Friends of the Bugs: Front Runner

When we were casting about looking for a decent spare gas solution for the truck, I ultimately settled on jerry cans (really, is there a better stress test for gear than the Second World War?) which meant that I had to figure out how to mount a couple cans to the truck.

I lucked out on two fronts: first, I found the ideal can holder (here), recommended highly by anyone that has used it, the double can holder made by Front Runner.

Second, right as I figured this out, Front Runner posted that they had a scuffed one for sale at a discount, so I called in to secure it.  There may be a day and age where I care deeply about the cosmetic condition of what my gas can holder looks like, but that day is long, long away.  As in, I didn’t shower between December 5 and December 18th, at all, even though I ran a marathon (more or less) during that time period, and it didn’t really bother me.

I spoke with a very friendly Front Runner Steve, asked him a bunch of dumb questions about it, and then did the old “Well, my billing address is in Brooklyn, I’m currently in Florida, but would you mind shipping the parcel to West Texas” routine, and he didn’t laugh at me.  In fact, Steve got the mount to the post office in Fort Stockton on time, and shortly thereafter, I found myself at the Balmorhea State Park campground attaching the thing to my roof (using a nontraditional blend of power tools and tupperware).

The can holder was, as advertised, extremely well designed, and extremely well made.  When not in use, the large brackets that hold the cans down can disappear (they disassemble to more or less flat-ish strips), so you only have a one inch high tray on the roof of your truck.  It’s steel, everything is strong, all the holes line up and the mounting hardware is high grade.

And, as someone who is routinely been bewildered by instructions, I will tell you that the instructions were fabulous.  There is even a step that counsels you to go grab a cup of coffee and relax after unpacking but before assembly, just to let everything sink in and minimize the opportunity to have your excitement (new toy!) result in a cock-up (full gas can tumbling off truck on busy freeway!).

At this point, Val and I were separately talking about the possibility of getting a roof rack over the cab of the truck to try to keep the weight of our stuff concentrated between the axels.

I called Front Runner back to talk about their new Slimline II Roof Racks, and the more I thought about the way they are designed and built, the more sold I was on them.  Simultaneously (and magically), they happened to have a rack for Red Beauty that had spent a brief period of time living on a different truck, so I was able to secure this “used” item at a discount.

Steve and I maintained sporadic communication, because I was on my way into the back country of Big Bend and didn’t really have a shipping address to get him, but once we started toward Tucson to meet the grandparents I let him know to fire away.

And so, a couple days before Thanksgiving, a very encouraging pile of boxes arrived from Front Runner, and I found myself getting a cup of coffee, surveying all the unpacked extruded aluminum goodness in front of me, and frankly, salivating.

What a lovely, well-executed piece of kit this is.

For those unfamiliar, the idea behind this is sort of an evolutionary step in roof racks which ends up giving you a platform that is more or less unlimited in terms of its potential layout / deployment, and just as importantly, incredibly secure.

Instead of a basket, you build yourself a platform via a series of extruded aluminum slats that bolt into a frame, and each slat is designed to hold any standard M8 bolt via t-slots on, basically, every exposed surface.  There are slots on the top and bottom of the slats that fit into the frame, and slots on the perimeter of the frame itself.

As a result, instead of putting things into this roof rack and securing them via tie downs or drilling, you bolt things directly on to an incredibly robust platform (it is, according to the folks at Front Runner, basically indestructible).

No drilling necessary, no specialty hardware necessary, regardless of what you’re trying to mount to the rack.

Here’s a neat example: you can get these nice little stainless steel eyelets and they’ll drop right into the outside rail of the rack.  You can adjust them to whatever spacing you want with a simple twist of the wrist.

Now, let’s say I really wanted to rig up an awning on the passenger side of your truck.  All I need to do is grab a few of these eyelets, secure them to the rim of the frame (you wouldn’t even need tools to get them tight) and then bungee them to the corresponding grommets in whatever tarp you have on hand and you have, in an instant, an awning.

If, an hour later, you wish your awning was on the other side of your truck you’d simply unscrew the eyelets, walk around the vehicle, screw them back in, and voila.

Front Runner has a ton of specialty mounts for a lot of the stuff you likely have in the back of your truck (Hi Lift, axe, etc.) and if my budget permitted I would get every damn one of them because they’re so well-designed, and who can resist being that organized when it comes to gear?

But the reality is, with a little patience and a handful of M8 hardware, you can secure just about anything you want to this rack and the load will be incredibly stable.

I used two of the same above-mentioned eyelets to secure an item we’ve long dreamed of to the roof – a 20 pound, refillable, propane tank.  It has been making us nuts to use the little one pound disposable tanks, both in terms of planning (hmm, can we do our dishes and have coffee tomorrow?) cost, and the fact that the smaller containers are both not (legally) refillable and in nine parks out of ten, you can’t even recycle them.

