Doug Washer has assembled an outrageous fully-tracked Pistenbully Edge Snowcat and Cirrus 820 truck camper capable of reaching the stunning ice caps of Canada’s southernmost ice field. Engage the powder steering. It’s time for truck camping – on ice.
If you’re into skiing, you have very likely seen a snowcat grooming a ski trail at a ski resort. If skiing isn’t your bag, you may remember Jack Nicholson’s character driving a snowcat in the 1980 thriller, The Shining.
Still no bells? Well, thanks to fellow truck camper, Mikeee Tassinari, we know that the “Chariot” from the mid-60’s television show Lost In Space was a snowcat. How Mikeee knows this stuff remains a mystery.
Speaking of mysteries, we were positively dumbfounded when we came across some stunning images of a snowcat with a mounted Cirrus 820 deep a snowy wilderness.
Prior to this article, we didn’t know much about snowcats, much less why someone would put a Cirrus camper on one. Exactly what were we looking at? Hello Google!
A snowcat is a fully-tracked vehicle designed for the harshest winter conditions. Think of a snowcat as a highly specialized non-military tank designed for deep snow and ice and you get the picture. It’s a snow tank, minus the weaponry.
So why on Earth would someone match a 2018 Cirrus 820 truck camper with a 2006 PistenBully Edge Snowcat? Why would someone essentially build a snow tank-camper?
Nobody could explain that better than the rig’s creator; Doug Washer, CEO of Head-Line Mountain Holidays. The snowcat rig may not have been Doug’s idea, but he was the one daring – and possibly a little crazy – enough to make it happen.
The ingenious development of this snowcat set-up is a must read. The high-end business behind it is even more incredible.
Get ready to broaden your concept of what a truck camper can be. It’s time to engage the tracks, and head for the ice caves.
We have seen some radical truck and camper rigs over the years, but never one as extreme as what you’ve assembled. What exactly are we looking at, and where did this idea come from?
It’s technically a snowcat; a full-size, fully-tracked, mountain traveling vehicle designed to groom (maintain) ski resorts.
I wish I could say that putting a camper on the snowcat was my idea. The snowcat and truck camper concept came out of a debate with my partner, Trevor Bromer.
I had built several snowcat passenger carriers before. Trevor came up with idea to mount a removable truck camper on the back. That idea stuck with me.
Above: The snowcat and camper traveling the ice cap in British Columbia, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
Trevor later tried talking me out of it, but I couldn’t let it go. Despite his repeated attempts to dissuade me, I proceeded. A truck camper was the right way to go.
Since we fly in and out, I was originally looking for a used truck camper for emergency purposes; something just in case we got stuck on an ice cap.
Then I saw the Cirrus 820 and fell in love with it. I realized the Cirrus was the right unit to put on the snowcat.
Above: The Cirrus 820 being loaded on the snowcat
The Cirrus 820 was designed specifically for short bed pickup trucks. How did you figure out how to mount it on a snowcat?
That was a very long process. I used to operate a winch cat, so I am familiar with how much weight a snowcat can accommodate. I have also built two of the biggest passenger carriers ever made for a snowcat.
From those experiences I knew how to design the Cirrus and snowcat rig, and how the weight needed to be distributed. I also knew exactly what needed to be removed to physically put a truck camper on a snowcat.
“We had to design a system to extend the jacks wider than the snowcat, lift the camper off and drive out. ”
In addition, we had to think about what to do if the snowcat breaks down on the ice cap. It’s an extremely remote area. No matter what, we needed to make sure we could fuel it, change coolants, belts, hydraulic fluids, and access all aspects of the snowcat for repairs. Every consideration was identified on a checklist.
If the camper had to come off in the backcountry, we had to come up with a system to do that. The obvious solution would be to use the camper jacks, but the jacks are not nearly wide enough to clear the snowcat’s tracks.
We had to design a system to extend the jacks wider than the snowcat, lift the camper off and drive out. The camper sits a lot higher on the snowcat than on the back of a pickup, but that same system had to accommodate the height of my truck’s bed. All of these factors came into the design. It can be used in the winter on the snowcat and in the summer on the back of the truck.
