Tuesday, January 16, 2024

We got a new rig! (Two years ago.)

In typical fashion, I'm finally getting around to writing a blog entry about the fact that we got a new truck - only 23 months after the fact!

The plot goeth thusly:

Vandalf the Beige, our 2003 Astro Van with a self-transplanted GTRV Pop Top, has been in the family since my daughter was only 3 months old. I purchased the van with the specific intent of converting it to a pop-top four wheel drive camper, and making sure that my daughter grew up knowing how much fun family adventure could be. On that score, mission-accomplished. That said, while a mini-van (or as the Astro/Safari folks generously dub them: "Midi-Vans") has proven to be a tidy package for fitting into tight places and narrow trails, the fact is that things were getting cozy now as our daughter became a teen. 😱 An upgrade in size was in-order.

Furthermore, Vandalf was 99.999% DIY (and I don't mean "Built not Bought" the way the Jeep guys say it 😛) - I literally did everything myself, from the Pop-Top and 4WD conversion to the upholstery. The only work not done by my own hands was the re-gear and setup on the axles and the replacement of a seized brake caliper that happened en-route to Mountain Rendezvous

I'm proud of that build, but the truth is that I don't have it in me to tackle that kind of project again. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on that subject that I'll get into at some later point. I will still get my hands dirty on the new rig, but frankly I don't have enough weekends left with my kiddo before she leaves for college to spend them scratch-building a truck.

Given all of that, 2021-2022 sounds like a perfect time to shop for a new camper, right? Nobody else is buying stuff like that as a global pandemic wreaks havoc on supply chains and buying trends? 😢

There are a lot of options, and we spent literally years exploring everything from bigger/fancier vans, to slide-in campers, to bespoke habitat boxes mounted on ex-military trucks.  Many of my friends in the various Expo/Adventurist/Vanlife spheres have been witness to me checking out rigs at events, and cyber-stalking various truck and van owners for quite a while.  Additionally, 
our somewhat-short (22') suburban SoCal driveway limits us to either short-wheelbase vans or extended-cab, shortbed style trucks - No 170" Sprinters, quad cabs, or longbeds need apply.  After getting a chance to thoroughly climb through a Four Wheel Campers Hawk Flatbed at an event in ~2018, the Mrs. had long-since settled on that camper as her preferred solution to the question, and this is one area where deferring to her preferences is worthwhile. 

Well, the diligence paid off - when this truck and camper hit the Expedition Portal classifieds, I was on it in a flash.  Is she a perfect fit for our needs? Not 100%, but damned close, and the price was right to enable me to get the rig purchased and dialed with enough time for a big Summer 2022 family adventure. 

Turn-key package-wise, this was pretty spot-on to find a 2020 Hawk Flatbed already mounted on a 2018 F-150 Extended-Cab, shortbed truck.  Most of the truck options are exactly what I would have opted for: the long-range 36 gallon fuel tank gives us about 500 miles of range, even with the camper; the rear axle has the electronic-locking differential for more technical off-roading; and the V8/10-speed powertrain is the right combination of robustness and capability.  

On paper, the F150 might be slightly under-spec'ed for the load, and I agree that a full flatbed camper on a half-ton truck is at the limit.  That said, this particular truck has the right options for a 2200lbs payload, so I'm taking a wait-and-see approach.  So far it seems like the previous owner did a great job with suspension upgrades - there are custom rear leaf springs to match the camper's weight, and the TeraFlex Tow/Haul shock kit levels out the ride height and makes it very easy to toggle the damper settings for on or off road behavior.  Overall, the truck handles great.

Aside from a few tasteful cosmetic updates from the original owners, the interior layout is pretty standard Four Wheel Camper for now.  I will note that we probably would have opted for the "cassette toilet", but this camper was ordered with a storage cabinet instead.  This is probably actually better, since it includes an upper storage area for food/dry goods and a lower cabinet that still houses a "porta potti" style toilet after a few modifications.

The photos above courtesy of previous owner @dalday and I thank him for building such a nice rig!

