The Other End of the Spectrum
In the first part of this series, I pulled out a partial laundry list of traveling issues presented by the travel trailer Defiant, a tired 1994 Gulf Stream Innsbruck 26-footer. While evaluating what to do to make my travels less of of a physical ordeal, less stressful, and better able to place a living space in the most desirable (to me) locations, I had to mull over more questions about myself than about technical RV rig choices. After all, any given rig can be vouched for as being “better”, but better for whom? RV Spartans follow one rigid ideology, while “he who dies with the most toys wins” RVers follow another. Regardless of the pressures either way, it’s your life, your wallet, and your rig, and you’re the one who’s going to have to live with it. No one will be apologizing for steering you the wrong way for you.
So, the questions returned to the basic starting point. What did I want to be able to do that I’m not doing now? Since I am already on the road, what did I want to be able to stop doing?
The stopping part was easy. Hauling around the uber-comfortable Defiant dictates a certain mode of living. I wanted to stop gazing into the side mirror to filter passing Interstate traffic for semis, which requires counter-steering when they pass the trailer. You don’t want to be caught by surprise. Stop monitoring trailer side tilt in the rear view mirror, to try to catch a low or blown trailer tire (aftermarket pressure monitors generally do not cover the high pressures needed). Stop operating the tow vehicle at its maximum GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) over long distances, which is aggravated by the high tongue weight. Stop having to lift heavy solar panels to hang them up or take them down, since it’s more of an effort each year. Stop obsessively monitoring local weather forecasts for possible high winds. Stop monitoring how the solar panels, tie-downs and anchor stakes are reacting to current wind speed and direction. Stop having to pass by interesting features or downtown areas. Stop having to anticipate and prearrange detours around twisty “no truck” areas on state highways. Stop having to guess how accessible or suitable unfamiliar campsites might be to the Defiant’s peculiar limitations.
What would I like to be able to do that I am not doing now? Travel in a rig little bigger than the Ford itself, in order to allow normal driving, almost-normal parking, normal street access, and the ability to get to and stay in virtually any campsite that allows vehicular camping. Be able to camp on slopes that are limited by my own comfort level, rather than the functional requirements of a propane-operated fridge/freezer. Be able to follow moderately difficult trails that potentially offer unique and secluded campsites. Limit the packing and unpacking regimen to items that will stay inside the rig (minimal Murphy’s Closet effect). Be able to avoid campsites already populated with campers having running generators, barking dogs, outdoor speakers and people talking loudly late at night. Be able to avoid campsites next to dusty, heavily-trafficked main trails. Be able to decamp and move during an unexpected weather event. Be able to camp in moderately colder weather than the Defiant can support, at least without a vulnerability to plumbing/hose damage. Store supplies and articles sufficient for the time spent on tour. Have a passive solar system that operates without any attention 24/365, during both travel and camping.
There is also the question of specifically maintaining certain characteristics, things that any replacement or supplementary rig should share with the best features of the Defiant, if possible. First would be the ability to maintain at least a minimally functional solar power for all systems in shade or sustained heavy overcast. Maintain a daily battery pack discharge that usually stays at 25% or less. Maintain the fully self-contained characteristic of the Defiant in order to be able to leave nothing more than a tire print at any campsite. Hold to an “interior living space” orientation as much as possible, so that poor weather does not have any affect on food choice and preparation, sleeping, research, blogging, watching movies, reading, etc (no cold dark caves, waiting for the weather to pass). Keep the ability to carry the Evelo e-bike along. Maintain decent ventilation for warm weather use. Maintain access to a full working studio for at least part of the year. (Yep, that’s more task-efficient, more relaxing for me, and gives me a sense of continuity with what I’ve been doing nearly all my life.) Maintain the ability to boondock (without moving) for as long as is practicable, with five to seven days as the goal. Minimize the need to lift/tote any heavy freshwater or waste containers, or anything else. Lastly, all electrical and propane systems must not pose any undue safety hazard in how they do their jobs.