Plan A was to modify the existing deck on the snowcat to accommodate the camper. The final plan was that we removed the deck on the snowcat and built a new one. From start to finish it took about three months.
How did you get the camper jacks wide enough for the snowcat?
We took the Rieco-Titan jacks off the Cirrus camper and replaced the jack brackets with trailer hitch receivers at a 43-degree down angle. We put another trailer hitch receiver on the jacks.
Then we hooked the camper to the extended jack, which is three or four feet from the camper. It’s at an angle so it comes down three feet as well. The jacks are connected with four extended arms at 43-degree angles.
What we designed allows us to pick the camper off the snowcat and drive away. When we lower the camper, one at a time we replace the long extended arms with the shorter ones. We change out all four jacks so that it can be lowered further to the truck’s elevation. It’s a two-stage system.
This makes the jack system wider and taller for the snowcat, and then narrower and shorter for the truck. We lowered it the other day and my 10-year old daughter ran the system so that I could get the jacks changed out. It’s easy to use.
Truck campers with bracket extensions tend to wobble when the jacks are fully extended. Do the jacks wobble when extended for the snowcat?
It’s super stable because of the cross members on the front of the camper’s frame. We customized the scaffolding system with cross bars that connect the scaffolds. That provides stability to lift camper from a much wider stance.
The jacks and the frame stay tight. On the back two jacks, a bar goes from jack to jack at head level. On the bottom we have a cable so the jacks won’t splay out.
It’s a light and portable system. The cross bars all fold up and slip on brackets that are stored on the snowcat. We can literally bring along the entire system.
I essentially came up with one idea and then was challenged with the fact that the camper would be higher on the snowcat than I envisioned. So, I had to come up with another system. That’s where the angled 43-degree trailer hitch system came from.
Above: The snowcat camper utilizes Torklift tie-downs and turnbuckles, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
How is it tied down so that it doesn’t come off?
We just hope for the best! Just kidding.
As you might imagine, we travel up and over mountain peaks. We’re get into some pretty steep terrain. The Cirrus is anchored to the snowcat like it is on my truck; with a Torklift tie-down and turnbuckle system.
We also have a full one-inch thick rubber mat that sits on the snowcat’s deck. It’s a cushion for the camper. We’re driving through snow, which is soft material. It’s not like a four-wheel drive road. It’s an amazingly smooth ride.
Above: The truck camper’s overcab fits above the cab of the Snowcat, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
Why did you choose a truck camper instead of any other RV type?
Funny you ask that question. My partners tried to convince me to go with a travel trailer, but they have heavy axles and frames. They are also too wide, too long and don’t sit up over the cab.
I also needed to consider center of gravity and the ability to get it on and off in the field. A truck camper provides more usable space over the snowcat’s operator’s cabin.
With a truck camper, the center of gravity was forward. The ability to use all four jacks at the same time with its electronic remote is brilliant. That makes all the difference getting the camper on and off the snowcat.
“The Alde hydronic heating system makes it so that you can wake up and be comfortable in the middle of the night at -15 or -20 degrees Celsius on an ice cap. I actually had to turn the heat down when we went out in it.”
Above: Toasty warm with the Alde System
Why did you pick a Cirrus?
I selected the Cirrus 820 for lots of reasons. It can be fully winterized. It’s luxurious. It’s well appointed with features. It has a high quality of construction. And the front nose skylight allows you to lay back and watch the stars, meteor showers and northern lights – when they show up.
The Alde hydronic heating system makes it so that you can wake up and be comfortable in the middle of the night at -15 or -20 degrees Celsius on an ice cap. I actually had to turn the heat down when we went out in it. Everything about the quality of the Alde heating system convinced me to get the Cirrus.
I believe it’s one of the few truly four season and properly winterized campers out there. We didn’t need to redesign the camper’s systems. It came with all of it. The Cirrus camper, given its appeal and interior design inspired me to take this original idea to a whole new level.
Tell us about your company and the unique service you provide with the snowcat and Cirrus truck camper.
I own Headline Mountain Holidays. We provide luxury adventure holidays to our guests. The snowcat and Cirrus will be where our guests stay who go out on the largest southern latitude temperate ice cap. It will also support our Ice Cap Research Initiative which requires overnight observations and data collection in partnership with Simon Fraser University.
