A’s B’s and C’s

As we grew older, car/tent camping got old. My wife is a traveler at heart, not a camper, so the primitiveness of tents, having to cook outdoors, and the lack of a bathroom meant that we only tent camped as a last resort.

Nothing that a small travel trailer can’t fix, so we bought one of the original all aluminum LivinLite Camplite’s and towed it about 20,000 miles and many night over 7 years.

We loved the all-aluminum – no wood Camplite camper. The trailer frame was aluminum, the interior cabinets were aluminum framed and faced, the interior walls were aluminum framed, the roof was aluminum framed and skinned, and the floor was welded aluminum extrusions. We joked about the ‘meat locker’ look, and that it looked like the inside of an ambulance. But because of the welded construction, the quality was very good for a trailer. Unfortunately that type of construction is nearly non-existent today.

The travel trailer had a couple of downsides.

  • It has to be towed, which limits where I was willing to go in winter and which limited my wife’s ability to help drive. She’s not up for towing at all, which limited the length of our travel legs.
  • It was as aerodynamic as a brick. Gas mileage with a half-ton pickup ranged from 10-13 mpg, depending on speed and wind. More aerodynamic trailers are available, and had we continued with towables we might have gone smaller and more aerodynamic.
  • Unless you have an off-road capable trailer you can’t take them very far off road. It’s another chassis and a set of tires and brakes to maintain. Travel trailers use 1950’s suspension and brake technology- nowhere near as maintenance-free as modern cars and trucks.

So with tents and towables off the table, what’s left?

We liked the idea of pulling into a campsite and not having to set up a trailer, and we liked the idea of the cab and coach being in the same space.

Pickup Campers. I was looking into moving to a small truck camper on a 3/4 or 1-ton truck. Off-road capable, and with a diesel engine, tolerable gas mileage.

My wife was not enthused over having to climb that many steps up into the camper,and again into cab-over bed. When camping we pop in and out of the camper a lot, so putting a flight of steps in line wasn’t doable. Nor was she enthused about driving anything bigger than a half-ton truck.

Class A’s. We both felt that even the smallest A is a pretty big vehicle, none get decent mileage and most get poor mileage. We end up in small state and national forest and park campgrounds, and many of those are pretty hard to mange with a large vehicle. I also wasn’t enthused about giving up modern safety features and airbags.

Class C’s. Small, maneuverable C’s are available, but unfortunately in most cases they revert back to the horrible 1970’s faux wood decor, poor quality construction, and in most cases a relatively primitive cab & chassis truck with a large V10 and poor gas mileage.

Class B’s. With a ‘B’ you get a more maneuverable vehicle, better mileage than the other alternatives, a van chassis – which today are more refined and modern than some of the cab & chassis trucks – but nowhere near as refined as a modern pickup truck.

For us, the prime consideration was that B’s are small enough that my wife is comfortable driving one. That opens up the possibility of longer travel days, and gives me an occasional break from driving.

But B’s have downsides too.

  • Space: You really have to strip down what you bring along. They simply don’t have space for non-essentials. That means that many of the conveniences that we threw into either the travel trailer of the truck bed can’t fit into the ‘B’. That also means that you have to re-use space. Your bed is also the couch, your table is part of the bed, and you have to set and reset them several times per day.
  • They really aren’t set up to tow another vehicle, yet they tend to be just a bit to big to use as an only vehicle.
  • In nearly all cases, they are not off-road vehicles. Length, ground clearance and lack 4wd are barriers to going too far off-road.

So by process of elimination, it’s a B.

Buy or Build?

Once we settled on a ‘B’, my idea was to start with an empty cargo van and build out the interior ‘on the fly’ with aluminum/composite cabinets and a layout that maximized functional space. I thought that we could start out primitive, and travel with a partially completed van as we learned what we needed and didn’t need.

I’m more than capable of doing a build on my own – so I started researching and drawing up ideas, researching cargo van chassis and appliances & generally getting the groundwork out of way.

In the mean time, we went to a couple of RV shows, and stopped at a couple of dealers, mostly to get build ideas, but also for the inevitable sticker shock of new B’s, with the thought that it would encourage us to build.

But – after looking at class B’s, we has a conversation that went something like this:

Me: I can build for far less than we can buy. New cargo van $40k, aftermarket 4wd conversion (something I really wanted) $15k, my build $10-15K, depending on how fancy I make it. We’ll get exactly what we want.

Her: How long:

Me: If I don’t put 4wd under it, and if we find a decent van on the lot, I can do the build in 6 months.

Her: OK – so two years. I don’t want to wait two years. Let do this now.

Me: We’ll give up 4wd and loose the ability to go off-road.

Us: There are years worth of things to see out west that can be reached via graded or paved roads. Lets get out and travel – and figure out how to go off-road after we’ve seen everything we can in 2wd.

In reality, we simply decide to quit talking about doing something, and start doing something.