Words: OWNER: BLAKE MORRELL @BBX_ADVENTURES
FOR THE LOVE OF THE PNW
I am from the beautiful state of Washington. I was born and raised here and have lived in Washington my whole life, though I’ve moved around a good bit. After bouncing around Washington, living and working in different places, I eventually moved back home to Snohomish county for family reasons. I wandered into the role of an aerospace mechanic, which I have been doing for about four years now.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest was pretty tight, with all of the trails available to us. I feel it was natural that I gravitated toward off-roading as so many of the people I hung around and so many of my friends and family often went out to the trails, especially on Friday nights.
As far as Overlanding goes, I honestly had no idea what it was until about four, maybe five years ago. I guess it just became this loose term for car-camping. Someone I was working with was talking about Overlanding, and I asked what it was. It sounded like what I was already doing, just on less of a hood rat level. I used to pop around forest service roads and sleep in the back of my Xterra just to get to the mountain early to shred my snowboard, hike, or stay in some places for a while, being outdoors. As I got into the Overlanding thing, it made traveling more manageable, with all the storage stuff and the rooftop tent.
A TASTE OF AUTOMOTIVE
When I was four, my dad put me on my first dirt bike. I raced in poker runs, ironmans, motocross and more. We were always riding growing up. Together we would mess with my bikes, tinkering on them to make them faster and whatnot. That was where motors started for me. He taught me all the general maintenance he could about taking care of vehicles growing up. He was more of a “keep it tip-top” guy and not a vehicle modification guy. He modified and worked on bikes. That was our passion together. Going through high school, my friends and I would always work on our cars and trucks together. That was around when I got my first vehicle. High school was sort of that time when cars and trucks started to interest me. Hanging out at each other’s houses wrenching was something we often did after school.
My first truck was a 2006 Ford Ranger Edge edition. After wheeling my friends’ trucks with them, I was sure I wanted a manual. I liked that connection between man and machine, you know? Only one small problem with the whole thing. After seeing what my buddies and I were doing to their trucks on the trails, dad didn’t want me to get a 4×4. He wanted me to get something I didn’t have to work on all the time because I had an hour’s drive to school every day. Man, did I fight that logic. Given the circumstances, that little Ranger became a parts runner for all of us, and I got as rowdy as I could in that little thing. My favorite thing about that truck was all of the memories we packed into it. I never even modified that little truck, but we still managed to have a great time with it. It served my friends and me well.
A few vehicles later, and fresh out of school, I bought my first 4×4. I bought and built this one myself. I have had this ’06 Xterra for about seven years now and have been building it for about the last three or four years. I remember riding in my friend Dallas’ supercharged first-gen Xterra…I loved that thing. That was probably where the love for the Xterra blossomed for me. I loved everything about the first gen. I also knew that if I could find a manual six-speed second-gen Xterra with the M226 in the rear, I’d have a decent platform to start with because I knew that it shared the same platform as a Nissan Titan. That was important to me because I also knew that there wasn’t any aftermarket support for the Nissan community at the time, which would probably come in handy.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I call it “BBX.” What does it stand for? Black Betty the Xterra. Also, Big Black Xterra, Blake’s Black Xterra, whatever. How did she get the name, Betty? Ram Jam, dude. I love that song. I remember playing “Need For Speed Hot Pursuit,’’ and that song would constantly be blasting, and I just enjoyed that tune. I started calling this thing “Black Betty’’ because of the color, and I love playing that song while busting down a trail. It’s kind of the truck’s theme song, I guess you could say. It’s also such a good old lady name, and I think it fits because it’s fun.
The original reason for picking up this Xterra was driven by the love to shred. I’ve been snowboarding all my life. That’s always been my winter sport. I picked up the Xterra to have something I could sleep in the back of at the mountain or on nearby forest service roads to make shredding that much easier. I would find a decent spot to make dinner and crash for the night, then wake up and head to the summit to put in some turns. I did the same with hiking, as I’ll park at a trailhead and camp for the night to get an excellent early start before all the foot traffic shows up. This truck has been built with love for the outdoors in the forefront of our minds the entire time. We love camping and love traveling. My fiancée Kai, pup Loki and I travel all around in this thing sometimes for days on end. We like to say it goes by smiles per gallon, not miles, and try not to worry about the numbers as much as having a good time chasing adventure and creating incredible memories together outdoors. Our shared love for the great outdoors snowballed and kept demanding more of the truck, which is how it’s turned into what it’s turned into.
