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December 4, 2017

Why We Bought a Truck and a Camper

I have mentioned previously that we bought a gigantic pickup truck and a camper that fits in the back of it. In this post I will go into a little more detail about what we bought and why.

This is a pretty long post, so here's the TL;DR version:
We wanted a rig to take on family camping trips, so we bought a 2000 Ford F-350 pickup for $10,500 and a 1995 Lance Squire 3000 camper for $3,300. The camper has already saved us money on wedding accommodations and will provide low-cost vacations for a long time to come.

The Concept
I have a lot of great memories camping as a child, and I want that for my family too. However, "camping" isn't cool anymore, so I had to come up a way to sell it. Enter #vanlife and overlanding.

If you're not familiar with #vanlife, it's the tag from Instagram that is used to describe the highly romanticized lifestyle of living in a van. That lifestyle generally involves liquidating most of your personal belongings, ditching your house/apartment and the associated costs, doing lots of yoga and extreme sports, and waking up in a very photogenic location every morning. It also helps to have a beautiful woman and a dog to complete the package. Here's a photo that sums up the stereotypical #vanlife scene:
Van-. Dog-. Yoga-. Action Sport-✓. Ocean View-✓. Provocative Female-
Photo from wheresmyofficenow Instagram.
Overlanding is another slightly less romanticized vehicular lifestyle/activity. It involves driving expensive 4x4 trucks/SUVs full of expensive camping gear off-road for long distances, far away from civilization.
A typical overlanding vehicle. Photo borrowed from Overland Bound.
As douchey as typical #vanlife people may be and as hardcore as most overlanders are, the concepts have a lot of appeal. However, I am willing to accept that living in a van full time or cramming my family and our gear into a Jeep, even for a short time, would be pretty unpleasant, so we decided to buy a normal house without wheels to live in most of the time and one with wheels to live in some of the time.

One Vehicle for #vanlife and Overlanding
The practical #vanlife people convert high-roof Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter or Ford Transit vans into tiny houses on wheels (or what old fashioned people would call a motorhome). The most hardcore ones live in old VW Westfalia vans. I didn't like either of those options because they aren't very good at being a home, and they are even worse at being a useful vehicle once they are converted into a home. They also aren't very capable off-road. The best thing about #vanlife rigs is that they are pretty stealthy, so you can easily park on the side of the road and sleep without being hassled.

Most overlanders use Jeeps or Toyota 4Runners/Tacomas, often with tents on the roof. That makes for a more practical vehicle most of the time, but one that is much less comfortable to live in for any length of time.

To me, it made the most sense to combine the more comfortable living space of a van with the capability and utility of an overlanding rig. That meant a stout vehicle with four-wheel drive and a large living space that could be removed when not in use. The most obvious solution was a travel trailer, but in my opinion, towing makes everything complicated, especially off-road, so I didn't want a trailer. The final, and best, option was a full-size truck with a camper in the bed. The truck would provide an incredibly capable vehicle that is shockingly practical (there aren't a lot of vehicles that can carry six adults while hauling thousands of pounds of cargo, and that's before you add a trailer). The camper would provide comfortable living quarters that could easily be removed when not needed.

Now that we had a general idea of what we wanted, we had to find just the right truck and camper.

The Truck
The Craigslist photo for our truck. Yes, it has a broken blinker, but I fixed it for $11.
Settling on a truck for our family was an agonizing decision. As an automotive engineer, I was forced to complicate the process and consider the most minute details. Here's what my list of requirements looked like:
  • Less than $15,000 - This was the amount we expected to get from selling our Prius.
  • Indestructible - So we wouldn't have to pour money into it or get stranded.
  • Four-wheel drive - To explore new and exciting places, off the beaten path.
  • Four-doors - For people to get in and out easily.
  • Six seats - To carry lots of friends and family in comfort.
  • Long bed - To carry more stuff (like a camper) and improve handling when loaded.
With the help of my coworkers, who helped design the type of truck I was interested in, I narrowed in on what to get. Based on our price target, we were looking at trucks from around the year 2000 (it's amazing how well diesel trucks hold their value). In that era, the GM trucks had front suspension that didn't last, so they got ruled out. The Dodge trucks from that era had cheap interiors and tiny back seats, ruling them out. That left the Ford Super Duty as the only option.

Once I had settled on the Ford, it was obvious it had to be a diesel. Ford's 7.3 liter turbo-diesel in the trucks of that era are known to be incredibly reliable and long lasting, with many people referring to them as "million-mile motors." That was great, but I would need an equally reliable transmission attached to that engine. My coworker informed me the automatic transmission available with that engine has a "100% failure rate," so I had to find one with a manual. I also wanted a truck without any emissions equipment on it. It's not because I like polluting, it's because I like simple and reliable, and emissions equipment is anything but simple and reliable. That meant I had to find a 1999-2001 model. This made my search both much easier and much harder. It was easy to filter out everything I didn't want, but very hard to find anything that fulfilled my precise requirements.