True, I had to reevaluate the gamut of RV rig styles from end to end. Finances ruled out the majority, and weight plenty more, while an inability (and unwillingness) to attempt to fabricate or finish out the construction of one in the field ruled out the rest. That time is past. Now that I’m retired and supposedly able to just sit around on my keister all day contemplating the Big Questions, I’ve got long-awaited projects that will never see the first day’s start, let alone the light of day. Tools are the other part of it. Many of the proper tools to finish out the interior of something are one-time-only outlays which can have no purpose later but to serve as ballast, and rather expensive ballast at that.
My original Plan A had been to buy an 18′ cargo trailer and finish the interior in a feature-laden and space-efficient way, yet using real residential furniture instead of the marginally-comfortable faux furniture that lives aboard RVs. Example: folding lawn chairs. That inexpensive, sack-like bundle of rods and poly fabric that folds so compactly for storage may as well stay in storage, for me. Slouching into one invariably turns me into a knuckle-dragger in just a few minutes, and the painful effects last quite awhile. That’s why I pack a vintage webbed aluminum-frame folding chair. It isn’t the nostalgia factor. But now, the original cargo trailer approach is even less do-able than it was before. The practical issues involved in building one out now are even less possible than they were before.
Among the options to consider was the one most obvious: why not simply replace the sagging Defiant with a modern, modestly-sized travel trailer or a converted cargo trailer? After all, any travel trailer made more recently than the turn of the century has much better ground clearance, less weight, higher tank capacities, and a “light on its feet” behavior. The Defiant II?
There is no doubt that replacing the Defiant with a more modest, more trail-able travel trailer would be superior on many major counts, if only at the cost of my current 200 square feet of space. The main issue however is that a smaller, more adaptable TT or cargo trailer makes for only a slight improvement in getting my sole residence out across low-traction conditions and up rocky climbs to the places where I crave to camp. For the sacrifices in space, comfort and storage, the basic mobile physics do not change nearly enough for me. It’s a sensible and practical approach that for me is also a logistical failure. It’s not as important to know what everyone else likes and swears by, as it is to know yourself. That’s why the range of RV types exist. Preferences vary.
Yet, the only rig directions that would begin to satisfy that “out there” lust for solitude and adventurous access happen to be so constricted for space that they do not qualify as sanity-enhancing places to live full-time, and the ways to help them better do that negatively impact their basic reason for being – high mobility.
Think “truck campers”, the type which slides living space into the bed area of a pickup truck. Even Truck Camper Magazine, that breathy online proponent of truck campers of every stripe, does not consider truck campers to be workable permanent, full-time residences. I haven’t been in this game very long, but I am not personally aware of anyone who has lived in a truck camper full-time (by pure choice) for much more than three years without either adding provision for space/storage, without nurturing an oncoming return “home” because it was just an expedition of sorts, or without swapping or altering rigs to expand space for a time. Bottom line: sooner or later, it’s either gone or no longer running solo.
Sure, there are plenty of people who praise the virtues of living inside even a truck bed cap or shell, the truck camper’s primitive cousin and the equivalent of a hard-sided tent, but I personally know of no one who stays in one long-term by choice. They simply tend to have no other financial options, and are making the best of it with what they have, and I’m all for that. Live your dream, as best you can.
At their best, truck campers are fine temporary accommodations. I suspect that the personal suitability test for any rig, large or small, would be to offer a true full-timer a gift certificate for any other rig type of their own choosing, no charge. Any change from what they have now indicates a course correction, something that was left wanting in what they started with. In that way, the Defiant is perfect – except it lacks a cargo-lifting helicopter to get it to the campsites I want it to be in for part of the year, which would also let me drive to all those touristy little stops along the way to the next airdrop. So, course correction needed, and one that’s more practical and affordable than a helicopter.
