Build Thread: Pachyderm, or "Pac", a 2017 GMC Canyon

Part One: Our Rig History

Welcome to our build thread, everyone! I'm working on editing a video of our build too, and I'll post that once it's finished. This content will be posted on our blog and on Overland Bound, and I'll try to keep all updates easy to find.

First, a bit about us and our Overlanding style!

We've been travelling this way my whole life; I grew up in a tiny Canadian town that was 6 hours drive from the nearest decent movie theatre or international airport. Basically, whenever my family wanted to go for anything beyond what the local IGA stocked, we'd be "Overlanding" into the big city -- of course, back then we just called it "Shopping".

Fast forward to my independence, and my first Overland vehicle was a 2WD Chevrolet Silverado, which I dubbed "Prometheus" after the fable of stealing fire from the gods; that is what that rig felt like to me -- like I had stolen a treasure from the gods, and that treasure was the freedom to go wherever I wanted, with everything I needed to eat, sleep, and live situated on those 4 wheels. That truck served me well for over 360,000 trouble-free kilometres, camping all over Ontario, Quebec, and the Northeastern USA. We had many adventures with my trusty German Shepherd Addi playing co-pilot, however Prometheus was a bit limited; 2WD and poor ground clearance meant that it wasn't an ideal backcountry explorer.

If I may detour momentarily, yes we name our vehicles. They are far greater than the sum of their parts. Imagine Ruby -- who I will introduce in a short while -- rolling off the line in Toledo, Ohio in late 2012. Thousands of hands helped build her from components. Before that happened, someone put pen to paper to draw her lines and design her shape; her approach and break-over angles an interplay of comfort and competence. The heart and soul of thousands of human beings went into Ruby landing on that car lot in south Edmonton, where we bought it and made her our own. Making human babies only needs two humans and we name them all the time; our vehicles involve thousands of humans and are, in my opinion, deserving of an identity of their own.

Fast forward to 2010, when the most amazing person in the world and I decided to go in a different direction with our overlanding vehicles. And I'm not kidding when I describe her as amazing -- Teryn would later say "yes" to a phone call from Costa Rica attending the wedding of a friend where I asked "will you marry me?", and despite the countless faux pas that occurred during this proposal, we've been happily married since. We kept with the Silverado for a few years, but eventually upgraded to a 2011 2-Door Jeep JK. We had this vehicle for 9 months and put over 70,000 kms in that time, but we were always feeling cramped for space. So, we built a roof rack, but soon that was taken over by a new Rooftop Tent.

517505

As you can see, GVWR was not high on our priority list of things to worry about, and that little JK was WAY overloaded -- in fact, the idea behind "weight of the car" hadn't even occurred to us. It was never a concern in the Chevy, after all.

Anyway, the space limitations meant it wasn't long before we settled on upgrading -- we didn't even have the two door long enough to settle on a decent name before upgrading to a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, which we dubbed "Ruby":



Ruby was built with more Overlanding in mind, but was also our daily driver. We added a Roof rack from Gobi, and some cheap Smittybilt front and rear bumpers which me modified heavily to save some weight and add capacity. We added an onboard water pump, relocated the subwoofer (which took up a huge chunk of the cargo space on the 2013 model year), and made our own rear tire carrier/jerry can.

Around the same time though, we realized that having only one vehicle was a disadvantage in todays' world, so we sprung for Hobbes, a 2011 Triumph Tiger. Not only would it be my daily commuter from March to November (we live in Edmonton, so some of that was quite chilly), but it was also set up for adventures:



Our desire to make things work for our needs meant that both Hobbes and Ruby were heavily modified to suit us, usually with whatever bits and pieces we could find at Home Depot, MEC, and Princess Auto (Think REI and Harbour Freight, respectively, if you speak in Freedom Eagle dialect). Around this time we started making videos of our trips.

Full disclosure, the videos are bad. We aren't good at cinematography or editing, and we'll never challenge the throne occupied by X-Overland or Andrew St-Pierre White -- but we don't really make 'em for everyone else. We make them for us, as a nice memory of our adventures. If you like them to, we are honoured, but we firmly believe in the ethos of "write something worth reading or do something worth writing about" -- these videos are our attempt at both. We've branded them as "Chasing our Trunks"; as a child, the Kipling story of the elephant who crosses Africa to learn what the Crocodile had for Dinner was one of my favourites, and the story really represents how we travel -- it's not about the destination, it's about the people you meet and things you see a long the way. We come back a little bit wiser, having seen a bit of the world, and any excuse will do -- even if it is just finding out what the crocodile had for supper.

