The Three-Pound Bag
Truck campers may be among the most space-efficient forms of RV, but once you get into the rough-terrain, compact pop-ups, even amazing efficiency doesn’t make up for not having much space to work with. I mean, the Four Wheel Grandby’s floor from front to back is a half-foot shorter than the Defiant’s width!
As I’ve mentioned earlier, since this pop-up folds down to just 56-1/2 inches to the roof, you can forget about stowing stuff in nonexistent overhead cabinets, or throwing things on top of the bed – the roof folds down to rest right on top of it. What you do with that firm pillow is your business. You can also forget about under-bed storage, where you lever up the mattress edge to reveal a flat but expansive storage tray suitable for clothing and fairly flat items. In the hard-tack world of no-compromises overlanding, where the priority challenges are from the terrain and not from within, creating such an under-bed space would compromise the Four Wheel’s extraordinarily low stowed roof height. Remember that earlier photo of a downtown overpass in Billings, Montana? It works the same for trees and overhanging rock and sometimes, inches make the difference. They especially make a difference when you’ve decided to jack up your truck’s suspension to improve its ground clearance and/or improve its muy macho aura.
In many ways, Four Wheel’s no-nonsense approach to be able to get a durable camping shelter from one obscure point on the terrain map to another is overkill for me. I mean, this is serious hardware, as such campers go. I’m not leading an expedition, goring the doors of the Super Duty on jagged rocks along the edge of a 500-foot drop, or fording rivers, or winching out of foot-deep goo, or filming a mini-documentary of a perilous journey. These campers are not built for greying retirees hoping there’s still a spot left at the next fishing hole, or hunters to set up a 3-day camp in the clearing. All that’s needed there is a comfortable truck camper or small trailer.
Four Wheel and similar pop-up truck campers are built to provide durable, all-weather housing in such a way as to impact the host vehicle’s performance as little as possible. And, to do this affordably. No-compromise they may be, representing the tip of the spear for pop-ups, but they do it without the marketing power of carbon fiber or graphite band-aids to compensate for bloat. There are ways to get expedition-serious with more extravagant vehicle-based RVs, but you then need a budget that would make Warren Buffet’s eyebrows lift. What you need for a National Geographic Special is not what you need if all you have is a five-year-old Toyota, some time off work, a smartphone, a Facebook page, a love of remote camping, and an outlook that equates risk with adventure. This is not the camper with the L.L. Bean interior decor package. Neither is it a truck cap, where you’re escaping a cold rainy night by sleeping on cold, wet sheet metal.
I’m neither young and vital, nor carefree and adventurous. What the heck am I doing, thinking this is the right approach for me to take? It’s tiny, cramped, and lacks more features than it offers as a living space. Unfortunately, my former career prompts me to admire designs which tackle their reason for being with a no-compromises approach. I ogle simple designs, which pare off nonessentials and bolster up their basics in order to keep to their original functional target. I find much to admire in such products, and for me, such dedication to purpose is a rarity in a business world where dulling the edge to be able to appeal to an ever-wider range of buyers is the rule which eventually leads to bloat. I’m a sucker for “uncompromising design” – not the misappropriation of the term by luxury marketers, but the real McCoy. That, and products which improve quality over time instead of removing it to improve profitability. Products which reflect forethought in building in access to items that must eventually need to be tested, serviced or replaced, instead of requiring tearing into structure because that was the cheapest way to build it. Privately-owned businesses can afford to do this kind of thing, because they are not bound to any requirement to attract and please stockholders with steady growth. Strange to say, but having confidence in a product’s design and execution goes a very long way to pump up my satisfaction levels with it, and to ease the pain of what it lacks in order to keep it on mission. An odd quirk perhaps, but it works for me. And my intent is to take full advantage of the Granby’s overall design priority of providing a reasonably comfortable space without screwing up the Mighty Furd’s existing performance, on or off road.
But there is that limited cubic feet for storage thing. That’s going to be a source of angst, no doubt about it. The Front Dinette Granby may or may not be the most adaptable and space-efficient floor plan of the bunch, but the number one issue for a recovering suburbanite crippled with multiple interests and a “belt and suspenders” preference is making space where there is none. How much space is needed for me to be able to camp – indoors – with reasonable contentment for 7-8 months at a stretch? I have no idea. Between “enough” tools, 3-season clothing – including clothing of an appearance that I don’t have to explain or apologize for back East – personal care items, medicines, cookware, utensils, dinnerware, cleaning supplies, a few books, entertainment equipment, camera and video equipment, and enough gizmos, power bricks, cables, adapters and crud to keep them and the blog rolling, well, it’ll be a challenge. Trash containment/storage is another. That’s not all, but you get the point. And, oh yeah, a toilet. And, oh yeah, equipment that allows some way of carrying and heating extra water to lukewarm, and then pouring it over myself. Let’s face the hard truth: baby wipes may be fine for a lack of running water, but they fall short of the glory which is Civilized Man. The Romans did not advance the development of aqueducts in order to transport baby wipes.