Towing a trailer (or better, a boat) in back of a truck camper is certainly no sin, but it dulls its exploratory benefits in what I want to do. Towing a trailer to haul “stuff” or expand living space not only reimposes the terrain limitations of a TT, but also imposes logistical limitations on where and when the trailer can be stored and used. Regardless of routes and explorations, the presence or absence of a trailer becomes dictated not by when it would be most handy to have, but where it is stored and left unavailable. The return route must always be to wherever it was last stored, in an accessible season. In trade for extra fuel mileage and less wear and tear from not hauling it, the gain in living accommodations is certainly there, but is far from spectacular.
Now, lots and lots of RVers take this two-piece approach and love it. They relegate the use of a trailer to a sort of seasonal “home area” approach, a kind of settling in after a summer (or winter) of touring. It works for them. That’s similar to what I’d like, but with a much bigger shift in accommodations. For me, having lived in a semi-mobile luxo-tub, it would not be enough to change from a cramped rough country-oriented explorer to the same with a small cargo trailer pasted on. Not enough changes and, since I am not an outdoorsy person, such a limitation has much more impact on me than it does on someone who only uses the truck camper for sleeping and bad weather. Could I deal with it? Sure. Would I prefer such a minimal improvement? No. As you can tell from the above few paragraphs, I’m dealing here with personal values and observations, not universal generalities that apply or should apply to everyone.
The difficulty with truck campers as living quarters is based upon their limited space, obviously. Boost that space or add the amenities, and weight quickly goes up to where the vehicle underneath is struggling to support it, and the terrain that it can cover becomes increasingly limited. The other difficulty with weight is that it shortens service life. Use a vehicle at its full rated limit, and the stress will take its toll on an assortment of components. Their lifespan will be “acceptable”, but far from great. Minimize weight, and many of those “heavy duty” components can last an inordinate amount of miles. The effect mimics over-engineering. Exceed the weight limit and, even if you bolster up a sagging suspension to compensate, you’ll either be in the shop or hunting down a replacement vehicle much sooner than you could be. For many people, this too is not a problem. For me, it is.
The Mighty Furd, as optioned, is rated at “only” 2,460 pounds (approx.) load capacity due to the extra weight of its 4WD system and diesel engine. The 4WD system decreases payload by about 260 pounds, and the elaborate turbo-diesel engine lowers it by an additional 380 pounds. Further, like other pickups, it has much lower specs for a slide-in camper, assuming that the truck is optioned for one. Mine is not. In my case, that would have been 1,640 pounds of camper. Some of that lesser weight is assumed to be 900 pounds of passengers and their garbage, and some is the effect of controlling a camper with the usual high center of gravity, which is what the missing camper option takes care of. Adding the camper and the passengers together pops the total back up to the cargo capacity.
Once you look at the fully-loaded “wet” weight of many truck campers and the shifted center of gravity, things get out of hand pretty quickly. While it is true that the only mechanical or structural difference between an F-250 and an F-350 appears to be a set of overload springs and a much higher load limit, added weight still has its effect, albeit in a much more limited way. That explains why F-250s statistically last longer than F-350s: the weaker springs limit the load capacity and effectively under-stresses most of the remaining components. They were effectively over-engineered for their weight limit and, in 2008, this helped make the Ford F-250 diesel somewhat more expensive than the equivalent 2500 Chevy or GMC, and much more expensive than the Dodge Ram 2500 of the same year. Adding overload springs or air bags to the Mighty Furd and then pumping up cargo weight likely pushes component lifespan back down into “normal” range, and poses issues with insurance liability should an accident occur – any vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating is legally determined by its original configuration and the GVWR sticker on its doorpost, not by the modifications made to it by its owner.
The weight issue is not just the suspension’s problem. Truck campers are sometimes anchored to the truck’s bed at its side rails, something which truck beds are not really designed to deal with. Fortunately, all of the dead weight rests on the bed floor, with the frame directly underneath. The recent drive for lower costs and greater compliance with CAFE fuel mileage standards has lead to thinner, lighter bed constructions. As a result, the camper’s constant tipping in rough off-road conditions causes bed flex, which can have the effect of making the tail wag the dog. Camper designs which bolt to the bed floor can even promote stress cracking around the attachment points, making the camper even more wobbly. The only real solution is to instead anchor the camper with chains that run down to specialty steel arms securely attached to the truck’s frame. Apart from the camper’s dead weight, this approach largely takes the bed structure itself out of the picture. The arms themselves may flex a bit, but unlike the sheetmetal bed walls, they are designed for it.
