Couple Converts Vintage Camper into Overland Home

For those who love classic Airstreams and aluminum campers nothing beats an old Avion truck camper. It never fails, whenever we see an Avion along the side of a road we have to stop and get some photos. Our hard drive is loaded with dozens of photos of old Avions suspended on jacks, waiting for a restoration that often never comes. Why? Because restoring these old classics takes a lot of time and patience, not to mention special skill. Aluminum isn’t the easiest thing to work with. But that didn’t stop software developers, Chris and Lexi Goforth, from jumping right in and restoring a 1970 Avion C11 truck camper. They were and remain enthusiastic about the challenge of owning one of these old classics. To learn more about the restoration process and the challenges and joys of living in one full-time, we spoke with Lexi.

TCA: Thanks, Lexi, for talking the time to talk with us. When did you and Chris first get interested in the nomadic lifestyle?

Lexi: Our journey has gone through several stages of full-time and part-time living over the last four years. Since we are are both software developers we can work anywhere under the right conditions: internet access, power, and work space. So, when the rent on our San Francisco apartment took a particularly aggressive jump back in early 2015, we decided to give the “digital nomad” lifestyle a try. For us, that began as a combination of camping, airbnbs, and extended stay hotels.

We didn’t have a car back then, but a family member had a 1985 Dodge 3500 commuter van that was rusting away in a field. We thought it would be fun to fix up for full time living. While we did manage to get it running we were plagued with problems. We could never get the air conditioning to consistently work and most mechanics wanted nothing to do with us. We jokingly referred to the van as “Dodgy” due to its unreliable nature.

The experience convinced us that it is a good idea to separate the camper from the car. We loved the vintage look of the old van, but we missed the modern conveniences like airbags and air conditioning. Truck campers seemed like a much better, more modular approach since we could easily upgrade the truck as it wore out. So we decided to get a truck with a shell to sleep in while we searched for the right truck camper. We camped with the shell for another year before we found the Avion we have now.

TCA: Can you tell us about your Avion truck camper? How did you find it?

Lexi: We knew we wanted a vintage truck camper. Yet, we were on the fence between an Avion, Alaskan, or Amerigo. Since these aren’t generally available at your local RV dealer, we had an alert set up on Craigslist for truck campers. A few Avion and Cayo came up for sale while we were looking that were either too far away or bad timing on our part. At one point we almost bought a 1970s Cobra truck camper. There were a lot of misses before we had a hit.

Finally, we got an alert for a 1970 Avion C11 Ultra for sale in Florida. We were in Arkansas at the time, but we agreed to pack up and take a look.

Frankly, getting there was a whole lot easier than leaving. The Avion was in relatively good shape for a camper that was nearly 50 years old. The exterior aluminum had no major dents but the structural wood floor and wings were riddled with rot. The tie-downs and jack points were connected to little more than sheet aluminum. So the return trip from Tampa, Florida to our workshop in Nashville, Tennessee was harrowing. We took three days, avoiding highways and any routes that might risk straining the camper’s position in our truck bed.

TCA: How long did it take to restore your Avion truck camper?

Lexi: Honestly, this is still a work in progress. With all the structural rot, we agreed that we would have to gut the camper. We learned a great deal from the impressive Avion renovation by Louis Helbock whom you interviewed back in 2017  I’m not sure how we would have figured out where to start had it not been for his videos. We pulled everything out: furniture, fixtures, inner walls, and insulation. First on our to-do list was to completely replace the wings and floor. Between the weather and time spent working, it took us a little over half a year to gut and rebuild the base of the camper. With new, strong tie down points, we could keep traveling in the camper. In this condition, it’s kind of like a large metal tent: a big, bare, but dry space to sleep in. We traveled through the winter in our gutted camper and then returned to our garage the next spring to continue the next stage of building.

TCA: Did you have any trouble finding parts for a 50-year-old camper?

Lexi: Since we are rebuilding from the floor up, we aren’t constrained to the original design. We like to default to simple vintage flairs but we don’t limit important functional features to original specifications. It does mean that we have held off on certain decisions because we haven’t found components to our liking.

Our greatest challenge, in regards to parts, has proved to be finding aluminum that matches the original anodized skin for patches and modifications. We couldn’t source it locally, so we ordered a bunch of samples. The shipping cost was higher than the price of a single sheet, so we ballparked what we would need and wound up shipping seven large sheets from a Georgia supplier.

It is interesting to note that the aluminum isn’t a perfect match to the skin on the sides of the camper, but it is a near perfect match to the roof portion. This is a section that was covered with weatherproofing, so it is closer to the factory state of the aluminum. A few years of weathering should make the old and new aluminum indistinguishable.

Chris and Lexi’s 1970 Avion C11 before purchase.
Avion C11 interior gutted.
Inserting cleco fasteners prior to riveting.

TCA: The camper looks great. What mods, if any, have you made to the camper?

Lexi: We have added a roof hatch, replaced all the wood with a fiberglass composite material, reinforced the roof, and have plenty more mods in the works. Our most ambitious modification to this date, however, has been extending the Avion’s cabover.

