it's a little wordy, but am trying to share what I have learned...
I originally wanted to build a true expedition rig. My plan was to secure a Unimog U500 and either buy or build a composite custom camper…the kind of great products that a company like GXV (Global Expedition Vehicles) builds. I earnestly searched for a U500 and found a couple of low mileage units available, but it quickly became clear that this level of expedition vehicle came with a price. In my opinion this is the ultimate Expo rig setup. You have extreme ground clearance, crawler gears that make any Jeeper jealous, amazing fording capability, the units are pre 2008 so they are not subject to the diesel smog components and they have enough torque to pull a fleet of Dodge, Chevys and Fords. So I started looking for the alternative to the ultimate expo rig.
Idea number two was based on the Mitsubishi Fuso line. The cost of a new base vehicle was half of a used Mog, but it would need a number of modifications. This part of the journey led me to seek out Darrin Fink of RUF Inc. He engineered the ultimate Mitsubishi FM-260 expo rig and at one time was building on the FG-4x4 chassis. When I realized that Darrin was no longer in the business of Mitsu building, I decided to on FG140 4x4 unit, as they do not need a 4x4 conversion and had an extremely tight turning radius accompanied by a incredible CA (cab to axle) distance which allowed for a 14’ cabin with ease. I could limit my engineering to a suspension swap and a super single conversion (eliminate dual rear wheels). The FG’s are notorious for rough ride and the cab is pretty sparse. The new suspension would create a smoother ride and provide some off road flex.
At the time I was doing my research, I was driving my 05 Ford F250 Crew 4x4 6.0L diesel and I spent a lot of time traversing my favorite three states: CO, WY, and MT. If you have ever been out West, you will realize that there are wide open, long stretches of wilderness that cross these states and lead to destinations that will forever capture your wild spirit. More on that later. Anyway, you will also realize that a slow moving vehicle is rolling at 75mph. I know we could get into a spirited discussion about the Zen of overlanding, but I am not a full timer and I am not retired. I need to get to places to that are a full days drive at freeway speeds in one day, spend two days exploring and then return in one long day’s drive…the extended 3-4 day weekend. I am also a family man and often time need room for 4 or more.
I nearly convinced my wife that the Mog or Fuso 3 seat version would work, but the interior space for all the other stuff that travels with us (including two muts) was just too limiting. Back to the freeway speed discussion…you see the biggest flaw with the Mitsu solution is that it came with an engine that produces 150hp/350 ft lbs torque. This would translate into something like 60-65 mph on the flats. Recall I spend my time in the mountain states and steep grades are the norm.
Since I live in CO, I took a Saturday afternoon and toured the Earthroamer factory. I was truly excited by the spacious camper, custom engineering, and Ford F550 chassis. But the price…hmmm, these are expensive. If you are willing to part with that kind of money, you need to check them out. GXV (Global Expedition Vehicles of Nixa MO) also started building a rig that seemed to be patterned from the Turtle Expedition vehicles. In my opinion both the GXV and Earthroamers are well engineered , true expo rigs that are great for North American travel. And both will allow you to travel at highway speeds.
So I did some real soul searching and concluded what I needed was a rig that could travel off season, in the snow and inclement weather, traverse forest service roads, be fully self contained, have room for my gear, pets and family, and allow me to travel at freeway speeds in the mountain states. I also wanted to keep the project under $100k with all new products. So I decided to buy a heavy duty 4x4 pickup, add a flatbed, convert to super singles and add an all season camper…the story begins with the truck.
The Truck: 2012 Dodge 5500 4x4 Laramie Crew
I chose to upgrade to the 450/4500 and 550/5500 after some basic math. I planned to drop a camper on one of these units and I wanted something fully self contained. Most of my research led to campers in the 3k lbs range. Add 4 passengers at 180 each and you add another 720 lbs to the load. Given that I really don’t like pushing the design limits of my vehicles the 1T trucks delivered by the big 3 just weren’t going to meet my criteria. This narrowed the field to Ford F450/550 and Dodge 4500/5500.