I also wanted an Xterra because I thought that Nissan had all the coolest cars growing up, and I still do. Nissan is known for building some truly incredible and beautiful sports cars. I have never been hard-up on one vehicle brand or another. I have my preferences, though. Growing up, all my friends had Toyotas for their 4x4s. I wanted to venture into the Nissan off-road crowd and see what was there.
CHEAP, FAST AND RELIABLE…PICK TWO.
Ideally, I would start with armor, then move to drivetrain upgrades, then suspension, then engine. As you move along with the build, logically, it should handle what you throw at it for the next upgrade. This is not really how things played out for BBX, though. We exhausted the suspension first, so that was the first to be replaced and upgraded. After the suspension was the drivetrain, and more armor to follow, such as the sliders and the rear bumper. I have a saying that I keep in the back of my mind when selecting what parts to throw on the truck, “You can’t have cheap, fast, and reliable all in the same sentence when describing a vehicle. You can only have two of them at a time.” I would rather buy once and fuss about price than repeatedly replace the same part.
I do everything myself, minus fabrication and gearing. I’m primarily interested in learning how to do both of these. I find that by doing things myself and with the help of others comes a gratifying feeling along with the completion of that task. The most important thing about doing work yourself is the knowledge gained. I think that it’s essential to be able to work on your vehicle as problems can and will arise, and the unpredictable happens when you’re deep out into the wilderness. For this, you need to be prepared to help yourself. If you can at least troubleshoot, your chances of getting back up and running are much higher.
The rear bumper is a custom design that a local shop fabricated for me. I designed the bumper myself and worked with them to make it a reality. It turned out awesome, and it’s incredibly stout. I believe a wrap-around bumper is a smart way to go for obvious reasons, such as multiple recovery points, and added protection is a no-brainer. The rear bumper options with corner protection are difficult to come by for the Xterra, first-and second-gens.
I believe there’s one wrap-around option for the second-gen, which it’s a DIY bumper offered by Coastal Off-Road, but I wanted a different swing design than what they provided. The swing-out uses a solid hinge design that’s very strong and re-greasable via a zerk fitting. The corners of this bumper are tied into the frame, where the body had to be chopped and plated higher up along with the evap canister having to be relocated. I did borrow the ladder idea from Josh Cooper, so I have to give him a shout for that (thanks, Josh). There is also a hidden winch mount welded to the frame underneath the truck’s rear, just behind the ViAir air tank, where the spare used to go.
The Titan swap was one of the best things we did to this truck. We exhausted the old suspension until Betty was doing the “Carolina Squat’’ before the Titan swap. We had beat the legs out of the Xterra, and we simply needed more out of it. Riding on the bump stop in a fully loaded down rig is not comfortable. So, at that point, I got an extensive parts list together, and we pulled the trigger. After the Titan swap for the Xterra, we got everywhere so much quicker and so much smoother. And, we can have a lot more fun with the truck as well. The added comfort and articulation from the combination of the 2.5” Radflo coilovers with 600-lb Eibach Springs, the Total Chaos UCAs and Titan LCAs up front, and the Alcan Custom Spring leafs with the Bilstein 6253s in the back, was the biggest game-changer for us no doubt.
The second best thing we did, which we did not realize would be such a game-changer, was the rear storage. We used to carry a pop-up tent for a bunch of bins and a cooler, and we would toss them inside the tent, then set up a bed in the back of the Xterra. Getting the rear cargo area all set up and organized with the drawers changed everything—no more lifting lids or crawling in a tent on your knees to open a cooler or bin.
Everything has its spot now and is easily accessible. It makes cooking easier, getting to tools much more straightforward, and we never have to take them in or out of the truck as we did with the bins. We keep the rear storage area packed and ready to go so that if we want to go somewhere on a whim, all we have to grab is some clothes and pillows and hit the road. I removed the rear seats and built a nice platform for the Costway fridge and a safe space for our pup, Loki. The platform floor folds upward to access all the storage areas underneath.
The ViAir 20020 dual 444c OBA System is up there with one of my favorite additions to BBX. It also ties into the air locker, which is awesome. The onboard air system makes airing up the tires faster, easier, and more convenient. I definitely don’t miss carrying a small air compressor in a
bag and pulling it out to hook it up every time I need to air up. Having the ability to blow off the dust from the back of the truck to use the rear area is nice as well. If I later choose to add a locker to the front drivetrain, it’ll be effortless as I’ll just have to plumb it to the air system.
