Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this interview with Four Wheel Camper owner and off-road instructor extraordinaire, Bob Wohlers. Anyone connected to Four Wheel Campers knows Bob. He’s a published author, conducts several backcountry overland tours each year, and teaches classes at numerous events including at the Overland Expo and at our very own Truck Camper Adventure Rally. Bob is also a certified scuba instructor and runs the Off-Road Safety Academy out of Gridley, California. Always on the move, Bob was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to talk with us about his school, some off-road basics, and the thought process behind choosing a Four Wheel Camper and a Ram Power Wagon. Anyone interested in truck campers and off-road exploration will be interested in this informative interview.
Thanks, Bob, for talking with us. Can you first tell us more about yourself?
Bob: Thanks, Mike. It’s an honor to be asked for this interview and to speak to your fine readers. I’m genuinely humbled. I love talking with all those involved with vehicle-supported adventures—whether recreationally or professionally. So, thank you for this offering.
First and foremost I’m an outdoor adventurer—I love learning about the natural world. God is on full display when you study the natural world. This is what excites me. I love waking up in the remote backcountry with snow covering the tent or camper, or traversing switchbacks down a steep challenging trail, deep with anticipation of a lovely dispersed campsite in the valley beyond.
Simply put, I’m a “surf and turf” kind of guy. Regarding the “surf” aspect, I’m an avid scuba diver and was the youngest NAUI Instructor ever certified in 1973. Even though I have a bachelorette in Marine Biology, I became enamored with the newly forming recreational dive industry. For 32 years I created curricula and invented training methodologies for PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. During my tenure at PADI, the organization became the largest scuba diving certification agency in world. To this day PADI is still the envy of most recreational instructor organizations—scuba or otherwise. Within the SCUBA industry I was recognized as a training innovator. I helped initiated video, computer, and internet-based learning while at PADI.
For the “turf” aspect, I have been an avid off-roader my entire life. I learned through the school of hard knocks the “Zen” and “fine art” of safe and environmentally responsible off-road driving. I have overlanded across the USA, in Egypt, Israel, all over Mexico and Baja, and Belize. As a college student and young adult (think: prior to having kids), I used off-road vehicles to reach beyond the beaches of the world that divers typically visited. I loved the thrill of diving a beach off the beaten path. At that time, a 4WD vehicle was my passport to underwater discovery.
Can you tell us more about your off-road safety school?
Bob: Sure, but it’s more of a business plan, than simply a school. Let me explain.
While at PADI I finished my Masters Degree in Instructional Design; learning how to craft instructional products (books, videos, eLearning, etc.) that were easy to read and helped with long-term memory retention—the ONLY goals of any instructional product. Through the use of Instructional Design, we at PADI completely changed the way people learned to dive. Scuba is a discipline that cannot tolerate errors underwater; people HAD to learn what was important and most importantly REMEMBER the material when the crap hits the fan in an alien environment.
It’s a longer story, but during my years at PADI I started reading everything I could get my hands on about 4WD and off-roading. Not to dis any one author or book, but I was really disappointed by the books I read. Some were okay, but most were poorly written, didn’t have enough photos, or way too broad in scope. I also took training from a few key individuals in the industry. Again, I was a bit disappointed. Largely, it seemed that the training was all about “them”—the trainer, and not so much about the students. It reminded me of scuba training back in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s when the training was very “militaristic” and “ego-centric.”
While still working at PADI, I started Off-Road Safety Academy, an S-Corp in California. On weekends, I began training students and forming up several layers of curriculum for 4WD beginners and advanced drivers. During this time, I started lying awake at night thinking of the training opportunities in the off-road and overland market—4WD, ATV, UTV, Snowmobile, and Adventure Motorcycle. Taking a risk, I quit my good paying job at PADI (an organization I still very much admire) to work full-time in the growing off-road market.
Over the next few years I enlarged my 4WD offerings to recreationalists, plus I became a government contractor, teaching many of the fine employees (rangers and scientists) in several of the southwest national parks and BLM areas. I taught many of these government employees’ 4WD safety and wilderness first aid. I was also contracted to teach 4WD safety to employees of several corporations—AT&T, T-Mobile, Motive Energy, and others. I crafted specific curriculum for these different types of students—each having different goals and objectives off-road.
While teaching 4WD courses in person is very satisfying and can be financially rewarding, I initially realized that as a single trainer I couldn’t reach everyone that owned a 4WD vehicle but was afraid to venture out into the backcountry due to lack of knowledge and skills. I want to help everyone to the best of my ability. I don’t want folks to venture out unprepared, get into trouble, and then never off-road or overland again. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made due to a lack of knowledge and skills, or having the wrong attitude. This is how a recreational industry shrinks.
