, which you frequently meet on Jeep roads.

Good luck!

A sunroof could be a good option to allow standing up when inside the vehicle. The OEM roof rack on my vehicle has two side rails. I added two crossbars – one at the front, and one at the rear. The sunroof could go somewhere in the approximately 32” x 40” space between those crossbars. A shower stall with that size footprint is pretty spacious.

To help prevent the sunroof from leaking, a wind fairing on the front crossbar and a plywood platform over the crossbars could deflect rain. The plywood could be hinged to swing up and out of the way when I’m ready to open the sunroof. In cold weather, a panel of wool batt or Thinsulate inside a DIY fabric sleeve could be placed under the sunroof to provide some insulation.

I also looked into moving the spare tire from under the rear of the vehicle to a swing-away spare tire carrier plugged into the rear hitch receiver, so that I could convert the space currently occupied by the spare tire into an interior tub for a sit-down shower. But on my vehicle, that would require moving the fuel evaporative canister out of the way.

I have heard the Aquaquest White Water Duffel is both durable and waterproof, keeping everything inside dry when strapped to the roof rack on long trips.

Bears are a concern. Cooking and eating inside the vehicle is convenient, but can attract bears. But it’s not always possible to cook and eat outdoors, then drive somewhere else to park for the night.

The 4Runner is almost exactly 6’ high, so it probably doesn’t get buffeted around as much by high winds as a tall van. It’s also only 6’ wide exterior dimension, so it can fit into some tight spaces. The clearance underneath is about 9 1/2 inches, without a lift.

My 4Runner is 4WD, but for light and moderate off-road terrain, I also put together a basic set: Falken Wildpeak A/T3W tires, plus a fifth one as a spare; a Viair air compressor and a tire repair kit; a shovel and MaxTrax boards; and front recovery points and a Factor 55 Hitch Link for the rear hitch receiver. I also recently installed a front skid plate to protect the engine, oil pan, and front differential if I hit something. Changing the oil takes more work on the 4Runner than many other vehicles, but this particular skid plate has an access door for the oil drain plug that makes it easier.

You went a lot further than I ever did in terms of driving on things other than smooth pavement. My closest concept to off-road is pulling into a campground spot, and/or driving on dirt, gravel and snow covered back country roads. My old 4WD Ranger was overkill for those purposes.

The skid plate I had on my old Ranger mostly served another purpose: It slowed down underbody rust. But my current Toyota Venza effectively has a plastic skid plate and plastic lined wheel wells - maybe not as rugged, but possibly better at stopping rust. Maybe your 4Runner has plastic covered wheel wells too?

Your 4Runner should fit into most parking garages. I had some trouble with that in my old Vanagon camper - I sometimes had to remove the roof racks (which were high enough so as not to interfere with the pop top). I once had to turn down a job because that camper wouldn’t fit with roof racks and a kayak on top in the available parking garage. I think it is important that one’s vehicle be useful for normal purposes, not just for outdoor adventures. And the 4Runner should fit pretty well into city parking spots - though that will be harder if you mount your spare tire on the back.

Of course, the Vanlife thing might work best with larger vehicles - but that could meet resistance as more and more places try to stop people sleeping in vehicles. Some people with high investments in vanlife vehicles could become very unhappy. And I’d hate to drive something as tall as a Sprinter across a high bridge in high winds. In many respects, I think you made a really good choice, though it isn’t the one most of the people in these forums go for. I suspect the 4Runner is also more stable against rolling in general than high vans - and maybe with your recovery points and hitch you could flip it back upright with a come-along winch?

And it’s good that it sounds like you can do a lot of your own modification work.

I tried chains on my Vanagon, but found them too hard to put on in the snow when I could have used them. Made do with emergency chains. Maybe I should have got tire straps.

In a pinch, you could add a small trailer to your truck, if you need to carry a little extra.

Possibly you could add fold-down cargo carrier like this. It wouldn’t interfere much with city parking when it was folded up. Though some reviews say that particular unit vibrates, maybe unless you add a u-bolt. You could put a cargo bag on top of it - though I guess there would be no room for your hypothetical swing-away spare tire carrier.

I also like back country roads, as well as State parks for camping. This is a picture of the volcanic cinder cone at Fossil Falls Campground about 45 miles south of Lone Pine, CA. I had to put on the spare tire a little earlier. With the hard-sided case bolted to the roof rack, the total height of the vehicle is less than 7’, so it should fit in most parking garages. The 4Runner is just under 16’ long, so it fits in regular parking spots. The high center of gravity makes it more prone to rolling than most sedans or SUVs, though maybe not as much as tall vans.

I think the outer part of the wheel wells is plastic, but the inner part is metal.

