Beyond VANlife Part II: Selecting the Right Expedition Chassis
Luckily for us, VANdal’s new owner agreed to let us use the van until our new rig is ready in July. We have work in Missouri later in June and, therefore, gave notice to be out of the Sarasota, FL home we used to own (but were temporarily renting back), and started our nomadic life this week! It was bittersweet as we filled the van for its last escapade with us at the helm, loaded a trailer of gear that wouldn’t fit in the van (but that we wanted in the new truck), and headed off!
Though we didn’t think we had that much “stuff,” it became quite clear that what we do have takes up a fair-sized footprint. It was difficult to pare down and decide what would be necessary versus preferable to take with us, yet it was equally satisfying when we shut the door on our 10’ x 10’ storage unit and walked away. Painful as it was to have to pay for storage space, there were some unavoidable heirlooms, artwork, bikes, paddleboards, tools and other gear that might follow us into our next life, and we weren’t ready to part with any of that quite yet. The rest of what we own now fits into VANdal and the tiniest U-Haul trailer you can get, ready to load into the new truck when we pick it up in July.
Part of the fun of choosing this bigger vehicle has been deciding on just the right chassis for the job. We realized that a tiny house on big wheels is really only as good as its chassis, and we were set on choosing the right one for all of the needs and wants we shared here. In choosing the right chassis, here are some undisputed aspects to consider and define:
- Where do you want to go? If your route simply takes you up and down the I-95 corridor, any commercial RV will do the trick. But if you desire the snows of the Rockies or the sands of Baja, then all mass-produced vehicles fall short…really short. Fuel type and range are also factors depending on where you want to take it. (See the fuel section here).
- How much weight will you be carrying? Your weight is a big determinant because it will define how robust your chassis needs to be. How much water do you go through for bathing, drinking, laundry and cooking? At 8 pounds per gallon of water and roughly 7.3 pounds per gallon of diesel, things can add up pretty quickly to max out your GVW. Couple that with all your personal gear and it behooves you to do your arithmetic first before overstraining your poor chassis. For us, ultimately, this was one of the biggest reasons why we had to veto many of the choices shared below.
- How long do you want to be? We’ve always been pleased with our Sprinter 170’s 22 ½ feet of length. But living full time, we knew we’d have to give up some of the Sprinter’s signature stealthiness for additional space. People roam the globe in anything from short Jeeps and Land Rovers to tour buses in excess of 50 feet, but bear in mind that what they are able to see and experience is quite different. You need to think about where you’d like to park, how far away you’re comfortable parking, what condition of roads you’d like to be able to be on, if there are any vehicle length restrictions on winter roads or mountain passes, and of course, your driving aptitude.
These were some of the chassis we considered in our research:
- Sprinter-Based Motor Homes
- Examples: Winnebago View, Itasca Navion, AirStream Interstate, or RoadTrek
- Sprinter-based motor homes take the regular sprinter and build on it to create a highway-friendly mid-size RV. They seem like a good idea… as long as your wheels don’t leave the pavement and you don’t plan on going over anything more than the occasional mild speed bump. While they offer significantly more room than the standard Sprinter 170 base and can be quite luxurious in appearance, that luxury is just a façade. The build quality is beyond poor, with particleboard interiors that barely pass muster and clearly won’t retain their sparkling appearance for long. They are clearly designed to commute between Indiana and Florida, predominantly residing in RV parks. Ground clearance is nearly nonexistent and they’re without 4-wheel drive or ample insulation for all-season use. And most importantly for us, there’s no gear garage, so all your equipment has to get stored outside.
- Off-The-Rack Truck Campers
- Examples: Lance, Alaskan, Northwood, Host, Cirrus, Bigfoot, etc.