Hence, writing info books for wide distribution was always in the business plan. I currently have two books published, a third currently in layout, and two more completely written. The two published books, “Live Long to Wander—Basic Survival for Vehicle-Supported Adventures,” and “Raising Your 4WD Vehicle Off Road and In-Field Tire Repair” are both offered for sale on my website and Amazon.com. My third book will be published in early 2019 and is titled “The Total Approach to Getting Unstuck Off-Road—4WD Self-Recovery and Vehicle-Assisted Recovery.” This third book is a “monster”—there’s no book like it on the market. Oh sure, there are chapters on recovery in many 4WD self-help books, but in my opinion they can’t cover the topic completely in one chapter. This third book is truly a complete treatise on the topic of recovery. This book covers how to safely, effectively, and intelligently get unstuck when off-road. I can share the title of my fourth book, “Getting to Know 4WD Vehicles—Purchasing, Modifying & Driving Your Off-Road Vehicle.” My fifth book is on the topic of overlanding.
Another part of my business plan includes partnering with key industry companies that would benefit from providing their customers with educational safety information. To date, I’ve written guidebooks for two companies—MasterPull and Factor 55. MasterPull produced the guide: “Kinetic Energy Recovery—Principles Safety Considerations and Safe Rigging Set-Ups.” Factor 55 produced the guide: “Basic Guide to Winching—Principles, Safety Considerations & Common Rigging Set-Ups.” You can secure these guides by purchasing product from these companies. I also use the guidebooks when I teach my clinics and courses.
My business plan extends beyond me personally teaching courses and the writing of books. In 2019 I plan to launch ORTA—the Off-Road Trainer’s Association™. The plan is to begin training trainers in early 2020. We will have a professional Trainer’s Manual and structured curriculum that trainers will follow. It will be this framework that will allow the kind of educational reach I want for the off-road industry. I can’t divulge more, but stay tuned. It will be quite a ride and very exciting.
Can anyone sign up for your course?
Bob: Of course—right now the only requirements are vehicle-specific (must have 4WD, 4-Lo gearing, be street legal). Naturally, the drivers must have a driver’s license and proof of auto insurance.
How long is the course and how much does it cost?
Bob: My “Discovery Course” is $350 and lasts two-days. Course information is on my website. This is a great course for beginners and even seasoned off-roaders. I also offer private courses—geared to the person’s specific vehicle and type of terrain they plan on driving. I offer a one-day winch recovery course, and a one-day winchless recovery course. Besides courses, I offer a variety of off-road and overland tours on iconic trails. I also am an invited trainer at many popular off-road and overlanding events. In 2019 I’ll be offering training clinics at NW Overland Rally, BC Overland Rally, Rocky Mountain Overland Rally, Big Sky Overland Rally, Lone Star Toyota Jamboree, Four Wheel Camper Rallies, etc.
Wow, you’re a busy man! We love your Four Wheel Camper Hawk. We saw it in Flagstaff at last year’s Overland Expo. Can you tell us about it and why you chose that particular make and model?
Bob: Mike, I took three years to “pull the trigger” and purchase my Hawk model Four Wheel Camper (FWC) and truck platform. During that time I very carefully looked at a variety of truck campers and larger vehicle overlanding platforms from a variety of companies. I visited many of these company’s factories to envision the actual build and talk to designers, owners, and construction employees. I also looked at their company history and longevity in the marketplace.
While conducting my research, I also wrote down my personal goals and uses for this overlanding platform. What types of trails I wanted to take the vehicle on, how I’d use it both professionally and recreationally, etc. My wife and I also wanted something other than a “tent.” We love our roof-top tents on our off-road trailer and Jeep JK, but at times we’d love a locking door while I sleep (think: Mexico) and the comfort of a camper in poor weather (think: Alaska).
For me, there wasn’t even a second place company when it came to purchasing a rugged off-road camper that could probably withstand the type of challenging trails I like to explore. Almost equal to the rugged build consideration was FWC’s historic longevity. They’ve been building campers for off-roaders since the 1970’s—the company is going to be around for a good long time. This means my warranty and service considerations aren’t going away due to bankruptcy; just the opposite. I’ve gotten to know Robert Vogl, FWC’s CEO and private equity partner. Getting to know Robert and the entire staff at FWC simply cemented my notion of buying one of their campers. These are really wonderful, customer-centric folks that love what the build. I was all in after visiting the factory and meeting the staff.
