BeefCake's build...a roll your own Earthroamerish family expo rig

#1
Background:

So I've been lurking and learning for several months on this part of expo as I've been researching what type of rig to build or buy for a family expo rig. I've tossed the idea around for a long time...almost bought a 404 unimog in high school to take to the arctic circle 20 years ago. Fast forward to now and I have a couple kiddos that are growing faster than I thought possible and I want to get out on the road with them this summer. Our goal is to take a two month trip through BC and Alaska to the arctic circle in July/August as a shake down/trial run for possibly doing a much longer trip in the future.

Looking at all the different options out there I decided I wanted something that I could use dual purpose and not just have sit most the year. I also wanted something that had some mass to it and a decent amount of safety features. My litmus test was I wanted to be able to be in a wreck with a car and not have it be a trip ender and worst case be in wreck with something much larger and not have it be a life ender. Finally comfort and space for traveling long distances as a family of four.

I looked at some of the sprinter conversions. These seem awesome for north american travel and possibly other places as well, but they still command a pretty hefty price, don't seem as burly/safe as some options, and would end up being a single use vehicle for me (I don't want to commute in one). They also seem a scosch cramped for a family of four.

Finally I landed on the Earthroamer style expo rigs. I like the beefyness and size for four, but oof...the price puts them way...I mean WAY out of my ballpark. However, the platform of a crew cab truck with camper seemed pretty ideal. I live on some acreage and have a flatbed dually farm truck that I use for chores, towing, etc. However, it is just an extended cab and has the thirsty 8.1L gas engine...so I decided to look for a new rig.

Having settled on the crew cab, I next had to decide on the class. Initially I wanted to stick with a 3500. However, two things led me to the 4500/5500 class trucks. First, the 84" cab to axle seems to offer valuable extra space for a camper for four. Second, the wider track in the front makes the turning radius of the class four and five trucks pretty attractive. Finally price...the class four and fives actually seem to be cheaper on the used market than the 3500's...I assume because of a smaller market for them. I was initially worried about insurance, but was able to work it out to be quite reasonable.

After looking for a couple months I decided to pull the trigger on a 2012 5500 Dodge. Its a 6.7 Cummins, 6spd manual, 84" cab to axle with 110k miles on it. Doing nothing the easy way (and everything the way that helps the budget) I bought it with a bad head gasket...so it was already a project.

Meet Beefcake:
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#2
The Beginning

The first order of business once Beefcake was home was to get the head gasket fixed. Reading up it sounds like this isn't an entirely uncommon issue with the 6.7 cummins. I recently swapped a 6BT cummins into my FJ80 and always do my own fab work so was happy for the opportunity to buy the truck cheaper and learn my way around it first thing. The space to work on the engine was one of the big deciding factors for me when choosing between the Dodge and the Ford. Also, the Ford's in my price range seemed to be plagued with engine issues.

I removed the head and had it machined. I also upgraded to ARP studs while in there. It was a relatively simple job...surprisingly straightforward and easy to move around in the engine compartment.
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Now that beefcake could move it was time to figure out where to go from here.
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I spent a good amount of time reading up on different builds on expo. Carlyle, Healeyjet, and TerraOps builds along with many others were certainly inspirational to me. One of the earliest decisions I had to make was about sticking with duals vs super singles. I have to admit I loved the duals on my farm truck, but I really wanted taller tires to help with ground clearance/approach angles and the stock 4.44 gears. Getting bigger duals looked expensive. So did getting super singles. I talked to Rickson and others and really like the M608Z tires some folks were using, but oof they are pricey when you consider you need custom wheels too. I finally settled on some Hutchinson surplus wheels that seemed to have the right offset but wrong bolt pattern. Apparently these came on the eight wheeled Stryker light attack vehicles and have plenty of load rating for my use. I'm terrible about taking pictures when I get a new toy...here's a pic I snapped on the freeway the other day of the wheels on a stryker.
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These are a typical forged aluminum hutchinson wheel and are the same bolt pattern as the kodiak/top kick trucks. I am choosing not to run beadlocks as I just don't think I'll be doing things that serious.
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One thing I have noticed is that most people seem to run hugely offset wheels when they go to super singles so that they can run the same wheel front and back. I don't like this because it seems like it adds a pretty significant moment on the rear wheel and studs since the load isn't centered (or even close) to the mounting surface. I know many people do this without issue, but I just don't like it. Also, I noticed that the front axle has an 'adapter' from the factory for the dually front wheels. Since I was going to adapt lug patterns anyways, I opted to remove this adapter and run a wheel with less offset. I am very pleased with the results. My wheels don't stick out as far as many and my track width front to rear is within 1"