Lastly, US Bag & Raingler Nets are two very incredible supporters of ours that I am truly thankful for. They are both local companies that have super sweet, super durable products that have made storage simple and easy for us. We have the Full Ceiling Attic Net from Raingler Nets. This thing is great because we can shove pillows and hats and whatnot up there and it stays strapped against the headliner. The webbing is nice for clipping items, too. Our favorite products from LUSB are the LUSB220 Oscars Mobile Hideout and the LUSB302 Full Caddy. The full caddy is excellent for storing Loki’s stuff and my camera gear. The Oscar is growing fast in popularity as it should because it’s the last spare tire bag that I think we will ever have to buy. It’s durable, feature-rich and even comes with a giant cutting board. We use it for firewood, trash, boots, wet clothes, all sorts of things.
One of the challenges that I and every other Nissan off-roader will struggle with is the lack of aftermarket support. This community has just a fraction of the aftermarket support that the Jeep or Toyota communities. This also runs up the price for parts as the market is not very saturated with companies that have to compete for pricing. Bumpers or sliders, for example, tend to be a bit more expensive and slim on options. However, there is a silver lining to something like this. I’ve found that this problem opens up a couple of different avenues, such as working with more companies to bring more aftermarket support to the Nissan OR community.
I’ve worked with Taylor Freel from Freel Good Performance (FGP) to bring another slider option to market for the second-gen Nissan Xterra. This company is in SoCal and produces some incredible work. I’m excited to showcase these and help bring them to the Nissan OR community and give the community the option to support another company that’s trying to step in to support us.
Another problem that I find remarkable is that it forces me to get creative. Rather than going with the only full wrap-around bumper for the second-gen Xterra, for example, I decided to go with a custom bumper build because I think it’s pretty rad to be different and unique. Everyone has their uniqueness, and this was an opportunity to express that.
APPRECIATING WHAT YOU HAVE
the never-ending mod process. There will always be “something next.” I always try to remain mindful every time I look at this truck or get in the driver’s seat, never to forget how badly I wanted what I currently have. I think it’s essential to appreciate what you have rather than constantly stressing about what the next thing is going to be. I am pleased with where the truck is right now.
I would say that when this VQ40DE motor pops out, I’ll yank it and build and drop in a clean VK56 V8 from a Nissan Titan or Armada. The 400 hp and 413 lb.-ft. of torque would be nice to have, and we’re going for, after all, its smiles per gallon. I’m not sure if I want to put more money into IFS because I love bombing Forest Service roads, getting places fast, and leaving my Jeep buddies in the dust, but another part of me says, “build it stronger.”
I probably won’t mess with suspension until I start breaking things again, but I think it would be wicked to get a Shadow Wolf MFG when I do. SAS Kit for the Xterra and source a Dana60 from a 05’-11’ Ford Superduty for the front end and a Sterling 10.5 for the rear and run 4:56 gears with 37’s after doing an engine swap. If I did that, I’d have to run a Titan XD front driveshaft, and I’d probably do Fox 2.0 coilovers with the 7/8 shaft and remote reservoir, DSC, 10” travel with springs in the front. For the rear, I’m not entirely sure what I’d want to do at that point as there’s a good number of options. When I get to that point, who knows, the entire plan could change, it always does.
THE PATH LESS TRAVELED
One of our most memorable trips was six nights and seven days on the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) a few years ago. We saw one truck and a dirt bike the entire time we were on the trail. We hopped off a couple of times to get gas, but other than that, it was no civilization, just the outdoors. This was a trip we did for my fiancée Kai’s birthday. The reason it’s one of my favorite trips is that it was our first extended trip where we navigated ourselves through the trails and fell in love with traveling via the path less traveled. The Xterra was squatted out and riding on the bump stops the entire time. We blew both the rear shocks and cracked a leaf. But, we had the absolute best time, and we wore giant grins the whole trip. It shows that you don’t need all the fancy shiny things to have a good time and create golden memories; you just need good company and good vibes.
It’s hard to find a bad camp spot; the PNW is absolutely gorgeous. From Washington to western Montana to the southern border of Oregon, any open country or forested land that you drive through is typically very lush and green and often crawling with life. We have
some awesome go-to spots within an hour or so from the house, some right on the river and some up in the mountains. We are lucky that we have these spots within proximity to where we live so we can use them often. One go-to spot we have that we love is right on the river, down an overgrown trail, and very far off the main forest service road. The peace and serenity of this spot are worth the trail rash to get there.
As far as sharing my favorite trails and spots, I try to remain secretive to keep them as untouched and respected as possible. I might take you there with me, but I won’t just give out a location. If I found it on my own, I believe you can too, and that’s primarily the fun. Navigating yourself to these amazingly rad spots is ultimately an enriching experience.
