Just Another Knucklehead Enjoying Nature
- February 14, 2014
- - By Angela White
When Suni Williams finds a road into the wilderness, he takes it. Where does it go? He has no idea. What obstacles may present themselves? He hasn’t a clue. Is he afraid to drive off a cliff or get hopelessly stuck out of cell range? Yes, but he takes the road anyway. In fact, he absolutely loves these mystery road opportunities.
Suni isn’t reckless. As he explains it, he was born exploring and has decades of off-road experience. He even tells us about times when the hair stands up on the back of his neck and he turns around, but that’s not the point.
The point is that he is fearless to take the unknown road. He’s not blind to the fact that there may be dangerous conditions ahead, but he’s not going to let that stop him. He trusts his preparation, equipment, and knowledge to get him out, and takes the leap.
Suni’s story was very inspiring for us at Truck Camper Magazine. We have seen many roads to somewhere during our travels, and kept going. Next time we see one of these roads, we’re going to say, “Suni would go there”. Given our relative lack of off-road experience, I’m fairly sure that’s all we’ll do, but maybe we’ll take one more look down that mysterious road. If it looks like it’s within our skill level, or maybe one step beyond, Suni’s inspiration may just take us forward.
Above back: Ben and Jessica, Above front: Ethan and Suni
TCM: How did you get into camping?
Suni: I grew up camping literally since birth. Some of my earliest memories are of camping with my parents. These early outdoor experiences ultimately led to me to becoming an avid backpacker in my early teens and into my twenties.
Once I began my career, I would mostly camp out of my truck and a camper shell on the weekends. Not long after, I started venturing to Baja for extended surf trips. I discovered pop-up truck campers after a friend acquired one. It became obvious that this was the only choice for me and my style of camping. And it was certainly more appealing to my wife.
Above: Onion Valley, Eastern Sierras, California
TCM: So, how did you get your current truck camper?
Suni: My friend had a very old Four Wheel Camper Fleet from the 1980s, but I had never seen it popped up and didn’t really understand what pop up truck campers were all about.
Pop up campers are popular in Baja. I saw quite a few truck camper rigs down there and began to understand what my friend had. That’s when the light went on. It sucks it to be out in the wind, and it’s notoriously windy there. When you’re wet and cold, having shelter from the wind and weather is great.
I scoured Craigslist for well over a year. In November of 2007, I found a good camper at an affordable price and drove six hours to get it.
Above: Coyote Flats, Eastern Sierra, California
TCM: Why did you want a Four Wheel Camper?
Suni: Once I became intrigued with truck campers, I learned about Four Wheel Campers. They are designed and built for off-road use. I didn’t want a full-size hard side unit because of weight. I would be four wheeling and in the sand. As a family, we’re into remote places. Having done my research and learning about campers, I wanted something that could be abused and take the abuse.
We don’t hang out in the camper unless the weather is bad. We cook outside. Should the weather turn, it’s nice to duck inside, read a book, and not get sand blasted. Having the camper is so easy. Release the four roof buckles, pop it up, and we’re ready to go.
Above: Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, California
TCM: What’s your truck camping lifestyle like?
Suni: It varies. We mostly go out on weekends. We try to get out at least once a month. We recently bought a house, which has taken up most of my spare time, so we have not been out as much as usual this year. But, even with that, we still try to get out once a month.
We generally take a couple of week long trips each year but I’m mostly a weekend warrior for sure. I can’t really go to Mexico for the weekend. That’s at least a one week trip.
We live an hour north of Los Angeles. Anywhere we want to go is within a few hours. Our local mountains are a half hour away, so a lot of what we do is spur of the moment trips.
Above: Goler Wash, Death Valley, California
Some of the most famous national parks are in California. We’ve got Yosemite, Death Valley, the Sequoias, and Redwoods. For me, the parks are too crowded and the Sierras are about as good as it gets. There are lots of options in the Sierras, and it is there that we can get away from people.
Above: Camping in Big Sur, California (click to enlarge)
Big Sur is a favorite of mine even though there are not a lot of remote camping opportunities. We have to camp in a campground, but it’s beautiful there, so it’s worth it. The Mojave desert in general has a lot of great camping. I’ve also still got the desert in Anza Borrego to explore.
Above: Suni and his family go see the whales in Baja during the Spring
We don’t get out as much in the summer. We usually go see the whales in Baja during the Spring. Right now, during the winter, is prime camping season for us. We love Death Valley, and try for a Baja trip during the holidays. Winter is go time!
Above: Off-the-Grid in Striped Butte, Death Valley, California
TCM: How do you find places to explore off-road?
Suni: I find most of the places through serendipity. I just find places. I use a Benchmark map as my go-to guide. Most of the roads we travel are in there. I also have the GPS. Typically we decide on a trip, like Death Valley, where there are lots of back roads. We’ll just see one, and try it.
Above: White Mountains, California
I’m not generally worried about the roads I take. I know what my truck is capable of. There are plenty of times I’ll take a trail and say no. When my hair stands up on the back of my neck, I turn around.
I always carry a Hi-Lift jack and a recovery shovel. I bought the jack before I had the camper for trips to Baja. I have never used it. When I have been stuck, I’ve been able to get out with the shovel and by airing down. I worry more about catastrophic vehicle failure. I am always prepared with more than I need.
I’m in my truck now with my camper. If I were to go out now, I could eat for a week. We always have provisions in the camper.
Since I was a backpacker, I’ve always had the mindset to have the proper gear. I always know where I’m at, and what the odds are. I also know that usually I’ll see someone by days’ end. Situational awareness is key. I ask myself, “What if?”, every time. If I’m camping with another vehicle, I might try more.
Above: Winning TCM calendar photos Big Sur, California, Alabama Hills, California, and Punta Canoas, Central Baja or Baja California Norte (click to enlarge)
TCM: You won on the 2010 Truck Camper Magazine calendar cover and the month of June in 2010 and 2011. Is photography a passion of yours?
Suni: I took the cover photo and the other calendar winners with my crappy three-megapixel Canon camera. I do enjoy photography, but I wouldn’t call photography a hobby since my camera is on automatic. I really do want to get a SLR, and learn a bit more about it. There are a lot of places I’ve gone to because I was inspired by other people’s photos.
TCM: What does your wife think about off-road travel?
Suni: When I met my wife, she hadn’t really experienced camping much. When we first got the camper, it was funny because I’d be driving down the road, and she’d say, “You can’t go there!” or “You can’t go over that!” Sure, I could. I’d put the truck into four-wheel drive low and get through. Now she’s usually reading a book and not worried at all.
Above: Monument Valley, Utah
TCM: Tell us about your southern Utah trip. From your pictures it looks like you covered a lot of ground.
Suni: We completed a nine day trip to Southern Utah which absolutely blew our minds.
That trip was inspired by Expedition Portal and Wander the West trip reports. I was getting sick and tired of looking at the southern Utah pictures on the web. I had to go there and see it for myself.
Above: Suni's Four Wheel Camper Hawk on the White Rim Trail
We did a big loop traveling to Arches, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, Bryce, Zion, and the White Rim trail, which was the main point of the trip. We did the White Rim trail in two days and should have done it in three. I want to do it again. It’s spectacular.
Above: The opportunities to drive on dirt roads are endless in Utah (click to enlarge)
The great thing about Utah is that I’d see dirt roads on the map that were twenty-five miles long, and then they’d link up with other roads; the opportunities seem endless. We went through Waterpocket Fold and then came up the Burr Trail into Escalante and out to Kodachrome. I’d be driving, and constantly wondering, where does that road go? It was wonderful!
That area is pretty much the pinnacle of off-road camping and we intend to continue to explore it. We really wish it was closer to home.
Above: Camping right next to the water in Cuchillo, Baja California Norte
TCM: You said in your email that Baja is your favorite truck camping destination. What makes Baja special?