Here is the stock front 'adapter':
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I know many people are on expo for the adventures etc...for me a BIG part of the adventure is building the truck. I love making things. Again, I'm terrible at taking pics, but here is the only pic I have of turning a front wheel adapter. Not very interesting, but they have worked out great so far.
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#3
Suspension

I have gone back and forth quite a bit on the suspension. The 5500 isn't exactly smooth riding unloaded :) I know I'm putting a 3-4k camper on the back, but I also plan to use the truck quite a bit as the 'farm truck' and would like it to be comfortable to ride in without the load. I looked at the Kelderman systems, which seem really nice, but I also worry a bit about the added complexity. Normal springs are low tech and low failure rate. I decided to swap in rear leaf packs from a 3500 dodge. The stock 5500 spring pack was around 7" thick...about 9 leaves plus overloads...it was insanely stout...and rode like it. The 3500 spring packs were half as thick. While the main leafs measure eye to eye the same the axle placement is slightly different. I ended up taking apart both packs and using the stock 5500 main leaf with the rest of the 3500 pack. Sorry I don't have pics of this. If it helps imagine a giant pile of spring steel...If anyone needs some extra leaves for anything...I have a ton.

The plan is to use the 3500 springs to locate the axle and support light loads. I'm also adding some heavy firestone airbags (similar to kelderman bags) to support the camper weight or heavy loads on the flatbed. The stock 3500 springs have significantly more arch in them than the 5500 and the truck probably got an 1"-2" of lift in the rear out of this swap

In the front I bought some stock 3500 coil springs, but unfortunately they do not fit. The 5500's are a constant radius spring, but the 3500's are larger at the bottom. For now I have the stock coils in front with a 1.5" leveling kit in. I've also ordered airbags for the front, but I'm not thrilled about replacing the coils with a bag that can fail. Still debating that.

I am running bilstein 5100 shocks all the way around.

With the suspension leveled and the wheel adapters made I was able to mount some very used 37" Nitto's to see how the size looked.
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#4
Tires

The next big step was figuring out tires. I really wanted to stay with a light truck tire, but just couldn't find anything that would meet the anticipated load requirements. The toyos come close a 4k lbs a piece, but the rear axle of my truck weighs in at 3800 lbs with nothing on the frame. I'm not sure of my final camper weight but 3-4k lbs doesn't seem out of the question and that just doesn't leave a lot of room for error. I'd also like to keep the ability to haul decently heavy loads in the truck.

This lead me to the MPT81 in the 275/80r20 size. I liked that it wasn't too tall and monster truck like and it is narrow which would be good on my wheels (8.5"). However, its load rating isn't that much better than the LT tires at just 4700 lbs a piece. After much hand wringing and debate I decided to jump to the 335/80R20 size as it offers much more load capacity and a few more options. The Goodyear G275's seem like the ideal tire for my use, but at $680 a piece they are a lot of cheddar. They also run about an inch larger than the MPT81 and I am already reluctant about running a 41" tire. However, their 81 MPH speed rating and likely longer life are attractive. Being me and being that each of these tires cost more than my first car (scout 80 if you care) I ended up picking up some MPT81's from Colony Tire and just got them yesterday.

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I was able to get them mounted up on the wheels with balance beads installed. First time I've used those...hoping they work well. I installed the wheels on the truck knowing they'd contact. To my surprise I was able to put them on...I just couldn't steer more than a few degrees in either direction.
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#5
Flares
I really like the AEV High Cut flares, but they are pretty pricey. However, I want to keep my CG low and so far only have 1.5" of lift. I was considering pulling the trigger on their flares and I decided to read their install instructions to see how much and where they cut the fenders to make running 41's possible. (I had called AEV a month or so ago to inquire about what is required to run 41's on a 5500 and they said they didn't know and that they don't make parts for the 5500) Reading a couple threads on here it sounded like the 5500's axle was already moved forward a bit from the 3500 trucks. I decided to just cut my fenders where the instructions showed to see how much more lift I would need and figured I'd order up the flares.

The main area that needs cutting is at the back of the wheel well. I removed the stock flares and inner fender, unbolted the fender, and cut right between the two lower fender bolts up about 12" or so. This removes about 1.5-2" of fender material. I then had to cut about the same amount of material off the front part of the rocker. I did this by sectioning a sliver out of the rocker so that the existing metal could be reused to mostly cover the end of the rocker. Here is a pick before sealer went on.
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With sealer applied:
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I then had to roll the lip of the fender up a bit for the back third of the fender. Also, when you cut the fender you remove its lip which serves to stiffen the fender quite a bit. I opted to re-establish this lip by just rolling the fender in a bit. I then painted the bare metal where the paint flaked off.
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Last night while looking at the stock flares and the cut areas I realized that the stock flares are mounted down about 2" into the fender opening. I'm not sure why this is. Fortunately the flares are in two pieces that make it easy to change this. At this point I decided to try and modify my stock (and therefore free flares) to see if they could work. First I built a new bracket to mount them out of 3.5"x.080" aluminum. You can see it here as I'm mocking it up.
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Next I slid the stock flare on to see where it needed cutting. I cut the very bottom of it to match the contour of the fender and also to move it back a bit. Once this was done I marked a new set of holes for the stock clips that mount the flare to the fender. I painted these for rust protection.
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Finally I mounted the flare up.
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I need to fill the gap between the bumper and flare end...that will cover the little it of white you see peaking through and finish them off nicely I think. I can now turn my wheels lock to lock. The tires just barely touch the sway bar at full lock...I'll adjust the stops to prevent that. I'm pretty happy with the coverage and look and super happy with the price :)
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#6
Bumper