What mods, if any, have you made to your FWC Hawk?
Bob: I ordered my Hawk model fully loaded, so I’ve not needed to modify it too much. I did what I consider two VERY important modifications for long-term dispersed camping. First, I added the Swiss-made IBS-DBS intelligent battery minding system between the camper’s house batteries and the solo Power Wagon starting battery. Second, I added a Wrappon Green 12 volt toilet.
The IBS system automatically determines where input energy is coming from (solar or alternator) and distributes it between both house and starter batteries. I can also start the truck with the camper house batteries if the truck battery fails. There’s an LED display in the cab that tells you what the condition of both battery systems are. You can get the IBS from Extreme Outback Products. The National Luna dual battery minding system from Equipt is also wonderful; I have one of those systems in my Jeep Wrangler JK.
The Wrappon Green toilet is a wonderful addition to the camper. The toilet is expensive, about $1,000, but in my opinion well worth the money. The toilet is small and fits into one of the camper’s lower storage areas. Just pull it out, turn it on, and “do” your business. The toilet is waterless and very clean. To “flush” you simply press a button and the electric rollers pull the plastic downward, then heat seals the bag to simply throw away like trash. You can get a Wrappon toilet from AT Overland.
We agree. The Wrappon 12 volt toilet is pretty neat. We’ll be publishing a review on it soon. Speaking of camper batteries, how do you keep yours topped off?
Bob: Solar only, with the previously described IBS battery system.
Can you tell us more about your truck?
Again, after much research, I purchased a 2018 RAM Power Wagon. In my opinion, it’s the very best overlanding 3/4-ton truck at a reasonable price point. I describe the Fiat Chrysler Automotive vehicle as the “Rubicon” of trucks since it has practically all the same trail worthy features as a Rubicon Wrangler off the showroom floor—4WD with 4-Low transfer case gearing, 2.5 inches of lift, solid front axle, 4:10 gearing in the axles, lockers front/rear, front sway bar disconnect from the dash, electronic traction control, downhill assist, and a fuel tank and transfer case armor skid plates. The truck has a couple of items that even the Rubicon Wrangler doesn’t have from the showroom – a Warn 12,000 pound winch and it’s proprietary Articulink suspension. In fact, no other RAM 2500 or 3500 truck has the unique Articulink suspension for increased axle articulation in the rocks. RAM engineers spent millions on designing the Articulink suspension. It really works.
Did you need to make any suspension modifications to your Power Wagon?
Before purchasing my Power Wagon, I knew it had a paltry 1,440 pounds of payload capacity. Compare this to the RAM 2500 Laramie with over 3,000 pounds of payload capacity—more than double the Power Wagon’s payload. Why the difference? The Power Wagon’s suspension was not designed to carry lots of weight in the bed. The truck’s soft springs and Articulink suspension were designed to allow extreme axle articulation for off-road trail-worthiness. This truck’s suspension was designed for maximum traction through extreme axle articulation. For my purposes, the Power Wagon’s deficient payload capacity was overshadowed by its extreme off-road prowess and capability at a reasonable price point.
I know the airbags restrict my rear axle articulation some, but honestly, I’ve yet to raise a rear tire off the ground while rock crawling. With lockers, front sway bar disconnect, and electronic traction control I believe a small restriction of rear axle articulation is of no consequence. This is especially true if you consider the price of outfitting a RAM 4WD Laramie, let’s say, with all the trail worthy features you get in a Power Wagon off the showroom floor.
I spent just over $1,000 dollars helping the Power Wagon carry my camper. I would have had to spend over $15,000 to modify a RAM Laramie with all the same trail worthy features as my Power Wagon. Hey, it’s simple math. Get the Power Wagon!
Do you have any regrets in your choices? Anything you wished that you had done differently?
Bob: Honestly, no.
What kind of mileage are you getting?
Bob: On the highway I’m getting about 12 mpg. The Power Wagon doesn’t come with a diesel option, only the 6.4L Hemi. I wouldn’t have gotten the diesel anyway since I plan to head to Mexico and beyond. Ultra-low sulfur diesel is hit and miss in these countries. Plus, (don’t tell the Nevada State Troopers) I’ve had the truck and camper up to 120 mph on Highway 50. I was impressed with the ride at that speed.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run when driving off-road?
Bob: I’ve already run through the stock 285 70R/17 Wrangler Duratracs that came stock with the truck. They would be a great tire if I had not put a camper on the bed, but with that weight one really needs a E load range tire (10-ply). The Duratrac’s were Load Range D, 8-ply tires. I was holding my breath in Death Valley a month ago doing Steel Pass on these stock tires. I could have easily shred an 8-ply tire on the rocks with camper weight on the back.