The Voyage Home

My habit of finding and purchasing vehicles from very far away continues unabated. (Our 2003 van was a fly-n-drive from Arizona, and the 1995 GTRV donor van was a fly-n-drive from Vancouver, BC.) This truck/camper package was listed for sale in Little Rock, AR, which posed a few new challenges, but nothing insurmountable. I'm not sure any of these merits a full writeup, unless there are questions, so I'll just give a bulleted list of things that I needed to deal with in the run-up to, and the immediate aftermath of the camper purchase:

  • This particular F-150 was built for, and originally sold to, the Canadian market, then re-imported to the USA. I had no interest in accidentally having a grey- or black-market truck, so some due diligence was in-order. Having already done a Canadian vehicle import once, I knew the things to check and the people to contact. After verifying all the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Emissions labels, and obtaining a copy of the original bond-release paperwork from when the truck was imported, I felt safe in the truck's provenance and went forward with the sale.
  • Money Matters - we were paying cash for this rig - that meant moving funds around between our own accounts, but there was a bigger problem - none of our banks had an office in Little Rock, and I didn't blame the seller for being shy about accepting an out-of-state cashier's check, given the potential for fraud there. Instead, I ended up opening an account with the seller's bank and doing a wire-transfer to get the funds into my account there. Not difficult, but it can take a couple of days to move large sums of money like this. On the day of the sale we finished our transaction at his branch, which went very smoothly.  The bank manager even let us use his office for the final signatures!
  • Getting all the "stuff" home - Along with the truck and camper, there were quite a few parts that were included in the deal that needed transporting - biggest of which are the drop-sides and tailgate that came with the Ute Ltd flatbed (which let it function more like a regular pick-up truck when the camper is not fitted). Fortunately the seller was able to wedge these into the space between the flatbed and frame and lash everything in place well enough to get them home. The backseat was also filled with four camper jacks still in boxes and a bunch of ancillary bits.
  • Air Travel to Little Rock - I figured the cost of a 1-way ticket to pick up the camper was part of the cost of doing business, but timing worked out such that I was originally supposed to fly on the day of that big winter-arctic blast thing that dropped ice and snow all over everything from Colorado down to central Texas and Arkansas. Cancelled flights and delays ensued, but we adapt.
  • Driving route was also adjusted due to the weather - that storm left a lot of ice on the roads on my preferred route.  I'd originally intended to check some Route-66 segments off my bucket list, but I diverted south to avoid ice, so that's an adventure for another day. The downside of the southern route is only that you spend almost two days just driving across Texas.😡   I used to be a bus driver, so I'm used to long stints behind the wheel, but this was, to date, my longest un-assisted haul in such a short time span. (Approximately 1700 miles in about 48 hours!)
  • Freezing me arse off in Arizona - The upside of buying a complete camper is that very little extra gear is needed to turn a Fetch Quest into a full-blown Adventure.  I packed my backpacking sleeping back and a couple of days of warm clothing into my carry-on bag, and flew out.  After taking possession of the truck, I stopped at a Home Goods and Dollar Store for a single saucepan, a knife and fork, and some basic provisions.  With that, I was ready to camp.  The seller had demonstrated all the functions were working on delivery, so I was good to go.  Except that, maybe, the first (of two) propane tanks wasn't quite as full as expected.  On the last night of the drive, somewhere outside of the Coyote Mountains Wilderness, the heater died at about 2am. Being inexperienced with the new rig, and given that it was hovering just below freezing, I didn't think to climb out and swap to the 2nd propane tank.  I shivered in my bag for a few hours until dawn.
  • Registration in California - As noted in this thread, I had a little snafu with getting the truck smogged. One failure was an issue of an overzealous and misguided visual inspection, the other was a quasi-legitimate concern about the change to the fuel-filler neck resulting from the flatbed conversion. The details are in that thread, but there was a delay due to needing to source a couple of adapter parts and waiting for California Bureau of Automotive Repair referee appointments. In the end, being prepared with good documentation and a cheerful attitude paid off - the BAR referee was a cool guy and the whole appointment was very smooth.  The truck is now legal and tagged as a "Permanently Mounted" camper (passenger vehicle), rather than a commercial flatbed truck, which saves on taxes and potential hassles at weigh stations.
Now, let the fun begin!

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