Bumper

I forgot to mention that in my craigslist surfing looking for trucks I came across an ad from Buckstop bumpers in Prineville, OR (About 3 hrs from me). They had some overstock scratch and dent bumpers they were selling at a hefty discount and I was able to pick up a Trail Ready bumper for the truck. It was definitely worth the drive. Seemed like great guys and I'm pleased with the bumper. I also picked up a Warn winch to put in it :)
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#7
Camper

My goal for this truck is that it be safe and fun for my family of 4 to travel around in. I don't plan to do any rock crawling in it, but will likely end up on some less than awesome roads. But they will be roads. We also could potentially be in this thing for long periods of time...not just weekends or a week here and there. With that in mind space is kind of a big deal. The quickest route would be to just buy a large slide in truck camper and put it on the back. I looked at this, but after checking out several I just couldn't wrap my mind around the four of us living in something that tight day in and day out and calling it 'fun'. We could do it, but it seemed like there had to be a better option. I looked at campers with slides, but since they are mostly designed for pickups the slides help, but only above the bed rails. Also, price quickly became a factor...

Next I started researching box construction. For a while I thought about getting a local sips manufacturer to build me some panels. That ended up too pricey. I could order panels...but again pricey. At this point I switched gears for a while and decided to look for a box van body to cut up and insulate. I found several but looking at them further showed me that they are surprisingly heavy. I also wanted the FRP panel walls instead of aluminum and that was harder to come by.

I loved reading Jeep's posts about building their first camper with panels. Also TerraOps DIY composite panel build was inspiring and I decided to re-evaluate building my own box...but I was pretty sure I wanted a slide. I noticed that a lot of the travel trailers have slides that really increase the interior living space. One of my friends has been fulltime RV'ing with a 30' trailer with a slide for a couple years with his family and swears by the slide. Yes it takes maintenance, but worth it for the day to day livability. I looked at buying parts to build a slide. Kinda hard to do as Lippert seems to only deal with manufacturers. They are really simple devices and now that I have one I'd probably try harder to source parts the next time...but oh well.

I'm a big time scrounger. I love wrecking yards, craigslist, and auctions. I ended up finding this 21' trailer at copart that had been rear ended.
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The biggest feature of this guy that I liked was that it had an 11'6" slide that came out 3'. The living space is huge in this!
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Another nice feature is that this has all the systems already in it and is a 2017...so almost brand new. The downside is that this is an RV with typical RV quality construction. However, for my needs I think its a great base to start building from and I can remedy many of the construction short comings along the way.

The first order of business was to cut off the front and rear of the camper.
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Next was removing the axles and frame. This required a series of jacks, wedges, lifts and helpful wife :)
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#8
Building the Frame

I now have the camper on pallets in the shop.
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Once I had the old frame out I cut it up into pieces. Felt like I was running a real chop shop :) I saved the slide mechanism and other things that seemed useful and will scrap the rest. Next I picked up some 6x2x.120 wall tube and got to work on the new frame. Big slides like this are 'through frame' slides so it took some sectioning and gusseting to put it all together.

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You'll notice I used some light steel framing pieces on the frame. I thought this was a good idea for corrosion protection and I like that its light and readily available, but the galvanizing is hard to get paint to adhere to :-(

I have also started working on the over cab portion of the frame. On most my projects I don't like to start until I know for sure they are gonna work. That's not the case here. Technically it should all work. But we'll see...

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#11
Haha! You and me both! Should get some parts back from the powder coated this week. I’ve made up some of the composite panels and hope to get the box on the new frame in the next couple weeks.
 
#13
Frame Twist

I thought I had convinced myself that I didn't need a three point mount system. However when I tested the tire clearance with the new tires by driving up a bank and looking at the back I'm not so sure...looks pretty twisty...

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I'll have to give this some more thought...
 
#15
Thanks! I definitely have enjoyed reading up about your build. I can't recall what system you use...

I'd like the camper to be easily removable. If I do a three point system I think I'd fix it at the cab and let the back move. I was really looking forward to not messing with this or using the spring option...
 
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