So, I lay the tank down between two of the slats so it was kind of cradled and less likely to move about, and using a ratcheting tie down I ran a loop around the bottom of the tank, through an eyelet, around the top of the tank, and anchored it to another eyelet.

I cranked the ratchet down, and I can tell you that thing isn’t moving, in any direction, at all.

Total cost of custom roof mounted propane tank: $6.

***

Now, with all this said, the installation wasn’t exactly as smooth as it might have been, but for completely unforeseen issues, primarily related to the weatherstripping (of all things!).  The Tacoma magically comes with five bolt holes already in place on the roof, and all you have to do is pull off the weatherstripping and some factory installed silicone tape to get at them.

Further, Front Runner provides a very nicely made pair of brackets that are specific to the Tacoma and line up perfectly with the holes (another great feature of the rack – these brackets are made from a single piece of metal that is precision bent to support the weight of anything on the roof, and they’re incredibly robust).

So, take off the tape and bolt the brackets in.  Simple, right?

Oh no, friends.  There are five aluminum spacers per bracket, each three quarters of an inch in diameter, and the instructions suggest you use a punch to make a hole for each through the weatherstripping and reinstall.

This, again, struck me as no big deal but 1) nobody in Tucson sells three quarter inch hollow punches and 2) Toyota runs a thin strip of steel down the middle of this weatherstrip, which, if you don’t know about in advance, will cause you to either destroy the strip, or the tools you’re using to try to cut it, or both, while simultaneously cursing at the top of your lungs because you can’t figure out why this rubber is causing your drill bits / hole saw / hollow punch from Amazon to blunt and chip.

Ask me how I know.

After having a second cup of coffee to think about this problem, I realized that if I took a pair of snips to the underside of the weatherstrip to cut out the steel bead, I could then simply punch my hole and get on with it.  Once I had that epiphany, installation was a breeze, save for two tightly located bolts on the brackets that forced me to use hand tools over my beloved Makita cordless impact wrench.

Dad and I had the thing installed and centered with de minimus fuss after the weatherstripping fiasco, and it was with a sense of total satisfaction that I found myself up on the roof, standing on the slats, to organize the stowing of our jerry cans, water containers, and propane tank.

This thing is strong.

Since its installation in Tucson, we’ve put almost a thousand miles on the roof rack, from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to Joshua Tree to Sequoia National Forest and down into sunny SoCal, and the rack is only getting better because we’re figuring out more ways to use it.

In fact, Val and I realized we were going to have to get some additional slats and fill it out because the girls discovered that it will handily support their weight, that I will therefore allow them up there, and that it is incredibly fun to do stuff like have picnics on the roof of the truck.

With this in mind, while driving south from Sequoia National Forest to stay with friends in LA before making the final push into Mexico, I dialed up Steve again.  Randomly, my friends live maybe 20 minutes away from the Front Runner offices and warehouse in Burbank, so I asked if it would be OK for us to drop by and check out some of their stuff, (we had a camp chair issue) as well as maybe pick up some extra slats.

Steve green-lighted the visit, and so in the early afternoon while being rained on (what the hell is it with us and weather?) we pulled into the warehouse and, as a family, dismounted.

Pretty soon, we had completely monopolized the entire Front Runner operation.  Val was being given a tour of their completely tricked-out expedition Jeep by Dave (she felt, as a Toyota owner, a guilty attraction to it that was difficult to admit), I had Steve opening and closing their camp chairs for me, and the girls found their soul mate in Blake.

Let’s just say that inconceivably, Blake at Front Runner knows more than most people about Monster High dolls.  Once this was established, he and the girls spent a fair amount of time comparing notes on Monster High history, pricing, and availability.

A couple hours later, and we left the shop with new slats for the truck, a couple of their camp chairs (I’m writing this on them, they’re fabulous: comfortable, strong, and fold down to a very tiny, very easy to pack square footprint… unlike our existing, on their last legs, impossible to pack efficiently, chairs), and a couple of their wolf pack boxes that I currently have mounted to the roof rack via bolts and some fender washers.  We store stuff in them, and the girls use them as bench seats when they’re up on the roof.

So, all in, I will report the following to those who are torturing themselves about purchasing a roof rack: I am really, really pleased with the Slimline II rack and it is giving us a ton of flexibility with regard to storage, especially as we are heading into a phase where we have some pretty ungainly stuff (water, fuel, propane, Monster High dolls) to manage.

I think the design itself is brilliant, the quality and strength of the materials are evident, and to top everything off, there are a bunch of really good people there standing behind the products.

Our sincere thanks to Steve, Dave, Blake and all the other folks at Front Runner for their time and patience, and for providing the Roving Bugs with first rate overlanding gear.

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