Suni: I’m a surfer. My life revolves around catching waves. Baja is great because I can camp and surf. That’s why I initially bought the camper. My camper is the perfect surf platform. In Baja, there are loads and loads of places to surf with quality waves. Most of the places I go are remote, with no facilities, which is why having a camper is so nice.
Everyone thinks if you go to Baja you will die. The border towns are what you generally have to be concerned with. When I cross into Mexico, I leave my house the night before, stay in San Diego, and cross the border first thing in the morning at daylight, after all the bad guys hopefully have gone to bed. Once you are past the border towns, you will meet nothing but the kindest people in the world. Most of them have nothing and are happy to share what they have to you.
I go to some of Baja’s most remote beaches and all I ever run into are fisherman and fish camps, not the criminal element. That’s not to say they can’t or won’t be there. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel, but, just like other places, you learn and get that sixth sense.
Above: Camping in Baja (click to enlarge)
TCM: How is cell phone service in Baja?
Suni: I’m on AT&T. They offer a Mexico plan. Your phone will work, you will just pay more to use it. In most of the places I travel in Baja, I don’t have coverage anyway.
TCM: How about language issues?
Suni: My Spanish has gotten better over the years. It may not always be grammatically correct, but I get my point across. I do admit that speaking a little Spanish has given me an element of security.
Above: Baja California Norte
TCM: How about insurance in Mexico?
Suni: Knock on wood, I have never been in a traffic incident there. Everyone is presumed guilty immediately until insurance investigators sort it out. If you’re in a wreck, you need insurance. With that insurance comes a lawyer if you need it. You can buy insurance by the day, but I buy annual insurance. I think I pay 300 dollars for my annual policy. That is generally the smart way to go about it if you plan on spending more than week or two.
When I have this conversation about traveling to Mexico with people, some say I’m crazy. But right this second there are loads of snowbirds driving monstrous RVs in Mexico who speak no Spanish. And they are having a blast. It’s really not that big of a deal.
Follow the Golden Rule and don’t drive at night and don’t put yourself in bad positions. There are people out there who will rip you off, but that’s true anywhere. Make sure you secure your rig. The biggest risk is petty theft.
TCM: Other than surfing, what do you like to do while you’re out truck camping?
Suni: I love to fish. I often bring a kayak. We like to go see something different. When it’s normal California camping, we’ll go hiking and exploring. Death Valley is great for that. We like to see waterfalls, cave paintings, old cabins, and mines. Generally, we’re just exploring the area. I mountain bike some, but rarely bring a bike on a truck camping trip.
Above: Ethan and Ben at Lippincott Pass, Death Valley, California
TCM: Do you take your kids truck camping?
Suni: The kids go with us a lot. Now that they’ve grown - one is sixteen and one is fourteen - they have branched out into a tent. When they were younger, we’d put them on the lower couch. After a couple years, they were outside in a tent. They love the freedom. Each year the tent gets further and further away. They are outdoor maniacs.
I am teaching them how to drive off-road. Depending on the road, I’ll usually drive in and let one of them drive out. As I’m driving these tough roads, I explain what I’m doing. I tell them why I’m taking a certain line. I want to pass this knowledge down to them.
Above: Gunner in Big Sur, California
TCM: They are so lucky! Tell us about your dog and what he thinks of truck camping.
Suni: Gunner is our trusty hound. He’s a seven year old lab, and he goes with us everywhere. He is one lucky animal; he’s been to a lot of neat places.
It is good thing to have a dog when we’re in Mexico. Most animals aren’t cared for as pets down there, so dogs in Mexico can be unfriendly. As a result, Mexican people are generally leery of dogs. When I go to Mexico alone, he’s good security.
TCM: Is it tricky to get him across the border, and back?
Suni: Going in to Mexico is not an issue with Gunner. It’s coming back to the USA that can be tricky. There’s an international health certificate from vet that you should carry with you, although I have never been asked for paperwork.
Above: White Mountains, California
TCM: Thanks for the interview Suni. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Suni: I’m just another knucklehead out there, trying to enjoy nature.
Truck: 2006 Toyota Tundra TRD Limited, crew cab, single rear wheel, gas, 4x4
Camper: 2003 Four Wheel Camper Hawk
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Four Wheel’s system
Suspension: Rancho RS9000 shocks, Firestone Ride-Rite air bags, American Mojave wheels
Gear: 2" leveling kit/lift, KC Daylighters, which are the lights in the front
Rikki Rockett and the Rockett Raptor
- January 10, 2014
- - By Angela White
When Cari and Robby Rowe of Phoenix Custom Campers contacted us about interviewing Rikki Rockett, the drummer from Poison, we almost fell out of our chairs. A rock star who pushes the limits of overland travel and adventure in a truck camper? We’re in.
So exactly how did Rikki end up with a Phoenix Custom Camper on a Ford Raptor? As Rikki Rocket puts it, his Jeep Rubicon and Airstream couldn’t get there, and a tent just wasn’t cutting it. But that’s not the real story here. The real story is much better than anything we could have imagined.
Far from the reaches of fame, fortune, and rock areas, Rikki is a father who wants to take his young son camping, and encourage, by example, an active and positive lifestyle. Just father and son, camping in the wilderness. Nothin’ But A Good Time.
Above: The Raptor Camper off-road near the Calico ghost town
TCM: How is it that the drummer from Poison decided he wanted a truck camper?
Rikki: It’s really simple. I’m an Airstream enthusiast. I’ve had three of them. I even bought a larger model because my wife was uncomfortable in the smaller Airstreams I prefer. Even with the larger trailer, she still didn’t want to go camping.
That’s when I realized it would just be me and my son going camping. I thought, “If it’s just the two of us, there has to be a better way to do it”. Besides, I can’t pull an Airstream trailer into the wilderness and that’s where I want to go.
Initially, I looked for an off-road trailer. I love Sportsmobile vans, but I didn’t want an all-in-one vehicle. With a truck camper, I can take the camper off and still have my truck. I can go on an off-road weekend adventure, and still drive the kids to school on Monday. It’s the perfect solution for what I want to do.
Above: The Rockett Raptor near his home in Castaic, California
TCM: How did you choose to build your rig around a Ford Raptor?
Rikki: I was coming from the Rockett Rubicon Jeep by Poison Spyder Customs. I loved the Jeep, but I don’t like to just play for the day and go home. I want to stay, explore, and absorb. I tried tent camping, but that didn’t cut it.
After the Rockett Rubicon, I couldn’t get a run-of-the-mill truck and be excited. If I was giving up the Jeep and Airstream, I wanted something really cool. I wanted something that would destroy. I fell in love with the Ford Raptor.
I wasn’t going to mod the Raptor when I first got it. Ford ran the Baja 500 with a stock Raptor and it came out fine. Then I took the Raptor off-road, went up a ditch, and bent the rear bumper into the truck body. The stock bumper had to go. Addicted Desert Designs came up with a really cool rear bumper. From there, I kept customizing. As you know, one thing leads to another.
Above: Sketch by airbrush guru, Craig Fraser of Kal Concepts / Air Syndicate
TCM: It certainly does. How did you connect with Phoenix Campers?
Rikki: When I searched for companies that built campers for Ford Raptors, Phoenix came up. I emailed them and told them what I was up to. Cari Rowe from Phoenix Campers said they would love to do it, so we started the process.
The Ford Raptor and Phoenix Camper rig is the way to go. For the type of person I am, and what I want to do, this literally makes more sense than any other type of RV. I can still haul my motorcycle or pull a trailer. I can go by myself, or take my son. This rig gives me so many options.
Above: The interior of Rikki's Raptor camper (click above photos to enlarge)
TCM: What features did you choose for your custom Phoenix Camper?
Rikki: I started by asking Cari and Robby Rowe what was possible. I got a shower, sink, stove, toilet, air conditioner, heater, and outside generator. It’s still amazing to me that all of this fits on the back of a Raptor pickup truck.
TCM: How did you coordinate the custom design and build?
Rikki: We did everything by phone and email. Phoenix sent me drawings, floor plans, and photographs of other custom Phoenix Campers had already built for Ford Raptors. There was even a reveal when I showed up in Denver to pick it up.
Above: Rikki and Jude picking up the camper at Phoenix Campers
Above: Rikki and the Raptor, out on a photo shoot before SEMA
TCM: Did you drive the Raptor to Denver?
Rikki: No, I shipped the Raptor to Phoenix Campers in Denver. Robby did some work on the truck including installing lights and other accessories.
My wife had surgery in Michigan during the weeks leading up to the completion of the camper. Afterwards, my son, Jude, and I flew to Denver to meet Cari and Robby and pick up the rig. The timing worked out well.
Then Jude and I drove and camped the whole way back to our home in California. It took us four days and three nights.
Above: Jude "Bugsy" playing in the overcab on their trip back to California
TCM: Had you or Jude ever been truck camping before that?
Rikki: No. It was a crazy experience driving back. It was just Jude and I in the truck. What if he got bored? What if it rained hard and we were stuck inside the camper? We actually did hit a day like that, but the rain put him to sleep.
We went to Camping World to buy the RV products we needed. We stayed at a KOA one night so we could take showers. We had a great time. We have even slept in the camper at home in the driveway a couple of times because he enjoyed it so much.
It’s super-glorified tent camping, but all your conveniences are right there. All you have to do is pop the roof up and plug-in. I can go where tent campers go; places you can’t take trailers into because they are strictly for tent camping. That’s why truck campers are so cool.
Above: The Rockett Raptor at SEMA in the Magnaflow booth
TCM: You’re preaching to the choir here. Tell us about the experience at SEMA with the Rockett Raptor. How was your rig received?
Rikki: I was in the MagnaFlow booth. At first, not everybody got it. They were asking, “What is that?” Once I put the pop-up roof up, people understood the concept.
I honestly feel like most people did not get it until they really saw it. Even Brian Rider, who helped me with the project and contacted vendors for me, really didn’t get it, until he saw it in person.
It seems like there’s a disconnect between the overland people with Sportsmobiles and Earthroamers and the truck campers. My idea is to take the Ford Raptor and Phoenix Camper rig and go really deep and do stuff. I can even do the Rubicon Trail with this set-up. The camper is only 1,100 pounds dry.
Above: Rikki sometimes unloads the camper and then goes off-road with just the truck
TCM: You’re a well known motorcycle enthusiast. Any plans to bring a motorcycle with you when you go truck camping with the Rockett Raptor?
Rikki: I’ll tow a Polaris Razor when I go camping with my son. That way we can both experience it. If I take a motorcycle, I can’t take him with me. If I’m on my own, I’ll take the Triumph Tiger 800. That’s an adventure bike.
There are loads of options with the truck camping lifestyle. I can haul this or trailer that. I can unload the camper and go 120 miles per hour across the desert, if I want to. That’s what I love about a truck camper rig.
Above: Removable jacks for off-road scenarios
TCM: Are you planning any modifications to the Phoenix Camper?
Rikki: I want a better jack system. The jacks are not designed for off-road scenarios. My friend, Jeff, is a fabricator. He created a slip-hitch mount underneath each side of the camper for the jacks. With this set-up, I can quick-disconnect the jacks.
Above: Getting stuck in the dirt near the Calico ghost town
When we were in the Calico ghost town, I high centered the vehicle, and no one was around. It was a mile-and-a-half walk for help, and I had no cell phone service. I was like, “How am I going to get out?” The camper jacks were in the back seat. I used one as a hi-lift jack and slid out of the hole. I tore up one of my tires, but I got out.
TCM: That must have been quite an experience. You may need a satellite messenger or phone. Has having a refrigerator and kitchen with you been helpful with your vegetarian lifestyle?
Rikki: It has. I can carry my own food. Jude is a picky eater. On our drive home from Denver I found a store with the food he likes and stocked up. Later, I pulled over at a rest stop, popped-up the roof, and cooked for us. He played a game, and we got back on the road. The camper is really convenient.
Above: Jude wanted to camp out in front of the house
TCM: What do your friends think of your Rockett Raptor?
Rikki: Everybody loves it. People like the Ford Raptor, period. They are hard to get. On top of that, they see what I’ve done to it. My mother-in-law even said it was awesome.
I definitely get some looks driving around. I’m not going to keep all the logos on the truck forever. That was for SEMA. I’ll go back to black at some point, or something different. It’s such an unusual looking rig that people look at it anyway. If someone is interested, I like talking about it.
Maybe in a couple of years I’ll get a Ford F350 and go bigger with the slide-out truck campers. Some of the campers these days are unbelievable. It’s like being in a regular RV, only with the versatility of a truck camper. With a truck camper rig, you can park in an urban environment or a friend’s driveway, and stay. You can’t do that with an Airstream.
Above: The Rockett Raptor with the Rockett graphics
TCM: Think you would take the Rockett Raptor on tour with Poison? Maybe hitched behind the tour bus?
Rikki: A forty-five foot tour bus is legally limited to fifteen foot trailer. That means the Rockett Raptor isn’t coming along, but I always take a motorcycle with me.
I’ve spent twenty-seven years on a tour bus. Give me a tour bus and a trailer, and I’m good for a long time. I love my house, but I like something that moves. I’m like a gypsy.
When we’re on tour, I’m working. It’s not just a one-and-a-half hour concert. There are meet and greets, and I fly home every couple of weeks. My family comes out and visits. We all know what we signed up for.
At end of the day I have to do my best on the stage. If I got three hours sleep the night before, I’m going to suck. That’s my livelihood. We make it look like it’s all fun and games, but it’s not all the time.
Above: Cal City Thanksgiving trip with the Polaris RZR and Jude's Yamaha 50
TCM: We can relate to that. Do you have any upcoming plans with the Rockett Raptor?
Rikki: The day after Thanksgiving we went out to Cal City with our quads. We went crazy for four days, having a blast.
The next trips are going to tell me a lot about Jude’s tolerance for truck camping. If he loves being out in the dirt with the Razor, I’ll plan something once a month.
I want to encourage Jude with stuff like this. I’ve noticed nine out of ten kids who aren’t into positive activities get themselves wrapped up in drugs and other bad stuff. My parents worked a lot when I was a kid and weren’t always focused on me. Sometimes I got myself into trouble.
Above: Jude discovering Star Wars near Calico Ghost Town
TCM: Have you introduced Jude to drumming?
Rikki: Jude has drums. Some days he’s interested, and other days he’s not. I don’t put pressure on him.
I’ve also been into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for sixteen years and take him to the gym with me. Right now he has a three to four minute attention span. Out of the blue he will ask to go to the gym, but I don’t want to pressure him with that, either. I just want him to go to bed on time and do his homework.
When we were in Michigan, we visited a very good friend who has a comic book company. After he produced graphic novels for Star Wars stuff, he carved out a living working for George Lucas. His whole house is Star Wars, with storm troopers and signed stuff. That got Jude into it.
Above: The Rockett Raptor as a daily driver, a tow vehicle, a four-wheel drive vehicle, a pre-runner, and a heavy duty truck that can carry a camper
TCM: I think that would get any kid into Star Wars. Heck, I want to go to your friend’s house! Is there anything else you’d like to add about truck camping, or the Rockett Raptor?
Rikki: I am asking my truck to perform like a daily driver, a tow vehicle, a four-wheel drive vehicle, a pre-runner, and a heavy duty truck that can carry a camper. What’s amazing is that the truck can do all of those things.
Above: Rikki driving in Vegas while at the SEMA show
Not many people have a truck camper on a Ford Raptor. The combination gives me the best of both worlds. It really is the way to go.
Truck: 2013 Ford Raptor, SVT, four door, gas engine, four wheel drive
Camper: 2013 Phoenix Custom Camper
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Phoenix tie-down system
Suspension: Firestone Ride-Rite Rear Airbags, Nitto 35x12.50R17 Trail Grappler tires, Moto Metal M0909 Skull wheels
Gear: Magnaflow Exhaust, Addictive Desert Design Front and Rear Bumpers, Airaid cold air intake, Auto Anything accessories, Hypertech max energy power tuner, Katzkin headrest covers, Odyssey batteries, One11ink full body wrap, Rigid off-road LED lights, Romik side step bars, Rosen headrest DVD system, Rotopax off-road fluid storage, Spyderlights LED tail lights, Sway-A-Way off-road shocks, TRex metal mesh grille, Whistler radar detector, power inverter, and tire pressure monitor system, Tiger 800 XC motorcycle
From Down Under to the World Over
- September 10, 2013
- - By Angela White
There are folks out there who make our seemingly full list of adventures appear like just another trip to the local grocery store. These evidently fearless globe trotters have been to places we never knew existed, often with modes of transportation well beyond planes, trains, and automobiles. Then they share stories that border on the fantastic, and tell us of people in far away lands who changed their lives.
At first, these stories can be intimidating, making us at once envious and inspired in equal measure by the world of opportunity they present. Perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective. We clearly remember being intimidated, envious, and inspired when we first learned of truck campers going cross country in the United States. Now that we have driven in their tracks, and walked in their footsteps, the intimidation and envy are lost, and the inspiration is ours to pass on.
With this perspective in mind, is it fair to say that the intimidation, envy, and inspiration brought by the adventures and accomplishments of others is a very healthy thing? I dare you to fill you minds and hearts with these emotions, to bask in them, and then set that emotional energy towards making the dreams presented for you a personal reality. Speaking from experience, we now welcome these challenging emotions, and thrill in their possibilities.
If any part of you agrees with my thesis, you are going to enjoy today’s story. As we peeled back the layers of Gary and Liz Grays incredible travelogue, we were filled with beautiful intimidation, wonderful envy, and glorious inspiration. Thank you Gary and Liz. We will follow walk in your footsteps, drive in your tracks, and set sail on your waterways. We are inspired.
Above: Gary and Liz at Four Corners Monument
TCM: You have quite a history with sailboats and RVs. Tell us about your adventure traveling the world before reaching the United States last year.
Gary: We both started camping late in life, although Elizabeth did annual trips as a youngster with her family in Australia. Camping came as an adjunct to our main interest at the time, fly fishing.
Our first camper was a Jayco Hawk wind-up tent trailer that we towed with an Isuzu Trooper SUV. We spent a lot of weekends in Australia’s National Parks and remote sheep farms. We took that trailer on some pretty rough terrain to find the elusive trout in New South Wales.
After we married, we sailed around the world on point-to-point passenger ships, freighters, mail ships, and ferries. We initially sailed from Sydney via New Zealand, Fiji, California, Mexico, Panama, and Florida. Then we went to the United Kingdom.
After about three months in Europe, we sailed to Cape Town via the Canary Islands and Madeira, where we lived in South Africa for four and a half years. We traveled a little in South Africa before returning to Australia by ship.
During our married life, we have traveled to South Africa, Southeast Asia, China, Mauritius, the United Kingdom, and the United States visiting the east and west coasts at various times.
In 1995, we did an extended tour of the United States by car essentially visiting most of the Civil War battle sites. We also traveled to the New England states to view the fall colors and to talk to a publisher in Vermont about a series of children’s books that Liz had written.
Above: The Gray's Mercedes Sprinter motorhome in Ireland
TCM: You’re making a lot of well traveled folks feel like they haven’t seen anything yet. When did you decide to travel the world by RV?
Gary: When I finally retired, we decided to look at how we could see more of the world within a budget and with total flexibility of where, when, and how to go. Soon after, we noticed an American RV during our daily walk through our village in Tasmania. At the same time, we heard radio reports from a fellow Aussie who was driving around the world from Alaska to Vladivostok in Russia. We were inspired by both these events and decided to explore the thought of an RV further.
We looked at Europe first as travel between European countries is so easy. We elected to buy a motorhome as motorhomes are relatively straight forward to register and insure in Europe. The motorhome was a Mercedes Sprinter based motorhome similar to the Winnebago View.
We began our European trip in England and visited thirty-six countries. One huge advantage of traveling in Europe is the vast number of free parking opportunities for motorhomes (but not travel trailers) in small villages and towns.
Once parked, you could open your door and be immediately in town. The motorhome only parking spots often have free dump points and potable water. There are literally thousands of these free motorhome parking spots, usually called “aires” or “stellplatz”. Even large cities have them. In Galway, Ireland for instance, we were right in the center of the historic area, and had a free electrical hook up.
Above: Camping at the beach in Mexico. Click to enlarge.
TCM: The idea that there are free parking spaces for RVs sure makes the idea of traveling Europe by RV a lot more friendly and doable. How did you decide to sell the motorhome, come to the United States, and buy a truck camper rig?
Gary: During our trip research for the United States and the Americas, we realized that we were going to need a rig capable of rough roads. Having high ground clearance and four wheel drive would be a huge advantage. For example, in Baja, Mexico, four wheel drive would enable us to wild camp on some fabulous beaches.
We were initially looking at expedition type vehicles, but they proved extremely expensive, and might not be that easy to sell when the trip was over. So the next option we looked at was a truck camper, which has worked out very well.
TCM: How did you research your truck and camper rig from Europe?
Gary: We spent a lot of time on Truck Camper Magazine and selected three dealers in the northeast United States to chat with. From London, we flew to Boston and visited Campers Inn in New Hampshire.
Not having a permanent address in the United States or a Social Security number made it difficult to register a truck in our name. To solve this, we formed a Montana LLC, which is now the official owner of the truck and camper.
Above: Picking up the Travel Lite 1100RX camper at Campers Inn
TCM: That’s incredible, and proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way. What truck and camper did your Montana LLC purchase?
Gary: We bought a used 2011 Travel Lite 1100RX. The truck is a 2008 Ford F350 crew cab, long bed, single rear wheel, four wheel drive, diesel. We bought the truck and camper in August of 2012. The team at Campers Inn was very helpful.
Above: Gary and Liz took the camper off while at Peggys Cove in Nova Scotia
We know how to load and unload the camper on our own. Having a four wheel drive diesel truck allows us to explore off-road locations. We love the whole truck camper concept and the options it gives us for future travel. We meet amazing people and enjoy every minute. The hardest decision is the initial one, to do it!
TCM: What was your vision once you left Campers Inn in your truck camper rig?
Liz: It was to explore the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. We decided that twelve months should just about cover it. We were wrong! Canada alone is huge!
Our shakedown trip was to visit friends in Columbus, Ohio. We had about six weeks to get back to Boston before we flew back to Australia for a previously scheduled three week visit home.
We had an itinerary including major points of interest and a schedule. We read our guide books every few days, checked our notes from favorite travel blogs, looked at the map, decided on a route, and set off.
Above: Exploring Canada. Click to enlarge.
TCM: Did you have any issues crossing the borders into Canada or Mexico?
Gary: We are ardent followers of blogs by fellow travelers. Through these travel blogs, we have found a wealth of information that made us almost feel like we were cheating.
For instance, one blogger had a great idea for crossing the borders into the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The blog suggested looking for the smallest and narrowest roads crossing the borders on the map. We did that and, on three of the four border crossings, we were the only ones there.
In one case, we struggled to get away from the border guard as he kept wanting to talk about the world in general. On fourth border crossing, the United States’ computers at the border were down so that crossing took quite a while. Otherwise the blogger’s idea works out very well.
We suggest seeking out blogs on the internet for areas you propose traveling to and making copious notes. It has worked for us. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Above: National Military Park in Vicksburg
TCM: What were some of your favorite places in the United States?
Gary: We traveled to Mount Washington National Park in New Hampshire. The Mount Washington Cog Railroad is one of the world’s last remaining steam powered trains. It chugs its way up three and a half miles of heart-stopping steep tracks to the summit of Mount Washington.
On the Natchez Trace Parkway, we went to the antebellum houses in Natchez linking the French, Spanish, French, and English occupation eras. Anyone who can remember Elvis must call and visit his home in Tupelo.
If you are at all interested in the Civil War, you should go to the National Military Park in Vicksburg. The burial and ceremonial mounds, in particular Emerald Mound (AD1400) just west of NTP milepost 10.3 north of Natchez, is worth visiting.
We walked on the original Natchez trail where hundreds of years ago First Nation people walked, fur trappers walked and traded, and other traders from the Ohio River Valley returned home after selling their goods and their barges in the south.
We drove along Route 66 as much as we could through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, stopping off at various towns on the way.
Above: Petrified Forest, Arizona
The route we took depended on the season, how much time we had, and what our interests were. We also wanted to call and visit friends on the way from New Hampshire to Southern California, so that defined our route somewhat.
When we returned to the United States from Mexico, we went through Tucson, Tombstone, and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Then we went to White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, New Mexico and east to New Orleans, Louisiana.
We followed the Mississippi from Venice, which is south of New Orleans, north all the way to Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota where we reached the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Spots along the way included the Corps of Engineers Visitor Center and Lock and Dam No. 15 at the Quad Cities in Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa.
We went to Rock Island in Moline, Illinois and Hannibal, which is Mark Twain’s boyhood home. We stopped in Saint Genevieve, Mississippi and Saint Francisville, Louisiana, which are preserved historical River towns. We went to Cairo, at the confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and Vicksburg where the river became the target of longest siege in US military history.
Above: Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota
From there we went west to South Dakota where we visited Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Badlands National Park.
Above: Traveling in Belize. Click to enlarge.
TCM: What were the highlights in Mexico and Belize?
Gary: In Baja, we traveled through the deserts, camped on the Bay of Conception beaches, visited the San Ignacio Mission. In mainland Mexico, we went to the cities of Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Cristobal, and Zacatecas.
We saw the Mayan ruins in Palenque in the Chiapas region. We also went to the Teotihuacan Pyramid ruins near Mexico City, the ruins in Casas Grandes in Chihuahua State, and Copper Canyon, which is also in the Chihuahua State. Another interesting destination was Angangueo, west and northwest of Mexico City where the Monarch Butterflies migrate to each year from Canada and the US.
Belize is a poverty stricken country. The fact that they have so many hurricanes, very few buildings are left unscathed in one way or another. In Belize, we went to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, a Baboon and Howler Monkey reserve.
Go to Mexico! You will love it. Start with Baja and then go to the mainland. The folks there are so friendly and helpful. A large percentage of the campgrounds are closing because so few people are visiting Mexico. In Mexico, we met plenty of Canadians, English, German, fellow Aussies, and French couples, but only one American.
Wild camping is not bad either. We never felt threatened or apprehensive at all. There are lots of police and army stops on roads, but they were always friendly. We went through Mexico unscathed.
TCM: Where did you go in Canada?
Gary: In Canada, we went east to Newfoundland and then west to British Columbia. We toured the Nova Scotia coastline, saw Newfoundland puffins and moose and the Saltbox houses. We also went to Elk Island National Park Bison Sanctuary near Edmonton and to Lake Winnipeg. Canada was an amazing country, but the expensive nature of Canada was disappointing.
Above: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
TCM: Tell us about your day-to-day life on the road.
Liz: We set our wake up time according to the mileage planned for that day. We may languish a little if it’s a short drive. Then we check email, read the news, and eat a cooked breakfast.
For lunch we often have a salad and we usually have a cooked dinner or another salad. Gary looks forward to relaxing with a drop of red wine and a snack in the early evening to unwind. If we have a long or arduous drive, we make sure to stop often to keep the fluids happening and the driver rejuvenated. We do this especially on really boring drives like prairies or continuous pine forests.
We may have more than one destination during a day, in which case we park, lock up, take computers with us in a backpack, and return to resume our journey. We are fanatical about security and always choose our parking spot carefully.
Above: Gary at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
TCM: What do you like to see and do while you’re traveling?
Liz: Apart from the same must-see list most people have, we enjoy seeing things not listed in guide books. This means going to local information centers and choosing out of the way places that interest us.
We like to see things of a more historic or culturally rich nature. For example, we like parades, festivals, missions, churches, covered bridges, explorers’ routes, and immigrant settlements. We are not at all keen on resorts.
We also enjoy music. Occasionally we have stumbled onto recitals in churches, halls, or market places. We have seen choirs and instrumental groups. It’s often difficult to get to concerts or live theater because of transport into cities from RV parks.
When not driving, Gary trawls the internet. He’s a news junkie, and likes to know what’s going on in the world. He keeps up to date on other people’s travel blogs and tinkers with stocks on the stock market.
I’m a Scrabble junkie. I play most days by myself for an hour or so. I find playing Scrabble very relaxing and it keeps my mind alert. We also have a few card games.
We treat ourselves to a DVD or two when we are in RV parks with electricity. Occasionally, our son sends us a memory stick full of movies. We don’t have a television antenna, nor do we miss TV. We are always reading either hard copy or Kindle.
I write for our own travel journal blog and keep it up to date. Gary is the main contributing photographer. I occasionally score an appearance with a snap, usually taken hurriedly through the windscreen or side window.
Above: Liz in Sand Dunes National Park
TCM: What would you consider to be some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered during your travels?
Liz: Language has been a challenge. In small towns in Mexico and in European countries, not being able to speak more than our “need to know” Spanish was definitely a challenge. Often we wanted to compliment someone or make a relevant comment about something and we were not able to do that adequately. We definitely felt challenged in those situations.
Scarcity of conversation was also an issue. We were starved of meaningful conversation, except with each other. Other than asking if the shower was hot, or if a bus passes the RV park, we were not really able to engage in much conversation in some countries.
Accessing the internet has also been a struggle. In most countries, it’s been a long convoluted transaction to purchase and access the internet. Not being a United States citizen has also been a constant challenge for many transactions.
Gary: Liz requires more prescription medications than most people. Purchasing those, without paying exorbitant prices, has been a little tricky.
Liz also does not eat processed meat or vegetables, or starchy foods. Even in Mexico, the fresh vegetables that she wanted were not always available. Those that they had, had almost always passed their use by date. If we had wanted red beans, corn, or chillies, the world would be sweet! Big supermarkets in large towns were okay, but by choice we were not always in big towns.
In Mexico and Europe, the busses usually take travelers from campgrounds to the nearby cities and towns. We used these busses frequently in Mexico and Europe. In the United States, busses do not usually pass campgrounds.
We like to travel on backroads where we can see more, but there were many instances in Poland, Mexico, and even Canada where the backroads were so poorly maintained that we damaged our rig traveling them.
Above: Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
TCM: What have been the biggest rewards of traveling around the world?
Liz: Serendipities have been a reward. Taking the left track instead of the right one, and having an amazing vista unfold before us as we crested a hill giving us the feeling of being quite blessed.
Finding a bag of fresh farm eggs, fresh fruit, vegetables or a jar of honey on our step when we returned to the truck from hiking or a walk along a beach was amazing. A large wooden clothes airer was left for me to dry my washing while I was doing a pile of hand-washing in a basin at a campground.
We feel richer for the experience. Spending time getting to know a little about the culture of other people and learning that basically moms and dads all want their kids to have a better life than they did; that they all want to live a decent life with dignity, just like we do, no matter what their circumstances.
There have been many random acts of kindness on the road. We have been in seemingly lost predicaments in the middle of busy cities or towns and strangers have indicated that they will show us the way. On another occasion, a stranger quickly found the owner of a vehicle blocking the way and had it moved. And yet another was when a gentleman showed us an alternate route to an RV park because he could see that we would not be able to pass under a looming railway bridge.