Boondocking, it’s good to know about your vehicle, so for example with this vehicle, I took on changing the fluids in the transfer case and front and rear differentials, and lubricating the drive shaft, none of which I had done before. It saves money and also helps ensure it gets done properly, since I’ve heard the quality of service at some Toyota dealers can be hit or miss: over torquing the drain plugs, or omitting the lubrication altogether even though it’s written up on the work order.

It turns out the 4Runner has substantial unused space under the vehicle, between the running boards and the side rails of the frame. On each side of the vehicle, there is space for a 6” x 6” x 23” box, as well as a 6” x 6” x 12” box. 6” diameter PVC pipe also fits. There are multiple OEM M8 bolt holes in the frame side rail to bolt the box or PVC support straps to; or new threaded holes could be drilled and tapped into the frame rail. Building a LiFePO4 battery bank out of individual cells, with a battery management system, to fit inside the box or PVC pipe, would make good use of that space. It would need a battery heating pad, maybe with a switch on the dashboard, to keep the battery above freezing temperatures in the winter. Building this would free up the space that my battery bank currently occupies on the floor behind the front passenger seat.

An alternate use for a 6” PVC pipe under the vehicle would be a grey water tank. Unfortunately, on a 4Runner, I don’t see a convenient path to run the plumbing to and from that tank.

Or the space could just be used for regular storage. But that would require a mounting bracket that allows the storage box to lock in place next to the frame rail while driving, then easily slide down and out to make it more accessible when needed. I don’t know of any such bracket.

It turns out the 4Runner has substantial unused space under the vehicle,
between the running boards and the side rails of the frame.

According to some Internet sources, it is common to recommend vehicles and trailers have at least 6 inch clearance there, so sway doesn’t cause damage. But I’m not an expert. Maybe an off-road truck customization place or competent off-road mechanic could give advice?

Building a LiFePO4 battery bank out of individual cells, with a battery
management system, to fit inside the box or PVC pipe, would make good use
of that space.

You know that Lithium batteries, even LiFePO4, if they develop a leak, are fairly flammable? I notice a lot of people in vanlife, etc., forums prefer deep cycle lead acid marine batteries, which also, BTW have a much wider operating temperature range, though they are much larger and heavier. A lot of people, in fact, have been recently suggesting that vehicles (and even electric bicycles) with lithium batteries should not be stored indoors. Lithium is a great battery material partly because it is so reactive. (But there are also elsewhere suggestions that EVs and other vehicles with lithium batteries be stored inside garages, so they work well in cold or maybe very hot weather.)

An alternate use for a 6” PVC pipe under the vehicle would be a grey water tank.
Unfortunately, on a 4Runner, I don’t see a convenient path to run the plumbing
to and from that tank.

Skid plate or no, it is pretty normal for vehicles to eventually develop underbody rust. Maybe any “convenient path” would be a place for rust to sneak in…

I love that you chose white. It’s so much cooler in the sun, and possibly warmer on winter nights (if white extends into the infrared). My Venza is grey, and gets a lot hotter than my old Vanagon which was white.

That’s good to know about the clearance recommendation. The 4Runner has body on frame construction, so there could be significant sway.

The 4Runner is notorious for frame and body rust. Whenever I drill holes, I paint the drilled metal with Rustoleum. But more extensive rustproofing in general would be a good idea.

My understanding is that lithium ion batteries are flammable, but LiFePO4 are not, unless:
(1) The battery is overcharged.
(2) The battery is depleted too much.
(3) The temperature of the battery goes over 250 degrees F or so.

The BMS that is built into my LiFePO4 batteries includes protection against overcharge, excessive discharge, and high temperature. These are Trojan Trillium 92Ah batteries, but many other brands have similar protection built into their BMS. In addition, I installed a separate Victron battery monitor that shows the State of Charge (SOC).

Instead of having the battery bank charge all the time from the alternator while driving, I installed a custom “Charge LiFePO4” switch on the dashboard. While driving, if I press the Switch to “On”, then power from the vehicle starter battery will flow (through a relay that the switch controls) to the DC-DC charger, and the charger will charge the battery bank. If I press the switch to “Off”, then charging will stop. So when the SOC approaches 100%, I can simply turn the charger off, to avoid overcharging the battery. And when the SOC is getting low, near 0%, I can turn the charger on, to avoid depleting the battery too much.

The switch itself is powered by an Add-a-Circuit on the OEM 12V fuse box under the steering wheel, at a connection which is ignition-switched. When the vehicle is turned off, no power flows to this circuit, so even if I accidentally left the switch “On” when I parked the vehicle, the switch will not have the power it needs to close the relay. With the relay open, no power will flow from the starter battery to the DC-DC charger. This prevents the charger from draining the starter battery by accident when the vehicle is turned off.