Again, our videos aren't great, but that's OK -- what is really neat is they are getting better! like everything else, the more you do, the better you get. The proper attitude will account for significant gaps in aptitude, and we try to bring that same attitude to our vehicles.

However, a positive attitude still couldn't get around the fundamental limitations of Ruby. Her payload was only 800 lbs, which disappears rapidly once you start turning the JK into a camper. You can do a lot with suspension upgrades but you can never get around the GVWR from the manufacturer, which has some significant insurance and legal implications in some jurisdictions. It was getting time to invest heavily in Ruby on worn out components, but that weight limit was a hard one to deal with, and we were hesitant to spend big bucks on her. And frankly, Ruby just wasn't very reliable. A running list of the work we had to do on her just to keep her running:

  1. Throwout Bearing - full trans drop. Didn't do the clutch at this stage as the T.O.B failed with very low kms on the clock; we had to do this ourselves as the Dealer(s) (we spoke to two) refused to warranty it because "it could have been used off road". This was an early lesson that Chrysler Corporate was more interested in producing neat advertisements than supporting folks who use their products like the advertisements show!
  2. Oil Pressure Sensor - top of the engine off.
  3. Start Motor failed - easy fix, once we managed to bump-start it and get home.
  4. Oil Pressure Sensor...again. Top of the engine off. Again.
  5. Clutch - Full trans drop, again.
  6. Intermittent fault claiming a leak in the fuel system -- no leak found. Would come back everytime the seasons changed.
  7. Pilot Bearing failed spectacularly. Full trans drop.
Now, before the above issues, the only vehicle maintenance I had ever done was the usual "Watch Dad do it from the other side of the garage" stuff, the occasional oil change, and on one occasion I had replaced Prometheus's brake callipers and pads. We had some other experience taking an old car apart, but the above jobs were all done with very limited tools and experience. We learned as we went along. All of this stuff was done in our tiny garage, with our ability to lift the jeep up limited to only getting it about 5 extra inches off the ground. Thankfully, Ruby never died on the trail or on an adventure, but that was mostly a timing issue. It sat down on us a few times, but every time was close enough to what we needed to limp it home. Still, Ruby served us well and we put more than 180,000 Overlanding kilometres with her (and often with Hobbes). And we loved Ruby with all our hearts. In fact, in many ways she was our first home -- my job provided accommodations, but it was always 'temporary', never 'ours', and Ruby was our ticket to get away from work and live our lives on our terms. We were more at home on Ruby's roof than we ever were or are in our brick-and-mortar lodging. She was ours, and we loved her.





We travelled from the Arctic Ocean to the border with Mexico with Ruby, and many places in between. But with our plans for the future, Ruby was not going to be a good option.

After many hours of discussion and deliberation, we decided it was time to say a tearful goodby to Ruby. Literally tearful -- the dealership guys were understanding but I don't blame them for their bemusement. We were very, very fond of Ruby and if we could financially afford it, we would have kept her.

Alas, as the popular '90s tune said: Every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end. With that, we'd like to introduce the world to our vehicle that will take us around it. World, meet Pachyderm (Fits the "Chasing our Trunks theme, no?), aka Pac:




More to come...
 
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Part 2: Why a GMC Canyon?


Great question, and an easy one to answer. In my opinion, the Canyon/Colorado is the best Overlanding platform on the Canadian market. Let me explain why I hold that opinion, which is just that, an opinion, and worth the every penny of the price you are paying for it.

The GMC Canyon is the cousin to the Chevrolet Colorado -- apart from some interior badging/features and the front fenders and grille, it is exactly the same in every way as the Canyon. The Colorado is the same that was recently reworked by our dear friends over at AEV into the Bison. And this generation of Canyon/Colorado is coming from a very different pedigree than it's predecessor or it's full-sized cousins. The Gen Two Canyon/Colorado was only released in North America in 2015/2016, but the platform saw substantial field testing in Australia as the Holden Colorado in 2012. The platform has had several years of real-world testing in some of the toughest Overlanding environments on earth, and performed admirably, before migrating to North America.