I chose the Dodge and this was a hard decision as I have been buying Fords since 1988 and have had a good experience with the brand. But the new motor and transmission caused me to pause and I started researching the Dodge units. The Cummins diesel is legendary, the 6.7L 6 cylinder power plant that in the commercial rigs gets a smaller turbo and still produces 305/610 hp/ft lbs respectively. The transmission is the commercial duty Aisin 6 speed auto and the Spicer pumpkins carry a set of 4:88’s (you can get 4.44 on the 4500 series). In 2011+ the 5500s came with the Laramie interior – the brown leather is beautiful and the heated, power, leather seats have a slight bolster and are extremely comfortable.
So I placed my custom order with Yellowstone Country Dodge in Livingston, MT (no pressure, super friendly and helpful staff – ask for Jackie) and found out that the 2011s were end of life and I would have to buy a 2012. The build order was sent to the factory and I set out to secure a camper, flatbed, and a set of super singles.
The Camper: Northstar American Hero
Research for this project began nearly a year ago and my original idea was to build a composite cabin and customize it to fit my exact needs. I researched materials, components, structural engineering of a 3 point mounting systems and began paper engineering water, electric, heating and other sub-systems. The more I researched the more I realized that I had to make a choice between build time and explore time. If I was going to build, the exploration was going to be delayed by upwards of a year. Remember, I have a fully engaged day job and could only work select weekends on this project.
The next best thing to building is buying, so I started researching campers. My goal was to find a fully self contained, well-constructed camper that would work in snow and winter conditions and stand up to some mild off-roading. I also wanted a camper that created a sense of roominess, had a large refrigerator, a queen sized bed, and a full bath. I don’t know how or when, but I saw an article on flatbed campers being constructed by NorthStar, an R.C. Willett company based in Cedar Falls Iowa. They had just released their newest model, the American Hero. A flatbed camper with a side door, cassette toilet, shower, 6.6 Cu Ft refrigerator, queen size over cab bed, insulated windows with shade and screens, and a polar insulation package…all standard. Best of all the floor measures 7’10” wide, 9 ‘ floor and has 6’8” interior height. It was the perfect alternative to a custom build and the reviews were very favorable. So I placed an order. Next up, I needed a flatbed
Just up the road from Northstar campers in Cresco IA, is Alum-line . They will custom build and install an aluminum flatbed on your truck. I had mine built 88” x “118” which should give me 8” of overhang in the rear. Since the camper has a side door, I can add extra water, fuel cans and a spare on this 8” ledge. I also ordered a frame mounted receiver hitch that they will install. You might wonder why I only went 88” when the camper is 94”. At 88” the flatbed will cover 10” tires on a 76” track (which is the track for the Rickson super singles). The jacks will stick out an inch or two giving me 3-5” each side to maneuver the camper onto the flatbed. At this point it is all theory, but should work well. The last item on the phase one build list is a set of super singles.
Super Singles: Rickson Wheels
If you have ever driven a dually in snow, sand or mud, you know that the extra set of wheels and tires is not an advantage. Look at the Unimogs, GVX and Earthroamers…they all have either factory singles or have converted to single rear wheels. There are two primary roads to super singles. You can rework body and suspension parts to fit a set of true off road tires like the Continental MPT81’s on two piece aluminum wheels or you can get a set of 19.5’s steel wheels that are 7.5” wide and can accommodate a 265 or 285/70 19.5 (34 and 35”). The latter option is available through Rickson Wheels. It is significantly less expensive and if you are buying a set of Michelin XDE2+ G rated they should last 50k-75k miles. These tires will not air down like the MPT81’s, but they also won’t wear down like those. I chose the Rickson wheel solution based on the fact that 95% of my driving (like most people) will be on hard road surfaces. The price of the wheels seems fair, but prepare for sticker shock buying Michelins with the current price of oil!
Current Status – September 16, 2011
The truck is in my driveway, the camper is finished, the flatbed and wheels are 2 weeks out. By the end of October I should have phase one complete and be ready to provide some feedback on the package. First real trip will be to Yellowstone at Thanksgiving. Stay tuned for updates
I am pretty picky about people I spend my money with and this group of businesses represents some great people selling awesome products…take a minute and check them out. You won’t regret it.
http://northstarcampers.com (ask for Rex and mention this post for a real world discount)
http://www.yellowstonecountrymotors.net/index.htm (ask for Jackie, she will get you the best deal in the state!)
http://www.ricksontruckwheels.com (ask for Heather, she is aware of this project and can give you guidance and possibly a discount)
http://www.alum-line.com (ask for Gary and mention this post and he will give you a very competitive price)