Speaking of space, freshwater may be in the Grandby’s 20-gallon tank, but something’s got to be done with greywater in those areas where furtively dumping it on the ground is not allowed. Fermenting greywater has quite a stink about it. That needs to be held somewhere, somehow, and that will take up space when in full boondock mode. The Grandby is fitted to use a hose to drain greywater into a jug or bucket on the ground, and what you do with it is your business. Most Four Wheel owners are more concerned about making space to store freshwater or gasoline. There are some areas that I intend to stay in where dumped greywater will be against policy, be objectionable for one practical reason or another, or serve as an attractant to draw omnivorous critters both lower and higher up in the food chain than I. Personally, I don’t trust portable containers to not leak, so keeping them stowed in the Ford’s cab strikes me as a problem waiting to happen, especially when other stuff is piled on top. That cab is a protected, lockable area more suitable for other things.
The search for external storage space would ideally include space for at least 15 gallons of greywater, a complicator in that 15 gallons of water weighs 125 pounds, and that water is sloshing and surging around. Add the weight of the jugs or tank itself, plus tools or what-have-you, and you’re talking real weight. Most such containers are plastic, and plastic not loaded with UV inhibitors needs some type of enclosure to protect it. Most such containers are also expensive, so leaving them out in the sun can be costly. Getting around this by using steel containers works well, but is even more expensive, and introduces its own set of drawbacks.
What has proven very popular is an external storage system developed by Aluminess in California. It’s based in a lightweight aluminum rear bumper having two pivoting arms that can mount a host of storage solutions. From spare tire mounts to gigantic sealed boxes, virtually anything is possible. The weight limit per arm is 150 pounds, but this product is designed specifically for off-road work, so one might view that limit as a little flexible. The prime liability is having your 300-pound drunken camping buddy jumping on one arm in the 90-degree open position. That gets expensive. Really expensive. The other is that when used for a truck camper, one or both arms must be locked open in order to get in or out through its door.
From the start, I was very attracted to the Aluminess system because it potentially adds a lot of available space to the camper, and without inducing much of anything in the way of drawbacks. And as per my weakness, it is priority-oriented. It’s made of all-welded aluminum to weigh not a whole lot more than the solo steel bumper it replaces. Great arm support in travel mode. Handy arm locking in the open position so that wind is of no concern. No rust, no faded, bubbling paint two years later. Very good flexibility in what can be stored, and how. Weather-tight, and it does not interfere with the OEM hitch receiver. What’s not to love?
I talked to Aluminess reps at the Overland Expo at Mormon Lake, AZ. Over time, I began to gravitate toward their tallest storage box on one side, and a fuel/water can holder on the other. It must have taken a couple of days online to locate any water containers that would fit their lockable carrier in an efficient way. As I contemplated lifting and periodically overfilling several water jugs in use, it occurred to me that over time, I’d probably be better off plumbing in a marine waste tank for greywater. Less spillage and splashing, no lifting several 40 or 60-pound jugs, and I’m already versed in operating within the dump station milieu. Attach hose, insert hose end into ground drain hole, open valve. I’m hep. All I needed to find was a tank that could be wedged into an Aluminess box.
More guessing as to what would probably serve me best produced an assembly crossing well over $4,000. Yow. Since I had not yet sorted through the specific options and costs for the camper yet, this was just more grist for the mill, kind of an “oh well, I’ll find a way” thing. As time went on, bouncing my attention between the camper, its options, solar, storage, and my bank account led me first to trim the Aluminess back to a more helpful $3,700 configuration. Not helpful enough though, not by a long-shot. I had the waste tank or jugs bungeed down in an open tray, with tarp. Goodbye, wretched excess of space. Perfect product or not, I had to let go of it and search for what I didn’t know existed, something affordable that I could make-do with.
