Steve and Tobi Collett share their unbelievable story of suffering loss, quitting their careers, buying a camper sight unseen, and leaping into full-time truck camping in a foreign country. The real story starts there.
The urgency of now can come into sharp focus when we lose a loved one. The cliche of ‘living life to the fullest’ can take on new importance. The societal norms of work and weekends month after month and year after year can suddenly feel like a meaningless trap. Why are we doing this if it could all suddenly end? Isn’t there something more purposeful that we need to tend to?
Unfortunately, we’re not always in the position to act on these feelings. Sometimes the responsibilities of family require us to stay the course and keep to the grindstone. That isn’t all bad, but hopefully, the gift of perspective stays with us. When the time is right, we don’t hesitate to stop the wheel, take the leap and put our dreams into action. As we often say when facing such a decision, “If not now, when?”
Reading the beginning of Steve and Tobi Collett’s story will resonate with anyone who has been through a family loss and the self-examination that can follow. While the start of their account is difficult, the positive and downright brave action they took is nothing less than remarkable. Imagine quitting two exceptional careers, buying a truck camper you never saw, shipping it to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and then going full-time on the road. Not too many of us would dare such an audacious leap.
Their boldness rewarded them with the adventure they craved and got them into a bit of trouble. Let’s just say Steve’s retelling of their experiences in Mexico isn’t for the faint of heart; chased down the mountain by a hurricane, stuck in a deep washed out rut, broke down and searching for parts, extorted by crooked police, and stopped by a machine gun carrying cartel. These two dreamers have been through the wringer and managed to have a wonderful ten months in Mexico anyway. You read that right.
Above: Steve, Tobi, and their dog, Maya
A Bold New Beginning
by Steve Collett
We started truck camping on December 23, 2020, after both losing a parent in 2019. My wife’s father died of a heart attack and my mom passed five weeks later from cancer.
We looked at our life and thought that there’s got to be more than just working 60 plus hours a week. So we sold our house, quit our jobs, built our rig, and hit the road for six months in the United Kingdom, ten months in Mexico, and ten weeks in the United States. Now we are now in British Columbia, Canada.
Life Before Truck Campers
Over the past 20 years, I have worked for various race teams in the UK, from different race series. I eventually worked my way up into Mercedes HPP (High-Performance Powertrains), and the Mercedes Formula One team.
I worked for the Mercedes team for five years building and maintaining the F1 race engines at both the race track and at the factory. During my time there, Mercedes continued to break record after record, both on and off the track. We won eight consecutive world championship titles from 2014 to 2021 making Mercedes the most successful team in F1 history.
Above: Mercedes Engine Factory after winning their 6th World Championship
This comes at a cost though. I was away from home a lot traveling all over the world to the different race circuits, sometimes with only a few hours notice. When I was at home, my commute was an hour-and-a-half on top of the very long hours at the factory and race track. I’d get to the garage between 7:00 and 8:00am and often didn’t leave until 11:00pm. I had to remain extremely focused because we were dealing with millions of dollars worth of equipment. Everything had to be precise and right the first time.
Above: Steve and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes driver x7 world champion
My role at the track was engine maintenance and monitoring the engine while the car is in the garage, firing it up to warm it up, running fans to keep it cool as well as installing any updated parts sent from the factory
My wife, Tobi, was the Head of Human Resources for an American global recruitment company called Allegis Global Solutions. Her main area of responsibility was EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) but also supported India and the Asia Pacific as well as leading global projects.
Above: Tobi presenting at their annual global summit in Baltimore
When Tobi lost her Dad, it completely changed her perspective on life. She realized that she no longer wanted the career she had worked so hard to build or the rat race life that we were living. We had a ten year plan; pay the mortgage off, rent the house out, and travel on the income.
When Tobi lost her Dad, she didn’t think she could wait ten years. We talked and decided to bring our plans forward to three to five years. I looked at our finances and the equity we had and realized that we had more than we thought.
Deciding On Which Rig To Get
Tobi wanted to go backpacking, which I knew would not be a viable option given that she has Fibromyalgia among other conditions. I love my truck and know it inside out, so I started to look at our options for driving around the world. I found truck campers and we both agreed that it was the way to go.
The big question was – which one? Pop-up tent? Pop-up camper? Hard side camper? Alu-Cab? There were so many options available.
Tobi liked the Alu-Cab rooftop tent because it felt safe to her. It was solid and could go anywhere. The only issue for us was, that once the bed was out, it left us no room. If we were just camping for weekends or a few weeks at a time, it would have been great. But we had to be honest with ourselves. We were planning a five-year overlanding trip, so space and comfort had to play a major factor in our camper decision.
