Six weeks of dirt, dust and dog food has been cleaned from our camper. We brought home enough of the Southwest, Midwest and Utah to amend a garden. It was a very successful and memorable trip. We saw some incredible sights and were able to connect with family and friends, while comfortably traveling in our new Four Wheel Camper Hawk Flatbed. We even learned a few things about our camper that made us very pleased with our decision to build out a flatbed. But first, let’s wind the clock back.
For six years, my wife Gretchen and I enjoyed our beloved Toyota Tacoma equipped with a Four Wheel Camper Fleet. It was nimble and reliable and provided cooking and sleeping comfort from the northern reaches of Canada to countless trips in Baja Mexico. We had our routine and could setup camp in minutes. When our friends were still leveling their trailers we were drinking margaritas. Most importantly, we could get into places where most rigs could not. When we wanted to bring kayaks and motorcycles, we simply hitched up our “Baja Buggy.” Once retired, our trips grew in length and duration. What we needed was more elbow room in the truck cab and camper without compromising off-road capability.When we started outlining requirements for our next rig, the Four Wheel Camper Flatbed Hawk was a natural choice. After a visit to the factory, the team at Mule Outfitters submitted our order and a COVID year quickly turned into project time.
Although there are several very good truck platforms available, we opted for a Dodge Ram 3500 Cummins diesel for two primary reasons: payload capacity and power. The inherent payload of a one ton truck required only minor suspension modifications—just a 2-inch front lift and airbags to help level heavier loads. Keep it simple, durable and standard. (I have seen too many custom rigs, broken and waiting weeks for a custom part in a remote Mexican town.) We fitted our new Ram with 35-inch BF Goodrich Ko2 tires on Method wheels, Westin rock sliders and a Proline front bumper with an integrated Warn 12,000-pound Zeon Winch. Mule Outfitters helped us sell our stock bed and subsequently installed a Norweld Aluminum Flatbed. The under-tray boxes were a “must have” but we opted not to get the rear sliding storage compartment. This allowed the tray to sit lower on the truck frame and reduce the camper entry height by about 5 inches. We did add a custom designed rear bumper to make the spare tire more accessible and provide some rear end collision protection. A custom rear rack was also added to hold traction boards, shovel, trash bag and extra fuel. Both of these items were [again] fabricated by the talented team at Proline in Prineville, Oregon. A Baja Designs light bar up front and floods in the rear were installed to help with late evening travel and camp setup. GPS systems along with VHF/HF ham radio communications completed the cab. (All of this work was done while our Four Wheel Camper Hawk was on order).
Once the camper arrived from the factory, it only took Mule Outfitters two hours to complete the installation before we were on our way! All of the decisions over a seven month period came together—and the Four Wheel Camper community played a part. Thanks to the factory team, Mule Outfitters, Owen and Mac, and Joe and Kait Russo for their insights on several key questions. After two short shake-down trips, we were ready to head out. The project spreadsheets were filed away and the maps were pulled out!
Like many, we were feeling the effect of limited travel after a year of COVID. The timing of our first big trip was going to coincide with our ‘vacation vaccination!’ We had a short list of places to explore with our new FWC but soon realized this trip was destined to be an amalgamation of opportunities that were too good to pass up. And, when several can be stitched together a tapestry of travel can quickly become an itinerary.
The first opportunity began with a nudge from my wife which I have acutely learned to pay attention to over the years. She wanted to skirt the eastern Sierras where we launched many summer backpacking trips along the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails in decades gone by. In addition, Gretchen wanted to experience Death Valley in the early spring—when temperatures are cooler and the wild flowers abound. It sounded like a great way to start the trip.
The second opportunity started with a phone call from my 91 year old mom, who was also my wife’s girl-scout leader in high school. She suggested that we drive back to Indiana for her sister’s 90th surprise birthday celebration and family reunion—via Route 66. We would be retracing the route from 66 years ago when my parents, with twin babies in tow, decided to move to Southern, California. This type of trip was not exactly what we had in mind for our Four Wheel Camper but nonetheless an important one. My mom has more energy and adventure in her than many people half her age—and a memory that would shame an elephant. This was going to be an unexpected experience! Leg two of our trip was decided.
As Gretchen was working through some Route 66 logistics, a good friend called to inform me he was organizing a trip with several other couples. Their plan was to explore numerous backroads north of the Grand Canyon and to the south-east of Bryce Canyon. This opportunity was timely for two reasons. It would be a bonus to test the off-road capabilities of our truck camper while among experienced friends. The selected area was also a perfect jump-off point to explore more of Utah—which was on my short list.
Finally, Gretchen and I both wanted to experience a period of travel that was unconstrained by time or destination. This is when we typically find that special camping spot that becomes another favorite.
