Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wilco Off-Road's Hitchgate solves spare-tire issue, but poses installation, support hurdles

There is no law of physics, nature or probability that assures only one flat tire will occur when traveling wildland roads.
Wilco's Hitchgate Solo mounted on our 4Runner.
That's why we carry two all-terrain spare tires, and recommend that our clients do so as well.

However, the problem of where to carry a large, 70-lb. (32 kg.) or heavier second spare wheel is difficult to resolve.

We had hoped that Wilco Offroad's Hitchgate Solo spare-tire carrier was the solution. Unfortunately, two years' experience with Wilco and the Hitchgate Solo on our 4Runner leads us to recommend against the California firm's products.

Problems with Wilco and their Hitchgate include:

  • the cost (upwards of $1,000 USD);
  • installation and fitment problems;
  • a defect in a key component of the Hitchgate;
  • lack of support in overcoming that defect;
  • long fulfilment times; and
  • Wilco's failure to fill our order for small replacement parts (two pivot arm washers) after multiple contacts, and repeated assurances that they would promptly do so.

Getting one flat tire leaves you without a spare, unless the flat can be plugged in a roadside repair. Often, however, damage such as sidewall punctures and tears, and large tread punctures, are unrepairable. Mount your one spare tire, and you then have no spare. If you get a second flat, you're in trouble. It happens.

For years, a means to carry a second spare tire and wheel safely, conveniently and affordably was elusive. We tried the roof rack, but you're talking about a 70-lb. or heavier tire and wheel. That eliminated rooftop cargo space. We put the spare in the rear cargo area, but that devoured space where we needed it most.

We did not want to spend thousands of dollars on a permanently mounted, heavy-duty aftermarket rear bumper/wheel carrier. Since we use 4Runners, we needed to be able to carry the second spare on whichever 4Runner we needed to use.

As the 2017 backcountry-travel season got under way, we learned of the high-clearance version of Wilco Offroad's Hitchgate SoloThe heavy-duty swing-out spare-tire carrier mounts into a rear two-inch trailer-hitch receiver. An internal wedge tightened inside the receiver keeps the carrier secure and wobble-free.

We purchased a Hitchgate Solo High-Clearance (retail ~$900), assembled it and mounted it -- with much difficulty due to an important defect -- onto one our 2005 4Runner. We purchased a good-enough used tire at a local Big O; and a refurbished matching wheel on eBay.

We've since tested it over hundreds of miles of often-rough backcountry use in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. We've camped with it, accessed the cargo area repeatedly each day, and never found it awkward or cumbersome. It has not loosened, and it remains wobble-free.

The carrier's swingout arm allows easy access to the 4Runner's cargo area. A FuelpaX 3.5-gallon spare-fuel can (not prone to leaking, as are Rotopax cans) stays securely attached to the wheel carrier. (We don't carry a Hi-Lift jack, but a mount for one comes with the fuel-can attachment).

Extra fuel, spare tire, Trasharoo
It is necessary to relocate the license plate, as the extra spare tire conceals the plate in its stock placement. Wilco's optional license-plate mount, made of thick steel, has been damaged repeatedly by contact with rocks and ledges, but remains intact.

Most who travel off-highway on four wheels will need a rear-mounted spare-tire carrier if their vehicle is equipped with oversize wheels and tires that will not fit in the stock spare-tire position. Our tires are close to stock size, so we retain a spare in the stock position. That was the source of the first installation problem, as the Hitchgate is intended for vehicles that no longer have a spare tire in the stock position.

The long bolt that tightens the wedge inside the hitch receiver protruded into the stock-mounted spare tire. With oversize wheels and tires, there wouldn't be a tire there. In our case, there is. That required nudging the tire forward some before raising it, and substantially shortening the bolt.

Wedge-tightening bolt had to be shortened.
The second installation issue occurred when we tightened the wedge that utilizes that same long bolt. Doing so nudges the hitch just enough inside the receiver to force the hitch-pin holes out of alignment. No matter what we tried, we could not tighten the wedge as required, keep the holes aligned and slide in the hitch pin. Provided instructions make no mention of the problem, which Wilco is aware of.

The swingarm keeps cargo access easy.
The makeshift solution suggested by Wilco's staff: replacing the hardened-steel hitch pin with a long, threaded bolt of a smalleer diameter than the pin, one that would fit through the misaligned pin holes. Secured with lock nuts and thread locker, the setup has remained tight and secure since installation. But doing so loses the trailer-towing security of a dedicated hitch pin. (The Hitchgate has a built-in towing receiver, another reason for our purchase.)

But for these two issues, the Hitchgate Solo has impressed with its build quality, powder coating, easy of use and reliability. We spend more time traveling the dirt roads of the American West than most people, so the security of a second spare tire and convenience of the Hitchgate Solo make its flaws worth tolerating.

For the price, however, we believe that Wilco should address the wedge problem. It also should stop telling establishe customers it will fill orders when it either will not or cannot do so.

No comments: