State of the Intrepid – Introduction
I thought that it might be high time to say what it’s really like to live inside my FWC Grandby, with as little cognitive bias (the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has already selected) or buyer’s remorse (no definition needed) as I can muster. After all, such sources as The Sales Blog notes, “Buyers don’t make logical, rational buying decisions. They make emotional decisions and then justify those decisions by rationalizing them after the fact. This is true even if they use a spreadsheet to evaluate suppliers and solutions.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true. Much like scientists, we vote with our hearts or when hemmed in by circumstance, and then rationalize like crazy to convince ourselves that our decision was sound.
But I don’t think you want to simply hear how great or awful this Four Wheel product is, as in evangelizing for the brand. I can wax ecstatic and propagandize as well as the next guy, but I think you want to get an idea of what about it works well, what’s okay, what’s a nuisance, and what’s a flaw – at least in one person’s opinion. Perhaps of good value is to find out how the various additions and modifications I made to it are working out. After all, they cost considerable effort and money too, and were intended to represent improvements that will make my use of the rig better in some way – for me. The modifications/additions I’ve made lead me to do a inclusive review of the whole rig, merely because both they and the vehicle that the camper is mated to influence perceptions of the camper itself. I love my FWC, but there are a few things I would do differently as a rig. If I were to ignore them here, that would be a bit of a disservice to anyone who is considering taking my route.
There are only two things to keep in mind while you read. One is my usage. I’m not a camper. I live in this thing. That is, I don’t use the camper as a temporary storage hold on the road, and then yank out stoves, tables, chairs, coolers and whatnot each time I want to get in it. I consider that to be an inconvenience, and it flat doesn’t work during those times that I need to overnight at Interstate rest areas, truck stops or busy city park camps. So if you’re a normal outdoorsy camper, you may have to run what I say through a few filters. Many if not most normal outdoorsy people do not choose FWC’s well-equipped models, either. They choose the much less expensive “shell” version, add a few options, make a few mods, and pile in the camping equipment to, like, you know, go camping! They do not full-time in it as a rolling apartment. Technically, I don’t either. I winter in my TT near Yuma, AZ. That still makes me a full-timer though, just one that straddles two rigs, one of which no longer really wants to move much.
The second thing to keep in mind is that although time in fact does not heal all wounds, it does tend to bring out flaws or weaknesses in products. So this review applies to today, and may sound notably different a year or five or ten from now. Pop-up campers and RVs in general are not designed nor equipped for 24/365 use. Usually, it’s the appliances and gizmos that pose the problem (whether built-in or added to the pile by you later), but given enough time and abuse, upholstery and even structure may well need some attention. Even though Four Wheel products are intentionally designed for multiyear trips to Tierra del Fuego and back, off-road, the inherent violence of my truck’s tires and uprated suspension can add a new charm to the phenomenon of spontaneous disassembly on washboard roads, let alone rocky ones. Full-time use greatly shortens the time needed to show problems, but the FWC is built well, so more time is needed.
One does need to accept that with a fabric-walled lightweight pop-up truck camper, there will be trade-offs to offset its “drives like it’s not there” characteristics. It’s all about not infringing on whatever mobility the base vehicle has. In trade, there will be much less overall temperature insulation than with a hard-sided truck camper, more maintenance due to the fabric wall section, and usually, less dedicated storage space. In trade is a greater ability to traverse difficult trails, and better road manners. A compact, lightweight pop-up is better at what it does than a hard-side, but most campers do not prioritize or care to use those capabilities. That’s why exploration-capable truck campers are such a tiny niche market.
“Better” is in the eye of the beholder, and even pop-up truck campers vary widely in basic features. I think I can legitimately say that Four Wheel Campers does not make the most advanced pop-up truck campers in the world, but I can make a pretty good argument that they are the best at what they are specifically designed to accomplish, and there’s the rub. Several brands can also say that, because their tasking, design goals and trade-offs are a little different. If you have your heart set on a truck camper, you are much less likely to trade through a succession of them if you know what you want to do with it, what features you can and cannot live without, what kind of trails you want to be able to traverse (and with what vehicle underneath it), and what your budget is. This tends to be a balancing act, and you may need to prioritize and sacrifice where there’s an inherent conflict. If you think in terms of “wanting it all” or are unable/unwilling to separate wants from needs, then you’re heading for an unhappy and/or expensive experience. Sure, I can glamorize the brand or my minimally adventurous lifestyle, but what I chose as a rig may or may not be right for you.
If you look forward to truck camping in scenic areas and taking occasional advantage of hookups, both a hard-side or a pop-up version having holding tanks may produce more benefits than nuisances. The less maintenance a trail has, the less overhead clearance you expect to see, or the more you value decent road manners at speed, then a pop-up will start to dominate your wish list. If you are limited to a half-ton truck, or are hell-bent on exploration and expect to occasionally need 4WD, or if you want to camp where even most truck campers can’t safely go, then a lightweight pop-up truck camper will probably be on the A-List. The cargo weight limitations of a half-ton truck require that you pay strict attention to the published weights of any campers you’re considering, plus fluids, fuels, batteries, gizmos and all the other stuff you expect to load into it or on it. Fortunately, this process does not begin by touring RV lots, subjecting yourself to videos that include the terms “convenience” or “the luxury you deserve“, or learning the specs of every truck camper on the market. It begins with knowing your own living preferences and needs. What kinds of places do you want to be able to reach, and what do you want to be able to do when you get there – in boring detail? What happens after the day’s main event, or when it’s a long day of rain and you’re hungry? You can make-do with nearly anything for a couple of weeks at a stretch, but staying in something long-term is a very different matter. If anything violates your own standards of what’s livable, it will eventually get to you.
Just in case, I’ll mention that pop-ups don’t have any stealth for urban area camping, and although I can technically use mine as an overnight sleeper (only) with the roof lowered, it’s not a good overall solution. As to the question of whether the Four Wheel camper, in this case the “big” Grandby, makes a good full-time hideout, the answer is clearly “Topeka esplanade 45”. The core structure and cabinetry is certainly there, but it depends more on the human(s) inside it, exactly what “full-time” means to them, their tolerance levels, and whether any items inside the camper could serve as improvised weapons. This is a very limited space (54 or 81 square feet depending on whether you include the bed platform), and you have to be both a quasi-minimalist and willing to move things around in order to retrieve what you have packed away. Unless you’re traveling solo, you’ll need to add in your personal need for privacy, which is going to be difficult to get inside the camper. Solo travelers will have a pretty good shot at finding it workable for very long periods. Couples will likely find it fab for vacation outings, a memory-maker for extended adventure trips, and part of the court’s Evidence List for permanent use.
I consider that the Four Wheel can act as a purpose-driven basis for camping for years, but a full-time dwelling, ummmm… that depends entirely on you. Most folks, even Truck Camper Magazine, do not consider truck campers to be appropriate for true full-time use. The most devoted online truck camper proponent/evangelist I know predated the magazine and quickly added a sizable cargo trailer to his hard-side. He was a bit of a character and eventually went offline for reasons unknown. However, when it comes to having to live on a very limited income, one often needs to learn to appreciate the nice points of what one has, period. Being on a fixed but not desperate income myself, I had the one-time freedom to pick and choose within a reasonable budget, and its planned use is for not much more than 8 months per year. For that, it’s a shoo-in. In order to make it my sole residence, I’d be giving up quite a few small things that I enjoy – like my shovel collection, and my efforts at competitive dog grooming and creating duct tape art – and I’m not ready to do that yet.* At any rate, each State of the Intrepid post that follows will cover one or more aspects of the entire rig.
*Statement which may contain one or more inaccuracies.