Above: Their Four Wheel Camper and Nissan Navara
Then I found Four Wheel Campers. It had an aluminum frame that made it feel safe. We had more space and it felt like we could make it home. But the main reason the Four Wheel Camper was the best option for us, at the time, was because it would fit into a standard shipping container. That meant that we could keep our costs down while shipping and ensure the truck and camper would be safer during transit. We read some horror stories about RORO (Roll On Roll Off), so we decided that we would never ship via RORO. How little we knew at that stage.
We bought and fully paid for our Four Wheel Camper before we even saw it, which was a huge gamble in itself. We had never even seen one in person. The only Four Wheel Camper we could get without having to ship from the US was from the Wohnkabinen Center in Germany.
There was a small window in August of 2020 where Covid restrictions were lifted. At that point, we could go and collect the camper in Germany. When we arrived at the Wohnkabinen Center, we saw all the truck campers lined up against the back wall. Tobi got very excited until she saw this tiny little aluminum box parked between the normal-sized truck campers. I think her words were, “Is that small box our camper?” I replied, “Yes, I think so”. She said, “Oh no! What have we done?”
It looked so tiny! The guy there told us to just go inside the camper. Once we stepped up into the camper it suddenly felt really spacious and airy. What a relief!
Starting Off In Mexico
Above: Dropped off truck and camper for shipping
We started our Mexican adventure in Veracruz, where we picked up the truck and camper from the port. Our first night in our camper in Mexico was in the jungle on Lake Catemaco. It was humid as hell and bugs were everywhere, but listening to howler monkeys and watching parrots flying around never got old. The lake was magnificent and the primitive camping was great. We sat at night watching the fireflies not believing our luck that we had finally started our adventure.
Above: Chichén Itzá in Mexico while waiting for the truck to arrive
After camping for about a week around Veracruz, we realized the solar wasn’t working properly. After a lot of investigating and testing, we realized that the connector for joining the solar panels had disintegrated. We headed back to Veracruz City on a hunt for another connector. After we couldn’t find one anywhere, I spoke to Renogy to check if I could wire the panels in series. They said I could, so I did. We tested it for another week like that. It was better, but the battery didn’t hold the charge overnight.
Then, we went on a hunt for a new battery. Trying to find parts or a specific item when you don’t speak the language, your phone decides to stop working, and nowhere around sold a deep cycle battery appropriate for a solar installation was a challenge, to say the least. We eventually found somewhere with a deep cycle battery, so we bought it. Later we found out that it didn’t fix the issue because it wasn’t the right type of deep cycle battery for solar. We thought the guy had told us it was, but clearly, something got missed in translation.
Above: Suspicious Mountains in Arizona
We had solar issues until we made it to Arizona when we bought the correct deep cycle battery and finally the solar was working perfectly.
Pico De Orizaba and Hurricane Grace
After getting the first battery in Veracruz we headed to Pico De Orizaba, the tallest volcano in Mexico. We climbed to 11,000-feet up steep winding loose dirt roads in our truck camper rig. The truck handled it very well. We only needed to pull over once to let the transmission cool.
When we got above the clouds to our campsite, we set up and made a coffee. While drinking our coffee, I looked at the weather to find out that Hurricane Grace was heading straight for Pico De Orizaba the next day!
We took some advice from a family member who is a meteorologist who advised us to get out as the roads below would likely either have a landslide or flash flood. We asked the campsite if they thought it was safe for us to stay there, and they replied with just one word, “No”. Okay, time to get out!
The descent wasn’t too bad. The only direction we could go to get away from the hurricane was to go south into Oaxaca. We had heard so many scary stories about Oaxaca that we said we wouldn’t go there, but we had no choice.
We managed to find a little campsite in the desert. It rained all night, which we didn’t even think about at the time. We were still very green. Leaving the campsite was a 30-mile dirt road. The road was now soaked and slick like an ice rink with some flooding, and included our first river crossing.
At one point, the road had a two-foot wide rut on a slope and on a bend. The rain had completely washed the road away. We had problems getting past that point. Continuously, we were getting out to check the road and the best way to go. We tried a few different ways. On one of the tries, we almost made it, but the back wheel went into the rut and dragged the rest of the truck with it. We landed in the rut itself with a hell of a bang, bending the front driver’s wheel.
We eventually drove into a town to find a garage to get the wheel fixed. Unfortunately, they were not able to fix the wheel on site and it was a Friday. Nothing was open over the weekend. We asked at the garage if there was somewhere we could camp locally. We were told it wasn’t safe for us to stay there and to drive to a campsite 40 miles away. So we got out of there.