While we are trying to keep the exterior of the Avion authentic, one major limitation we kept encountering was the sleeping situation. The Avion C11 has a full sized bed—sleeping east-west. That means, as a couple, there is always someone who has to climb over the other to get in and out of bed. In our travels, we have shared very tight sleeping situations, but at this point we wanted something more practical.

We wanted a bed that could sleep north-south, but that meant we would need to add 28 inches to the sleeping section. We considered extending the bed into the rest of the living area, but not only would that take up already limited space, but it would block portions of the Avion’s windows. Instead, we agreed to split the difference: we extended the bed ten inches into the living space (just enough not to block the windows) and extended the cabover 18 inches. The details are a story of their own.

TCA: We noticed that you used a fiberglass composite material rather than a marine-grade plywood during the restoration. Why did you decide to do that?

Lexi: Excellent question!  After seeing all the damage done by rot to the original Avion body, we have been particularly interested in what we can do to minimize water damage while keeping the body light and strong.  The fibgerglass composite material we chose is certainly more expensive than the original plywood construction. But, along with being water resistant, it is also lighter weight than plywood, fire resistant, and still comes in 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick sheets. As one last perk, being a fiberglass composite, these boards form incredibly strong and deep bonds using epoxy and other fiberglass materials. We really appreciated this when building the base section of the cabover extension where the extra strength was needed to support the additional length.

TCA: What upgrades did you make to the electrical system?

Lexi: We have actually been traveling without a conventional battery system. We do a lot of our work in libraries and coffee shops and use solar LED lanterns to light the camper. Of course, this is limiting our time spent boondocking, so we are in the middle of picking out a solar and battery system for the camper. We need a lot of power for our work. Given our roof size, we can fit up to 700 watts of solar panels and we think lithium batteries make the most sense for storage.

TCA: We like your truck. Can you tell us about more about it?

Lexi: We bought our 2015 Ram 3500 Tradesman 6.4L V8 SRW before we settled on our truck camper. While the general wisdom is to buy the truck to match your camper, we already had a fair idea of what we wanted and erred on the larger side. We haven’t done any notable custom work on the truck yet. In fact, after three years of driving back and forth across the country, we have just replaced our original, factory tires with a set of all terrains. With the beefier tires, we are also kicking up more mud and gravel, so we installed a set of Bushwacker fender flares. Next up (hopefully) will be a winch and bumper.

TCA: Did you need to make any modifications to the truck’s suspension?

Lexi: No, right now the gutted Avion is under 1,000 pounds so our factory suspension has no trouble with the load. In fact, a little extra weight would probably give us a smoother ride.

TCA: Do you have any regrets getting into an old truck camper like an Avion?

Lexi: Not really. There are days when I wish we had just bought something new that didn’t need all this work.  But that’s a passing thought. We like having projects to work on together. I wouldn’t mind if the process was a little bit faster. But it takes time to do a project right!

TCA: Any lessons learned during the restoration process that would help our readers with restorations of their own?

Lexi: One benefit of taking this build slowly is that we have allowed ourselves a lot of time and hands on experience with the camper before making big decisions. Any mistake we have made has been in the course of trying to meet some deadline. For example, I was working on autopilot when drilling the rivet holes for the side amber clearance lights. You might notice how they sit, set back from the tip of the cabover? I knew that we would be extending the nose but I wasn’t thinking of where that should have put the new clearance lights. It’s hardly the worst thing that could have happened, but it is an excellent reminder to take your time.

Original Avion C11 Interior looking forward
Original Avion C11 Interior looking back
Shafer Trail, Canyonlands National Park
Rimrocker Trail, Utah

TCA: What kind of mileage are you getting? I would imagine it would be pretty good having such a light and aerodynamic camper.

Lexi: We average between 16 and 18 mpgs when driving on the highway. Of course, part of this is the truck (four of the cylinders shut down when they aren’t needed), part of this is the driver (who keeps to a reasonable speed), and part of this is the Avion’s curved body and very light frame. The Avion currently weighs in under 1,000 pounds. Granted, there is still work to be done, which will add weight. Still, the new interior will use lighter materials than the original build so the final weight should be less than the original camper.

TCA: How does your rig handle on-pavement and off-road. Where have you taken it?

Lexi: We do spend a lot of time wandering around Southern California and Arizona. One location we frequently come back to is Death Valley. There are so many scenic trails there!  We learned the value of deflating our tires while driving out to the Racetrack but not before generating some serious knots in our backs and shoulders from all the washboarding!

Our most notable challenges come from our long wheelbase. With a one-ton, quad-cab truck, we generally have the clearance for most trails, but narrow routes, tight turns, and sharp changes from declines to inclines can limit our mobility.

This summer, we tackled the Rimrocker Trail from Montrose, Colorado to Moab, Utah. It was a spur of the moment decision, so we weren’t entirely aware of what we were getting into. The views are amazing, but sections of tight cliffside trail and switchbacks were rather harrowing. The most frustrating portion was a section of dense scrub trees. Chris drove while I pulled branches out of the way. Even so, we collected several large dents along that section. Honestly, I wouldn’t drive that again with a hard-sided truck camper.