After meeting, people have extended invitations for us to park on their driveway when we are in their neck of the woods. In all cases of random acts of kindness, no rewards were asked for, just a wave or handshake and a thank you, gracias, obrigado or merci!
Above: Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
TCM: For most of us, the time and expense of a trip around the world seems like an impossible dream. How did you make it work?
Gary: The hardest decision to make was just to do it. After that, we looked at how much we needed to survive on the road and calculated fuel costs, camping fees, provisions, and more. We have a budget of $2,200 USD per month and watch our budget carefully. In addition, we have a slush fund for capital expenditures like insurance, registration, shipping, flights, etc. It’s surprising how well it has worked out.
The cost of traveling in the United States is about the same as it was in Europe. It is a bit cheaper in Europe. Mexico was much less expensive. Canada was a disappointment and we blew our budget due to most things costing a lot more than anywhere else we’ve traveled, especially diesel.
TCM: What’s next?
Gary: We plan to spend twelve months on the South American continent. We head south in October of 2013. We will try to get as far as Ushuaia in Argentina. After that, we may go home, or maybe we will visit some more European countries and Western Russia. We cannot think that far ahead!
Truck: 2008 Ford F350, crew cab, long bed, single rear wheel, 4x4, diesel
Camper: 2011 Travel Lite 1100RX
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Torklift tie downs, Happijac QuickLoad turnbuckles
Suspension: Airlift airbags
Gear: Replaced the original single battery with two Group 31 Batteries, 125 watt solar panel and monitor, Thetford RV Sani-con Macerator and 50’ hose, 12 volt Goodyear i7000 air compressor, 500W inverter, Wave Rogue WiFi antenna
Champions of Overland
- January 07, 2014
- - By Angela White
In the 1990s, Roseann and Jonathan Hanson called it, “do-it-yourself adventure travel”. Almost as a matter of principle, the Hansons avoided paid tour companies and reveled in charting their own course across the Southwest, Mexico, and Africa. They enjoyed working on their four wheel drive vehicles and preparing recovery and expedition equipment.
Along the way, both Roseann and Jonathan wrote articles for travel publications, worked throughout the Americas and East Africa as guides and conservationists, and co-wrote over a dozen books. During this time Jonathan co-founded the Overland Journal, though he sold his interest in the magazine in 2011. In 2009, Roseann and Jonathan Hanson also founded the Overland Expo, the premier overland community event in North America.
In short, Roseann and Jonathan Hanson are two of the most visionary and entrepreneurial risk-takers we’ve ever met. We are deeply inspired by their courage and conviction to dream big, and make big dreams happen, not to mention the fact that they’ve been places and done things we hardly dare to think about.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that they’re also passionate truck camper owners. As the founders of the Overland Expo, they literally have access to just about anything you can imagine. Their choice? A simple Toyota Tacoma and a Four Wheel Camper rig.
What follows is how these champions of the overland community got started, where they’ve been, and where they’re going next. Here’s a hint; in a truck camper, via container ship, to another continent. Go Hansons, go.
Above: Roseann and Jonathan's first Four Wheel Camper, Sea of Cortez, Mexico
TCM: What are your earliest memories of becoming interested in the outdoors and adventure travel?
Roseann: My parents had five kids and they always had eight to ten kids running around our house and going on trips. They would pile us all in a Travelall, hook-up a trailer, and take us camping in remote areas.
As a family, we spent about three to four weeks a year parked on the beach in Mexico. Those are great memories: being completely independent, free, and enjoying the adventure. That’s been part of my life since I was a baby.
Backpacking and hiking were natural extensions when I met Jonathan. We married when I was nineteen. Next year we will celebrate 30 years of adventure travel and exploration.
Jonathan: I had a stepdad I didn’t get along with. When my family moved to a house close to the desert, I would go hiking into the desert to get away from my home life. For me it was all about escape.
Another escape for me was reading adventure books, like Tarzan. I put myself in the books to get away. Once I could drive, I starting expanding my travels including backpacking, bicycling, and kayaking. The adventure lifestyle is engrained in me.
TCM: We know the JATAC is your second truck camper, but we don’t know how you got into truck camping. Tell us what brought you to the truck camper lifestyle.
Jonathan: We started out when we were married. We went traveling and camping in a Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40. It was a basic rig. We took early trips kayaking and used the Land Cruiser as a base camp. I led sea kayaking tours in Mexico.
Roseann later got a Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55. The FJ55 is a larger vehicle that allowed us to bring more gear.
Soon thereafter we started looking at trucks. We got a Toyota truck with a Wildernest; a flip-over tent camper. We went to the Arctic in that rig. That’s when we first became aware of Four Wheel Campers.
Roseann: On that trip to the Arctic, we started to rethink what we wanted to do with our truck because every night when camping, we had to off-load the two sea kayaks and all our gear before setting up the flip-over camper. While in the Arctic, we met another traveling couple and introduced ourselves; it was Gary and Monika Wescott. We had been following them in Four Wheeler Magazine and talked to them about their new rig, profiled in the magazine: a Four Wheel Camper. After that we bought our first Four Wheel Camper.
Jonathan: That was 1993. We had that camper for several years and put over 150,000 miles on it. We actually had two trucks with that camper, a four-cylinder 1990 Toyota four-wheel-drive pick-up, which worked hard to carry that camper, and a 2000 Tacoma with a V6. The V6 Tacoma worked much better with the Four Wheel Camper.
We sold that camper in 2005, and regretted it ever since. We were so glad to finally get back into one last year.
TCM: As the founders of the Overland Expo, you are exposed to a wide variety of expedition rigs. What does a truck and camper solution offer that makes it most suitable for your particular overland lifestyle?
Roseann: I was lured into it sideways. After our first Four Wheel Camper rig, I bought a 1984 FJ60 Land Cruiser, had it converted to diesel, and tent camped.
We have been working as outdoor writers and naturalists for several decades. Traveling around and working can be quite hard. During that time period, we often talked about how great it was to sit in the Four Wheel Camper dinette, work, and be comfortable.
Above: Mohawk Valley, Arizona
Jonathan: Truck campers, Four Wheel Campers in particular, are the perfect compromise. They are comfortable, and have the ability to get to where we want to go.
We’re not rock crawlers, but we want to get into areas most RVs can’t reach. The Toyota Tacoma can reach those places, and reliably get us back. With a truck camper, we can also camp outside of a town, and drive into town to work as journalists without looking like we’re camping.
Above: Roseann and Jonathan's Toyota Tacoma
TCM: Tell us about the original concept of the JATAC. What was the vision?
Roseann: That’s a fun story. We decided to go back to a Four Wheel Camper, but we hadn’t yet decided which truck to buy. Our first choice was to import a Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up truck and have Tom Hanagan, president of Four Wheel Campers, make us a custom bed insert for it.
Jonathan: We had a line from a guy in Florida who was importing later model Land Cruisers from the Middle East. He was apparently getting them in with a clear title, even though they were fewer than 25 years old.
Upon further reflection, we realized this was not a good approach. For one, we would be essentially circumventing the law. Being well-known in the overland community, this would not set a good precedent. It also seemed elitist since most people can’t import a Land Cruiser.
We wanted to build a vehicle out using a truck that’s readily available. The Toyota Tacoma is the most popular light truck in the country.
While we were ordering our Tacoma, we asked people on the overland forum to guess what our next truck would be. We got lots of wild, exotic guesses. After we shared that we got a Tacoma, one of the first responses on the forum was, “Oh, just a Tacoma.” From that we made our own acronym, JATAC, “Just A Tacoma and Camper”, and it stuck.
Above: The JATAC
Roseann: And we ran with it. You don’t need to spend $100,000 on a vehicle to go on a major adventure. The JATAC cost under $50,000 and we are putting it in a container headed to southern Africa. The JATAC is ready for the world.