As for the battery overheating, the battery bank is in the cabin space, so it likely won’t exceed 140 degrees F even on a hot summer day. The battery manufacturer lists 140 degrees F as the upper limit of the safe operating temperature range. For peace of mind, I also occasionally feel the charger and the battery case while charging (I can reach both from the driver’s seat). If the charger gets too hot, I switch it off, mainly to help keep the electronics cool. At that point, the battery is at most warm. But in this situation, both the charger and the battery are well within their recommended operating temperature ranges.

This is the installation in the 2nd row footwell, behind the front passenger seat. The back of the front passenger seat is on the right in the photo. The DC-DC charger is on the other side of that vertical wooden board. I leave an inch or two between the charger and the seat to allow for airflow to cool the charger.

As an aside, there is a concern that the 4Runner’s OEM alternator, rated at only 130A, will overheat with the added load of a DC-DC charger. My RedArc charger draws about 40A. So I installed a temperature probe on the alternator housing, with a display on the dashboard. I have found that the temperature of the alternator can rise to about 175 degrees F in summer, maybe a little higher on a really hot day, without the DC-DC charger running. This tells me that it is safe to have the alternator that hot. So now, before I switch the “Charge LiFePO4” switch to On, I check the temperature display. If the alternator temperature is anywhere near 175 degrees, I just wait until it has cooled somewhat before charging the LiFePO4 batteries.


Don’t believe ~ANY~ of the marketing hype about LiFePO4 batteries. They’re still banned on airlines for good reason. They are all cheap Chinese garbage, and the warranties are usually useless. Too many people are killing them just as fast as cheap batteries, and there’s been reports of fires & explosions when using them.

Quality control is extremely lacking in China, and you just can’t trust that what you’re getting is even what was advertised. Regardless of the label or the seller, you could be buying a ticking time bomb.

While BattleBorn appears to be the only one claiming to manufacture their batteries in the USA, it also appears to be highly questionable as to whether they’re telling the truth or not. It has been suggested that they are possibly assembling potentially unreliable Chinese components in the USA.

For my money safety comes first, so I’ll wait for better, cheaper, & safer technology. LiFePO4 batteries could soon be obsolete anyway.


"Tough people thrive in tough times." ~ Local Yocal

I agree that safety comes first. I made a propane locker out of plywood to hold an 11 lb. Worthington propane tank in the cargo area of my 4Runner. It was top-loading, sealed with rubber gaskets around the lid, epoxy coated at the seams to prevent propane leakage, and vented through an OEM hole in the floor of my 4Runner, so that any leaked propane would dissipate harmlessly outside. One person who did the same reported that even on a hot summer day, the temperature inside his propane locker never reached 120 degrees F, when propane tanks can explode. But I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I don’t bring propane in my vehicle anymore.

I also agree that a lot of stuff from China is garbage. My particular battery says it was “designed” in California, which suggests it was made somewhere else, probably China. But I’ve had it a few years, with no problems. As far as I can tell, it’s lost about 12% of its charge capacity in that time. But that might be partly my fault, for charging it when it’s below 32 degrees F. On a cold morning when it’s below freezing, after waking up and leaving camp, I try to let the battery warm up for an hour or two before charging it, to make sure the battery temperature is above 32 degrees. But I haven’t put a temperature probe on the battery case, so I might have accidentally charged it briefly once or twice when it was just below freezing. My understanding is that doing so will permanently damage the battery, for example by reducing its charge capacity. So one thing on my list is to install a battery heating pad under the battery bank to help make sure it’s above freezing when I want to charge it. This type of mistake might be one reason people are killing their LiFePO4 batteries by accident. (Some manufacturers make LiFePO4 batteries with built-in heaters, avoiding this problem).

LiFePO4 is a different battery chemistry from lithium ion, although some battery manufacturers use the term “lithium ion” generically, to include LiFePO4. My understanding from everything I’ve read, from many different sources, is that LiFePO4 is inherently safer than lithium ion. I would guess that a lot of those battery fires you read about are lithium ion chemistry, not LiFePO4.

I’ve learned a lot about LiFePO4 from a guy named Will Prowse, in particular the earlier videos of his YouTube channel (nowadays he’s doing a lot of heavy duty stuff that’s above my head, and above my needs). A quick search produced this brief discussion of the fire danger of LiFePO4 batteries, on a forum he created:

This is just an example, But from what I can tell, you have to try pretty hard to get a LiFePO4 battery to ignite.


The heating pad sounds like a good idea.

The batteries that exploded or burst into flames were all supposedly lifepo4, but who really knows. Just because they’re labeled as lifepo4 and sold as lifepo4, might not mean much considering where they’re coming from…


"Tough people thrive in tough times." ~ Local Yocal