Although I have had my ZR2 Bison for about 8 months, I'm just finally getting some time to create a proper build thread to share the new parts and experiences with this relatively untapped platform.
First things first, why the ZR2 Bison?
For the past >7 years a Jeep JKUR was my vehicle of choice, providing exceptional off-road capability and adequate accommodations with an Alu-Cab Gen3, Shadow Awn and Goose Gear Kitchen. https://expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/ok4wd-daily-driver-overland-rubicon.136155/ However after a few extended length trips with our shop Toyota Tacoma it became clear the advantages of a Canopy Camper, especially in the cold and wet North East. So with the camper being the goal, the next step was deciding on a platform and what a better time to be searching for a mid-size bakkie!
The first key factor I considered was off-road performance. My previous JKUR kitted with 35” tires and 3.5” of lift was a dialed machine to be reckoned with in the tight, muddy trails of New England. In my travels in the Tacoma, it was clear that 33” tires could squeak through most trails but at the expense of extensive spotting and working the vehicles protection equipment. So an ideal tire size of 35” – 37” was determined along with the “need” of front and rear lockers, whether it be OE as a plus or adding ARB units. These two considerations narrowed the search down to really the Gladiator or ZR2 Bison. Both can support 35” tires and both have factory installed front and rear lockers.
So with two strong contenders, the next factor was highway drivability. Most of my trips easily average over 1,000 miles so while Off-Road capability is a must, being conformable at 70mph for 5+ hours is a big plus. It is no secret that IFS / Leaf Sprung vehicles tend to take best to these conditions and our Tacoma really cemented that idea after a few long hauls. Given the ZR2 factory DSSV suspension and 2.8l Diesel engine, it is hard to be beat for highway cruising. My past experiences with the 3.6l pentastar engine have always been positive, however adding 3’ of vehicle and a considerably heavier camping setup didn’t exactly feel ideal.
With the ZR2 already high on the list, the AEV Bison package meant that on top of the diesel engine, dual lockers and DSSV suspension you could spec the vehicle with space age AEV front and rear bumpers, skid plates, wheels and badging for $5,750. Pair that with Chevrolet offering 10% off MSRP throughout June 2019 and Dave from AEV confirming the highline fenders are in production and it was decision made!
(When you pick up your new vehicle on the last day of the month and you cannot get insurance on the weekend... )
With the Bison home, it was time to start modifying it for a quick trip up to Maine and an upcoming trip with the guys from Mountain State Overland.
First up was a simple front suspension lift to accommodate a 285/70R17 BFGoodrich KO2 tire for added ground clearance and approach / departure angles. While there are other kits on the market and some uncertainty on UCA compatibility, we figured we would give it a go and get some first hand experience. To date all is working well 11,000 miles and many tough trails later.
Next was to address the exhaust system, which on these 2.8l equipped trucks is right in harms way. Simply playing on the test course at the shop proved just how vulnerable it was in the first few days of ownership.
Bed storage / security for these two trips meant an Alu-Cab Explorer Canopy was in order until the Canopy Camper was delivered. The Colorado specific units incorporate a really unique design developed to take the mounting stress and rather introduce it to the bed rails, it attaches to the stake pockets with robust stainless steel mounts.
For the trip north to Maine, the winch and paint protection were not in order but sleeping accommodations were a must. Being July in Maine, ventilation was the goal and proved to be a great time to test some new gear! So an AutoHome Airtop Medium with the new 360 technology was installed up top.
Back from Maine and the final preparations for the MSO trip down to West Virginia were underway.
Nothing like cutting month old paint in order to install a raised air intake... But unsure of what we would be getting into on this MSO trip and knowing it was on the list for future modifications, now was the time to get it knocked out.
For recovery duties a Warn 9.5XP-S was chosen along with the appropriate AEV mounting kit and Factor55 E-Link. While apart, it was also the perfect time to swap the front bumper center section for the AEV low tube version. At the time I assumed it would look better, but on the black truck it was a night and day change in appearance!
Last was to get the truck wrapped. Black was not my first choice, but what was available when I was shopping for a truck and I was well aware what the "New England Car Wash" would do to the paint. The idea was to use a similar design to our Tacoma but work with the black / grey of the bumpers, this is what we ended up on.
One of the big reasons for the Canopy Camper and this build in general was to have true 4 season camping. Not just surviving, but thriving! So a heater was on the short list and after much geeking out I found a marine fireplace that seemed it would fit the space inside the camper nearly perfectly.
After some closer measurements, it was a go but there was still the big question of mounting and routing of the exhaust / intake tube to follow the manufactures guidelines and how to eliminate the deck plate while clearing the latch,rear throw handle and awning. After a few more measurements, it was time to drill a big hole in an expensive camper. No going back and nothing gets you rolling on a project faster! haha
With the first 45* pipe in place, a final mounting position of the heater could be determined along with depth of the mount itself. Originally I planned on taking advantage of the internal T-slot frame to secure the heater body, however for the pipework to clear the internal framework it would nearly have to be mounted against the back wall. This led to the idea of a stainless bracket that transfers the mass of the heater through the camper rear wall and to the molle plate outside the camper.
Next up was the deck plate, which I was able to cut apart and mimic the base with the exhaust tubing and rivet it into place like the factory piece.
Welded up along with a support plate for the stack, luckily the total assembly height was able to remain under the load bar height due to removing the deck plate. Big bonus in new England trails!
And all just in time to make it up to Vermont with a few friends for a great (wet / cold) trial run. For this run i made a makeshift propane regulator and line setup that required a door to be cracked to plumb the propane.
Might be the first truck with front plus rear lockers and a fireplace?
With a super successful run and not burning the truck down, i wrapped up the propane install with mounting the regulator in the LHS taillight access box to protect it from the elements.
And with one project down, it was time for the next. The Canopy Camper has a wiring leash that contains solar pre-wiring and all the camper accessories like the National Luna lights, USB and 12v Chargers. Typically we just install a Blue Sea fuse block and run it to the OGE dual battery system under the hood on Tacoma platforms. But the ZR2 with it's voltage sensitive alternator meant a RedArc BCDC was in order and unlike the Tacoma a second battery under the hood was not an option.
With this blank slate of a layout, the idea to have Goose Gear create an electrical accessory board for the Canopy Camper was sprung. The space on each side of the rear door at first had little value, but after spending a few nights in the camper it became clear this real estate was a game changer for building the ultimate layout. Goose Gear whipped these blank panels up and it was a home run, not only did it provide a space for the circuit breaker and switches, but also the Red Arc BCDC40 and Victron BMV-700 so all camper electronics are conveniently in one place.
With the board in place it was time to mount the battery and fridge. Goose Gear was once again the go to for removing the full rear row with their 60/40 system.
The last piece of the electrical puzzle was installing the Sunflare 105w solar panels onto the roof of the Canopy Camper. These are glued down with Sikaflex and can plug right into the camper's pre-wired Anderson SB50 connector at the rear of the roof.