Also, it's available in a small Turbo diesel, which performs amazingly well. We opted for the V-6 Gasser to keep fuel consistent (way easier to carry one kind of fuel for driving both vehicles and cooking than it is to mix it all up).

Here are some of the other features that attracted us to the Canyon/Colorado (When shopping we could have gone with either platform):

Payload: The payload of our Canyon is 1500 lbs. That's more than double what we could get in a new JL.​
Off Road Performance: Our Canyon has the All Terrain Package, which includes an automatic rear locker, upgraded suspension, and a low range gearbox. The 4WD system in Auto mode is spectacular, but also gives you control to fine tune what mode you are in. The same system has been used on GM trucks for many years and is a proven switching mechanism. After testing the Canyon, it's current limitations are approach angles and that will be fixed in short order, but in terms of the kind of off roading we do, it's just as capable as the JK ever was off road. Caveat: We never used the JK for rock crawling, so this comparison is more about how we used our jeep rather than how comparable they are in all terrains.
Comfort: This is a big one for us. Our first test trip of the Canyon had so many eye opening moments:​

1) We weren't cold. The Jeep's doors, being paper-thin, always made one leg slightly cold on highways. "It's a jeep thing", I guess. Also, due to the uninsulated hard top, there were some winter adventures where we were in parkas the entire time because at highway speeds the stock JK heater cannot keep up with the windchill.​
2) We could talk to each other. I'll usually be on the bike so this isn't a common thing, but wind noise from the JK, especially with a rack and such, was bad. However, that paled in comparison to the noise from the stock mud-terrain tires that shipped with Ruby. Brutally loud all the time, but in the Canyon we can hear our conversations.​
3) We can pass people. The only thing our Jeep passed was fence posts, and sometimes uphill even that would be a struggle. There were times in a stiff breeze where the jeep didn't have the power to get into top gear. However, the Canyon with it's V6 absolutely purrs past all other vehicles on the highway, even when pulling a load. This makes for a more comfortable tourer rig, and in my opinion is safer too for those times when you need to accelerate past the wibbly-wobbly 40-foot caravans that are swaying all over the road.​

Cost: Some of you are probably saying "Shoulda gone for the Jeep Gladiator if you like your Jeep so much!", and I would say that you have a point, but so does the Bank. The GMC Canyon, brand new, is $51,635 when spec'd the same as our 2017 model. The Jeep Gladiator would be $74,000 CAD when similarly configured based on the Jeep USA website (I cannot build and price the Gladiator yet on the Canadian website). And, the real benefit to this is the Canyon we got was very lightly used -- less than 7000 kms on the clock, so not even broken in. But, because it was now a 3 year old model, we got it for only $36k. In other words, we could nearly get two Canyons like ours for the price of one Gladiator. That isn't to slight the Gladiator -- it's a great platform, but it's way too expensive right now.​
Fit: We tried the Tacos, but I just didn't fit right in them. The seat did not seem to go low enough and my head was brushing the headliner. We also tried the other Overlander favourite, the 4-runner, but the price was out of line and when comparing cargo space, it was pretty limited for two adults, two dogs, and maybe kids.​

So, when we found the Canyon on Auto Trader at a local dealership who took it on trade, we test drove it, liked it, and pulled the trigger.

That being said, no platform is "perfect" and it really is all about compromise. The most significant downsides to the Canyon are as follows:

1) Approach/Breakover Angle -- these are far worse than the Jeep, but can be made very good with aftermarket bumpers. Except that brings me to point 2...​
2) Aftermarket is a desert -- Most of the aftermarket bits available for the Canyon are from the Colorado -- not many are Canyon specific. And while the reputation of the Colorado is growing, with the aftermarket following along, due to the different front end on the Canyon, many aftermarket parts like snorkels and bumpers won't fit.​
3) Dust and Debris -- The nature of a pickup truck means that dust and debris will get into your gear in a way we never had to worry about with the fully enclosed SUV. We're working on a solution for that now.​
4) Range -- The range in stock form is limited to about 550 kilometres in real world driving. We need to double that for it to be a decent Overlander, which means taking an additional 80 litres of gasoline with us just for Pac, and an additional 40 litres for the Bike for the same range)​
Overall, for the price we paid and the package we got, we are very happy with our purchase. But it will take time to turn this "City Person who wants a truck but doesn't need a REAL truck" rig into an Overlander, so let's get started!
 
