Many truck camper owners dream of exploring Central and South America in their rigs, but for whatever reason never take the time to do it. Mike and Geneva Saint-Amour are making that dream a reality. Four years ago, the two educators from Prescott, Arizona decided to retire and live full-time in a Volkswagen Vanagon. The VW van was their home as they explored the USA, Canada, Baja, Mexico and more along with their three dogs. But an interesting turn of events landed them back at their hometown where they had the opportunity to rethink their needs before embarking on the next big leg of their journey—Central and South America. For the trip, a custom, chassis-mounted, flatbed truck camper was developed. Although they still own the old VW (their kids are using it) they are thrilled with the results of the upgrade as they travel through Central and South America via truck camper. This interview took place while the two were exploring Nicaragua. You can learn more about Mike and Geneva and follow their journey via Facebook and Instagram. This is part 1 of a two-part article. Part 2 can be found by clicking here.
Thanks, Mike and Geneva, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. We’ve been following you on Instagram for several months. Can you tell us about your truck camper and why you went with that particular make and model?
Mike and Geneva: Our camper is a 2005 Northstar 8.5 Arrow. We researched models and features extensively and narrowed it down to three brands that we were interested in. We were looking at workmanship, durability, and weight, plus we needed a cassette toilet for our planned trip. We knew that a narrower unit would be easier in the countries we were headed towards, so the Arrow fit that criteria. We located one on a consignment lot in Oregon and moved quickly to pick it up.
Our first drive ever hauling a truck camper included snow, icy roads, high winds and closed highways. We camped our first night in a highway pull out picnic ground. When we awoke in the morning we discovered the highway had been closed in the night just after we passed through. We plowed the first tracks through to the roadblock and surprised a highway patrolman! It was truly a “trial by fire” for Mike to learn how to handle the feel of the new unit.
Tell us about the graphics on your camper? Is that a wrap?
Mike and Geneva: No. The artwork on the camper is a hand-painted creation. It was painted directly on the prepped surface using spray paints. The work was done by an artist in Rocky Point named Israel. He worked closely with Geneva to develop the images from various thoughts and ideas.
One side features a sunset fading into a moon rise. The waves are similar to those in a famous painting called “The Great Wave.” The other side features the artist interpretation of images that have been important to us throughout our lives. The checkered flag (Geneva was a VW drag racer), the VW logo, the scuba flag, the peace and ying-yang symbols and of course the Earth to represent the journey we are on. The translated words say “All who wander, are not lost”.
What mods have you made to your truck camper to make it more livable?
Mike and Geneva: There are too many to detail here, but here are some of the highlights. Once the camper was permanently attached to the truck we removed the camper jacks at each corner. Then we used the jack points and a hitch extension to attach a rear deck. We also used the electrical points from the camper jacks to connect LED strip lights under the awning as well as a 12 volt pump to fill our drinking water system.
We have the standard 30 gallon tank for showers and dishes. We added a second tank and faucet, which we only fill with purified water for cooking and drinking. The microwave and the refrigerator were removed due to their large electricity usage. We built cabinet doors and these large spaces became storage areas. We chose an Engel compressor refrigerator to replace the finicky three-way standard unit. The Engel is much more energy-efficient and matches our solar panels well.
Installation of three sets of USB ports gave us charging options in the rear, middle and cabover area of the camper. We changed all light bulbs to LED’s. We installed low amp computer fans near the bed for sleeping comfort and circulation. The bed is a standard mattress on top of an IKEA frame. The lifted frame adds storage for the table, cutting board, awning handle and hiking poles. It also allows for airflow around the mattress to prevent mold growth.
In the wardrobe closet we built a frame and installed sliding metal drawers. These drawers allow us to fully use the space as a pantry and allow easy access to the deep closet. We also added a shoe cubby by opening the area under the shower.
You mentioned you have solar power. Can you tell us more about your system?