From a product execution perspective, this camper is one of the most luxurious models on the market. It meets the criteria of our guests and the experiences that we offer. It fits beautifully into our brand and what we select for our customers.
Above: The snowcat and Cirrus, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
Let’s dive deeper into this Snow Cat rig and what exactly it does on the ice cap. Could you tell us exactly how you are using it?
On a personal level, I’ve been fortunate to be in the guiding industry around the world. I have had the luxury of having fantastic experiences which includes four days on the ice cap with my family and dog. Being in the camper was bar none the best experience of anything I’ve ever done in my lifetime.
Above: The largest southern temperate ice cap, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
The ice cap we go to is the largest southern temperate ice cap with a 320 square kilometer ice field. It’s a spectacular place. There is nothing better than having a piece of equipment in a location like that and to be all by yourself in that environment.
You can’t imagine the views you get from inside the camper looking out the skylight and big windows. We have watched meteor showers and the stars. It’s one thing to have accommodations somewhere, but there’s nothing like having that kind of luxury along with the ability to travel on the mountains and ice.
Above: Doug’s family staying overnight on the ice cap
The experience I had with my family is available to our guests. They get to experience what we feel is one of the best experiences in the world because it showcases a fantastic part of the world. It’s more than just staying overnight. They get a multi-day snowcat supported snowmobile expedition on an ice cap.
“It’s a multi-day experience with helicopters, chefs, snowmobiles, and ice caves. It’s an experiential offering.”
Above: Loading the helicopter for the ice cap, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
What does this experience cost?
This experience is not just about driving around and staying in the camper overnight. It’s about having guides there with snowmobiles. It’s about having personal chefs up there. We have support resources up there. All of that is determined by guest group size. It’s a multi-day experience with helicopters, chefs, snowmobiles, and ice caves. It’s an experiential offering.
The price ranges from $40,000 per night and up, but is determined by specific guest needs. A couple would be less expensive than four to five people because less people would be using the resources like the helicopter flight, food and snowmobiles. It’s priced à la carte for each group and experience. It just so happens that the camper is what you stay in to have this amazing experience.
Above: Shooting a film about the ice cap
What types of people want to have these experiences?
Celebrities, the wealthy, the savvy, and experiential orientated travelers. They do not just come for the sake for taking a selfie. They are bringing their children to learn about the ice cap and our research initiative. We study the climate and what’s going on. They are coming to see the ice cap for themselves.
They also want luxury. They are past roughing it. If they happen to be famous, then they want to come to a place where they can be themselves. No photographers are going to be on the ice cap. They are able to have their own time, with their own family, in a private environment.
Is this the only way to stay overnight on the ice cap?
We build all kinds of accommodations for our guests; snow hotels and ice castles for events. We have glamping tents and glacier pods. They can fly up to the ice cap to stay in one of those places.
We have never been able to stay on the ice cap with as much comfort. Plus, with the snowcat, we have the ability to travel and explore in an expeditious way. That makes this a game changer for the traveler who wants a washroom, heat, a nice bed, refrigerator and security for multiple days in this environment.
You could travel for many kilometers from one ice cave to another ice cave. You would go through different valleys and have incredible views.
Above: Exploring the ice caves, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
The other structures I mentioned are extremely costly to fly in and out of. The ice cap is an extremely challenging environment to work in. Unlike the Arctic, we get 20 times the amount of wet, heavy snow. We can’t put a permanent structure on the ice cap.
This camper provides all of the features at more economical price for our guests. We can fly them in and pick them up three days later. With the other structures, all of the equipment comes in and out, so it’s a more costly project.
Above: Exploring the ice cap, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
Are there many ice cap destinations that people can go to with the camper? Or is it just one place?
Essentially the ice cap I keep describing is the southern temperate ice cap. That is the experience we offer. The snowcat is not something we can just drive to another destination.
The snowcat is relatively mobile and can be relocated based on the application; an experiential offering or an industry support vehicle. For example, it has been used for film production. Victoria Secret models have modeled in swimsuits in the ice cave.
