Get in the #Vanlife: Kurt Gensheimer shows us his epic Toyota Sunrader & 4WD conversion
#Vanlife is still as popular as ever, but is a van really the best tool for the job? A lot of that probably depends largely on your needs and your location, but for Kurt Gensheimer (AKA the Angry Singlespeeder and @trail_whisperer), the right tool ended up being a vintage Toyota Sunrader RV.
This isn’t just any Sunrader though. One of the very limited 180-RDs ever made, this Sunrader started life as a rear wheel drive. That changed recently when Kurt converted it to 4WD, almost completely by himself. The result is what he calls “the most capable adventure machine in existence.”
By The Numbers
- Make – Toyota Sunrader (not a Dolphin! Those are stick built, Sunrader is a watertight fiberglass shell like a boat hull, much better quality).
- Model – 180-RD – 18 Foot, Rear Dinette with V6 engine (only a dozen ever made in this configuration)
- Year – 1990
- What year did you get it? Bought it in 2014 with 68,000 miles. It’s about to turn 96,000 miles.
- How much did it cost? $12,500
- How much money have you put into it since buying it? $2,500 + $10k on 4WD conversion
- Upgrades you’ve done – Doug Thorley headers, Toyota Supra seats, rear vision camera, SR5 gauge cluster, BFG All-terrain tires, dual 6-volt golf cart batteries. Full 4×4 conversion.
- Key features – Cabin A/C, furnace, oven, stove, sink, huge refrigerator, toilet/shower
any favorite features – The toilet/shower is clutch, especially a hot shower after a long cold ride. Also, the huge rear dinette window and two big side windows are amazing, providing a sense of being outside while sitting inside eating dinner.
Bikerumor: You just recently converted it to 4WD, right? How did that go?
Kurt: I converted the Sunrader from an automatic 2WD to a manual 4WD over the winter in my side yard. Thankfully the weather was pretty cooperative, only got shut down by snow for about a week. The conversion took about a month and 120 hours of my time. I did all of the work, including the welding. The only part of the job I did not do was re-gearing the differentials and changing the length of the drivelines.
Total cost, including new 4×4 Labs front bumper and Happijac Quick Draw rear cargo box totaled $10,000. I used a solid front axle out of a 1985 Toyota pickup and a five-speed transmission with transfer case out of a 1993 Toyota 4Runner. Axles have 4.88 gears and the rear axle has a TrueTrac limited slip differential. I converted the rear axle from duallys to single rear wheels, using custom made wheel adapters. The rest of the parts came in a solid axle conversion kit. The 16″ alloy rims are off an FZJ80 Toyota Land Cruiser, and I’m running 265/75/16 BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2 tires. The springs are from Old Man Emu and the shocks are Bilstein 5100 series.
After the conversion, my lady and I took the Sunrader on a month-long, 4,000-mile winter skiing road trip to Canada (right before the entire world shut down!). The truck ran flawlessly the entire way, and thanks to the 4×4, it is an absolute beast in the snow now. The highlight of the trip was when a bunch of RVs were snowed into their parking spaces at Mount Baker in Washington. There was about three feet of snow that everybody was shoveling before they could move their RV. We just locked the hubs, put the Sunrader in low range, and it drove right out! All the hard work was paid for in that moment of glory.
Bikerumor: What kind of gas mileage are you getting?
Kurt: Surprisingly, even though it is nearly two feet taller and 300 pounds heavier, the Sunrader handles better than before and also gets better fuel economy thanks to the five-speed manual transmission. As an automatic 2WD, the 3.0-liter V6 engine used to get 12-14MPG. Now it regularly gets 15MPG, sometimes 16. It’s still pretty slow on the highway, but not terrible. It can easily hold 70mph on the flats and can maintain 50-55mph on big climbs.
Bikerumor: Are you happy with the results?
Kurt: I would absolutely do this conversion again. Best $10k I’ve ever spent on a vehicle project. In my opinion, the 4×4 Sunrader is the most capable adventure machine in existence. It has all the features of a full size RV (including a shower and toilet) in a compact size you can fit in any parking space. And the Toyota truck reliability is also a huge bonus.