The other issue with truck camper space is…space. Eighty square feet more or less is not much of a living space, which explains why they are they are generally considered to be the most space-efficient rig type available. There’s too little space to waste any of it.
So-called hard-sided truck campers are the standard, ranging from modest little boxes to behemoths that not only hang well off the back of the bed, but offer multiple slides that expand interior room. Materials and constructions vary, water and waste tank sizes (when present) vary, and so do weights. It’s very easy to exceed the weight ratings of even a 3/4-ton truck with one. Their advantage: permanent storage space. Their height allows high-mounted interior cabinets to surround the roof perimeter, making it relatively easy to bring pretty much everything along that one might need. Designs vary so wildly that it is difficult to generalize about hard-sided truck campers, except to say that, if you can stand the weight and crimp in mobility, there is little limit to the conveniences that are available. Hard-sided truck campers are the most popular form by far, because there is some design variation for every preference, and they can easily get most folks where they want to go. Many versions also make great cold weather rigs, and they can mount air conditioning units on their roofs.
Much less common are pop-up truck campers, which are similar in appearance but have a much lower roofline. In order to fully use them, the roof needs to be raised to full height when setting up camp. The resulting sidewall gap is spanned with a type of flexible poly canvas. This allows the roof to be lowered when not in use, lowering the center of gravity and lowering air resistance when traveling. In general, this translates to improvements in vehicle handling both on the highway and in the rough stuff. It also improves access through spaces that would interfere with a tall camper. There are drawbacks aplenty, in that available storage space is much less than in a hard-side truck camper, amenities like showers are much harder to implement in a usable way, there usually isn’t enough vertical space to build in a hanging clothes closet, a rooftop A/C is not possible, the fabric portion is a very poor insulator and may either radiate heat inside or drip with condensation, moving the vehicle means packing loose articles away to lower the roof again, and the entry door is inconveniently low, since it cannot extend into the canvas area. Finally, the side fabric should never be stowed wet for any significant length of time. It needs to be thoroughly dried first in circulating air. These are strong drawbacks, and they explain why pop-ups are purchased in lesser numbers. There have been concerns expressed about the lifespan of the flexible wall fabric in full-time exposure to sun and heat, but kept reasonably clean, today’s examples can easily clear 10-15 years. Current replacement costs done at the factory run about $1,000.
It’s also worth noting that the longer the pop-up, the more amenities that can be accommodated, and the more its off-roading abilities are compromised. Apart from lesser highway air drag, it’s advantages over a hard-side camper begin to be outweighed by its comparative drawbacks, and it can make less and less sense as a choice. It all depends upon how much its remaining strengths are actually needed.
But, my thought train chugs along like this: I would like both ends of the span. I want to spend considerable time each year living in my present level of “luxury”, living comfortably, staying planted, pursuing my personal interests and projects, and enjoying the good life, so to speak. Yet I also want to “see the USA”: enjoy true solitude, see the vistas and the features, camp based more on opportunity than schedule, pull over to explore the many areas otherwise inaccessible to me – plus the few old downtown sections populated more with inter-generational family businesses than national franchise chains, explore historic highways and the vestiges of the towns they linked, and feed my urges to explore seldom-seen trails.
My thinking is that this Jekyll/Hyde span of wants cannot be addressed by a single, compromise rig that handles neither extreme well. It became apparent that it might be best approached by continuing to enjoy the end of the spectrum that I already have – the Defiant – and supplementing it with its antimatter opposite. Basically, the theory is that you enjoy the convenience for part of the year and eventually start pining to get out there and start touring, and then after you’ve OD’d on experiencing the spectacular for the remainder, you look forward to getting “home”, with all of its space and conveniences. That antimatter opposite quickly settled on being a truck camper of some type. As I researched the market and noodled over it for ages, I began to sense that hard-side truck campers which would fill the bill and not compromise the Ford’s weight and off-road clearance compromises were pretty damned Spartan. That’s okay, but the smaller and more stripped you get in a hard-side, the more the pop-up’s few virtues begin a siren call to take advantage of them in order to get to the types of campsites that I want so badly to pursue.
