Expedition Vehicles: Selecting the ultimate camper
This is the second in a series of articles identifying the best
vehicles for adventure travel. This time we focus on choices for a camping vehicle.
What's a camper?
For this discussion, let's say a camper is a shelter carried by the
vehicle chassis. A camper is a vehicle you can live inside of, rather
than a vehicle you unpack and live next to. At a minimum, a camper
needs the following features
-- sleeping positions in the shelter for the driver and at least one passenger
-- seats inside, out of the weather, that are not the positions used
-- facilities for food and water storage, and food preparation
(cooking outside is OK)
-- sanitary facilities, including a toilet of some kind and a wash basin.
From this point of view, adding a rooftop tent does not make your
vehicle a camper. Building a sleeping platform in the back of a
vehicle is not enough to create a camper. Safari-style large tents
are not campers, either.
Trailers built for rough road use, such as the Adventure Trailers
Offroad Teardrop (http://www.adventuretrailers.com/teardrop.html), and
the Kimberly Kamper trailer (http://www.kimberleykampers.com/), are
interesting shelter options that should be discussed in an article of
Is a camper necessary for adventure travel?
No. It's entirely possible to travel for a few days with little more
than a bedroll and a couple of energy bars in your pocket. However,
when the journey is measured in weeks rather than days, then the
greater convenience, organization, capacity, comfort, privacy and
security of a camper are welcome.
A camper is great when you face unpredictable or extreme weather
conditions. A camper usually can be set up and taken down more
quickly than a tent camp. A camper is also a good choice when your
companions are not as enthusiastic as you may be about sleeping
A camper helps when your journey includes stops in urban areas. A
camper is better for an overnight stay in a Wal-Mart parking lot,
behind a Costa Rican truck stop, or next to a bar on a beach in
For these reasons, people choose a camper for adventure travel,
despite its extra weight and bulk.
The camping vehicle recommendations that follow are divided into four
-- Very light duty, cargo capacity up to 1500 lbs. Mid-size pickups
and most SUVs.
-- Light duty, cargo capacity up to 3000 lbs. Full size pickups and
small work trucks.
-- Medium duty, cargo capacity up to 8000 lbs. Work trucks like Ford
F450 and Fuso FG.
-- Heavy duty, cargo capacity beyond 8000 lbs. Serious steel, like
F550 cab/chassis, Mercedes trucks
Toyota Hilux with camper by Polycomposit, a French builder.
Turtle Expedition F550
Global Expedition Vehicles
Very light duty (cargo capacity up to 1500 lbs)
The best new camping vehicle in this weight class is the Toyota Tacoma
4x4 pickup, sold in USA and Canada, and its counterpart sold
world-wide, the Toyota HiLux. These vehicles have earned an
excellent reputation for durability and off-road performance. They
have many options and upgrades available from aftermarket
manufacturers. Toyota parts and service for the HiLux are available
around the world.
Here are three examples of the Tacoma or HiLux with a camper on board:
Toyota Hilux with popup camper top by Polycomposit, a French builder.
HiLux camper with tilt-up top by Innovation, a German firm
A second good choice in the very light duty category is the
Earthroamer XV-JP, constructed on a modified Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
with upgraded suspension.
The Earthroamer is well supported in North America, but Jeep can't
match Toyota's support network in other countries around the world.
Other vehicles in this class include midsize trucks from Nissan,
Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Ford and GM. None is as durable or as well
supported worldwide as the Toyota models. It's a pity North American
customers can't buy the HiLux or other models in this class with the
small diesel engines their manufacturers make available in other
Most SUVs, including the Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol, Mercedes
Geländewagen, smaller Land Rovers and other worthy vehicles fall in
the very light category. They can't match the interior space or, in
most cases, the cargo capacity that the pickups provide.
Vehicles in the very light duty category have just barely enough cargo
carrying capacity for a simple camper, a passenger, and your gear.
You need to be very careful when outfitting a very light duty truck to
avoid loading it beyond the factory specifications. Even if a
vehicle is rated to carry all your gear, you won't want to drive it
very far with the springs close to the bump stops and the shocks
compressed. Driving a vehicle loaded to the limit over rough roads is
a good way to shorten the life of your tires and suspension
If you choose to build a camper using a chassis from the very light
class, you'll probably need to budget for a suspension upgrade.
Better yet, consider buying a truck with greater capacity instead.
Light duty (cargo capacity (1500-3000 lbs)
In the first article in this series, the Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ 78
and 79 were chosen as the ultimate new vehicle for overland travel.
The Land Cruiser 78/79 is also the best light duty platform for a
The Land Cruiser HZJ 78 is the famous "Troop Carrier" SUV. For
camping duty, these are usually outfitted with a roof that pivots open
on a hinge.
The HZJ 79 is the cab/chassis version of LC70 series. For camping
use, this vehicle is frequently equipped with a lightweight custom
built shelter with pop-up roof. Here are two examples:
The HZJ 78 and 79 have a cargo capacity of about 2,700 lbs. That's
enough for a passenger, a well-equipped camper, and lots of gear. The
current HZJ 79 is only available from Toyota as a single cab.
Unfortunately, the Land Cruiser 70 series is not sold in USA. Other
European and Japanese manufacturers offer a number of
off-road-oriented vehicles in this weight class (e.g., Iveco Daily
4x4, Iveco Massif, Bremach 35, Land River Defender 130, Mercedes
Sprinter 4x4, Mercedes Unimog U20, Fuso Canter FD, and others). None
are imported to USA.
For use as a light duty camper platform in North America, I think the
Dodge Power Wagon is the best compromise between carrying capacity and
off road capability.
From the factory, the Power Wagon is equipped with a long travel
off-road suspension, front and rear locking differentials, 33 inch
tires, 4.56 axle ratio, skid plates and winch. The Power Wagon is
powered by a gas Hemi engine, paired with a 5 speed automatic
transmission. Its 2200 lb. cargo rating will allow you to mount a
heavier popup camper and lots of gear.
The current Power Wagon is available only in a double cab
configuration, which makes it a good choice if you expect to have more
than a single passenger. Single cab Power Wagons were produced from
2005 through 2008.
If you want a diesel, consider the Dodge 3500 with Cummins diesel.
The diesel can be ordered with manual or automatic transmission,
single or double cab, and 6.5 foot or 8 foot bed. Unfortunately, the
locking front differential is not available from the factory with the
diesel engine. The 3500 with diesel engine and single rear wheels has
a carrying capacity of about 3000 lb.
While there is no model from Ford, GM, Toyota or Nissan that matches
the Power Wagon's combination of carrying capacity and off-road
performance, you can build a very capable 4x4 pickup based on any of
these brands. So if your brand loyalty won't let you consider a
Dodge, there are lots of good alternatives.
The full size USA pickup is somewhat larger than the Land Cruiser
78/79. The Power Wagon is 2 feet longer overall, but it's a crew cab
model. The Power Wagon is 9 inches wider and 3 inches taller than the
Cruiser. Despite the extra weight and size, a properly equipped
pickup can still handle challenging terrain.
Dodge 3500 diesel with XP Camper on a rocky trail