Above: In the Fleet, the shower is in the middle of the dinette. The curtain is from a marine supply company and is round and hangs from hooks in the ceiling and then has an elastic bottom that slips over the removable grate. The drain goes under the floor and out the back.
TCM: How did you determine that the Fleet self-contained model was the right Four Wheel Camper for the JATAC concept?
Roseann: The forward dinette layout and the amazing hot shower! It is so easy. My understanding is that they brought in a great designer and it was his idea. After you’re done, you’d never know you took a shower in the dinette. It’s quite amazing. The shower is really why we wanted a Fleet instead of an Eagle.
There’s a sailboat-like feeling inside the Fleet self-contained model—I really like the face-to-face dinette along the front wall.
Jonathan: We use the shower frequently while traveling. The camper also includes an external hook-up for an outside shower. The front dinette allows us to work opposite each other easily. And, if one of us is in the the kitchen cooking, the person sitting in the dinette is out of the way.
Above: BOSS air bags
TCM: We’ve always wondered if the shower in the Fleet self-contained was truly practical. Tell us about any modifications you’ve done to your Toyota Tacoma to make it more expedition-capable.
Jonathan: A lot of modifications are still in process. The only thing we needed for suspension was a set of BOSS air bags. We installed a remote control pump, switch, and gauge set-up. With our rig, the weight can vary by several hundred pounds when we’re carrying water and gear. The air bags help level the changing loads.
We have ICON shock absorbers as well. We will be adding an ARB locker for the rear differential, and also a Pronghorn Overland Gear aluminum front winch bumper, which we should have in a month or two. We are also adding a Pronghorn aluminum rear bumper and skid plates. That will probably be the extent of it.
TCM: Have you upgraded your tires?
Jonathan: When we got the Tacoma, we upgraded to BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tires. We bought steel wheels in preference to aluminum wheels because we were working out the plans to ship our rig to Africa. If we need the wheels worked on in Africa, steel is easier. We’re doing things to the truck, like adding a winch, because of our Africa trip.
We’re not going to put sliders on the sides. We’re not that radical. The skid plates will help and the rear bumper will be nice.
Roseann: Part of JATAC mission statement is that we want to keep it simple and affordable. I would take our rig to Africa right now. We don’t absolutely have to have all those products for extended travel. But, it will be easier and we can be more independent and go deeper if we have them.
Above: North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
An example is when we were about to travel through a remote four-wheel track on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was raining and the creeks had flooded. We turned around because we had not yet installed a winch and did not have front and rear recovery bumpers. We had no way to undertake a self-recovery if the vehicle became stuck in a wash. It could have been a disaster.
TCM: Since assembling the JATAC, has anyone else followed in your footsteps and assembled their own JATAC?
Roseann: Yes, we know at least half a dozen people who bought the same set-up we have; two of them are single women. It’s a great rig for solo travelers.
The entry into a rig like ours is not super-expensive. It’s approachable. It’s great to see people taking our inspiration and running with it.
Above: Solar, deep-cycle batteries, and LED lights make this an off-the-grid capable camper
TCM: Tell us about any modifications you’ve done to your Four Wheel Camper to extend its off-the-grid capabilities.
Jonathan: We added 200 watts of semi-rigid flexible solar panels from Global Solar to the camper roof giving us complete electrical freedom. They are very thin panels with a strong adhesive backing. The wind profile is about an inch, and the overhead clearance is none. They’re also hard for people to see from below, which is nice. We also have two deep-cycle batteries and all-LED lighting.
Above: Wolf Pack hard plastic gear boxes that fit under the dinette during travel
Roseann: One of our goals was to set up the camper so that we didn’t have a lot of junk bouncing around during a trip. Everything has to have a place. There’s a temptation to open the door, shove stuff in, close the door, and hope it stays in place. I don’t want to be confronted by duffle bags and recovery gear when I open the camper door. Plus it’s unsafe to have unsecured equipment in your camper should you have a rollover.
I discovered that two ex-military Wolf Pack hard plastic gear boxes from South Africa fit in the recessed area of the dinette of our Four Wheel Camper. They are extremely secure in that position with a ratchet strap. One additional box fits in front of the door, and is secured with straps. These boxes hold recovery gear like shackles, straps, a compressor, water hose, and leveling blocks. The Wolf Pack boxes come out when we’re camping and stack up to form a step system to get in and out of the camper (Jonathan riveted aluminum diamond plate to the tops of two of the boxes).
Above: There is lots of storage in the Four Wheel Fleet
TCM: That’s clever.
Roseann: We also have really nice aluminum table, also from South Africa, that glides on runners under the exterior overcab. It sits above the cab of the truck. We also have a Fiamma awning. That was a painful splurge at the time, but it’s been one of the best investments. Along with the aluminum table, the awing provides us with an outdoor room.
Tom Hanagan and his crew did an excellent job designing and implementing the cabinetry and storage. We can fit a month’s worth of food and gear into the camper storage areas with no problem at all.
The camper has twenty gallons of fresh water, which is good for about six days, less if we shower more than once! We added additional water storage with two seven-gallon water bladders. They are rugged, and fit behind the front seats of our access cab. Water is always a limiting factor.
The next project for Jonathan is to install a high-grade water purification and filtration system. We will be able to take a hose out to a water source, like a water hole or a community source, and run it through the filtration system into our clean water tank.
TCM: Wow, that seems brave considering some of the locations you’re considering.
Roseann: Graham Jackson, who is the director of training for Overland Expo, is an expert in water purification. He set up a similar system for his Land Rover when he and his wife drove across Africa. We are going to steal Graham’s knowledge.
TCM: Let us know when that comes together. We would be very interested in how that system works. What do you like to do while your traveling in the JATAC?
Roseann: We have always been photographers, for fun and for work. We always have our camera and video gear.
I also enjoy sitting out by the campfire with a drink and my personal journal. I’m constantly writing, sketching, and drawing. Both of us also enjoy bird watching and natural history. We are always wandering off to discover plants and flowers.
We “accidentally” bought two fly fishing rods, so that’s going to be our next thing. Since we grew up in the desert, we are looking forward to figuring that out this summer.
Above: Playa Himalaya, Sea of Cortez, Mexico
TCM: What are some of your favorite camping spots?
Roseann: Our favorite place on the planet is the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Jonathan: A close second is the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We go to the Marble Canyon area to explore the backroads. You can camp within feet of the Grand Canyon there. It’s surprisingly easy to get away if you know where to go.
TCM: Where did you get the idea to found the Overland Expo?
Roseann: In the early-2000s, we met a lot of people who also enjoyed adventure travel. At the time, there was no venue or event for us to gather. There were four-wheel drive gatherings to conquer obstacles or mud, but those events were all about conquering rather than exploring.
The more we thought about it, the more we believed there was an opportunity. I had organized non-profit events before, but nothing as large as the Overland Expo. I finally decided to launch the event to gather the community together and to promote the industry.
In 2009 we held the first Overland Expo. Nearly a thousand people showed up. In the three years that followed, the Overland Expo doubled every year. For the past two years, the event has grown twenty to twenty-five percent each year. We expect over 7,000 people in 2014. It’s been a wonderful experience.
TCM: How did you make sure the Overland Expo wasn’t just about the vehicles and equipment?
Roseann: That was very important to us. We wanted to bring together the most experienced and qualified overland explorers in the world to share their knowledge with the community. It makes this event unique because it’s a learning experience. It’s about getting equipped, getting inspired, getting trained, and getting going.
TCM: We really enjoyed our experience at Overland Expo 2013 and learned a tremendous amount. Thank you for starting and running such a wonderful annual event. What’s in-store for Overland Expo 2014?
Roseann: Once again, we are introducing new classes and challenges. Our biggest growth areas are truck campers and adventure motorcycles. We will be introducing special classes for truck campers this year. A lot of the classes will have special truck camper interests.