TCA: What has been the biggest challenges living in a truck camper so far?

Lexi: The lack of consistency that comes with truck camper living is both a blessing and a curse. We love this lifestyle for the change of scenery and new experiences. But it is also a challenge to constantly have to learn the ins and outs of new places. For example, internet access is critical to us as programmers. We often use a mobile hotspot, but the difference between one campsite and another on the same forest road can mean the difference between working and not. Granted, we’ll take the challenge of accessing and managing resources over staying at an RV park any day!

TCA: You’ve boondocked in a lot of cool places. How do you find them?

Lexi: While we do use apps and websites like FreeCampsites.net, a lot of our best luck has come from asking locals. Friends, local chamber of commerce or tourist boards, whoever is behind the cash register, and even acquaintances on Instagram have pointed us to a variety of remote sites. When we don’t get a recommendation, we’ll often look for whatever BLM or Forestry land is nearby. Granted, part of the reason this works for us is that we don’t mind falling back on Walmart and truckstops when we fail to find a viable site.

TCA: What’s been the worst or scariest moment during your travels?

Lexi: Last winter we were driving to a slot canyon in Anza Borrego. It was one of the rougher drives we had done. There’s no need to go into who left the keys on the driver seat or who locked the truck. Suffice it to say, we locked ourselves out of the truck one late evening with the phones, money, IDs, and whatnot on one side of the driver’s side window and us on the other.

Of course, there was a simple solution: a rock. But we really didn’t want to incur the mess, time, and expense of a broken window. So, there we were, parked in a wash with night coming on and only the tools we could make with the few branches and stones collected in the wash. Fortunately, the back passenger window was vented open just enough to fit a hand through. It took an hour of trial and error with a stick but we eventually struck the unlock button on the passenger door and we were in. That left me shaken and conscious of the isolation of off-roading in remote places.

TCA: Any concerns for safety during your travels?

Lexi: Not for the most part. We are almost always in each other’s presence, which does contribute to safety in numbers. The most unsettling encounters we have experienced are when sleeping in truck stop parking lots. All the same, we’ve never had any directly hostile encounters, just tense interactions. We just keep calm and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. I still sleep with a hatchet and a bottle of bear spray by my pillow, though.

TCA: Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited so far?

Lexi: That’s a tough one. We love visiting national parks, but are generally put off by how crowded they are.  So, our favorite places tend to be remote wilderness areas such as national forests, wilderness Areas, and BLM land. We frequently come back to Kofa Wilderness Refuge in Arizona, the Organ Mountains of New Mexico, and pretty much any state park that has a big waterfall.

Cheers from the Kofa Wilderness Refuge
Harrowing view from the Shafer Trail, Canyonlands National Park
Boondocking in the Alabama Hills, California
An Avion and EarthRoamers at the EarthRoamer factory in Colorado.

TCA: What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring?

Lexi: This may be my favorite subject! I love cooking over a campfire. My favorite meal would be a nice, thick cut of steak that I can charr on my cast iron skillet, some potatoes roasting in my dutch oven, and a packet of tin-foil wrapped green beans sitting by the coals. That’s on a fancy evening, though. All too often we wind up eating some combination of nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, and cured meat.

TCA: Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?

Lexi: Chris is an enthusiastic hiker and I am an obsessive shutterbug. Between the two of us, we are constantly seeking new vistas. So, whenever we have the opportunity, we are out hiking. It’s a perfect activity since we don’t have any regular exercise routines. Plus, we love watching wild animals, so we always have a pair of binoculars nearby. We did just get a set of inflatable kayaks, so I’m hoping to get into that more.

TCA: Any advice on what things to look for when buying an old aluminum camper like an Avion?

Lexi: When buying an old truck camper, it’s important to remember that rot isn’t always obvious and it’s one of the most serious issues you can encounter in an older rig. The current owner may honestly believe that there is no rot, but the older a camper is, the more the question shifts from “is there rot?” to “how significant is the rot?” It’s up to you to make that determination.

While it is important to bounce on the floor to check for sponginess, other, less obvious locations for rot are also important. Lift up the dinette cushions to look for discoloration in the seats. Check under the sink for water damage. Focus on transition points from where water traveling down vertical walls could come in contact with horizontal wooden surfaces. Look for corners where water may have collected.

TCA: Thanks again, Lexi, for talking with us. Do you have a website and/or social media channels that our readers can follow?

Lexi: Absolutely! We write in-depth articles about our travels, trail reports, and mod work at roamlab.com.  You can also follow us @roamlab on most social media channels you may prefer: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  We love hearing from other members of the community and sharing recommendations.

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About Mello Mike 446 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a Jeep and truck camper enthusiast, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. He currently drives a 2013 Ram 3500 4x4 pickup truck with a 2016 Northstar Laredo solar powered truck camper mounted on top. He enjoys football, music, hiking, travel, photography, and fishing. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, worked in project management until 2017, and now runs this website full-time. He also does some consulting and RV inspections on the side.

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