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Part 3: The Build List

Here is our plan for building out Pac; I'll come back and edit this post as our plan evolves and gets more detail.

Objective: Build a vehicle capable of driving around the world and sustaining two people (plus possible children) and two dogs indefinitely.

Modification list:


  • Rack for accommodations, either Clamshell or RTT. We currently own an RTT so we are going to stick with that for a little while.
  • Auxiliary Electrical system for accessories and "house power" around camp.
  • Awning providing coverage on at least one side of the rig and around the back.
  • Drawer system with integrated pantry/cooking.
  • On board water, running hot and cold (We had a version of this in our JK and it was divine on long trips)
  • Fridge/Freezer
  • Front winch bumper w/ improved approach angles
  • Rear bumper with swing-outs for tires.
  • Skid plates over critical areas.
  • Suspension upgrades to better handle loaded weight.
General Priorities:

  • Keep total weight to 80% of Payload or less.
  • Preserve integrity of factory systems
  • Speedy setup/teardown so we can be ready for sleep in less than 5 minutes, and on the road in less than 10.
  • "Live-able" layout -- stuff we use a lot needs to be accessible, stuff we use rarely can be tucked away.
 
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Part 4: The Rack

Now is a good time to mention that we've only owned Pac for 12 days as of today, so this is a "learn as you go" experience.

Our first priority was to get a bed rack built for Pac. The bed rack would serve as a main mounting for many other things that would come after -- tent, awning, dual batteries, etc. all depended on a rack. Our first bet was to turn to the aftermarket, as there are a few available for the Colorado that will fit fine in the Canyon as the boxes are the same.

589Fabrications make two kinds of bed rack; a flush mount and a raised mount (https://589fab.com/collections/bed-racks-accessories)



CBI Offroad Fabrication makes one too, which looks slick (https://cbioffroadfab.com/product/colorado-overland-bed-rack/)



And the "Big Brother" of the group, Leitner, has been making racks for years and has the reputation (and price!) to match (https://www.leitnerdesigns.com)



All of the above racks had the same problem -- they were open racks, which means we'd have to find a different solution for dust and debris. Most of the options we found (Except the Lieitner) were made of heavy steel. And finally, most were either too short, too tall, or made of tubing which limited our ability to box them in later on.

Our experience with Ruby was such that weight is the enemy of an Overlanding rig, so we wanted to avoid steel wherever possible. in South Africa and to a lesser extent, Australia, aluminum truck canopies are very common, whereas in North America, fibreglass is the preferred material. We didn't like fibreglass for a host of reasons -- cost, durability, repairability -- so we turned to Aluminum. The biggest canopy makers that we found that would fit our rig were Alu-Cab, but at $4300 CAD plus shipping and taxes to get one from the US, it was cost prohibitive. And as nice as the Alu-cab option was, it wasn't going to be customized to meet our needs. It does look good, though!




Ruling out the above left us with only one option -- custom build one. But do we do it ourselves, or pay someone to do it for us?
 
Part 5: The Rack Continued

(In case anyone is wondering why I'm splitting this into parts, ExPo has a word limit and I talk too much)


A custom rack commissioned by a builder was quickly ruled out due to cost. Aluminum -- our desired material -- commands a premium over steel of nearly 3x the price at retail, and because it requires special skills and tools to weld, hiring a welder to build this one-off rack would have been VERY expensive. So we turned to our own hands and gumption, and got to work.

I have limited experience with MIG welding steel, but knew nothing of how to weld aluminum. To YouTube, weld.com, and various other resources I went to learn as much as I could. The experts all said that TIG welding was the way to go for aluminum; the control over the heat was critical and a good TIG setup with a foot pedal allowed the welder to dial in exactly what temperature or amperage was needed.

After many hours, I pulled the trigger on an Everlast TIG welder. It was expensive -- about $1600 by the time I got set up with the welder, gas, filler rods, etc. -- but the limited availability of aftermarket parts and pieces made the investment make sense.