Above: The mobile kitchen facility on the left, photo courtesy of Daniel Fox
Have you made any special accommodations to the camper to make it work in the harsh environments you are using it in?
The short answer is no. The only function we don’t use is potable water system. We bring in water and use biodegradable eco-friendly anti-freeze for the toilet.
For now, the camper is winterized and we have filled the tanks with antifreeze, so guests can’t drink water from the camper. We are using anti-freeze as the mechanism to the flush toilet.
“We have infrastructure in place including a hand washing station, hot water, coffee makers and wilderness support. It’s much like a safari expedition.”
Our guests are eating what the chefs are preparing, so they do not need to wash dishes in the sink. We bring in all the dishes and take them back when we wash them. While on this trip our guests are resting, relaxing, eating from our mobile kitchen facility and using the washroom in the camper.
We have other infrastructure in place including a hand washing station, hot water, coffee makers and wilderness support. It’s much like a safari expedition.
If the weather is nice, they may not even be eating in the camper. They can sit outside in a beautifully set up seating arrangement we have prepared for them. They get off the snowmobile and come up and use the hand washing and face washing system.
Above: The snowcat plowing snow through the ice cap, photo courtesy of Dave Mills
Since your guests are using the toilet in the camper, how are you dumping the black tank?
We do a lot of long-lining to bring things on and off the ice cap. Behind the helicopter is a 200-foot rope to fly in equipment, like a portable tank. We open up the holding tank valve on the camper and the waste goes into that portable tank.
Everything is in a containment system. The helicopter flies back with it and, on the next trip, brings everything back in. It’s simple and cost effective. There is absolutely no waste left there by any of our activities.
“With its enormous tracks, the snowcat is built amazingly strong. Payload is essentially a non-issue.”
How do you provide power to your guests?
There are solar panels on the camper and there is a 3,000-watt generator on the snowcat. The camper also has its standard Group 31 AGM batteries.
How much payload does the snowcat have?
Since we’re so remote, the snowcat also carries an oversized fuel tank, two additional potty tanks, a generator, jack system, rescue equipment and the camper.
Even with all that, the snowcat is still well below its payload capacity. With its enormous tracks, the snowcat is built amazingly strong. Payload is essentially a non-issue.
Is the Cirrus camper used year round, or just for winter activities?
It’s also been utilized in the backcountry for film productions. The Cirrus provides a remote washroom, changing area, and make up and hair area. That’s why we brought it down for the summer. That’s its primary purpose.
The Cirrus is also a support vehicle when we have multi-day glamping experiences. For example, it was used for a Sturgeon fishing and jet boat experience. They fly into camp and the Cirrus is the perfect glamping set-up. They’ll go Sturgeon fishing up the river for a day or two.
What is your vision for the future?
I would love to have a fleet of three or more snowcat and Cirrus rigs. We want to support larger groups for multiple days on the ice cap so that they can have an expedition style experience across the ice cap.
Multiple rigs would also better support our research initiatives on the ice cap. It would give us more tools to spend more time there. We have a research partnership with Dr. Gwenn Flowers at Simon Fraser University.
A big part of why we take people to the ice cap is to introduce to them to our research initiatives. We are constantly learning about the ice caps and climate change. Our guests aren’t just coming for the experience, but to learn. The partnership with Simon Fraser University helps us to provide a better experience to our guests. It’s a dynamic world up there.
Our business is based on an ice cube and it’s changing rapidly. The ideal scenario is to have three or four of these units so that we can learn more about this environment and host more guests.
Wouldn’t you have to have multiple snowcats?
We’re thinking about rafts called J-Rigs that are inflatable tubes. Perhaps the next camper would be mounted to one of these inflatable rigs that a snowcat could pull. With that approach, we could have one snowcat and two campers. One would be for guests and one for the crew.
These systems inflate on solid ground and can be pulled anywhere the snowcat is going. That’s part of my future vision. That’s still in the process of being thought through.
I also want to give kudos to NuCamp for their design and quality!
Doug Washer’s Rig
Truck: 2018 GMC 3500, diesel, 4×4, crew cab, short bed
CAT: 2006 Pistenbully Edge Snowcat – Park Bully
Camper: 2018 Cirrus 820
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Torklift