I now have 35×12.5/17 Yokohama Geolander M/T’s on the truck. I’ve had Geolander tires in the past, but I have to say, I’m VERY happy with these tires so far. They have an aggressive tread pattern and practically no road noise.
I teach my students to use the manufacturer suggested pressure ratings listed on the driver-side decal when running on the highway. For my truck that is 60 psi in the front and 65 psi in the rear. Off-road I start with a 30 percent to 40 percent reduction on graded roads, and 50 percent reduction in the rocks. If I get stuck at that pressure, I will reduce the psi to up to 70 percent to get unstuck (all generally speaking).
What are your thoughts on steel vs aluminum rims?
Bob: None really. Both can be good if the rim is from a solid manufacturer. I put AEV Katla Rims on my Power Wagon when I went to my 35-inch tires. On my Jeep TJ rock crawler I have steel rims. In the past on a difficult trail I have “dented” the bead seals on my steel rims, only to beat the rim back into “shape” on the trail. Can’t do that with aluminum. But a quality aluminum rim may not have dented or cracked; hard to know.
What are your thoughts on beadlock rims for truck camper rigs?
Bob: Hmmm. Not an easy answer to this question; depends on the manufacturer of the rim and what you intend to do with your truck. Generally, I’d think “no” beadlocks for truck/camper combos. Since my truck is basically an “overlander” (lots of highway AND off-road miles), I would not use beadlocks. Now, on my rock crawling set-up Jeep TJ, YES. But I trailer that vehicle to difficult trails; rarely do I drive it on the highway beyond town.
Also, there’s a myth about beadlocks that needs to be clarified—and your readers may know this. The DOT does not “approve” or “disapprove” of beadlock rims—but there are industry (ANSI) SAE “standards” for rim manufacturers. Also, it’s not “illegal” to use beadlock rims on the highway—in any state I’m familiar with. If a beadlock meets the SAE “standards” then from an insurance and legal perspective, the rim is good at high speeds on the highway. Most beadlock rims are not SAE J2530 compliant and as such should only be used off-road. With these thoughts in mind, I’m not inclined to put beadlocks on my Power Wagon.
Do you have any favorite places or trails you like to explore? What was the most difficult and challenging?
Bob: Internationally I love Baja, the lower Yucatan, Belize, and the Sinai Peninsula—between Cairo and Elat. I’m huge fan of the Southwest area in the US, especially the Great Basin expanse. Canyonlands, Death Valley, and Mojave are my stomping grounds. I feel it’s a privilege to enjoy the freedom of traveling anywhere we want in this country and we can journey between states with “no papers” as Percilli once asked Captain Marko Ramius in the movie “Hunt for Red October.”
What advice would you offer to those who are considering buying a truck camper to take off-road?
Bob: Choose very wisely based on what you want to do with your platform and what types of trails you want to tackle. Take your time and do your research. Keep your overlanding platform simple. Try to do most of the modification work yourself so you are intimate and “one” with your camper and truck.
What emergency gear do you take with you on your outings?
Bob: Wow, another thoughtful question but it’s not easy to answer without providing a dissertation on the topic of “survival.” First, let’s define our terms. In vehicle-supported adventures, if everything goes bad during an outing in the remote backcountry, we are talking about SURVIVAL. Not bushcraft. Survival is staying alive for 72 or so hours. Bushcraft is like “Naked and Afraid”—you have nothing.
So, that defined, all overlanders should have what is called a Bug-Out-Bag (food, water, survival gear for 72+ hours). I also have on my belt anytime I’m out of the vehicle, my ACR ResQLink Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). I also have a SatPhone and Garmin inReach.
Your question hints at the need for important knowledge and kit. For this information in total (because your life may depend on it), I’d suggest purchasing my book “Live Long to Wander—Basic Survival for Vehicle-Supported Adventures.“ I wrote this book first because I believe it’s THE most important information an overlander/off-roader should know. Even more important than how “lockers” work, or “winching.” Duh.
Do you have any safety advice for those who are just starting out?
Bob: Yes. In Omnia Paratus. (Latin: Prepare for All Things)
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Of course, scuba diving on secluded hard to reach beaches! Photography and helping others get unstuck.
This has been great talking to you, Bob. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. Do you have any final advice for our readers?
Bob: Adventure is important; go and explore—sea or land. It’s been an honor, Mike. Thanks for the great questions.