The plan was to build a three-arched bed rack out of 2x2 square aluminum tubing, 1/8th inch wall, mounted to 1/4 inch angle iron that would sit flush with the bed rails. When I got to the metal shop, I modified that plan a bit to use 1.5 x 2 inch rectangular tubing. This was slightly more expensive, but I could use it in such a way to maximize the strength of the structure by turning the tubing accordingly, while shaving a bit of weight off the total setup. I also found 1/4 offset angle, so I purchased what I needed and got to welding.

Working with aluminum is VERY different from steel. For starters, it tends to gum up traditional abrasive cutters, so I used carbide-tipped wood tools instead for cutting and shaping. It is far, far lighter, but also not as strong as Steel by a factor of about 3x. So, if in the past I would use 1/8 steel on something, I would need to go up to 3/8 aluminum to get the same strength. Thankfully, with careful gussets and triangles, strength can be maintained while further shedding weight. TIG welding is actually a lot of fun; it's as much art as it is science. I won't be getting a job making custom choppers on a reality TV show anytime soon, but after several hours of practice, both welding and cutting those welds to check penetration, I was satisfied that my TIG welds were plenty strong and 'pretty enough' -- just like me!

First came welding up the base. The material I used was kind of like Angle Iron, but one angle was 2 inches and the other was 4 inches. It was all 1/4 inch aluminum. I contoured the ends a bit to blend them with the body lines using a jig saw and smoothed it out with a grinder.




After that, I set to work on the arches. My plan was to use three arches to guarantee strength, and tie them together. The flat edges on the arches will help make it easy to box things in later on, with a box forward and to the rear of the centre arch. The forward boxes (ones nearest the cab) will be for Electrical on the driver's side and Water on the passengers size. The read compartments will be for recovery gear and other "quick access" items.



Alas, it just didn't look right. It was too tall. This was not a measurement error, just one of taste -- I thought I'd want the taller cap on the back, but after it was built Teryn and I discussed it and decided to shorten the arches a bit. This made for quite a bit ore work. The arches are angled to match the lines of the cab. If they were perpendicular to the ground, it'd be a simple matter of cutting a few inches off each leg. However, since these arches were like this:



Shortening the legs would mean the arches would not properly bridge the gap of the box. So, to shorten them, I also had to extend the middle bit (which you can see evidence of in the above photo). Thankfully, this was giving me lots of TIG practice!

Unfortunately, before making the decision to shorten the arches, I had welded them to the aluminum base. The heat involved caused an unanticipated problem where the aluminum base warped a bit (Also ignore the poor quality weld in this shot, it was an out of position weld that I already had decided to redo, this just happens to be the best photo of the warp I could find)




Thankfully, we were able to rectify that when we re-welded the shortened arches. But, my inexperience with aluminum fabrication shone through in other ways -- I don't mind being transparent about my lack of skill. I know a lot of pro welders would look at my work with disdain, and some on this very forum are going to cite this post as "See that's why you gotta buy ARB everything. I've been chewing an ARB toothpick since 1975 and it's still good".

(I have nothing against ARB, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about bad attitudes!)

At any rate, the inexperience I'm talking about was prevalent once I dry-fit the arches. One of these things is not like the other!




That shouldn't stick out like that...


So, I had to get creative on cutting that leg off. I decided to cut it off in an odd way so that the two pieces, when welded back together, would "joint" together as opposed to simply being butt-welded. While I checked all my welds for penetration using a bore scope camera to see the backs of the welds, this joint approach would guarantee a bit more strength along the backbone of the piece I had to cut and re-fit (Note: This is the piece I cut off; the piece I re-fit was cut more carefully and cleanly, and mated up with almost no gaps except for a slight gap where I had to adjust the angle a bit).





Eventually, after going through a full tank and a half of Argon gas in practice welds and re-doing the real thing when there was a question of weld strength or penetration, I had something that resembled a bed rack (Ignore that it looks warped; it's not thats just some beads on the underside holding it up that I had not smoothed yet):



To attach the rack to the bed, I used two solutions.