Mike and Geneva: We have two 100 watt flexible solar panels installed on the roof. We chose these types of panels for their ability to withstand abuse and for their light weight. The panels are connected to two 6 volt golf cart batteries housed in a battery box as well as two 12 volt marine batteries in the engine compartment. These are wired through a solar controller and an isolator switch. This provides information to us about the usage and charging status of the system. In direct sunlight the panels deliver approximately 10 amps of power per hour. The batteries recharge in three to four hours of sunlight or driving. One of the 12 volt batteries is isolated as a starter battery, so if there is a failure in the charging system the truck will always start. The other 12 volt battery can be switched over to serve that purpose if needed. This system has served us without issue for over a year as of time of print.
Have you had any problems or issues with your solar power system?
Mike and Geneva: The only issue we have experienced was a sticky mess! After a particularly bumpy dirt road and hand crank ferry in Belize, we noticed a strong odor of curry in the camper. A jar of curry sauce had vibrated open and dumped in the pantry, spilling into the solar controller unit! The readout screen was blank and we had no idea if it was ruined! It was smelly and messy, but we disassembled the unit and performed a cotton swab cleaning. Carefully wiping all the resistors and electronics was tedious. After all the tiny parts were cleaned we plugged the unit back in. Success!! Everything was fully functioning again.
You said that you have a separate fresh water holding tank for drinking water. How large is that tank and where do you keep it mounted?
Mike and Geneva: The drinking water tank is 15 gallons. It is mounted in the flatbed storage box on the passenger side, front.
Can you tell us about your truck and the modifications you made to it?
Mike and Geneva: We have a 2013 GMC 2500 HD, 4×4, 6.0L V8 with a 6-speed automatic transmission. We chose the extended cab to have space for our dogs and it has a tighter turning radius than the other makes. We are not familiar with diesel motors however, we owned and maintained several GMC/Chevrolet V8’s in the past. This motor and transmission is a very reliable combination with a good history and adequate power for our needs. The transmission features a manual and tow/haul mode that we use much more than anticipated. The hills in Central America have very steep grades! We have been very impressed with the truck thus far as we push the transmission and brakes to the limits!
The interior is comfortable and modified for our needs. We do have a power window package, sound system and air conditioning. However, it was a fleet work truck so it doesn’t have other fancy electronics and has a rubber mat flooring for easy cleanup. We removed the back seat and replaced it with a custom designed, lockable storage box system. All of our boxes were designed and fitted by AT Overland in Prescott, Arizona. This box system provides additional storage and a platform for our dog to ride on. We also added a sliding rear window, which aligns with the pass through window of the camper.
The truck bed was removed and an aluminum frame was fabricated, which fits along the chassis rails. This chassis mount system provides the platform to which the camper is attached. There are 13 attachment points for the camper to the frame and the eight original bed mount points hold the frame to the truck. The entire unit has been very solid as we put it through the tests. The fuel filler neck was moved and the camper lights were wired in. Access to all water, gas and dump systems are still in place.
The area that would have been used by wheel wells and a truck bed became an open and usable space. AT Overland designed and fitted custom, composite material lockable boxes to fit along both sides of the camper. These boxes provide huge amounts of secure storage and are made of a lightweight material.
It all sounds very impressive. Did you need to upgrade your truck’s suspension in any way?
Mike and Geneva: Before we picked up the camper, we had airbags installed. We also put on E-rated tires to manage the anticipated weight of the load and increase safety. Later we installed a rear sway bar and heavy-duty shocks on the front and rear. In Oaxaca, Mexico we visited a shop that fabricates custom leaf springs so we added an additional heavy-duty leaf spring on each side. The truck is heavy, yet handles well and without excessive swaying or bouncing as we tackle the rough roads of Central America.
Do you have any regrets in any of your choices now that you’re on your trip?