So, immediately after receiving our second vaccination, we headed south from central Oregon towards Nevada. The trip along the eastern side of the Sierras was everything we hoped for and remembered. Big vistas complimented creek side campsites shaded with cottonwoods. Sunshine prevailed, but the winds picked up in the evening. We were interested to see how the pop-up would perform. Needless to say, it handled the wind gusts admirably.
We cruised into Death Valley two days later with nothing more than sore arms from our shots. April is an ideal time to visit Death Valley. The majority of tourist are gone, but some spring flowers remain. The temperatures are warm, but not too hot. Shorts and flip flops were in order. Days were spent exploring sights like Darwin Falls, the Sand Dunes, Artist Palette, Badwater and numerous abandoned mines to name just a few. In the evenings, we climbed elevation to places like Wild Rose and the charcoal kiln ruins for cooler temperatures. We left Death Valley ready to return.
After giving the rig a quick bath in Pahrump, Nevada, we picked up mom in Las Vegas and headed southeast to take on another big attraction—Route 66. Affectionately known as the Mother Road, Route 66 originally extended 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica covering eight states and three times zones. Our starting point was Kingman, Arizona which is widely recognized as the last big stop-over for travelers heading west and headquarters for Truck Camper Adventure. This is where our journey back in time began. Most of the original Mother Road can still be traveled and it is a nice break from the highway. We passed through small vibrant towns that have found a way to survive the Interstate re-alignment during the ’60s. Others had barely missed a heartbeat or where slowly deteriorating back to their foundations. While passing through towns like Holbrook, Arizona or Tucumcari, New Mexico we saw plenty of yesteryear gas stations, main street cafes and revitalized motels with plenty of neon. While it made sense for mom to stay in these fun hotels, we usually stayed in our Hawk just outside her room. This proved to be a good option. If there was some hesitation by the motel owners to let us pop our top, then a $20 bill—which we were happy to pay—changed their mind.
Over the next several days, we passed through tiny Adrian, Texas (the midway point), Stroud, Oklahoma and Carthage, Missouri. When I asked for a menu in one café, the waitress said the only breakfast this particular morning was eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast—so that’s what I ordered! Pontiac, Illinois was the ideal, thriving, Route 66 town to wind down our history tour and deliver mom to the party in Indiana. When her sister walked into the room of a local Moose Lodge and saw my mom with open arms, there was not a dry eye in the building.
Traveling Route 66 exceeded our expectations. We absorbed a lot of history from the numerous museums along the way. The culture of travel almost a century ago was in some ways similar to overlanding today. Much of the road was dirt. Cars carried spare parts and extra fuel. Travelers only vaguely knew where they were going to stay for the evening. But most importantly, it was new territory and experiences for the early dust bowl adventurers seeking another land. Hence, the contrast between an old Conoco gas station and a new Truck Camper was striking. Sometimes you have to stop to comprehend progress.
With full hearts and a full tank of gas, we waved goodbye to relatives and put Indiana in our rear view mirror. The open roads and rolling fields of Iowa and Nebraska allowed us to decompress from several wonderful days with family. We found easy places to camp, stretched our legs with walks and simply inhaled the peace and quiet. Once again, we resorted to backroads and marveled at the postcard-like farms surrounding neat homesteads. We put in several long days of driving but this is where the Ram 3500 Diesel really shines. Whether on the open plains or in the mountains the ride was smooth and effortless. Eventually, we landed at a Harvest Host winery in Palisades, Colorado. Our camper was setup in just minutes. By nightfall, a bottle of wine (or two) somehow made the day seem shorter than it really was.
When traveling, it was not uncommon for us to take a roadside lunch break. While I would give our dog a much needed walk and fresh water, Gretchen would prepare lunch inside the camper. There was enough headroom that we did not even need to pop the top. She has ready-access to the storage cabinets and refrigerator. This convenience enabled her to prepare a healthy meal and save us from fast food.
From the Colorado-Utah border we pushed on towards Capitol Reef National Park and after an easy water crossing, found a sweet spot to camp along the Fremont River. Lily, our retriever, was in dog heaven! Although we were moving camp every day, it never felt burdensome. Gretchen and I had developed a good routine that enabled us to tear down camp and be on the move with breakfast in the belly and coffee in hand in well under an hour. After spending a day at Bryce Canyon we met up with friends in Kanab, Utah to explore some more remote areas of the northeast Grand Canyon rim and the Grand Staircase. Since our bodies were in need of a refresh, we stopped at a small and well maintained RV Park to do laundry, take a shower and refill the camper with water. We found RV Parks to be a good resource for these activities.
Camping on the second tier of the Grand Canyon at 8,000 feet was a real treat. The views from our camper windows were breathtaking. All it took was a little navigating on obscure forest roads. One of the highlights with our friends was camping on the edge of Alstrom Point overlooking Lake Powell. Even the wind took a holiday which made the 80 degree weather feel like a summer fiesta. Using the Escalante, Utah area as a base, we traveled Alvey Wash and boondocked in a stunning canyon far of the main dirt road. The Burr Trail outside of Boulder, Utah was another spectacular drive through steep canyon walls.