That was a roundabout trip. The Four Wheel camper has a thin aluminum tube skeleton over which a thin layer of aluminum slats is laid. Once built, there’s no nondestructive way to tell exactly where those tubes are, and besides, they are thinwall, not something you just crank sheetmetal screws into and hope that 150 pounds of jugs won’t tear out. It’s kind of like an old birdcage Maserati race car, light in weight and supremely rigid for the types of loads it’s designed for, but a big wet noodle when the local flower van runs a light and T-bones it. I resolved to stay off the camper itself – except maybe for the jack mount plates that I was including as an option. Those mounts are attached and braced for being able to hoist the entire 950-1,200 pounds of Granby up into the air. A fabricated hanging tray along one side of the camper would easily support that weight even if the needed 8-foot long tray itself wouldn’t. Not the nicest solution, but one to put on the list.
A vaguely similar possibility was to use old-style stake bed camper tie-downs to mount a carrier tray to. Before the camper is installed into place, you jam these plates into each of the stake holes along the truck’s bed sill. Then fabricate a jug carrier for to span them and, as with the idea above, hope that you don’t wipe it off during a tight turn on a narrow trail. Unfortunately, these tie-downs are designed to pull things down, not lift them up, so using them to hold up a very heavy bouncing tray may pose some issues. The problem is the truck’s receivers, really.
Rear platform carriers that mount into the hitch receiver are very popular, being often used to hold big coolers and storage boxes. The camper door is likely to be a little off-center towards the passenger side, and using an unshielded waste tank as a step is not a good idea. It needs to be off to the driver’s side and out of the way, and that introduces its own platform twist issues on rough trails, as well as ground clearance issues. That’s a heap of weight to bounce on one side, and minimizing it by going vertical with the tank (to limit water slosh) can interfere with the swinging camper door. The Ford’s factory hitch happens to include two openings in the hitch cross-frame ends that can accept any 2” towing accessory, so platform anti-sway support is possible, if not bolt-on easy. But the platform’s main limitation remains poor ground clearance, and I mainly stuck to designs which could at least pivot upward out of the way during ground contact.
Related to this, Hollywood makes a platform accessory that slides into the nose of my front-mounted bike carrier (or directly into a 2” hitch receiver, with an adapter). It’s much like any other platform, but front mounting it puts weight where it is best tolerated (the Ford has front springs spec’ed for a snowplow). On the bad side, that platform’s weight capacity is too low, it’s pinched in at center, and waste hose routing from the camper port to any forward tank would be a little too interesting. Jugs only, for that location. Lastly, access to the Aurora e-bike would be poor, making its removal or insertion difficult. The bike and platform positions are not reversible, so I briefly considered giving up the Ibex trailer’s rear position on the rack to improvise a few jug carriers in its place. Nyaaah. For now, keep going.
A Coleman Marine Cooler of 17.5 gallons could serve as a waste tank, given a lid that’s siliconed shut. It even has a garden hose fitting for a drain, though only some models have this capability. Trouble was, it was looking too tall for the platform, interfering with camper door swing. Plus, at this time I had no wild idea where the camper greywater port was located in the model and options I wanted. They seemed to vary. Oh, there could instead be two smaller coolers, one at each end, or a tray for three or four 5-gallon water cans, or mount specialized gas can carriers to keep that weight from taking off in the rough.
I looked at 15-20 gallon tanks made for just about any industry, and found some of promise, the “best” of which would require removing some of the platform floor and adding some support crossmembers. But protecting the tank in any non-hillbilly way was proving to be a bugger.
Some enterprising truck campers have added a length or two of capped large-diameter PVC pipe along one truck bed inside wall, which proved interesting. They allow sink use in short stops or places where setting out a container is not a great idea. Because of their very limited capacity, I looked at installing sets on each side of the bed and linking them with a tube or hose at the front. Plus, some extra capacity needs to be added in to compensate for incomplete drainage. There was no way to jam them in after camper installation however, so I considered using the camper’s jack mount plates for hanging them externally. No. Perhaps one fat pipe laying along the bumper? Not enough capacity.
Access to be able to step into and exit the camper without acrobatics hung over the platform approaches all the way. The “Let’s Go Aero Gearcage” is a railed flat-bottom platform in 2 sizes: a 48” x 32” platform weighs 80 pounds, and 72” x 32” weighs 100 pounds. Yow. It has a 300-pound limit because it slides away from the truck on two rails, to allow trunk/bed access. A cable is used to stop it. It’s really intended for use with minivans and SUVs with swing-up doors, allowing door clearance and the ability to step in close to pull stuff out of the interior. Usable, and maybe a workable clearance for my step-up purposes, but costs were getting up there for a product that posed uncertainties for me. They also make enclosed box versions based on the same platform.
