Chasing Adventure in a Rare Toyota Sunrader

At 17 growing up in New Zealand the ultimate farm rig was a mid 80s Toyota pickup, we call them “utes” down under. I’ve never forgotten its clean lines, and ability to keep on going day after day. Sure there were Land Rovers and Land Cruisers galore but the affordable and reliable flatbed ute touched my heart. Farm dogs, sheep, hay bales, kayaks…we could toss anything in the back of the ute, ford rivers, charge head first through the forest and head into the high country, no trails required.

Fast forward to today, two of my passions collide in the Pacific Northwest: 4wheel drive rigs that get me to remote locations for paddling and skiing adventures. The fluidity of the seasons now dictates my quest for adventure. In winter I backcountry ski and snowboard in the Cascades. Come spring the snow melts and rivers explode and unleash a whitewater frenzy and river kayaking takes priority. In the summer the wild northwest coastline beckons, the Pacific ocean swell reduces usually below 10 feet, and remote kayak camping along the Roadless WA state coastline is in season. Throw in some weekend surf kayak trips, and some remote trips to mountain lakes in Eastern WA to search for Bigfoot, and that sums up my ongoing seasonal Sunrader adventures. Being a cartographer by profession only spurs my appetite to keep searching out remote areas to explore in my oldie but goodie Toyota Sunrader.

Just what is a Toyota Sunrader?

I’ve owned many vehicles over the years, too many VW campers to list, and more recently a nice 2004 4×4 diesel Sportsmobile. BUT 6 months ago an eBay add caught my attention: 1987 Toyota Sunrader 4×4 18-foot Mini Motorhome in Portland, OR. Take a stock 4×4 pickup with rear duallies and dump a fiberglass home on its back, and presto the ultimate rig was born! It had a stock 22re engine (you couldn’t find a more reliable motor) with only 89 thousand miles, and a factory turbo to boot! I was in love, and immediately listed my Sportsmobile, test drove, bought and drove the Sunrader home!

Ok sure every adventure rig has its Achilles heel. My Sunrader lacks power. If you’re a type A personality, and have a gotta get there quick attitude—this rig is not for you. I happily cruise at 60mph but throw a hill at me and I’m in the slow lane with the truckers. The turbo kicks in often and drinks a little oil, But I find I’m relaxed and carefree in this vehicle. I literally stop to smell the roses more often than I used to. The Rader seems to attract friendly travelers at every stop, and 4×4 enthusiasts rub their eyes in disbelief: that’s not a stock 4×4 Toyota is it? Yup sure is, and yes you can have a look inside. My Rader gets 14-18mpg but don’t forget I have everything including the kitchen sink and an oven along for the ride! Plus shower, toilet and furnace, and it sleeps four, if you can believe that. This Sunrader was created in California, no records exist of exactly how many were made by Gardiner Pacific Corp in Vallejo, CA. They are rare with only an estimated 30 still around. How many rolled out with 4×4 and a turbo you say? Probably less than 12, but these are best guesses only.


I have had to invest in a few repairs. With an almost 30 year old rig, Sally needed some tender loving care. I had a dual battery charging issue, some electrical work, and some minor leaking in the front overhead double bed. I replaced the original alternator with a Nippon 100amp at I needed a good battery relay system, and a chat with my local sailor buddy put me onto Blue Sea Systems. They are a Northwest company that makes the best marine grade relays around. I opted for an ML series charging relay with a manual override switch for my dash. I could combine and isolate batteries at a touch of a switch—perfect for boon dock camping and isolating my starter battery.

The leak required 3 months of evening labor. I started by ripping out the interior front paneling. I wood laminated new ceiling beams (Sally’s ceiling was sagging), replaced all the running lights with LED’s, pulled the windows and re-inserted, and glassed over the screws that were the cause of the leaks. Then I re-insulated, and cut and installed new maple panels. An online forum was a big help with advice. I threw on a Badlands Bumper and some Hella Lights in case an Elk strays in front of Sally. Sally was now road ready for adventure! My next build project will be to add rear bumper storage (Aluminess galley boxes), and install new rear interior panels—but that can wait, spring is here and the rivers are calling! Check out my rig and build pics here.

surf kayaking




coastal_orca_petroglyphFucca Pillar

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Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona