How I Turned a 2003 Ford F-150 Into a Backcountry Explorer

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By Phil Howell

You'd think that after decades as editor-in-chief of 4Wheel Drive & Sport Utility Magazine in which Jeeps are often the vehicle of choice, I would own a Jeep in my semi-retirement. But that's not the case. While Jeeps are outstanding vehicles, my vehicle requirements have changed a bit and a pickup truck is better suited to my need for a cargo-hauling vehicle that serves as a daily driver and a backcountry explorer. I didn't need a rock crawler, so my plans were to create a vehicle with a relatively simple traction adding differential, good tires, and enough room in the bed to carry extra fuel containers.

After a long search, I found a 2003 Ford F-150 SuperCrew 4x4 on my local Craigslist. The odometer showed 73,600 miles and it looked clean in the photos. Upon further inspection, it turned out to be even cleaner than the photos showed, but it did need tires and there was a slight gear whine from the rear end. But overall, it looked like a good fit for me. The owner wouldn't budge on his top-dollar price — he knew what he had — so I forked over the cash, promptly named it BRT for Big Red Truck and drove happily home.

However, that happiness lessened after driving the truck over rough roads. There was an annoying loud rattle in the front passenger door and the stereo played the left channel out of all four speakers. The alarm system would sometimes honk the horn multiple times when unlocking or locking the doors and the buttons for the alarm on the key fob could be easily pressed when in a pocket. We also found that the in-dash cupholder wouldn't pop out. Some fine-tuning was in order.

The passenger door rattle turned out to be two loose screws at the bottom of the interior panel. A local auto sound shop removed the alarm system and rewired the head unit and amplifier, so the stereo played correctly. The Ford F-150's remote entry key fobs are easy to reprogram, so I purchased two new fobs to replace the alarm fobs. Finally, the cupholder's flat spring had simply fallen off, so I reinstalled it using two screws. All was right with the world.

Now that the BRT's interior was dialed in for the road, it was time to turn it into a backcountry explorer. The photos below show that not a lot was needed to make the F-150 an outstanding daily driver and competent dirt trail explorer. It works off pavement, on pavement and does everything I need it to do.

What follows are the simple upgrades I performed, which could be applied to any similarly sized pickup to improve its versatility.

2003 Ford F-150 SuperCrew 4x4 Specifications

  • Ford Triton 5.4-liter V-8 engine
  • Ford 4R70W five-speed automatic transmission
  • BW44-06 transfer case with low range of 2.64:1
  • Ford 8.8-inch independent front axle with 3.55:1 gears
  • Ford 9.75-inch rear axle with 3.55:1 gears and Detroit Truetrac helical gear limited-slip differential
  • Factory Ford F-150 torsion bar front suspension, leaf-spring rear suspension; Skyjacker M95 monotube gas shock absorbers
  • LT295/75R16/E BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires
  • 16-by-7.5-inch Ford alloy wheels

 

Project Costs:

  • Auto Sound Store $120
  • Hypertech Speedometer Calibrator $229
  • Line-X Premium $649
  • Skyjacker M95 Shock Absorbers (4) $280
  • BFG All-Terrain KO2 tires (5) $1,040
  • Detroit Truetrac $590
  • Ford 3.55:1 gears for 9.75-in. axle and install kit $430
  • Yakima HoldUp bike rack $399
  • (I already had an ARB refrigerator; new they're about $950)

TOTAL -- $3,737

 

 

Cars.com photos by Phil Howell

 

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The 2003 Ford 5.4-liter V-8 is a reliable engine that supplies plenty of power for the BRT's intended use. The 2003 mill uses relatively easy-to-change regular spark plugs (not the notorious ones used in 2004). I used Mobil 1 synthetic oil, replaced the air filter with a new factory filter and did nothing else under the hood. The V-8 runs cool, even when crawling in 115-degree heat.

 

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Since I didn't need a lifted suspension, the Ford F-150 front torsion bars and rear leaf-springs work just fine, but the factory shocks (left) had seen better days. Skyjacker M95 performance monotube gas shock absorbers (right) were easy to install and a huge improvement. The single tube design helps operating temperatures stay cooler under extreme conditions, and the high-pressure nitrogen gas and floating piston technology combine to create a fast-responding shock, almost perfect for my desert excursions. The M95s feature a limited lifetime warranty, too.

 

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The F-150's old plastic bedliner (left) made it almost impossible to get to the bed tie-downs. Plus, it was faded, ugly and rattling at higher highway speeds. It was time to say goodbye. Red Desert Off Road/Line-X of southern Utah fitted a Line-X Platinum bedliner (right) that's 300 percent tougher than a regular spray-in bedliner; it's guaranteed not to fade and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Bed tie-downs are now easy to access and the bed rattle is gone.

 

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LT295/75R16/E BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires were mounted on the factory 16-by-7.5-inch alloy wheels. The KO2s balance well, are quiet on-pavement and provide excellent grip on dirt. They feature the three-peak mountain snowflake symbol on the sidewall, which indicates the tire has a severe snow service rating. Off-road, the tires work well on the loose rocks, exhibiting good lateral grip.

 

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The larger tire diameter caused the speedometer to be off. Thankfully, the Hypertech Speedometer Calibrator makes easy work of getting the speedometer right back within spec. It also allows programming for gear changes, although the BRT kept its factory 3.55:1 gearing. Malfunction codes also can be read and cleared with the calibrator as well.

 

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The LT295/75R16/E All-Terrain T/A KO2 spare fit in the spare tire position under the bed; I always like to have at least one full-size spare tire with me at all times. Steve Nantz at Sand Hollow Offroad in Hurricane, Utah, broke into our rear axle to give the differential a quick look and clean out the insides on the big Ford 9.75-inch rear end.

 

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The BRT came with 3.55:1 gears and open differentials, so a Detroit Truetrac helical gear limited-slip was on my list of changes to the rear. The modular Triton V-8 is surprisingly strong and the truck works well with the 3.55s, so I decided to keep that ratio in favor of steeper gears. However, to address the small whine from the rear end I contacted West Coast Differentials (WCD) for some new Ford factory gears (left) and the Truetrac limited-slip (right). WCD has a wide selection of factory gears and offers shipping the same day you call. Note: The Truetrac works best with regular 80W-90 gear oil without any friction modifiers. I discovered WalMart 80W-90 gear oil doesn't have the modifier and the BRT is now whine-free. The Truetrac is totally transparent until it needs to provide traction to both rear wheels, working quite well as a limited-slip. Fun fact: You can preload a Truetrac with the brakes and it will just about lock completely. As it's a helical gear design, I like the fact there's no clutch packs to wear out.

 

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The BRT is a 15-year-old pickup, so it had some nicks and chips. I've used automotive touchup paint from Automotive Touchup for years, so I turned to the website again for primer, base and clear coat paint that matched the Ford's paint code for the needed touchups. The paint matched perfectly, and the aberrations are now hard to see. They'd be impossible to see if the repairs were performed by someone more skilled than me.

 

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One of the BRT's daily driver chores will be as a bicycle transporter. The Yakima HoldUp EVO +2 bike carrier fits in the F-150's 2-inch hitch receiver, folds up when not in use and fits 20- to 29-inch wheel sizes and tires up to 5 inches wide. The HoldUp EVO does this by using its StrongArm hook that secures bikes at the front wheel, protecting painted surfaces and carbon frames. If there are more than two bikes to carry, the HoldUp EVO +2 has an extension that allows it to carry up to four bikes.

 

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Our first choice for bike transport was the Yakima CrashPad tailgate bike carrier. The CrashPad carries up to five bikes securely over the tailgate and features high-density foam and nylon that protects the bikes and the truck; unfortunately, the 2003 F-150's tailgate was too narrow. Here's the CrashPad on a Ford Ranger.

 

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The bed of the BRT carries almost all the gear and gas needed for extended exploring trips. Inside, the rear crew-cab seats fold flat for a secure cargo area that I use for gear that needs to stay away from dirt, moisture and thieves, such as cameras and an ARB fridge-freezer.

 

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While the F-150 was built to be a competent backcountry explorer, like most pickups, it spends much of its time on pavement. The backcountry modifications helped to make the BRT an even better pavement pounder than it already was, and it's a pleasure to drive every day.

 

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Comments

That walmart gear oil is a very good product at HALF the price of top brands.

Result? You can change it 2x as often for the same price.

I've switched to their lubes because the products are made by the same refineries that produce the top brands, just a private-label is all. Great value.

I enjoyed reading about the differential upgrade. If the G80 Eaton in my chevy was giving me any grief it's the way I'd go as well. As it is the G80 M-locker in my truck is spot on after 100k miles and going strong.

Nice capable and dependable truck. Tntgmc's head is going to explode when he reads about the 5.4.

The title of this article should be "You Can't Polish a Turd"


HAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAAHHHAHAHAHAHA


HAHAHAHA HAHAHAHA

I liked the rear diff info.

I wish the article had included prices.

The original SuperCrew is one of my all time favorite trucks. It was the perfect size, before everything got supersized and out of control. The 2V 5.4 was a reliable and capable motor (minus some misguided DIY spark plug changes that went bad) in the lighter trucks. The Detroit TrueTrac front and rear is an amazing combination for every day street use and some pretty serious offroading also. They work. Good article. Thanks!

@2.7EcoBoostRoost Couldn't agree more, wish vehicle sizes would shrink back down.

I want a Detroit trutrac in my Tacoma.

I liked that Ford used a bed design exclusive to the Super Crew for this generation. It'd be cool to see this happen again for the new 2021 truck.

Nice capable and dependable truck. Tntgmc's head is going to explode when he reads about the 5.4.

@ Just the Truth

Again, you don't know what your talking about! Please leave the forum!

Please comment somewhere else. You make yourself look foolish.

Now, I can say I was a freshman in high school when Ford released this body style and its still one of my favorites! It was outside the box thinking and it still looks good to me to this day!

Great looking truck! And the older 5.4L 2V was a much more reliable engine then the newer tritons.

Great article

Man, I wouldn't buy a Ford, much less a used one.
Gooooooooooooooood Luck with that!

@ tntOnline Yes that is a good looking truck. And yes the 5.4 were and are good engines. And I will post anywhere I wish.

Great Choice on the Mobile 1, great oil for the Ford MOD engines. I use them as well.

Great truck, must be really fun to off-road in it.

Hey look, it's the Ford bubble truck. No amount of off road gear can change that. Can you imagine what a slug that thing is with the old, OLD 5.4.

Nice truck my is a 2000 Ford F-150 lariat super-cab step side same engine same tranny. Not like my brothers Silverado who had a lot of problems with it and hey he ended up selling it for cheap.

@JustTheTruth
Your absolutely right. Freedom of speech is an invaluable right that so many have fought and died for. And far be it from anyone to restrict or remove your right to speak your mind. So I'm sure I speak for several of us here when I say, feel free to continue making a name for yourself on this site as an unbearably irritating and childishly irrelevant poster who's claim to fame is bullying and senseless tirades. You'll be held in the same esteem as ChingMaricOn and other useless windbags.

Here is this video about a CHEVYOTA TUNDERADO THAT GOT THIRD PLACE AND BEING NEW. CHECK IT OUT!!!

https://youtu.be/3g9Y40QSS-U

Who care if you don’t like it go f your self idiot.

@ MLSUCKMYPIPI IF YOU DONT LIKE MY COMMENTS WHY DO YOU BRING ME UP ON YOURS? NOBODY TELLS YOU TO BRING ME UP ON YOUR STUPID COMMENTS SO BEAT IT.

@ MLSUCKMYPIPI IF YOU DONT LIKE MY COMMENTS WHY DO YOU BRING ME UP ON YOURS? NOBODY TELLS YOU TO BRING ME UP ON YOUR STUPID COMMENTS SO BEAT IT.

@; MLS 956 I agree with all you say. Someone went way out of their way to offend me. I decided to give him back what he dish's out. Sorry if I offended you but I will be pushed only so far.

TO ALL THE GARBAGE MOTORS FAN GIRLYS IF YOU DO NOT LIKE FORD WHY? DO YOU HAVE TO POST A COMMENT TALKING TRASH ABOUT FORD. JUST SAVE IT AND KEEP IT TO YOUR SELFS AND NOBODY GETS THIER FEELINGS HURT. #SPECIALLY THE GARBAGE MOTORS FAN GIRLYS. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Nice read thanks.
I really like those tires. I also would like to know the total cost of this project.

TO ALL THE GARBAGE MOTORS FAN GIRLYS IF YOU DO NOT LIKE FORD WHY? DO YOU HAVE TO POST A COMMENT TALKING TRASH ABOUT FORD. JUST SAVE IT AND KEEP IT TO YOUR SELFS AND NOBODY GETS THIER FEELINGS HURT. #SPECIALLY THE GARBAGE MOTORS FAN GIRLYS. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!
Posted by ChingMaricOn

Kid, you just stepped in your own poop right there...

Son shut the f up!!! Your so annoying man get a life or you didn’t get 🐈🐈 last night.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! F GARBAGE MOTORS AND ALL THE GARBAGE MOTORS FAN GIRLYS AND GUESS WHAT IM GONNA KEEP POSTING WHAT EVER THE F I WANT and If you don’t like it get the f out of this site. Hey there a website for you old man and it’s called www.gofacyourself.com. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

GUTLESS

GLORYLESS

FULL OF $HIT

CHINGON

FORD - THE KING OF RE-CALLS

NOTHING BUT JUNK

QUALITY IS JOB NONE

THE MORON ME - CHINGON

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA now all the garbage motors and the fiat truck g@y guys are on my butt. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

I bet they can read this? Chinguen a toda su pinche Madre cabrones culeros y pura pinche FORD. Lo de mas PURO PINCHE BASURA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

I bet they can read this? Chinguen a toda su pinche Madre cabrones culeros y pura pinche FORD. Lo de mas PURO PINCHE BASURA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Posted by ChingMaricOn

No problem kiddo, I can help them with that. Basically what he’s trying to say is that he can produce horrendous grammar in two languages while looking like an insecure child in every other way possible.

