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 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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Damn these were some of the ugliest trucks every sold. I have to laugh when Ford girls try to call the 2019 Silverado/Sierra ugly because they are obviously so young or so blinded that they don't realize how ugly these trucks were.

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.
Posted by: Just the truth | Sep 16, 2018 3:36:04 PM

Like he said, these trucks had the gutless 2-valve. It was the 3V 5.4 that was a terrible worthless engine. I know guys that were on their 2nd or 3rd 3v 5.4 before they reached 150k miles.

With a tire size that big a gear change was in order, but I'm guessing the cost of doing front and back kept that out of the mix. On the same hand a truck meant to go off road would have been a better choice with a 4.10 gear as well as the Truetrac front and rear both. With that tall of a tire the 3.55 gear will work well in killing the transmission. I'm not the biggest fan of the 5.4L, but it is a great design that needs upgrades. There are fixes like aftermarket cylinder heads and camshafts for the power issues, spark plug spitting out, and exhaust leaks. It is good to see someone buy a truck like this and make good use of it. On a side note, can someone moderate these people and keep the crap out. It makes the site look bad. This is one of my favorite sites.

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