What’s the best vehicle for a long road trip? There are so many options for machines to power your adventures that it can be overwhelming to choose. The perfect rig for you depends on your needs, hobbies, and anticipated destinations. Through much research and debate, we have decided that a truck camper works best for our lifestyle and trip. The following is the train of thought and research that led us to that decision. We hope it helps you in choosing the best adventure mobile (for you).
For our specific overlanding trip, we need a beast of a vehicle. We will be driving from Alaska to Patagonia chasing waves and great memories. We have done a few Central and Southern America surf trips, and know that a certain type of car, or monster, is needed.
Seeing other explorers on long road trips, we instantly fell in love with the vintage Volkswagens. Both the bus and vanagon have style and an awesome community. As much as we’d love picturesque vintage van life, it wouldn’t work for us on this specific trip. We need reliability and all wheel drive for the rough side roads we will be taking to find the most elusive of waves and experiences.
The vintage van’s modern cousin, camper vans like the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit and Dodge ProMaster, are a solid option for most road trippers. The inside is super customizable with endless ways to Tetris together an awesome living space and storage for your toys. I won’t forget to mention that their interiors look oh so pretty all over Instagram. They also have quite the following on social media with #vanlife. Being able to stealth camp almost anywhere in a van is a MAJOR plus. They are reliable and agile, but not all are 4×4. We know from hunting waves through the not so friendly, mostly bumpy dirt roads of Nicaragua that all wheel drive is a necessity. The Sprinter has a 4×4 option (with quite the price tag and waiting list) that will work for the vast majority of journeys. It really is a great adventure rig. For our particular route, however, it’s not the best option. We wouldn’t be able to afford the 4×4 van plus the complete build out. We also like the ability to keep living in your camper if the car needs repairs at a shop. That’s not possible with a camper van.
If you’re into having a small condo on wheels, you can go for the very cool option of transforming a bus into a camper. It is a huge space that you can customize in amazing ways. We have seen some amazing school bus, or Skoolie, camper conversions on social media. Busses come in many different lengths, but they are all pretty spacious. With that big size comes some big challenges. Finding places to park can be difficult depending on where you are. Being fairly low to the ground and huge isn’t ideal for the bumpy unpaved roads we plan on being on.
For the same reasons a bus wouldn’t work, an RV or trailer is out of the question. They have low clearance, and are usually long and wide. I am absolutely in love with the look and ample space of an Airstream, but my love could never be requited on the trip we are taking. Narrow, bumpy unpaved roads will be frequent. You can name your trailer Jordan, it’ll get so much air time. A bus, RV, or trailer will not make it out of Mexico alive.
Why not a rugged Jeep or other overlanding vehicle with a tent on top? As badass as that sounds, we run into some issues with our particular situation. This vehicle/home will be our residence in San Diego, at least some of the time, while we save up for our trip. Eliminating our biggest recurring bill, rent, is a sure way to save money faster. As progressive as California is, we can’t be tent camping on top of our car in random places. There aren’t a lot camping spots near our jobs either. Even if there were, we wouldn’t want to be spending lots of money on California priced campgrounds. We will also run into some warmth challenges in Alaska and Patagonia. We know of overlanders who have made it work with space heaters or electric mattress pads, but we’re not as brave (or warm blooded) as them. It is definitely possible, but just not ideal for us on this trip. Something to keep in mind if you think this is a good option for you: cooking and bathroom needs will have to be taken care of outside or at a hotel/hostel.
Even bad asser (made up a word) is the option of riding a motorcycle with camel bags à la Ewan McGregor, which I’m not even going to pretend I’m awesome enough to consider. Logistically though, it’s impossible for our adventures. Where would we put our surfboards, SUP, kite, and filming equipment? Unfortunately, we can’t afford a film crew to follow us like Ewan.
To be honest, being able to hide from mosquitos is important to me as they seriously love my blood. Some motorcycle road trippers tent camp for the majority of their trip, while others stay at hotels and hostels along the way. Many do a combination of both. Having a comfortable camper with a queen sized mattress, hot shower, and full kitchen will save us money in the long run. We will eat out less and not need to pay for a room to take showers and escape mosquitos.
The most perfect option would be an Earth Romer vehicle, or something like it. Unfortunately, we’re not millionaires or heirs to a fortune, so the 6 figure + price tag just won’t work for us. If anyone wants to gift us one of these monster overlanders, we would be happy to accept.
A slide in truck camper is our best bet. Even then, there are a plethora of sizes and options. Short bed, long bed, pop up, pop out, popsicle? Where do we even begin? I think the best way is to work backwards, eliminating ones that won’t work for us.
Why not a pop out? It’ll be way too heavy for our rugged adventures. Each pop out will add at least 300 pounds to the weight our truck needs to carry. Being that top heavy is dangerous on the roads we plan to be on, and we already maxed ourselves out with a custom roof rack. We’ve got to stay conservative with weight in other areas.
Why not a pop up? Well, we strongly considered it. It’s lighter and more nimble for those rough roads. Two things made us decide against it: less storage and Patagonia. I get cold way too easily. The thought of a thick cloth being the only thing protecting me from the cold is chilling. Pun intended 🙂 Pedro was also not down with the set up everyday since we would have a bunch of gear tied to the top and sides and we’d have to pop it up and down constantly. The custom roof rack wouldn’t have been able to happen either, leaving us scrambling on places to put our boards.
By now, it’s clear that lighter is better, so naturally, we want to go with a short bed truck so that we’ll be forced to live in a smaller camper. A smaller camper equals less weight. That’s our sweet spot. Now that we have decided on a short bed slide in truck camper, let’s talk about why we chose a diesel 4×4 Ford F-350 to power it.
Power and agility are non negotiable qualities needed to hunt waves in Central and Southern America. A short bed truck camper will be lighter and consequently more nimble as we hunt down secret waves. Despite having a smaller camper, it will be plenty heavy with all of our adventure equipment strapped on and tucked in anywhere we can find space. For that reason, we need a powerful truck. A short bed F-350 has a 4,102 lb payload, which is sufficient for our needs. Our camper weighs 1,800 lbs without the roof rack.
We decided on a used truck mostly because of the cost. The exact truck we were looking for was for sale about 30 minutes away, and for a great deal. We bought a 2009 F-350 XLT 4×4 extended cab 6.4L diesel with 69,000 miles (plus 6,000 engine hours, I’ll talk about that more below) for less than $19,000. It’s previous owner was the California Border Patrol, so we knew it went through all of its necessary maintenance. This was really important to us when searching for a truck because these cars can go for 500,000 miles with regular maintenance. Finding a moderately new truck was a major plus as it should cut down on repairs needed on the road.
There were pros and cons to buying this former government truck. Pros: it’s in great condition, has low miles, has gotten regular maintenance, and comes with heavy duty foot rails. Cons: the interior needs some TLC as the back seats and center console were taken out, it needs new lights, and it has lots of idle engine time.
The problem with a lot of idle time is that diesel engines don’t like it. They like to keep running. A lot of idle time wears out the engine. Government trucks sit idle at job sites with the AC/heater running or to power equipment. It’s important to know this because if you have high engine hours, you’re going to have to adjust your scheduled maintenance accordingly. Consuming one gallon of gas while idling is equal to driving the truck for 30 miles. Make sure to check idle time when buying a used truck. You can find it on modern cars/trucks where the odometer is. I’m not sure where you would find it on older models that don’t have a digital readout. To get the true gage of your engine’s usage, you have to be aware of your engine hours along with the mileage.
We ended up going with a ’98 Lance 185 SquireLite truck camper that we found on Craigslist. It fits well in the bed of our truck with little overhang. We got it for a great deal and spruced it up to our liking. The make and model of truck camper that will work best for you depends on your needs. Some people want to cook indoors, so a sufficient kitchen is a must. Many people would like a fully functioning indoor bathroom with a shower, while others are okay with just an outdoor shower and some TP to do their business outside. Find out whats important, and non negotiable for you and your family and/or travel buddies. The number of people you will be traveling with (or if you are solo traveling) also has an impact on the type of truck camper you need. For example, if you’re a solo female traveler, you can probably go pretty light on a camper, but may want a toilet indoors so that you don’t have to wander off into the woods at night to poop. Yes, girls poop.
We chose a used camper because the new one goes for upwards of $25,000 and we don’t have that kind of chedda. Even if we did, that’s enough money to live in Central America for more than 2 years, so no thanks. Besides, I’ve got quite the handy husband and we love renovating and making things our own. Not to mention, my DIY obsession needs this. That’s part of the fun, and makes the camper feel more homey to us. Plus, I’m still jealous of those cool camper vans on Instagram, and I want to give them a run for their money with some boho interior design in our tiny space. Stay tuned for the rest of our truck camper remodel!
What’s your ultimate adventure mobile? What are the qualities you can’t live without?