Let’s face it, the 156″ wheelbase Ford F-250 is no overland explorer. It weighs literally twice as much as the commonly-used “adventure” rigs, is too wide to hazard narrow ledges or Jeep trails, and is vulnerable to grounding out at center, among other things. Ground clearance is merely okay, and there are no rock shields underneath to protect its vitals. Four wheeling is not really a safe solo enterprise, and the more capable the rig, the more stranded you can get yourself. However, the Ford’s job will not be to get me 70 miles from nowhere. It’s job will be to get me to a campsite inaccessible to 90%+ of campers, yet within practical reach of supply sources. The national forest trails alone offer a surprising number of such places, all approved for camping but effectively inaccessible to even many larger truck campers. All they require is a rig just nimble enough to get there. Obviously the Mighty Furd is not in any way nimble, but it is built specifically to carry heavy cargo over difficult terrain, such as construction sites and ranches. It will do. The trick is to not compromise it further, with undue weight placed high, or rear overhang to drag the ground even sooner than it already does. Keep it light, keep it in the bed, and since the Ford’s highway fuel mileage is very sensitive to air drag rather than weight, keep it low. I have 4,000 miles to cover every time I head for Illinois to abuse the young’uns. Fuel mileage matters.
I figured that if I’m going to have to live without all the space and amenities, I may as well do it in a way that also makes it easier and less stressful to get to where I want to go. There needs to be something in trade for a lack. In other words, make it pay. If I have to live my version of Spartan for say, seven or eight months a year, then my priority becomes to make it worthwhile: get what few amenities I can, make the limited space work hard, and sacrifice the losses in such a way that rough-country performance is optimized. All I have to do is look at what “essentials” that rig doesn’t provide, and see if I can work around them in an acceptable way. That’s “acceptable”, not “great”. All other priority goes toward not compromising the off-road performance that will get me to my dream camps.
There are quite a few manufacturers of pop-up truck campers. Not including custom builders such as Phoenix Pop Ups, there are only two major manufacturers of rough-trail slide-in compact pop-ups, Four Wheel and ATC, or All Terrain Campers. I could include Hallmark’s superb smaller Ute model here, which overhangs the rear yet stays high off the ground, but their base model is way, way over my financial head, and wet weight is higher. Same for the Alaskan, which is unique in that it is a hard-side pop-up: the roof half sleeves down over the sidewalls like the lid of a box.
Four Wheel and ATC are minimalist-oriented rigs, with “shell models” or bare boxes being the most affordable and popular versions for each. The buyers use them as-is, or build in what they want themselves. Four Wheel was started in the early 70s, while ATC began as a result of a later ownership change at Four Wheel. If I got this right, the son of the guy who began Four Wheel struck out on his own after the company was sold. His familiarity with the design resulted in a near-duplicate product. In my view, ATC’s less expensive product represents a better deal. It’s built to hold up, and will do so. Production is low enough that ATC is a quasi-custom builder as well. However, its floorplan lineup is more limited, and its general design features and materials lag years behind those of Four Wheel. If you don’t care however, it’s not a problem and it saves money.
Over the decades, Four Wheel has basically looked at what customers brought back for repairs and rebuilds, have complained about in the field, or have modified and improved upon. Knowing that their niche market is largely word-of-mouth, they paid attention. The long string of subtle construction and materials changes that have resulted are oriented toward product durability and functionality in its core market, rough terrain off-roading. Most buyers use small 1/2-ton trucks as carrying platforms (because of their better suitability to rough conditions), so when some improvement adds a few pounds, Four Wheel begins mulling over where compensating weight might be removed – without sacrificing durability. Four Wheel is the only camper manufacturer I know of that publishes model base weights, and then separate weights for every option they offer.