The Cartel Road Block
We heard a lot about how dangerous the cartel can be and had heard of a few stories, but we only had one brush with the cartel. We came off the toll road in Michoacán to go to a hot spring. About three miles down the road, we hit a cartel roadblock. Tobi was driving and I was in the passenger’s seat. A group of men came to the passenger’s side window and told me to get out of the truck and that they wanted to see inside the camper. At first, Tobi didn’t want me to get out and wouldn’t give me the keys. She knows I’m not normally aggressive in any way so when I looked at her and said, “Give me the keys, they’ve got guns”, she gave me the keys right away.
At the side of the road, there were AK47s lined up in a row. All the men (about 20 of them) had weapons, guns, knives, and machetes. I went to the back of the camper with them, opened the door, and tried to explain, “mi casa, mi casa”. They let us carry on our journey.
Tobi side note: From my perspective, I was left sitting in the driver’s seat, looking in the rearview mirror. All I could see were lots of legs and guns, completely panicking and thinking, “What do I do if they take him? OMG!” Steve was cool as a cucumber. “You want to look in the back?” He said. “Sure”.
We knew we had to pass back through that cartel roadblock to get out the next morning. Neither of us slept well and just got up and out early the next morning. The roadblock had three or four guys but it had a much calmer vibe than the day before. They waved. Tobi was driving. I asked her if she was going to stop. She said, “Not unless they tell me to!” Luckily they didn’t.
Roca Azul, Jocotopec
We found our home in Mexico at a campsite called Roca Azul in Jocotopec, which is on Lake Chapala. It’s about a 30 to 40-minute drive south of Gaudalajara. Apart from the campsite having everything you could ever need, we made some lifelong friends there that we call our Mexican Familiar.
Above: Steve and Tobi at Roca Azul RV Park in Mexico
It was due to these special people that we stayed there for two months. They taught us so much about Mexico; the food and the culture and we got to share some special holidays with them like birthdays, Day of the Dead, Halloween, and Mexico’s Independence Day.
Above: Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico
It took some time to learn how things work in Mexico but, with help from our friends, we learned that car parks don’t look the same in Mexico as they do in the United Kingdom. You’re more looking for a backyard. We learned where to shop for groceries, where to get water and propane, and which cell service to use; all the things we have always taken for granted.
We were able to use Roca Azul as a base to explore the local area and visited places like Tlaquepaque and Mazamitla and even treated ourselves to staying at a nice hotel in Zapopan for our 10-year wedding anniversary.
The Police and Bribes
When the police in Mexico see a foreign vehicle, it means dollar signs to them. Our first experience with the police was in Guadalajara. We were on our way back from Tlaquepaque when we were stopped by a motorbike policeman. I was driving, and he asked for my driving license. I gave him a copy that was cut down and laminated. He asked if it was a copy, and I said, “yes”.
He said it was illegal to have a copy like this in Mexico and that it was a fraud. The cop pulled up Mexican legislation in English about fraudulent documents and that the fine would be 17,000-pesos. He would take the truck. I would have to pay within 24-hours or I would go to prison. He was very aggressive for about an hour-and-a-half at the side of the road.
The cop then said, “or we could pay now”. We were waiting for it! He wanted 7,000-pesos. We gave him 1,500-pesos. The cop said, “I will take you to an ATM so you can get more” at which point Tobi told him, “No chance!” He took the 1,500-pesos and became the most caring cop possible. “Do you know where you are going?” “You need to go here, here, and here.” He proceeded to stop three lines of traffic so we could get to our road.
When we got back to Roca Azul, our friends told us to never ever pay again. They gave us a bunch of tips and told us to call them if it ever happened again. Two of our friends were Mexican lawyers. After that, it became like a game every time they stopped us.
After spending two months at Roca Azul, our camper started to feel very small but there were other factors like not having an inside toilet or shower. We discussed for six-months whether to get a new camper or not because we did love our pop-up camper.
After speaking to a bunch of people, we heard that places in Columbia and Argentina can be very windy. In high winds, the sides would bend in and the roof would flex down. Being in North America would be much easier to find another camper. So, if we were going to get another camper, it would have to be in the United States or Canada.
We spent ten months in mainland Mexico with our Four Wheel Camper. Three of those were in Baja making some great friends along the way. We camped on completely empty beaches and went anywhere we wanted to. We decided to take all dirt roads from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz which was great fun and got us to some awesome camping spots.
Above: Tecolote Beach in Baja
We went snorkeling with whale sharks and sea lions, went stargazing, slept on tons of beaches, watched baby turtles being released, did lots of whale watching and saw Mobula rays jumping out of the water.
In Mexico, we only boondocked in Baja, mostly all south of La Paz. The campsites on the mainland are so cheap, so we stayed in campsites. We also felt it was the safer option.