The first was to use a small bolt and actually drill through the plastic bed rails. Beneath them in the sheet metal are a series of oblong holes that the bed rail caps clip into. I sacrificed one and put a bolt through it to hold the rack down near the tailgate. To mount the rack near the cab, I designed my own brackets that would go up through the stake pockets. The end result looked like this (forgive my drawing and apologies if this doesn't show up well; I'll work on a better version ASAP)




The whole canopy assembly can be removed with 4 bolts, and the only indication that there is anything there would be two 3/8th holes in the plastic box caps. The rest uses factory mounting points and positions.

Through all of this I really need to give full credit to my dear Dad, who was on standby to talk through designs, helped me with welding resources, and gave me the encouragement I need to get this done. Teryn was hugely involved too, as her ideas and labour on helping with fabrication made it go much faster. Honestly I’m so grateful for my dad and Teryn for the help; this would not have been possible without them.

Anyway, with the rack structure done it came time to attach the tent, awning, and put the traction aids in place. I plan to upgrade to MaxTrax, but it's not in the budget today, and since we were under time pressure to get this done for the May Long Weekend, I knew I wouldn't get both the rack and the winch mounted so I wanted some kind of recovery gear. Our plan was only for a few gravel roads, so we didn't intend to push it far, so for now these cheaper traction aids will work.





And our first test was in the shadow of the Rockies outside Hinton, Alberta. The rack worked flawlessly.




The next stage for this project is to seal the cap against dust and moisture. We also have a plan for the tent as we find the Smittybilt to be a bit too big, and our old Tepui was a bit too small, so we're looking for a compromise. Now that I can weld aluminum with reasonable efficacy, the world is our oyster!

If you take one thing from this build thread, please let it be that with the right attitude, you can learn how to do this stuff. It will take trial and error, but stick with it through the frustration, keep the blood sugar elevated, and you can do it. I'm proud of the work I did on this rack, and as my skills improve, so too will my fabrication.

Total Cost so far:

Pac: $36,500
Welder: $1600
Materials: $600
___

MOD TOTAL: $2200
TOTAL: $38,700

I know that seems like a lot for a bed rack, but remember that our bumpers, drawer system, and every other 'add on' will be built using that welder. While it makes for an expensive bed rack, it will make for a very cheap bed rack, bumpers, tire carriers, drawer system, etc. as compared to buying commercial.

But the best is yet to come, so stay tuned!
 
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Looks good! I'm curious what the green project car beside the truck is...
Good question! That is a 4-door 1968 Chevrolet Impala. We started that project in 2011, but it stalled out when we bought our house in 2013. The car is going to be ~18 feet by the time it's all done, but the garage we have is only about 17 feet long so it doesn't fit! We've stripped it down and redone the frame, collected all the parts we need to put it back together, but we just need the space. I originally learned how to MIG weld on that frame as it had a couple of pieces we needed to repair.

Our current "Life Plan" won't see the Impala project finished for some time -- perhaps a decade or more -- as our priorities have shifted a bit. But, we still do a bit from time to time in the space we have!
 
Nice car! It'll be a fun cruiser when it's done. And you've got the Canyon to have adventures with and enjoy now.
Thank you! Our thoughts exactly. We have our sites set on selling the house and storing essentials for a period of travel time. Building the Canyon is step one, step two is filling up the bank account. We have arrangements made to store the impala and a few other sentimental items but the rest will be sold. When vagabonding wears us out we will invest in a new property with a proper sized garage!
 

Crazy Schooner

Fortune's A Mistress
Cool to see your also in Edmonton. I could have pointed you to a great local aluminum welder that built a rack for my older Silverado for a really nice price. If your interested in saving some cash on shipping/currency exchange I have some leftovers from my ZR2. Datin Metal shock skidz and Caliraised led ditch brackets. Also I know of another local company that may be interested in fabbing up parts if your willing to let them use your truck for measurements etc. Either way, best of luck with this build eh!
 
Crazyschooner you have my attention! I may reach out to you on those ZR2 parts. I am seeing more and more Colorados/Canyons around so I'm sure the aftermarket will follow suite.

We'd be doing 99% of the stuff on this rig ourselves (it's how we justified the cost of the welder after all, gotta make that worthwhile!) but I'd still be happy to work with a local company who wants measurements and such. I'll send you a PM!
 

Martinjmpr

Wiffleball Batter
Looks great! One thing I may have missed: What was the finished weight of your rack and how does that weight compare to a Leitner or similar steel rack?
 
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