I searched far and wide for the right truck. After literally months of searching, I found one just a few miles from our new home in Paso Robles. The price was right and it looked great on Craigslist, so I immediately drove up from LA to check it out. It was exactly as described. Well used, with 232,000 miles on the odometer, but also well maintained and unmodified. This was the one. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so I couldn't get the cash to buy it. We made a handshake agreement  that I would return the following weekend with cash and he would hold it for me, even though he was getting calls about it the whole time we were chatting. Luckily, he was a man of his word and I was able to buy the truck the next weekend for $10,500, well under the $15,000 budget.

Shortly after purchasing the truck we named him Tim because his transmission has a tendency to make grunting noises like Tim "The Toolman" Taylor. These noises initially worried me, but I've been assured they are totally normal.

The Camper
Selecting a camper wasn't quite as hard as picking a truck, but it wasn't terribly easy either. Here's the criteria I used for the search:
  • Less than $5,000 - That number was based on rounding up the leftovers from the truck budget.
  • No longer than eight feet - I wanted a camper that didn't extend beyond the back of our truck. Longer campers are heavier and make towing or using hitch-mounted accessories much more complicated. They also didn't have much more utility than the shorter ones--usually just an extra closet and a little more counter space.
  • Must be a Lance - I was told by a friend I trust that the only camper worth considering, at least in our price range, was a Lance. The internet mostly agreed.
With all that in mind I started searching. I found a decent number of campers, but none felt quite right. Most of the campers in the LA area seemed overpriced, and most of the ones outside of LA were pretty beat up. Luckily, we weren't in a hurry, so I continued casually searching for a while.

Eventually I stumbled upon an ad for a camper that looked very promising. It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for, and it was even located in Paso Robles. After studying the Craigslist ad for some time, I recognized the house where the camper was photographed. It turned out my childhood friend was the seller, so I called him up and we struck a deal. We were still in LA at the time, but they delivered the camper to the driveway of our new house the next day.

If you're curious, the camper we got was a 1995 Lance Squire 3000, with pretty much every option. It needed a little TLC, but it had good bones. The best part was the price--$3,300; under budget once again.

The friend that sold it to us agreed to help me reinforce the lower corners of the camper. This is something he had done to previous campers and really helped with rigidity.
The finished product was fantastic. Not only did it make the camper much stronger, it made it look a lot better too. Along with the camper reinforcement, we fabricated rear tiedowns that would allow the camper to be secured to the truck, saving us a couple hundred dollars. I bought the front tiedowns because they would have been much more complicated to make.

The other things we did to spruce up the camper were replace all the sun-bleached curtains with new blackout curtains, clean all the upholstery, and add a stick-on tile backsplash. After that, it felt almost new again, or at least as new as a 20+ year old camper can feel.

Money Pit?
How can we justify owning such a huge truck when every financial blogs out there will tell you that cars, and especially big trucks are just about the biggest waste of money imaginable?
We justify it by only using the truck when we really need it. For short trips we try to walk or bike. For longer trips where we are just transporting people, we drive our efficient sedan. However, for the occasions when we need to transport some serious cargo, which is pretty often, we use the truck. Here's just a few examples of things we did with our truck, in less than a year of ownership:
Transporting cargo in a horse trailer.
Picking up bulk chili supplies, soil, and materials for a garage table.
Materials for garage shelving. Got to love that eight foot bed.
One of four loads of rock to use in our yards.
Countertops I salvaged from a remodel and donated to a non-profit.
Hauling the camper while towing 16' pieces of siding.
Hauling the camper with a Craigslist sideboard and patio set on top and inside.
Unloading mulch.
So you can see, our truck earns its keep. And yes, it is a little odd that I take a photo most of the time our truck is hauling something.

Money Saver!
Would you believe me if I told you having the truck and camper have actually saved us money? It's true, and I'll tell you how.

We went to a lot of weddings this year, and as you probably know, weddings are expensive events to attend. One of the biggest expenses for an out-of-town wedding is the hotel. We were able to save hundreds of dollars by avoiding hotels at two weddings this year and staying in our camper. For the first wedding we stayed in a campground near the venue that was much, much cheaper than the hotels nearby. At the second wedding, which was held at a winery, we just backed the truck into the vineyard and slept there for free.
Our wedding accommodations. That's the reception hall in the background.
In addition to saving money on a couple weddings this year, I expect the camper to save a lot more money long term. You see, going camping is a very inexpensive vacation. Much cheaper than flying to Hawaii or something, and since we now own a camper, we are much more likely to go camping, saving lots of money along the way.

I will also note we saved a tremendous amount of money buying the truck and camper used. We spent a total of $13,800, while getting the equivalent truck and camper new would cost upwards of $80,000 (!!!) today.

In Conclusion
We love our truck and camper combination. The truck has proven to be an incredibly handy vehicle to have around, and when we put the camper on it we have something that is far more comfortable, yet more affordable and than almost any #vanlife or overlanding rig. We plan to create a lot of memories as we take this thing all over the country for many years to come.

Do you have an RV? What's you favorite place to take it? Let us know in the comments.

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