Above: The JATAC on El Camino del Diablo Road, Arizona
TCM: Our readers will love to hear that. What are your next plans for the JATAC?
Roseann: We are going to Africa in 2014, but not until after the rainy season, probably during our summer; we’ll be shipping the JATAC by container to southern Africa and driving to Mombasa, from coast-to-coast. We have several trips to Mexico planned over the holidays. And we are developing a 2014 adventure with a partner, driving the Continental Divide. We’ll announce more information about that trip soon.
We hope to see more truck campers at the Overland Expo this year. I’m about 90% sure the JATAC will be there, unless it’s on a container on its way to Africa. Transit time from Africa is three to four weeks. Either way, come on out.
Above: Roseann and Jonathan Hanson with their JATAC, Just A Tacoma and Camper
[All of our work on the JATAC is profiled on Jonathan’s blog, Overland Tech and Travel, on the Overland Expo website. To browse the entries, go to http://www.overlandexpo.com/overland-tech-travel and use the search box to look up JATAC. We include sources for all of the gear mentioned.]
Building a Unimog Truck Camper Rig
- August 23, 2013
- - By Chris Cole
Building a Unimog Truck Camper Rig
by Chris Cole
Above: Chris Cole and Anne Pence with their Unimog Phoenix Custom Camper rig
Growing up in South Africa, I developed a deep interest for four wheel drive vehicles and expedition travel. After many overland adventures, serving in the military, and earning degrees from the University of Natal and Cornell University, I founded Campa USA. Campa USA manufactures all-terrain trailers and camping trailers for off-road, overland, and expedition enthusiasts, as well as disaster response teams.
I’ve owned and manufactured a wide range of overland vehicles over the years. For this build, I wanted to move away from tent-based expedition trailers and assemble a rig that could comfortably support a family for extended adventures.
That meant a vehicle where a family could travel and stay in comfort, enjoy heat when it’s cold, air conditioning in the heat, be able to cook inside and outside, and sleep in a comfortable bed.
We like to go fishing and stay two weeks in one spot. To do this, we needed the rig to reach to our favorite far away spots and camp, off-the-grid, for a two week period. This was our vision for the build.
2012 Unimog U500NA
After considerable research, I decided a Unimog would provide the best vehicle platform for this build. I found a 2002 Unimog U500NA with a GVWR of 26,000 pounds. The vehicle weighs 16,000 pounds giving me a payload capacity of 10,000 pounds.
The rest of the Unimog U500NA’s statistics are equally impressive. The tires are 395/85 R20 Michelin XZL L1 168G tires. These are all-terrain, all-position, self-cleaning, radial tires designed for emergency response vehicles and offer excellent flotation capabilities for snow, sand, and mud.
The Michelin XZL tire system is augmented with a central tire inflation system (CTIS) that shows front and real axle tire pressure levels.
The Unimog also features front, center and rear differential locks, chrome vertical exhaust, transmission oil cooler, single circuit hydraulic system, high output 270 amp alternator, 1,500 watt electrical engine pre-heater, fuel-water separator with fuel heater, and a grid heater at air-intake. The engine has been increased in output for 285 horsepower at 811 foot-pounds. Of course there’s a speed limiter set for seventy miles per hour. The Unimog is not a racecar.
The Unimog cab has some neat features including a Webasto diesel heater, two-way radio, warning light for tip cylinder, air suspended seats, and a heated windshield. Visibility is helped with high mounted headlights and daytime running lights.
On the front of the Unimog is a 16,000 pound hydraulic Warn Winch. In short, this Unimog is loaded.
The Utility Flatbed
I wanted to keep the rig as compact as possible while keeping the utility of the tipper utility flatbed intact. The platform of the tipper body is 8.75 feet long, 7.3 feet wide, and 15.8 inches tall. The new flatbed was to be eight feet wide by eleven feet long.
I decided to build a new tipper bed and integrate tanks for fresh water, grey water, black water and diesel into the bed itself. I also wanted to use 3CR12 as the material. 3CR12 is a very strong grade of stainless steel that is resistant to corrosion, forms well, and welds well.
The bed was constructed with two inch by four inch by three millimeter (.118”) thick rectangular steel tubing. In all but one place, strength was increased by using two pieces of two inch by four inch rectangular 3CR12. The longitudinal and lateral pieces lock together by each being notched out in the appropriate places. This creates an extremely strong structure.
The first two feet behind the cab is dedicated to holding the spare tire, a generator, and tools. The remaining nine feet would be an open bed with sides from the original U500NA tipper bed.
The Built-In Tanks
There could potentially be 2,000 pounds of fluids in my rig at one time. That includes diesel, gasoline for the generator, fresh water, black water, and grey water.
That being said, one of the amazing things about this rig is that the truck camper itself physically has no holding tanks. All of the fluids are stored in the Unimog’s bed or the truck's tanks.
A regular Unimog has support beams under the bed holding up the bed. The voids between the longitudinal and lateral pieces of rectangular tubing (see photograph above) were converted into tanks for fresh water, grey water, black water, and diesel.
There are three separate fifty gallon fresh water tanks, forty gallons of black, and forty-five gallons of grey. There is also eighty gallons of diesel in the bed of the truck as well as the truck’s standard sixty gallon diesel tank for a total of one hundred and forty gallons of diesel. We also carry six gallons of gasoline for our Honda generator.
The diagram above shows the underside of the rectangular tubing skeleton covered with the lower trays for the tanks. Blue represents water, grey represents grey water, black represents black water, and green represents diesel. The top deck was covered with a flat sheet in a similar configuration.
In the picture above you see the upright section dedicated to holding the spare wheel and tire, tools, and diesel tanks.
With about 150 gallons of water and 140 gallons of diesel, I was satisfied. The weight was low and evenly distributed across the bed. I designed all the required plumbing connections, fillers, and breathers. I used quick connects where necessary for the camper unit that would occupy the rear nine feet of the bed. The camper extends past the rear of the bed by one foot and drops down one foot below the deck.
I placed a deck on top of the frame and made trays that were welded onto the bottom of the rectangular tubing frame. The top deck and bottom trays were made from a three millimeter thick 3CR12 flat sheet that was laser cut and formed.
Phoenix Custom Camper
I have a very unique ten foot Phoenix Custom Camper.
It is amazing in that I can fully stand up in the camper while it is popped down because there is six feet of clearance inside the camper with the roof down.
The Phoenix Custom Camper has four batteries giving 450 Amp hours, a 5,000 watt inverter, and a Honda EU2000i portable gas generator, and a 26 Amp intelligent battery charger. I am planning on adding a solar system. The rig currently has four ten pound propane tanks and can fit five.
The Phoenix Custom Camper features heat and air conditioning and all-LED lighting for low power draw. Other custom requests include stainless steel countertops and polyurethene floors to prevent rot. There is even filon fiberglass on the inside walls. Just like most regular truck campers, the dinette can convert into a bed.
The black water is extracted from the black water tank via a macerator. Since the tanks are in the bed of the truck, the position of the toilet had to be above the black water tank.
Robby Rowe of Phoenix Campers designed and built the camper, but he had to work around my design and build for the truck bed. That means the fresh, grey, and black tanks had to be aligned. That was not an easy task. The flexibility of design and the ability to make my extensive custom requirements happen is why I went with Phoenix Custom Campers. I had spent a great deal of time researching to find a camper builder with the expertise to build this custom camper.
All roads led to Rob and Cari Rowe and they did a fantastic job. I am delighted with our camper.
Time For Adventure
We finally got the rig set up right before Overland Expo 2013. After the event, we went on a trip to Utah.
We spent a week living out of it and we really pushed it on some really rough dirt roads. I wanted to see whether the camper would hold up. I even got it stuck in a really big ditch and had to be pulled out. My camper has been a big success.