- Truck campers were initially a serious consideration of ours yet, at the end of the day, we realized we didn’t want to live out of a pickup truck. To be sure, truck campers offer ample space and amenities for the buck, but with their sloppily built interiors, they are devoid of the ability to endure harsh environments, rough roads, or withstand years of abuse. While you do get 4-wheel drive and a much heavier-duty vehicle, you’re still stuck with a poorly constructed, value-built contraption with nearly non-existent insulation and a bouncy ride. In consideration #3 (vehicle length), the standard truck camper falls short because of the 4½ feet of functionless hood space. For us, that length would be better served for storage, which off-the-rack truck campers do not have. Besides that, contortionists would find it challenging to crawl between the cab and cabin, and since Bethany likes to go back to cook, work, and mobilize (sitting is the new smoking, afterall), the tiny crawl-through window was also a deal breaker.
- Semi-Custom Truck Campers (Built on the F-550, 650, 750 or similar heavy duty pickup truck)
- Examples: Earth Roamer, Tiger by ProVan, Phoenix Pop Up, Bahn Composites (no website, but email us for his contact info)
- Similar in appearance to a run-of-the-mill truck camper, but going semi-custom makes it more purpose-built with a greater degree of hardy features designed for living off the beaten path and off-grid. Solar, better insulation, and better build quality are just a few of the reasons to consider these versus one off-the rack. Certainly capable of doing everything we wanted it to do, however, most cannot be customized to offer gear storage space. Take the Earth Roamer, for example. Here’s a $500,000+ vehicle with a sexy interior layout and some cool features, yet you can’t buy one with room inside for even one bike! In our opinion, they’re designed for people who want to drive to the ends of the earth (as long as that’s no further than the US or Canada due to ULSD fuel), step out of their luxurious cocoon, clink their crystal glasses filled with wine from the on-board wine fridge, and drive home. Not us. We want to go places to do cool shit, not just see it. At the end of the day, the Earth Roamer is a half-million dollars for an F-550 with a box on it, and there’s just no way we could justify that. Plus, a brand new Ford F-550 requires ULSD…so you aren’t going any further than Tijuana, baby. If that satisfies your craving for south-of-the-border adventures, you’re good to go. If not, you may want to look further than the Earth Roamer. If you do decide to go this route, research your chariot thoroughly. Parts and service availability for Ford F-550s and their Dodge or Chevy equivalents can be a challenge outside of the US, making it important to define consideration #1 (Your geographical range) before choosing this as your chassis.
- Fuso-Based Semi-Custom Truck Campers
- Examples: Earth Cruiser or All Terrain Warriors; Phoenix Popup also recently created a Fuso model (more on that in our next post).
- In terms of size and cost, the next logical step up from a Sprinter would be a camper built on a Fuso Canter 4×4 by Mitsubishi, traditionally used as dependable and easy-to-maneuver delivery trucks all over the world. Look around your city today and you’ll see iterations of these flat-fronted trucks everywhere.
The Fuso is extremely dependable, easy to get parts for and has the coveted cab-over design (cab-over meaning that the driver sits atop the engine, eliminating an extra 4 ½ feet of hood, decreasing your overall length and improving turning radius). Although certainly capable of going off-road, they were never designed or built for that purpose. The deal breaker for us was that they have a GVW of 14,000 pounds, so if you want to carry 200 gallons of fuel, 150 gallons of water, have larger tires, and carry a couple thousand pounds of livable interior (bed, bath, cabinets, etc.) plus personal gear, the vehicle maxes out pretty quickly. Your choices for Fuso-specific custom builders are few and far between, in part because none were imported into the US last year. Any custom manufacturer can build on a Fuso, but the challenge is in acquiring one. Currently, the only US company truly specializing in the Fuso-built camper truck is Earth Cruiser out of Bend, Oregon. A worthy vehicle, but we were not impressed with their limited design and layout customizations, and did not enjoy the thought of walking through the bathroom as your main entrance to the cabin. And, you guessed it, there’s also no interior storage for gear.
- Custom Expedition-Grade Trucks
- Examples: Global Expedition Vehicles (US), Action Mobil (Austria), Bliss Mobil (Germany), Unicat (US & Germany), etc. *As of this post, we have learned that both Bliss and Action are currently opening up US offices as well.
