When Beth and I decided to live a nomadic life, a huge question needed answering: “what will be our adventuremobile?”
In order to make this decision, we needed to research, make a list of priorities, and choose a vehicle that could suit the majority, if not all, of our requirements.
Would it be a boat? A plane? A van? A VW van? Bicycles? Motorcycles? Rollerskates? Any of these would have been amazing, but none of them would have suited the needs that a 4×4 truck and camper do, at least not for us. However this wasn’t always apparent, and it took quite a while to get to where we are now. It’s rare that we see other neo-nomads talk about how they chose their vehicle, much less their life “before,” so we wanted to pull the curtain back and let you in on the [mis]adventures of these decisions. This is just the beginning of many posts delving into the not-so-pretty side of neo-nomadic living.
Once Beth and I decided that we wanted to make this life change, for real, we had some work cut out for us. After many whiskey-infused evenings around the drawing board, we assembled a list of necessary attributes our adventuremobile needed:
4×4 – we wanted to be able to go anywhere, and do anything to an extent. We weren’t looking to go “wheeling” or drive up 90º mountain sides, but I had enough experience with 4×4 vehicles and remembered many instances where I was glad it was there – whether muddy ground, sand or anything in between, having 4×4 can help you out…to a degree.
Decent Fuel Economy – I was very particular (or as Beth will say, adamant) in wanting a diesel, while Beth had no particular feelings either way. Neither of us had owned a diesel before, but I knew they were dependable and easy to maintain, if you had any mechanical knack about you. While diesels often cost more up front and their maintenance can be more expensive, the reward of dependability and better fuel economy means they can save money in the long run. I have a saying of “buy once, cry once” – it’s better to spend some extra money up front for quality, knowing that you won’t have to spend more down the line. Rather than save money on a cheaper gasoline engine (that would get poor fuel economy if the weight inevitably went up), we hoped to save money in the long run with a diesel by paying more up front. Hopefully.
Dependability – Beth and I both obviously agreed that we needed something that was dependable. While some of the vehicles we looked at were fun and had great character, we had to leave our emotions to the side to think logically about what could provide us with years of dependable service. Or at least a few months at a time, ya know.
Ease of maintenance – while it may seem contrary to the last requirement, the two of us actively looked for older vehicles due to their general ease of maintenance, compared to newer models. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I consider myself a decent shade-tree mechanic with above-average mechanical knowledge – if it can be fixed I feel confident that I can learn how. Newer vehicles, however, stump me with their advanced electronics, mechanics and labyrinth-like engine bays. As vehicles have progressed, they’ve become harder and harder for shade-tree mechanics, such as myself, to maintain and fix. Hell, we’ve even heard that some modern cars don’t even have dipsticks anymore! After much thought, we agreed that being self-sufficient as much as possible was a priority, as we did not want to rely on expensive mechanics or specialty products/shops in order to keep our vehicle running. We hoped that I could do most of the mechanical repairs and work that came along, especially if we were in the middle of nowhere, camping! Beth has no idea how helpless I can sometimes be without Google or YouTube! Good thing I always buys a haynes manual with every vehicle I’ve ever purchased!
Safety – we didn’t need reverse cameras, curtain airbags, 13 cupholders, GPS, OnStar, proximity sensors or a parking assister, thank you very much. However we did want ABS, at least an airbag or two, seat-belts, decent crash ratings and a solid frame. Power steering is nice too.
Resale value – as odd as it seems, we wanted to make sure that we bought a vehicle with a decent resale value. We aren’t into flipping vehicles and certainly didn’t plan on selling whatever we purchased, but if the need arose and we wanted to settle down or try out a different vehicle, we didn’t want to lose a ton of our investment.
With all these conditions in mind, we set out on our quest. Many ideas were tossed around and we had to keep a notebook just to help us keep track of our decisions.
Originally, I wanted to convert a passenger bus. Even though they lacked four wheel drive and were slow, otherwise they were good in my book. Beth brought me back to reality – she didn’t want to deal with parking such a behemoth all the time or feeling restricted with where we could go. Plus there was a chance we’d need to get our CDLs. She had a good point.
Beth wanted a VW camper van, and I had owned one previously. While they were incredibly fun and full of character, they were also notoriously unreliable and expensive to maintain. In fact I had accrued nearly $3,000 in debt within the first 5 months of owning it due to various malfunctions and fixes that were necessary to keep it running! Was it worth it, and did I have fun? Hell yeah! But did I want to have a semi-reliable VW to be our sole vehicle and house, and go further into debt? Nah. Beth reluctantly agreed that I might be right, even though neither of us wanted to admit it.
From there we set our eyes on two different categories – camper trucks and camper vans. Both camper vans and trucks (with a camper shell or slide-in camper) could suit our needs. Many vans and trucks come in 4×4 packages with diesel engines, both have been made for years with dependable records and easily maintained and modified bodies and engines, and both categories had “flagship” models that held their value reasonably well.
For the vans, we set our sights on Dodge Sprinters and Ford Econoline vans. Both models could be found with diesel engines but only the Fords had 4×4 available en mass – Sprinter had not yet released their 4×4 package and conversion Sprinters simply cost too much. After searching the area, and being honest with our budget, we realized we would not be able to afford either a Sprinter with relatively low mileage, nor a Ford with either a Sportsmobile package or Quigley conversion.
Even the vans we could afford wouldn’t have left us nearly enough money to build the van up to our desired specs. We had originally wanted to purchase a van because, well, #vanlife! Not wanting to settle for less than the requirements we set, we begrudgingly moved to looking at trucks and campers. While not as sexy and sleek as a van (and lacking a cool popular hashtag) we realized that a truck and camper may be more practical for our uses and desires.
During this time, I already owned a 2000 Ford F150 with 4×4 that I loved and that had never let me down. Since I already owned the truck, it seemed logical to save money on the vehicle and instead look at campers. We hadn’t fully considered my truck as a viable option until this point, but we’re glad we did. This was the turning point when the learnin’ and fun began.
Beth had sold her 2006 Ford Escape prior to all of this – unlike myself, it was the only vehicle she had ever known, and it was a huge deal for her to get rid of it. The little car had supplied her with tons of memories and an epic cross-country trip, and in return the little Escápe provided the first chunk of our adventuremobile fund and for that we were forever grateful.
Since we had some funds put away from Beth’s car, we considered purchasing a pull-behind, such as an Airstream or similar. The space would be plenty, the truck would always be free to do something else once we parked the camper, and we wouldn’t have to worry about much…except. Oh yeah. Towing anything would not allow us to exploring in the places that we wanted to go explore. We wanted the ability to drive down a forest road and see what was at the end, reversing the entire way out if there was no turn-around. We wanted the ability to drive over varied terrain, and not fret about if what we had behind us could handle it. Similarly, we didn’t want to worry about maneuvering in a city or small town. The only benefit of towing a camper would be that the truck and our “home” could separate easily, but we needed something that was more compact and that could still separate.
The search for a slide-in truck camper began with this moment. After much searching and learning about slide-in campers, it turned out my F150 was severely under-qualified for any camper except an incredibly lightweight one. Until this moment in our lives, the words Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, 10-Ply tires, torque, axle weight, or tongue weight had never crossed our lips. Now they were our mantra. We knew we needed something larger, but what? Back to the drawing board.
In the meantime the two of us scoured the internet in search of a camper that might work for my truck. This is the point at which we discovered Four Wheel Campers and I became obsessed. I hunted and searched day and night, putting Beth’s and my relationship nearly on the line from my obsession; I had to find a Four Wheel Camper, if only we could find this holy grail then we could keep the F150 and all our problems would be solved! Day after day I searched the Craigslist until my eyes nearly bled – I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, and I would stare at my phone or the computer, searching rather than eat.
Then I found one! A Four Wheel Camper Grandby in Texas that was at a price we could afford! I made plans with the seller, had the details all ready, had the money in hand, and then performed one last check – I weighed the truck on a CAT scale to make sure we could carry the camper. Long story short, we couldn’t. With the camper on the truck, we would have had about 300lbs of wiggle-weight. This would allot just enough for Beth and I, and not enough for Alfredo. Definitely not enough to carry water, fuel, or any clothes. Shit.
In desperation I sold the truck.
With money in hand, Beth and I again scoured the internet for a truck. This time we knew what we needed – a 3/4 ton truck, preferably diesel, with a full size 8ft bed. But what truck?!
Turns out two specific models were ideal for us – a Dodge Ram 2500 or a Ford F250. Both of these makes and models had diesel options, four wheel drive packages, and good reputations. Some time around 1997 or so, both companies made fantastic trucks with incredibly reliable diesel engines claimed to be “bulletproof” by both fan clubs: Ford had a 7.3 Powerstroke and Dodge had a 5.9 Cummins in 1997, and both were incredibly popular. I’m not going to get into the details of Powerstroke vs Cummins – both are great engines, both ’97 models have their pros and cons, and both had more mechanical parts than they did electronics, which I liked. We looked at everything we could, and test drove nearly every Powerstroke or Cummins we could get our hands on. I loved the old body style Fords, but I also really liked the sleek lines of the Dodge. Either worked for us.
After months of searching and miles of driving, with our only means of transportation being borrowed cars or my motorcycle mind you, desperation set in yet again. Everything we looked at had too much rust, or too many problems. Every potential gem turned out to have hidden flaws that were dealbreakers – rusted frames, broken components, rough running engines, or a combination of the lot.
We considered buying a cheap van and just saying, “screw it!” to the truck and camper idea. Hell – we even found a package deal of a Toyota Tundra and a FWC camper, but the seller backed out 2 days before we flew to Colorado to buy it, after we had purchased tickets!
Beth kept her head up while mine hung down in defeat. Her persistence and positivity prevailed – in my weakest moment of the search, we happened upon a 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 4×4 located only 45 minutes away!
A borrowed car, a test drive and a few minutes of chit-chat and Beth and I were in love. This truck would soon be known by the name Darlene. She had everything we needed – 4×4, relatively low mileage, a Cummins Turbo Diesel, safety equipment, high value, no rust, and a history of dependability. To top it all off an NC State Trooper owned the truck and we both got a great vibe from him.
With Darlene in our possession, the hunt for a camper began. I was stuck on finding a Four Wheel Camper, but the search expanded to include Sun-Lites, All Terrain Campers, Alaskan Campers, Keystones, and Scampers. We bounced back and forth on wanting a hard top or a pop-top, also. A hard top would offer better insulation, more full-time room, and would be easier to stealth camp in. Having a hard top, however, would increase our drag coefficient and therefore decrease our fuel efficiency. A hard top would also weigh more, and since there was extra weight up high there was also the possibility of instability in high winds or on windy roads. Not to mention we could risk damage if we wanted to go somewhere with low overhanging tree branches. The pop-top on the other hand offered great overhead clearance and better fuel efficiency due to decreased drag and weight. The downside is that we’d have to “set up” the camper every time we wanted to sleep and we wouldn’t have as good of insulation around the canvas areas. When we listed our pros and cons of the two, the pop-top camper won in our book – it could do everything we needed it to do.
Beth and I searched high and low, but never could find a camper that seemed to fit our budget, our preferred driving distance, or our standards. My mantra of “buy once, cry once” haunted me – I knew we needed the best, and the best was Four Wheel Camper, above and beyond.
Nearly 4 months after getting Darlene, we finally found a Four Wheel Camper in Indiana that not only fit our budget, but was close enough for a weekend trip, and it was in great enough of condition that it was worth our time. We should take a moment to clarify here that the camper actually found us – in our search for a perfect camper, I had posted wanted ads on many popular forums where I saw FWCs sell secondhand. “Someone, please, does anyone live on the Eastern side of the USA and have a Grandby they want to sell?” I begged and pleaded and told our story and the goals we had. For months I heard nothing, until a gentleman in Indiana messaged me on WanderTheWest.com and told me that he would be willing to sell his Grandby shell model to us. He said that he had gone back and forth for months on selling the camper, but after seeing how desperate we were and hearing our story, he thought we deserved to purchase it from him – he wanted to make sure it went to a good home. In an effort to keep this post shorter than a novel, the rest of our camper’s story is here. The short version is that many hours and miles later with our wallets a bit lighter, we were driving back South with huge smiles on our faces knowing we finally found the second piece to our adventuremobile!
There are times when Beth and I see a VW Vanagon, a Ford Sportsmobile, a Sprinter or a hard top camper, and we wonder if we made the right decision. This will probably stay with us for a long time – there is always that factor of “what if” in life. But what we have works great for us – if we have to we can separate the truck from the camper and leave our “house” somewhere. Our truck can easily carry the weight of all we need, plus some (like my little TW200 that I desperately “need”). Since our living quarters are separate from our vehicle, and can be independently locked, we don’t have to worry about having an open bottle of bourbon or wine in the back from the night before. On the same note – if we choose to have a few drinks and are beyond the legal driving limit, we can always sleep in the camper resting assured that we won’t get a DUI for being intoxicated in our vehicle – we’ve seen friends of ours deal with this for choosing to sleep off their buzz in their back seat. Lastly, having the two separate allows us the possibility of future upgrades to either component. If after a year we decide we want an larger camper (no way), then so be it! If we decide we don’t like our truck (that’ll never happen) we keep the camper and get something different!
We’ll never be able to answer all the what-ifs that the road has ahead of us, or if what we’ve chosen is right or wrong. But if the search for our adventuremobile has taught us anything, it’s that we have to stay vigilant in our quests and that patience is key. We could have settled for less than ideal all along the way, or taken someone elses’ path, but instead we chose our own and stayed true to ourselves. We followed our hearts, listened to our heads, saw good times and worse times all between. We lost money, saved money, made new friends, and learned more than we’d ever expected. All of this before we even hit the road! Our perseverance paid off and we are thrilled with the adventure that led us to this moment.
So if you’re thinking of choosing this lifestyle and you’re struggling with making decisions, know you aren’t alone and it wasn’t easy for us either.
We’d love to hear from any one out there who has gone through this as well or who is going through this hunt and/or struggle currently. Leave your comments and opinions below – we’d love to hear your thoughts on our decisions or hear the tales of your own hunt.