Our Journey to our Overland Travel Vehicle (part 1 of 5)

by Darryl Williams

Disclosures: The following outline represents my opinion and is not meant to be inflammatory. All vehicles mentioned in the article below are fine vehicles in their own right. Some vehicles may suit you better than others. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference which is largely shaped by the way you travel.

After all the research, I can say safely the following:

In an ideal world, if we were only traveling in the US and Canada, I would probably go with a Class A diesel pusher with a capable 4WD vehicle in tow. One can’t beat this setup for the ultimate in comfort combined with the ability to go and explore the proverbial ‘off the beaten path’. 

However, since traveling the Pan Am highway requires a slightly smaller footprint, my vehicle of choice would be the MB Sprinter 3500 (extended body and height) with 4WD. However, since this vehicle option was not available in the US at the time time of our departure (or prior), this was not an option.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s go back to the beginning.

The idea of an extended international trip first came up in 2011. The idea originally started as a trip through the continent of Africa. The plan was to explore the entire West coast from Morocco to South Africa over a span of about 4 months.

The more I researched this trip, the more I did not feel comfortable with a couple of things.
* Civil / political / social unrest which can erupt at any time
* Required bribery as you cross the border from one country to the other

However, as I was researching Africa, I would tend to come across articles about adventures on something called the Pan-Am highway, the Alaskan highway, travels through Europe, and even travels through Asia. I started reading about some of those journeys and mentioned these possible alternatives to my wife. 
In the end, it was the Pan Am trip that intrigued us the most.

Once we knew we were going to to travel the Pan Am highway for at least a year, we needed a vehicle to support our journey. 

Naively, we began our search for a vehicle in late 2011 by attending RV shows in the San Francisco Bay area (as at that time we had never heard about expedition vehicles and the like). What I learned very quickly from these shows was that the traditional RV had all the comforts of home, but would not allow us to get off the beaten path…so I kept researching. Even though I had come across blogs of a few overlanders and some Pan Am journeys, the vehicle information (and options) really began to pour in when I came across a website called Expedition Portal. Now we were getting somewhere!!

So after lots of reading, I was able to define a minimum set of requirements for our vehicle as follows: 

  • Diesel engine for increased fuel efficiency and torque
  • Diesel engine which could burn the ‘dirty’ diesel found in Central and South America; manufacture date prior 2006
  • 4WD with sufficient clearance and a preference for manual gear box engagement over electronic on the fly 4WD; we would like to explore the unknown trails and backroads wherever we go
  • Manueverability; reasonable wheelbase for tighter areas
  • Reasonable storage for clothes, food. cookware, and other essentials to support our journey
  • Reliability; self explanatory
  • Serviceabilty; access to parts and mechanics to work on our rig in Mexico, Latin America, and South America

By late 2012 / early 2013, we had visited the following vehicle manufacturers:

  • Sportsmobile in Fresno, CA
  • Earthroamer in Dracono, CO
  • XP Camper in Grass Valley, CA
  • Provan / Tiger Adventures dealer agent near Napa, CA

We also attended the May 2013 Overland Expo at Mormon Lake, Arizona which is just outside of Flagstaff, AZ. We attended the expo because we wanted to see E-V-E-R-Y possible vehicle option before we made a final decision. We spent two days at the exposition. It was overwhelming, but well worth the time.

Here are some initial impressions from the plant tours and Expo…

Earthroamer: Very nice product and great attention to detail, but ultimately proved to be too expensive…even used! I kept asking myself ‘would you really want to go off-road with something so expensive?’

XP Camper: Interesting design twist in the pop-up camper category; manufacturer strongly recommends the 1 ton US pickup trucks as the vehicle platform with a preference for Dodge. XP is a relatively new manufacturer with two functioning prototypes at that time (V1 and V2).

Sportsmobile: In the expedition vehicle game for quite some time; there appears to be plenty of demand for both new and used inventory.

Provan: Nice products, but at that time they did not have a model which fit our needs. We were able to find a used vehicle, currently named the Bengal TX, but the sleeping area was not to our liking. The Siberian was well beyond our price point and their Malayan was just released and proved to be too small for our needs.

General thoughts: If you are in the market for an overland or expedition vehicle, I would highly recommend that you attend Overland Expo before making your final decision. You will see everything related to overlanding and expedition travel adventures. Literally everything.

So, after several discussions with my wife, we finally decided that the XP Camper would be our choice. We were so happy to have finalized the decision! 

However, after contacting the owner of XP, we learned that a submission of deposit in May 2013 would get us a truck in February 2014…that’s like 10 months!! To make matters worse, we were planning to leave for our trip on February 6, 2014.
Obviously this would not work since we wanted to use our vehicle during the summer and fall of 2013 for trips to the eastern Sierra of California and Oregon. We told The owner of XP that the timeline would not work for us and that we would be going in another direction.

Time for plan B. So we contacted Sportsmobile and at that time they had a 5-6 month cycle time for a new SMB. Better than XP, but still would not meet our requirements for use in 2013 use. So a new SMB would not work either. 

Time for plan C. We begin looking for a used Sportsmobile that we could buy and start getting familiar with right away. This was a great idea in theory, but in reality finding a used SMB in good condition proved to be more difficult than originally planned since anything we did find that we liked had either just been sold or was in the process of being sold. Ever hear the phrase ‘ A Day late and a dollar short’?

However, not to be deterred, we eventually purchased a used SMB in June 2013. 
The quick facts: 2006 6.0L diesel V8 turbo engine, Ford E350 Extended Body with pop-up roof, ’50’ layout , Quigley 4WD conversion

IMG 0879

Some quick thoughts on the SMB:

  • Great flow through design; we liked the ability to access the refrigerator and storage areas while on the go
  • Solid platform being the Ford E350
  • Reasonable fuel efficiency at 15-16 mpg; especially given the weight of vehicle
  • Highly rated 4WD conversion be it Quigley or Sportsmobile
  • Pop-up sleep area is very good for a single individual. In our experience, the area was too tight for 2 adults
  • Storage impacted if using rear bench as dual purpose seat and bed
  • Would advise on extended body (EB) E350 if you are tall or require more space
  • 6.0L diesel can be problematic; check V10 version and see if that meets your needs
  • Quality of materials and workmanship on SMB interior average at best
  • Limited space within the vehicle if you need to be inside during inclement weather
  • We did winter camping in the Sierras and when we used the included table the 2 occupants were trapped on either side of the table; one on bench seat, other on passenger seat
  • Great, go anywhere vehicle within limitations (i.e. overall height of vehicle, depth of water, etc…)
  • Service: Make sure your local Ford dealer is willing to work on such a highly customized vehicle or you can do the work yourself; Ford has no obligation to work on non OEM parts
  • Our truck weighed ~10,000 pounds. You can’t just take that to any garage /mechanic…think lift!!

We realized after about 6 months of ownership that we would not be taking the SMB on our Pan American highway journey. It had nothing to do with capability and everything to do with functionality. Our issues specifically had to do with the sleeping area and the interior layout. No matter how hard we tried we were never comfortable sleeping in the penthouse unit with 2 adults. It was just too small an area for us (especially since we have a California King bed at home). We only slept well when one of us slept in the penthouse and the other slept down on the rear bench.

As for the interior layout, it proved to be too cramped for us especially when we had to be inside the vehicle during inclement weather. Neither of these issues would matter much to us if we were to only use the vehicle for extended weekends or shorts trips. However, we would be living in this vehicle for a year (or possibly longer), we realized that these minor issues would become major issues very quickly.

So, what to do?  
It is now December 2013. 
We are slated to leave for our trip in February 2014
…and we have no vehicle. 

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