- What are they? Expedition vehicles are purpose-built down to every detail and made to be off-road and off-grid. Companies who build them specialize in global travel and can customize your vehicle inside and out to meet almost any need from the ultra-luxurious to the ultra-functional. Expedition-specific vehicles may seem overkill, and they may be for some, but we liked that we could get all the function we needed for every environment we could imagine in a package that held all our gear and still looked like home (at least on the inside; on the outside they’re admittedly a little intimidating). Most of the big players are from outside the US, so importing one can be a challenge. We opted against those added expenses and complications, sticking instead with a US-based company. In general, expedition truck manufacturers will typically build on the following truck chassis:
- Mercedes Unimog:
The undisputed king of off-road adventures, nothing short of an M1A1 battle tank beats a Unimog off-road. Their durability and performance are legendary, but all that comes at a cost. One, they’re not imported into the US. Two, there really is only one place in the US to get them serviced (Colorado). Availability of parts in the US is minimal at best, however, service and availability of parts worldwide is excellent. As incredible as they are off-road, they are equally miserable on a paved road. They roll, they bounce, and no one ever said they were fun to drive on the highway. So while, in Mongolia, where 5% of the roads are paved, it may be the perfect vehicle, in the US where 95% of the roads are paved, it may not be a suitable choice.
- Commercial Tractor Truck (i.e.: Freightliner or International (US) / MAN, Mercedes, etc. (Worldwide).
On the plus side, they’re heavy duty, you can get them in 4-wheel drive (or convert them), and they’re easy to service. Worldwide, service on a US-based International or Freightliner can be trickier and ULSD fuel is also a consideration. They have a lousy turning radius, and you’re stuck with a whole lot of hood. We originally looked at a Freightliner with a 17’ cabin box, but its overall length on its chassis ended up being 31 feet! We decided we wanted something a little sleeker.
- Family of Light/Medium Tactical Vehicles (FLMTV) (i.e.: M1078 or M1083 by BAE, Oshkosh Truck, or Stewart & Stevenson).
- SPOILER ALERT: The BAE M1083 6 x 6 is the chassis we chose to go with, using Global Expedition Vehicles out of Nixa, Missouri to engineer and customize it (more on all that soon).
- These military multi-purpose trucks are the backbone of military transportation as they are proven to be extremely mobile, durable, simple to operate, and robust. Traditionally used as cargo haulers, troop transport, or gun trucks, they are seeing resurgence in the civilian market as heavy-duty ad-hoc expedition campers. They are the only cab-over 4 or 6-wheel drive vehicle in the US, giving you the benefits of easy engine access, all-wheel drive, and a turning radius similar to that of the family station wagon. Unlike an F-550, the M1078 is built specifically for the harsh off-road environment and, therefore, doesn’t need to be Frankensteined to fit the purpose. There’s no need to modify the suspension to fit larger tires, and the frame is already more reinforced than anything commercially available. Couple that with the Caterpillar engine, known for the world’s best parts availability, and you have a vehicle that you can confidently take anywhere. Where there’s construction, there are Caterpillar products, and thus a way to get parts. They are equipped with CTIS (central tire inflation system) so you can easily inflate or deflate the tires at the push of a button to create ideal traction on any terrain. The drawback is that you’re getting a 10-20 year old bare-bones vehicle (albeit with less than 10-15K miles on it), which requires a bit of a makeover. New paint, soundproofing, axels and some modifications to exhaust systems and certain comforts are almost-certain initial investments.
Some have been dropped from helicopters to their military destinations, so you need to make sure you know its history before you buy. Military vehicles are not known for their plush creature comforts, so it’s not as cushy as driving an F-550, and they’re clearly a lot more daunting in their appearance, but it’s plain to see that the many benefits outweigh the drawbacks. They meet all of the needs we shared here, plus for us, is the right answer to all three considerations that direct and define the right chassis for YOUR purpose: 1) Geographical Range, 2) Gross Vehicle Weight Capacity, and 3) Overall Length.
- Mercedes Unimog:
After exploring every single one of these options thoroughly, and getting quotes from each of the major players in every category outlined above, we were confident in our choice. In the next round of this series, we’ll talk about our experience with each company so you can use our insights to save you some time, money and headaches down the road.