Mike and Geneva: Perhaps we might have selected the 3500 GMC extended cab however I feel as if we have built a comparable truck by adding the heavy-duty leaf springs. We may also consider changing the wheels to 18-inch, as they allow for a higher rated tire for increased stability and safety. Other changes would be a monitor for the purified water system and additional LED’s for outside task lighting. But these are all changes we can implement as we go.
We would encourage anyone who is considering this journey to search for the lowest, narrowest camper they can find. Height and width are major issues in many places along the Pan-American Highway. An additional consideration is the cost of shipping a truck camper across the Darien Gap. Because this unit will not fit into a shipping container, we will be using flat deck or roll-on, roll-off shipping. Each of these carries some additional risk and expense. There are many resources out there to review before undertaking a drive down the Pan-American Highway.
We agree. Do you have any lessons learned relating to your truck camper build that would help our readers?
Mike and Geneva: With regards to the aluminum flatbed frame we learned one quick lesson. As described in the blog post about attaching the frame, we realized that we did not leave a space for the rear tires and axles to articulate and move during excessive off-road use. A portion of the frame had to be cut out and the design changed slightly.
Any lessons learned with the camper?
Mike and Geneva: Yes. The camper had previously had some water entrance through a front window. In choosing a model in the future, we would not select a model with the front windows. We currently have ours sealed and insulated. Anyone who purchases a used truck camper should immediately seal the roof and all possible water intrusion points. Managing the roof is key to the life of a camper. We carry Dicor, FlexSeal and Eternabond with us so we can stay ahead of the maintenance needs.
What about having a Thetford cassette toilet. Has that proven beneficial south of the border?
Mike and Geneva: Absolutely! One tip we would share with anyone considering traveling South with a truck camper is the toilet holding tank. We had done enough research to know that a cassette toilet with a removable tank was critical. With our cassette toilet we are able to use gas station restrooms, pit toilets and camping area bathrooms. We have met other truck camper travelers who have struggled to find appropriate dump stations. Managing the waste system is an important consideration south of the border.
What kind of mileage are you getting with your rig?
Mike and Geneva: Currently our rig gets between 8 and 11 mpg. This is very unreliable in our current driving situation due to road conditions. The grade on the roads can be extreme. Stop and go traffic is the norm. Topes and tumulos (speed bumps) are frequent, which means full deceleration and acceleration even at highway speeds. And many people question the accuracy of the gas pumps in the countries we have visited, so the numbers we use to calculate our mileage may not be accurate.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run?
Mike and Geneva: The current tires are All-Terrain Nitto Terra Grappler G2’s LT285-70-R17 and we inflate to 80 psi on all tires.
What’s been your favorite road or trail thus far?
Mike and Geneva: We are really enjoying exploring the Pan-American Highway and hundreds of small offshoots from there. We love going into mountain villages and finding quiet spots to camp for the night. Sometimes we camp in a flat dirt area and sometimes in a town plaza.
Our favorite places to explore are hot springs. We have been down some crazy dirt roads leading to hot pools, hot rivers and hot springs. In Central America the volcanic activities have created many thermal areas. These are fun to explore.
Our favorite campsites vary widely. We have camped near beautiful streams and lakes and at the base of active volcanoes. We have camped on side roads in small villages and on main streets in busy cities. Travelers along this route share information and tips through a resource called iOverlander. We use this to help us select destinations and campsites.
Difficult challenges tend to occur when we are in an area that has not been visited by other travelers. There we must plan carefully to arrive early enough that we can scout out a level parking spot in an area that is out-of-the-way of local business, trucks and ideally noise. These types of challenges have allowed us to add new areas to be shared with other travelers through our resources.
Do you mostly camp off-grid or do you stay at campgrounds and RV parks?
Mike and Geneva: We camp without hookups almost every night, sometimes in the woods, jungle, and beach and sometimes on the side of the road or in a city on the streets. So I would say it is about 90/10. There are few campgrounds and RV parks South of Mexico.
Part 2 of this interesting article can be found by clicking here.