Leaving Boulder, we stuck to the backroads and meandered north towards Dinosaur National Park and spent two days in Echo Park—only after waiting two days for the rain to stop so we could safely manage the steep and slippery Dugway road. The delay was worth it. This quiet haven offered historical sights, petroglyphs, hiking, the Green River and big cottonwood trees for shade. The time finally arrived for us to head home but not before some peaceful [re-entry] camping near Alpine Junction in Wyoming and Baker City, Oregon. Our familiar Central Oregon scenery drew us home while we recounted many firsts.
After six weeks of travel, we learned a few new things about our Four Wheel Camper and were able to put an exclamation mark behind a few others we were already familiar with. The following is our short list:
Storage: To quote Jeff Martin, Four Wheel Camper Sales Manager at Mule Outfitters, “the under-bed storage found in the Hawk Flatbed is a game changer.” Storage will always be a premium asset in a pop-up camper. The low travel profile and unique open-air feeling within a pop-up comes at the expense of counter-to-ceiling cabinets found in conventional campers. This challenge was solved by the Four Wheel Camper engineers when designing the Hawk Flatbed. Under the queen-side bed, which pivots on lift arms, resides an entire storage space 5-inches deep. With the use of some simple dividers, this easily accessible space organized our clothing, computer accessories and hiking poles to name just a few item types. As this trip required clothing for the outdoors and dress occasions, we could not imagine how we would have managed without our secret storage. Whenever we were asked for a tour of our camper, this feature always yielded the biggest jaw drop.
Off-road Capability: As the name implies, Four Wheel Camper are designed for travelers that value a light weight yet strong and off road friendly camper. Over the years we really appreciated this quality of our Four Wheel Camper Fleet on the backroads of Baja. The low camper height and internal tie down method makes for a secure camper to truck bed connection. This proved to be no different with our Hawk Flatbed—even though the overall size and footprint is larger than the slide-in version. In almost all installations, the Hawk Flatbed is hard fastened to the flatbed tray which is hard fastened to the truck frame. As a result, there is little sway over the roughest terrain. On the last rock-strewn mile leading in and out of Alstrom Point, Utah, our rig certainly dipped in and out of troughs but we never felt a lack of control.
Camper Entry: Prior to receiving our Hawk Flatbed, Gretchen’s only concern was the door entry height. (We are in shape, but 50 years of age has long been in our rear view mirror.) Since a flatbed camper sits on top of the truck “wheel wells” (vs a slide-in style that sits between them) the door is about a foot higher from the ground. This mandates the use of scissor steps or a stirrup to access the camper. To ease my wife’s concern,
I ordered a 5-step configuration with large treads, an easy rise and double linkage for rigidity. It hit a home run. We found the steps very stable and easy to use. The slightly taller door in the Hawk Flatbed made entry a lot more natural. Surprisingly, the steps evolved into double duty. With camp chairs positioned on each side, the lower steps became a table for appetizers or drinks while the upper steps worked well as a staging area for cooking. When packing, we simply compressed the steps and put them in a plastic bin just inside the door. I should note that we still use the stirrup for quick access to the camper especially while on the road. We are not that old!
Floor Space: The feature we enjoy the most is the floor space. The “dance floor’ is about 50 percent greater than our previous camper which gives us plenty of room to multi-task. With a T-configuration, one person can step-back from the galley. For example, Gretchen can be preparing a meal while I am adding a layer of clothing. In addition, the side entry enables a very comfortable and user friendly dinette towards the rear of the camper. We spent many evenings reviewing maps, playing cards or reading a book at the dinette. On occasion, we would convert the dinette to a lounger… perfect for an afternoon nap after a long hike! With the dinette bed ready and the top still down, our camper can also become a stealth sleeper.
This was a unique trip in so many ways. We had the opportunity to travel with my 91-year-young mom in our Four Wheel Camper and deliver her to a surprise party of a lifetime. We got to travel with friends, meet a few new ones along the way and just spend quality time together. We covered 7,000 miles and visited 18 states in six weeks. Sometimes the roads were paved and other times dirt or rock. We boondocked, found some special small campgrounds, and even parked outside of motels. Regardless of where we landed for an evening or the weather, we felt complete and at home.
When we decided on a Hawk Flatbed, our intent was to build out a capable and versatile rig that could take us to a myriad of places for an extended period of time. We even got in a few “firsts.”
Summer has yet to arrive in Sisters, Oregon. I better put another log in the wood stove and dig out those maps. We ready to go off the road again!
To learn more about Four Wheel Campers, visit their homepage at www.fourwheelcampers.com.