In photos: Small, off-grid living in vans, on roofs and in trailers
Vehicles like the EarthRoamer XV-LTS and other off-road, off-grid behemoths are among the big draws of Overland Expo West, but not everyone has the will or means for such a massive global wanderer – fun to gawk at, not necessarily relevant to your immediate or future travel plans. More practical are the legions of off-road trailers, camper vans and roof-top tents that pop up (often literally) at every corner of the show. This year's show had plenty of trailers and a broader field of camper vans and roof-top tents than we've seen in the past. These compact, mobile shelters will get you every bit as far off the grid as huge, diesel-truck-based expedition vehicles, but they'll keep size and pricing down.
Van life veers off road
The idea of leaving routine, 9-to-5 life behind to travel and live out of a van has captured the US imagination in the Van life movement that's been intensifying over the past few years. And why wouldn't those types of nomads, who carry an unquenchable thirst for adventure and new experiences, want to hang a left off the highway and rumble over rock and dirt toward less-explored corners of the world once in a while? Why wouldn't they want a 4x4 van, maybe a fully ruggedized adventure van with tons of aftermarket love?
If the increasing buzz around camper vans at this year's Overland Expo West is any indication, some of the rootless van-campers want just that. Ruggedized, 4WD camper vans have been a part of the OX show for as long as we've been attending, with brands like Sportsmobile highlighting how basic cargo and passenger vans can become go-anywhere adventure campers. This year, though, new brands and camper van designs seemed to be lurking down every aisle, and rental van services were also well represented.
Putting the off in off-road
Building a proper expedition camper van all starts with getting the right base van. The Mercedes Sprinter has fast risen in popularity due to the fact Mercedes opened up the 4x4 option to the US market starting with the 2015 model year. Van converters can now take delivery of a Sprinter 4x4 without having to equip it with an aftermarket 4WD solution, the way they have to do with other vans. With four powered wheels running the show, aftermarket brands can have fun doing what they like to do – dressing the Sprinter up in the kinds of ruggedized components you'd expect to find on a fully kitted 4x4 or truck.
Overland Expo hosted a number of off-road van component brands, but Roambuilt was one we had been waiting to check out for nearly a year, as it had been hosting a placeholder "coming soon" web page for at least that long. The actual full website launch keeps getting pushed back, and owner Cec Annett explained he's striving to get all his production ducks in a row before going fully live, ensuring that he's able to fulfill orders, not just take them.
Annett has every reason to expect that the orders will roll in, having started Roambuilt in response to the enthusiastic inquiries he was receiving while driving around in his own Sprinter, dressed up in components he self-designed with help from a local welder. Other people clearly shared his vision for van design, so he launched Roambuilt, tapping into the branding and product development experience he cultivated in a career that saw him co-found The Clymb outdoor gear discounter and work as an Adidas VP.
Roambuilt will offer a line of Sprinter accessories like ruggedized bumpers, skid plates, roof racks, ladders and more. Its Sprinters were definitely among the most rugged and memorable of the show, so we can see why would-be customers are anxiously awaiting the full launch.
We originally thought that Roambuilt was planning to do full camper conversions, but we learned it's focused solely on exterior components, leaving interior work up to the owner or a few interior conversion shops it's teamed with. We had a chance to tour the work of one of those partners, North Vancouver-based custom van shop Nomad Vanz (not to be confused with British VW van converter, Nomad Campervans). We looked at its Mud Men, the Betty Edition, a van combining nostalgic design inspired by the Mad Men era with a healthy love for modern-day mud and dirt.
The Mud Men's interior caught our attention immediately with the blue plaid of the VW tartan upholstery, glossy laminate furniture and surfy teak wood. A closer look revealed a kitchen with a cooktop piped to the diesel tank of the base Sprinter, a 200-watt solar panel-backed electrical system with lithium-ion storage, a Webasto heater, a cassette toilet, a rear platform bed, and a folding two-seat bench good for sleeping two kids.
Between the bed compartment wall and the rear double doors, a bicycle garage holds three bikes, a built-in air compressor, and the "ground control" system with plumbing, heating and electrical equipment. It's a van that challenges occupants to play hard before retiring to their cozy mobile abode.
Adventure in tow
Last year saw an explosion of new trailers at both Overland Expo West and East. Trailers didn't seem to have quite as dominating a presence at this month's show, but there were still some new faces around, including one of the latest overseas brands breaking into the US market, Australia's Patriot Campers.
Short of launching big toy-hauling campers like the TH610, Patriot brought two of its smaller staple models to the show, including the multi-award-winning X1. The X1's electrical and safety equipment has been reworked for the US, and the trailer has been certified to US standards. It rides on a galvanized interlocked chassis and utilizes a standard airbag suspension for on/off-road versatility and easy campsite leveling.
The X1 has a monocoque aluminum body and a variety of cabinets, drawers, slides and fold-outs, and standard and optional equipment includes a trailer-top tent, add-on kids' dual-bunk tent, slide-out kitchen, heat and hot water system, 150 W folding solar blanket, AGM or lithium-ion battery storage, Bluetooth stereo system, and generously sized awning fanning out over the kitchen side and rear. Prices start at US$33,990, and Patriot is also offering the smaller X2 starting at $22,295.
Bedding down in a pickup bed
Truck canopies and bed campers were popular in 2016, with models like the Tacoma Habitat and EarthCruiser GZL making debuts at Overland Expo. Both of those truck campers were shown in expanded lineups at OX West 2017, sized up for larger full-size pickup trucks. We also came across an entirely different breed of truck bed camper.
Combining the advantages of a truck topper, open pickup bed and pop-up camper, the Topper EZLift system lifts a pickup topper (sold separately) straight up with a push-button electrical system wired to the truck's 12 V battery. This allows for hauling oversized gear like ATVs and motorcycles without having to remove the topper completely and also creates space for camping, space the Minnesota-based company fills with its own line of fabric camper packages. Each package includes ventilated side windows, and insulation is available at extra cost. A Topper EZLift with camper package starts at $2,400, as currently advertised on the company's website.
Roughing it from penthouse level
Hot on the heels of our first roof-top tent camping excursion, we took in all kinds of new RTT names, models and designs at Overland Expo. Tepui showed the aluminized fabric designed to turn its Baja tent into a cold-weather shelter, and iKamper previewed its Skycamp expandable hard-shell tent for both general attendees and the early supporters who helped it raise $2.4 million on Kickstarter just months ago.
One roof-top tent that we hadn't previously seen in person, the Eezi-Awn Stealth (pictured below) has a design so slick we might even call it sexy, not an adjective we're used to using for roof-top tents. The tent's matte-black powder-coated aluminum body and sharp lines give it an almost aeronautical look, while total weight comes in at 220 lb (100 kg). The unique elevated shape of the roof is designed to add space for stored bedding. Salt Lake City-based Equipt Expedition Outfitters is South Africa-based Eezi-Awn's US distributor and sells the Stealth for $3,900.
In the coming days and weeks, we'll be looking at a few more standout camper vans, trailers, roof tents and pickup campers from OX West 2017. In the meantime, you can have a look at the accompanying photo gallery to see the entire field of products we checked out.