RESEARCH + PLANNING = FUN
I find the research and planning process very fun. It’s cool researching a landmark or area of interest, scouting out crash spots along the way to get there, and just planning a route. You learn a ton about these landmarks you’re interested in seeing, which makes seeing them so much cooler. You also learn a lot about where you should and shouldn’t be, where you can camp and freely explore. It gives you peace of mind knowing that no one will wake you up telling you that you need to leave or that you “can’t be here.” I like to use Gaia myself; I always have it for everything. I know that OnX is another great
resource for navigation as well. If you don’t want to pay for a membership to a navigation guide/app like these, Google Maps is also a tremendous resource that I regularly use for cross-referencing.
Generally, we show up to this area we have researched, and we either throw half our plan out the window and start exploring just to see where it takes us, or we stick to our plan and hunt down a nice spot for the night. When we get to camp, we send our coordinates off to our family members using a Garmin GPSMAP 66i satellite phone that we also use for navigation. I make sure it’s fully charged before leaving for every trip, even just a Sunday trail cruise. If you don’t have a way of communicating back to civilization, I recommend getting a satellite
phone. Last year, we used ours to get help for a couple that had flipped their truck coming around an icy corner on Mt.Loop Hwy, where they had no service and had been waiting for help for 15 minutes. In some cases, 15 minutes can be life or death. Thankfully they both were okay and had suffered only minor injuries.
These preparation routines are vital to us as they make our trips much more worry-free and relaxed. It’s so nice having peace of mind knowing that people know where you are and know to call for help if they don’t hear back in a specific time frame. It also takes a lot off our backs getting the crash spots and routes planned out beforehand because it at least gives us a loose plan to run off of and play with if things change.
2006 NISSAN XTERRA
Milestar Patagonia 33×12.50R17
KMC KM535 Grenade OR 17”
M205 Front Diff from Nissan Titan w/ Yukon 4.56 ring and pinion. Titan cv axles and inner/outer tie rods (freshly rebuilt)
M228 Rear Axle (Dana 44 equivalent) w/ Nitro 4.56 ring and pinion, ARB RD149 Air Locker and ring gear spacer from Nisstec
Offroad Gorilla / Ruffstuff Specialties differential cover
2.5” Radflo coil-overs with 600-lb Eibach Springs
Alcan Custom Leaf pack +550-650- lbs arched for 4” lift (w/ axle degree shims)
Totalchaos Fabrication Titan UCA w/ uniball
Nisstec adjustable shackles
U-bolt flip kit
Stock Titan LCA’s
Bilstein 6253 rear shocks
Extended front and rear stainless steel braided brake lines
Powerstop front brake kit (drilled/ slotted)
ARMOR, BUMPERS, SLIDERS
Freel Good Performance Sliders w/ Kickout – 3/16 2×3 body and .120 wall DOM round tube
Front bumper w/ hidden winch mount (1-4” Plate and 3/16”) and front skid plate (3/16”)
Rear bumper w/ swing Out, rear quarter guards and drop down table, hitch receiver, two recovery points and hidden rear winch mount. Holds a 5-gal Wavian jerry and a swinging toolbox on the ladder, used as a home for the Safejack USA bottle jack
ViAir 20020 dual 444c system (Black) underneath the truck, both air compressors installed in the rear cargo area underneath drawers.
Diode Dynamics XP80 LED bulbs in tail lights
Spec-D Tuning Headlights w/ Morimoto 2stroke 2.0 LED H1 bulbs
Harbor Freight ditch light pods
Smittybilt XRC GEN3 9.5K Comp Series Winch with Synthetic Cable
GEAR STORAGE, ORGANIZATION, ROOF RACK, BED RACK
UpTop Overland Bravo Nissan Xterra Roof Rack
Rear drawers made built from 3/8” birch covered in outdoor marine carpet with side compartments
Rear seats removed and built platform for fridge and dog with storage underneath
Raingler Nets Nissan Xterra Full Ceiling Attic Net with all the bells and whistles.
LUSB302 Full Caddy
Lusb220 Oscar’s Mobile Hideout
ELECTRONICS, COMMUNICATION, IN-CABIN ACCESSORY MOUNTS
ICS Universal dash mount with RAM Mount 6” arms and quad lock mount
Uniden CB Radio mounted to center console on passenger side
ViAir Psi Gauge flush mounted in center console next to stickshift
Garmin GPSMAP 66i
Goal Zero Yeti 500x Portable Power Station
Costway 58 Quart Fridge
Camp Chef Everest dual burner stove