Outside of the need to get out into areas where big and heavy truck campers cannot go or will not withstand for long, the numerous functional compromises made by pop-ups to be able to succeed as a camper make it far from a slam-dunk choice, and the larger the pop-up, the more debatable the decision. The smaller, lighter and more able to withstand twist and shock loads that a truck camper is, the more straightforward that decision becomes – if those are traits that you require. Most campers understandably do not have much need for them. I do – the Ford’s long frame does indeed flex, and its optional suspension is brutally stiff and harsh at both ends. Whatever is in the bed will take a pounding, like it or not.
What most campers do have a need for is modest trail abilities and underfloor holding tanks for wastewater. Neither Four Wheel nor ATC offer waste holding tanks nor, with one exception, a toilet or indoor shower. That’s your problem, because it would push the design toward big and heavy in a niche that demands tough and light. You want a toilet, you get yourself a porta-potty and stow it aboard. You want a shower, you get yourself a solar-heated water bag, or heat a pot of water on a stove, or order the optional propane water heater and outside shower fixture, or look for a coin-op shower in town or in an RV park or camp.
Greywater, the waste from a sink, is ported to the outside of the Four Wheel’s camper wall, and it’s up to you to attach a hose and capture it in a container for proper disposal. That’s probably the true test of any professed love of nature, since not that many areas permit simply dumping it onto the ground. In trade for all these inconveniences, you get the ability to see grandeur that is not often seen, and perhaps to flash your nearest neighbor while you shower outside. Hopefully, they are just far enough away that you cannot hear them laughing and pointing, or see them clearly enough to make out that they are leaning forward to vomit. In such a case, they either move, or a new portable shower tent mysteriously shows up at your door. With an outside shower, the more solitude, the better for everyone concerned.
Both brands use fully welded aluminum tube construction to combat the stresses of being bolted down to a flexing truck bed. Wood actually has better resistance to fatigue cracking, but the joints are the problem. They eventually work their way loose, and the only way to prevent it is to throw money at it in the design stage, let it take up additional space with bracing, or both. As a practical matter, a welded aluminum structure will far outlast wood in this application. Although Four Wheel offers a more “modern” fiberglass exterior wall surface option, the original thin aluminum slat wall is better able to withstand twisting forces in the long run – the fiberglass sheet is unable to move with the frame that it is tied to. It cannot stretch or compress along its length or height.
What I decided was that, given a suitable pop-up, I’d plant the Defiant in an affordable full-hookup RV park and stay there from November 1 through at least March 15, when the heat starts in. Then leave it there, and use the pop-up truck camper to travel and tour the rest of the year until returning to the resplendent luxury of the Defiant. That’s the core of it. It’s an alternation of feast and mild famine, and I think it will work for me. Take advantage of the core strengths of each.
It is technically possible to simply alternate the use of the Defiant from boondocking into cheap local storage, saving the cost of the RV park. With an LTVA seasonal pass, that’s much cheaper overall than an RV park, but installing any kind of camper into the truck bed requires that the Tankmin go away, and the viability of the Defiant for boondocking is heavily dependent on the Tankmin. Dismounting the camper to put it into storage and shoving the 100-pound Tankmin back into the bed to bolt it down does not appeal, mainly since this process must be reversed a few months later. Likewise, the Defiant’s solar system has only a limited value in a full-hookup park, and cannot safely be left deployed over the hot summer while the park is closed. It must be stowed when not in use, and hefting those big panels is one of the things that I will not be able to continue doing, period. Their sheer size and weight make them highly undesirable atop a hard-side truck camper, and unworkable atop a pop-up. Believe you me, I looked at every way I could think of to reuse them as oversized ground panels that would store somewhere, or side-mounted panels that could articulate out into the sun. In the end, no soap.
Likewise, shuffling the Defiant’s solar charge controller and 60-pound batteries back and forth between the two rigs twice a year had a similar lack of appeal. Inconvenience is fine until it escalates into being a serious PITA ordeal. Nope. Permanently transfer as many batteries as practical into the pop-up. That may require only two of my existing 104Ah AGMs. Why use more? That only adds weight, albeit very low-placed weight quite far forward.