And knowing is half the battle...

Chingon es un idiota y necesita volver a la escuela.

GET A LARGE FIRE EXTINGUISHER!!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkdKd7p5v-A

https://www.cars.com/recalls/ford-f_150-2003/

GET A LARGE FIRE EXTINGUISHER!!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkdKd7p5v-A

https://www.cars.com/recalls/ford-f_150-2003/


Posted by: HEMI V8 | Sep 12, 2018 8:46:36 PM

Great post! Here's more junk burning!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZqL_F8vp5c

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPO8-ew_o80

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p87sZMeiC2U

Great post! Here's more junk burning!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZqL_F8vp5c

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPO8-ew_o80

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p87sZMeiC2U


Posted by: HEMI RAMPCAGE | Sep 12, 2018 9:34:29 PM

No survivors

No recalls

No worries

No Problem

RAM

@ tntgmc Are we going to be civil or insulting. You did not make it clear what you want. It is your call. I am ready for either..

Just the Truth
Dude, honestly, your going after him now. Unless your goal is more negativity, just stop calling him out. He hasn't started up with you since your last post and yet, two posts into this thread you were the one to take the first shot. You don't have the moral high ground here. what I said before about your reputation on this site stands. Don't be that guy! we don't need any more of them on this site.

Thank you!

Someone else See's it!!

Get on with your life "just the truth"

It embarrassing and annoying

Stay on topic and not twist words.

That style of of your F-150 I think is so much better looking then the new ones. Nice write up. I know numerous guys who use the hyper-tech on their Colorados but it is not cheap...aka over priced.

@ Dave

I totally agree. I truly like this style. In 1997 when it came out it was "the outside the box" thinking of this design that was awesome. It was like no other truck out there. Really liked the FX4 package on these trucks as well. The 17 inch tires back then looked huge!! Now we have 22 inch tires. Oh how times have changed

@Chingon -- This is your warning. We just did a trace on your IP address and found some interesting aliases. Please tone it down or we will ban you.

^^^

HAHAHAHAHHAH

'my semi-retirement'

With age comes wisdom.
With wisdom comes respect.

Bravo!

A few asked what the modification costs were. Here you go:

Auto Sound Store (remove alarm and rewire stereo) - $120.00

Hypertech Speedometer Calibrator - $229.00

LINE-X Premium - $649.00

Skyjacker M95 Shock Absorbers (4) - $276.16

LT295/75R16/E BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires (5) - $1,034.85

Detroit Truetrac - $589.99

Ford 3.55 9.75” rear gears w/installation kit: $425.97

Yakima HoldUp bike rack: $399.00

TOTAL: $3,723.97

The only additional cost would be the labor to install the gears and Truetrac in the rear end that would depend on what shop is used.

So you admittedly paid way too much for a 15-year-old piece of garbage, yet you didn't put enough money into modifications to make it capable enough to do much of anything. Congrats.

And the 5.4 is not a reliable engine, don't be ridiculous. It had all kinds of problems and barely enough power to haul itself around. You almost see more square body F-150's with the 5.8 and I6's than you do the 97-03 models still on the road.


Nice capable and dependable truck. Tntgmc's head is going to explode when he reads about the 5.4.

-Just the Truth

That's because it's a 2-valve 5.4, the doggiest V8 of any half-ton back then. The 3-valve 5.4 was the unreliable rolling dumpster fire that had a dozen different design issues that would cause the engine to destroy itself. Legendary for being one of the worst V8 engines made in the last few decades. No, the 2-valve 5.4's just liked spitting out spark plugs and burning a lot of gas while being a dog.

@ rambro Yes them 5.4 were so bad there is none of them still running. I wish I was as smart as you think you are.

They are bad enough that a lot of engine reman shops won't deal with them.

Nice truck Phil.
Good read. Good choices. Good mods.
We need more stories like this on PUTC.
And maybe fewer fools that need so much attention.

@ nitro Yes that is why there are none on the road or for sale. Amazing how Ford make such bad motors and still best selling full-size trucks.

doesn't amaze me. cheep fleet.



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