The Northstar Liberty
For the next part of our journey, we decided to sell the Four Wheel Camper and buy a hard sided Northstar Liberty. That process was a mission in itself; selling the pop-up in Salt Lake, getting our truck flat-bedded, and picking the Northstar Liberty in Montana. It was a massive task. Lucky for us, everything went without a hitch. We picked up our Liberty and moved in.
The hard side camper gives us a bit more space, insulation, comfort, and necessities. It also has an inside bathroom. No more showering in car parks!
The Northstar Liberty had the best layout for us. It also came in at the right weight, offered plenty of storage, a toilet, a shower, a water heater, and a north-south bed, which was a must.
The first thing I did was install 400-watts of solar, twin lithium batteries, and a 2,000-watt inverter that is all wired into the shore power inlet. We can now use the microwave off-grid.
We love the big cupboards above the sofa and use them as our wardrobes. But, the space is so big that everything got messed up real quick. So, a quick trip to IKEA to get cupboard organizers worked great.
We still have more mods to make. We are going to vinyl wrap the whole camper, except the roof, in the same color as the truck. We feel like it just looks like a big white box at the moment, so we want to change it.
I am going to be cutting out a part of the lower cupboard in the kitchen and running a cable from bottled water to a tap on the sink for easy access to drinking water. I will also add LEDs inside.
We’re currently looking at adding an ARB awning room so that we have some outside space with bug protection and privacy.
Our Nissan Navara
Our Nissan is a European Navara 3.0L V6 turbo diesel with a payload of 1.2-tonnes. That translates to about 2,600-pounds of payload. With the Liberty, we are just at the payload capacity. With this set-up, we still have some good off-road ability and can still get to some very cool places.
When we decided to get a truck camper, we already had the Navara. I did the research, and I found out that it is a vehicle that is available all over the world. I have since found out that the engine in it is unique to Europe and Australia, so procuring parts for the engine has been a challenge.
Above: Getting a flatbed installed on their truck
Our original truck bed was two inches too narrow for the Northstar. So the only option we had was to flatbed our truck. We have friends in Guadalajara who helped me find the right person to do the job. I also priced it up in the USA but it worked out $10,000 USD cheaper to do it in Mexico. They did an amazing job on the flatbed.
Above: Clark Canyon Reservoir, Montana
With the addition of the Northstar, our truck had a massive rebuild. As an ex-F1 mechanic, the project wasn’t a problem. Our truck also now has an ARB front bull bar bumper. This houses a 10,000-pound Warn winch.
All the suspension was upgraded to heavy-duty Old Man Emu shocks and springs. We have rear airbags and a Safari snorkel with a dust trap. The wheels have been changed to steel from aluminum and we have BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires. You can straighten steel wheels if bent.
We have a full ARB underbody protection kit (armor plating) rad, sump, and gearbox. We also have a 132-liter tank (just under 35 gallons). This gives us around a 500-mile range on one tank of fuel. With the Northstar, we now have a fully custom-built flatbed tray.
Our Lifestyle on the Road
We love truck campers because of their flexibility. If we have problems with the truck or we’re somewhere for a while, we can take it off and explore.
Above: Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
We have driven off-road all over mainland Mexico as well in Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Montana, and Colorado. We like to take the less traveled forest and dirt roads so that we can boondock. We carry recovery gear but have never used it for ourselves. We have used the winch and traction boards to get other people out of deep sand, both in Baja and in Oregon on the Pacific Coast.
Above: Mount Hood, Oregon behind their rig
We tend to wing it a lot as things like weather and conditions change. We mainly use iOverlander to find cool off-grid spots and Google what’s in the area to go and visit.
It’s nice waking up in some spectacular places, but sometimes it’s stressful finding somewhere to camp for the night. We also have to think about if we have enough water, if the batteries are charging, if we need to dump the tanks, etc. Then there’s the, “I’m out of milk” after you’ve just parked up in the middle of nowhere. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows like you see on social media.
Above: Twin Falls, Idaho
We have a budget and try to stick to it. But, we know this won’t last forever. At the moment, it’s a five-year plan, which we are one-and-a-half years into. Money will run out at some point, so we are in the process of setting up a shop on our website that sells Truck Life Overlanders merchandise as well as digital prints and canvases from our own photos. We hope it may create some income and allow us to travel for as long as possible.
If you’re thinking about it, just do it. Life is way too short. My mom and dad saved up all their life to go touring when they retired. They saved and upgraded their trailer until they finally got the one they wanted. Sadly, my mom passed two weeks before she was due to retire.
Steve and Tobi Collett’s Rig
Truck: 2011 Nissan Navara 3.0L V6 Diesel
Camper: 2017 Northstar Liberty
Suspension: Rear Air Bags, Heavy Duty Old Man Emu shocks and springs