But, being a recovering packrat, three facts occurred to me. First, I have five of these things that are already paid for at about $290 a pop. Second, they will not respond well to unmaintained storage for seven-month periods, particularly in high heat. Third, service life is directly affected by depth of discharge. Install two, pull them down to 50% capacity daily, and they can be expected to last for a tad over 1,000 cycles (just over 3 years). Given their cost, that’s not a great deal. Install four or even all five of them instead (somehow), and dropping the depth of discharge to 20-25% boosts the expected cycles to anywhere between 2,000-2,800 (5.5-7.5 years). Chopping discharge to just 10% pumps the number to just over 5,000 cycles (close to 14 years). They could well outlast me! Reaching for the latter is not impossible, since the main drain, the compressor fridge/freezer, will be switched off all the winter months. The Aurora e-bike’s battery charger will be similarly plugged into shore power that season.
The extra weight of all those batteries, about 240-300 pounds total, would normally be an absurd addition to consider, and they steal interior storage space. What partially offsets it is that they are all placed just a couple of inches off the bed, with all but one cell positioned far forward. Plus, the Mighty Furd does not react much at all to such added weight, especially forward weight. What it cares about is air drag. Something to think about before writing off added battery capacity.
Something else to think about is lightweight solar panels for the roof. The weight of a framed and insulated 81″x 144″ roof is considerable, and lifting it is made easier by the use of counterspung lift panels and pneumatic lifts (like those used in your car’s hatchback). Tossing a pile of 20-40 pound panels on top makes lifting your problem, and warping the relatively unsupported flat roof a likely issue. More batteries below require more wattage above, particularly since roof-mounted lightweight panels suffer more from the heat of the roof itself, and can’t be tilted to catch the sun more effectively. Fortunately, the inefficiency of a truly low winter sun will not be a factor – the truck camper will not be in use then. Lightweight solar panels are relatively expensive, so that makes throwing on more to recharge the extra “free” batteries and boost their lifespan not quite so simple, since more battery capacity requires more solar panel wattage to charge it, and that’s a lot of pocket money on the roof. Hmmm.
Lastly (for this post) is that “indoor-oriented person” issue. In a compact pop-up, the trick here is to maximize both usable storage and functional features within its ridiculously small space. Outdoorsy people do this by doing everything needed outside, with camping equipment. This works for them, and it’s cheap. After all, the camper does little more than serve as a sleeping and storage space, with occasional duty as a hidey-hole in bad weather. When the time comes to move, then the stove, propane canister, wash tubs and water jugs, storage bins, and all camping accouterments are stuffed back inside the camper, never to be opened until it all comes spilling out at the next campsite.
There’s just no way around it: just as I had space shock in moving from house to TT, I’ll experience round two in the trauma of bunking into a pop-up for months at a time. To minimize this, I’m getting Four Wheel’s 8-foot Granby model, fitted with a front dinette. For just one person, a four-place dining table with bench seats would appear to be a waste, compared with their two-place Side Dinette model (as shown in the photos). What I’d missed was that the front-to-back aisle in the side dinette is partially wasted as far as usable space goes, and the total enclosed storage of the Front Dinette model is a bit larger overall. With just one person onboard, the opportunities to add storage bins here and there become considerable. With a propane stove, sink, furnace and electric compressor fridge being built in, it may be small, but it can still be dwelt in comfortably in any weather – for reasonable periods. It puts a definite crimp on having multiple hobbies and interests, but that’s what the Defiant is for.
As with most everything else, the devil is in the details. As with anything else, usage and modifications must balance so that no strengths are badly compromised from the “improvement”. If you want to live in it for extended periods of time as an escaped suburbanite on tour rather than as a camping enthusiast, some deviations from standard camping procedure – what it’s built for – will be needed. I’ve hinted at just a few in this post, and will be boring you to tears in later posts with all manner of arcane trivia as I seek to field-convert a Four Wheel Grandby into…The Intrepid.