Bikerumor: How many days or weeks per month are you living out of your van?
Kurt: Between May and November, I spend close to half of each month in the RV, primarily in the Lost Sierra region between Quincy and Downieville, California.
Bikerumor: What’s the longest stint you’ve done in it before returning home?
Kurt: Two months
Bikerumor: How many miles do you put on it each year?
Kurt: 5,000-8,000 miles each year
Bikerumor: What are some of your best tips for living the van life?
Kurt: Buy a compact RV like the Sunrader, it’s much more livable than a van because it has all the amenities you need to live. Another important tip is understanding where you can park overnight without someone knocking on your door in the middle of the night. I always make sure I’m on U.S. Forest Service or BLM land, as I’ve never had a problem parking the RV in the woods off the side of a dirt road. DO NOT try and do this on National Park Service land. You’ll either be cited or given a stern warning by someone in a uniform with a hat and a gun who takes their job way too seriously. Fun fact: National Recreation Areas are also managed by NPS, so don’t boondock park there either. If you park in town, make sure it’s in a commercial/industrial area where an RV or van draws less attention. I’ve had good luck parking at casinos too. Over time your figure out what works and what won’t.
Bikerumor: What’s the most epic place you’ve taken it?
Kurt: Doing a two-week Pacific Northwest road trip was pretty amazing, as was the road trip back to my home in Reno after I bought the RV in Colorado Springs. Driving over Hoosier Pass in a Mid-November snowstorm only 2 hours after buying the RV was definitely something I’ll never forget!
Bikerumor: Why do you love the Vanlife?
Kurt: Having a tiny home on wheels is the ultimate form of freedom. You don’t have to worry about keeping a schedule or making it to a certain place by a certain time. You have everything you need to live with you, and when you get tired of driving, once you find a safe place to pull over, you can just crawl into bed and go to sleep. Having the RV enables my lady and I to explore new areas and spend more time in remote places than we otherwise would. I’m working on a number of different trail projects right now in the northern Sierra Nevada of California and central Nevada, and having the RV enables me to put in long days of trail work and come back to something that feels like home.
Bikerumor: You’re quite involved in trail advocacy and stewardship, and have even been out mapping old mining trails to help create more cohesive networks…what’s that all about?
Kurt: I work for the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, as a writer and Trail Whisperer. SBTS is a non-profit organization (sierratrails.org) that’s responsible for building and maintaining all of the multi-use trails in the Lost Sierra region. We create jobs and have a positive impact on the economy of our region through trail projects and grants. Since SBTS was founded in 2003, we’ve grown to 40 part and full-time employees and will have a $2 million economic impact on Sierra and Plumas County this year. As Trail Whisperer, I search for historic alignments and bring them back into use, so I spend a lot of time hunting through the woods with my bike. There were hundreds of old prospecting trails from the Gold Rush era crisscrossing the Lost Sierra, but many of them have disappeared due to lack of use.
On the topic of lack of use, I am also working on resurrecting a National Recreation Trail in central Nevada called the Toiyabe Crest Trail. The TCT is a 75-mile trail originally built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Half of the trail is in Arc Dome Wilderness in the Toiyabe mountain range south of Austin, NV, while half is outside of Wilderness, running from Ophir Summit north 35 miles to Kingston Canyon. The TCT is absolutely iconic, running between 7,000 and 10,500 feet elevation, yet due to its remoteness, there’s been almost no use and absolutely no maintenance in the last 30 years. As a result, the trail is disappearing in sagebrush, mahogany and downed trees. A few friends and I have taken it upon ourselves to brush out the non-Wilderness portion of the TCT. We’ve gotten about 8 miles and 100 hours of work complete this summer, and I plan to apply for an RTP grant this fall to get a trail crew to complete the rest next summer. Once complete, the TCT will be one of the West’s most iconic big mountain rides, especially considering the final 5,000 vertical foot descent into the tiny outpost of Kingston finishes at a bed and breakfast with a wood fired hot tub!