Rola makes an interesting platform, too. A 400-pound capacity 19”x53” channeled polyprop flat pad on an angled hitch shank that weighs just 35 pounds, and the tray rests on top of two steel crossmembers. Its meager 2” rise is not that appealing. This model’s poly tray is two halves that slide over steel crossmembers, though the steel is less than half of the lipped tray’s length. A 23”x56” fold-up version has a 4.5” rise, and uses a large handle to unlock and lift, which I’d need to disable to get the platform to lift on ground contact. The latter may have been discontinued, however. The fold up is “not designed for off-road use”, which is common. A very clever, lightweight product, but I had to keep looking. Rola also makes what they call The Adventure System, a 110-pound 13.5 cubic foot poly box cradled in a carrier tray, and one version swings the entire thing out of the way for rear access. Beautiful! But apparent big issues with poor quality, functionality and customer service took this out of the running for me immediately.
Folks were recommending toolboxes of various sorts to go onto a platform:
Buyers Aluminum Toolboxes
Husky Job Box
Rubbermaid ActionPacker #1172 24-gallon storage chest.
Finally, I stumbled over the Stowaway Standard and Stowaway Max Cargo Boxes. These are hitch-mount boxes likewise intended for use with minivans and SUVs, but the box is mounted to a frame which pivots sideways, rotating the box rearward and to one side. The SwingAway frame they are based on is also available separately for a DIY storage approach, and its arm can be locked open at 90 degrees for use in wind, or swung all the way to 180 degrees. The UV-stabilized poly boxes vary in their approach to lid sealing, the smaller unit using a gasket seal while the big boy uses a simple drip seal. Both come with integral taillights, wiring and hitch plug. Its load limit is a marginal 200 pounds of cargo. Rise is 5.5”, which should be adequate. That can be improved further with hitch adapters, but this is a last resort, since adapters also move the entire assembly rearward, too. This setup appeals not so much just because it mimics half of an Aluminess setup, but because it aggressively tries to get out of the way of a camper’s entry door. Like the Aluminess, there’s no furtive stealth camping: the arm needs to be kept open in order to swing open the camper door. One other appeal is its lighting, since the thing has enough rearward projection and width to pose local code issues in some of the states I pass through, Illinois being one of them.
Breaking out a tape measure for the umpteenth time, emailing for answers and dimensioned drawings, and anticipating potential problems led me toward the standard box. Its main liability is that it weighs nearly 100 pounds, and unlike the Aluminess setup, must be removed from the hitch receiver and stowed in order to tow the Defiant. The only good part of this is that it can be taken down in halves at the main pivot. A 10-year warranty bodes well for it, although this product too is “not intended for off-road use”. I’ll probably find out why they say that, since any water storage quickly gets it up toward the maximum rating of its serpentine frame.
Additional emailing with more questions allowed me to find a suitable waste tank to fit inside the cargo box and still allow reasonable remaining space for boxes of Weenie Tots and Kleenex. How the tank will be secured and connected up will be covered in the future. The takeaway from this is that some mods are complex enough that they must integrate with others, or something will prove to be a surprise showstopper when piecing it together and testing function. That, or they will allow only one approach, with no later alternates possible. I won’t list here everything that I had to keep in mind when adding space for cargo and greywater hauling and handling, but it’s enough to keep you aware that it would very be easy to forget about this or that essential. The Stowaway Standard Cargo Box is a far cry from the Aluminess setup, but so is its cost: $659 shipped. That’s still a mighty big ticket, but I can live with it as a one-shot deal.
None of this is set in stone, though the Stowaway Standard Cargo Box looks like a keeper as far as storing items out of road spray, rain, and trailing dust. Only the greywater system is not yet locked in as a choice; the Stowaway Standard is large enough to hold far more 5.5-gallon Reliance Rhino Paks than its swingarm can stand, or a dedicated tank with space to spare. And there is the issue of positively securing the jugs or tank. At the moment, I’m staying open to the idea of living with waste jugs for a year, and then either sticking with them or converting to a marine tank with plumbing after that. The Stowaway can adapt to either approach. The mod train this winter will determine how the Intrepid will pull out of the station in spring, and any decision to start off with a dedicated tank can’t be a last-minute impulse decision: they are molded to order and can take over a month to ship! The butchery to make it work inside of a closed storage box is no small thing, nor are routing and locating hoses, valves or vents. Those are just two more little details to feed the brain.