November is known for Thanksgiving, but in the automotive world, it’s also known for SEMA, the premier automotive specialty products trade event in the world. While SEMA draws the industry’s brightest minds and newest products to Las Vegas each year, the event also showcases the hottest car, SUV, and truck builds on the planet. Even truck camper manufacturers are taking part in the fun. In 2015 and 2016, Lance and Hellwig Suspension Products teamed up to showcase two corporate builds featuring Lance’s new half-ton model, the Lance 650. At this year’s show, the two companies sponsored the most ambitious build yet, Aaron Wirth’s privately owned Lance 825 truck camper rig. Unlike the earlier corporate builds, however, which are used for show, Aaron and his wife, Renee, and their two dogs full-time in this truck camper rig. This rig is their home.
How did Aaron’s partnership with Hellwig and Lance start? “I represent a couple of companies,” Aaron explained. “I have my own company, Wirth Exploring, a marketing, events, and sales company, and work for Ninkasi Brewing, a beer company based out of Eugene, Oregon. I partnered with Hellwig to start doing events at the Overland Expo West about three years ago and the relationship just kind of took off. I support their off-road events, I go to the Overland events, and the relationship blossomed… A year ago I approached Lance and Hellwig and told them I want to go to SEMA and build a rig. They did everything they could to help me out and get me to SEMA. Mike Hallmark of Hellwig was particularly helpful.”
As you’d expect for a build this involved, a host of sponsors were called upon to help out. Aside from Hellwig and Lance, the most prominent support came from AEV, AMP Research, ArcForm, Bushwacker, Evans, Falken Tires, Highway Products, Kaiser Brake and Alignment, Phatty Fab, PIAA, SherpTek, and Warn. Their help proved invaluable to the overall build and amounted to thousands of dollars of financial support. Aaron couldn’t have completed the build without them.
So which rig inspired Aaron the most for this impressive build? “The EarthRoamer [XV-LTS] was definitely the inspiration,” he said, “everything but the price!” So how much did he spend for everything? “That’s kind of hard to say with all of the sponsorship support and help I got,” he answered, “but I probably spent in the $165,000 range. That includes the truck, the camper, everything.”
Not surprising, the response that Aaron’s rig received at SEMA was great. “A lot of people said that my build was something that they dream about doing,” Aaron said. “One of my favorite comments came from a guy who called my rig a ‘sweet, low-budget EarthRoamer.’ So far, all of the feedback I’ve received has been very positive. Everyone wants more storage with a [slide-in] truck camper and there’s no point in having a pickup bed if you’re full-timing it.”
One neat thing about this rig is that both the truck and camper were designed to be used separately. “The reason for the separation,” Aaron explained, “is that I want to be able to take the camper off and have a truck that still has a refrigerator, still has a lot of the gear I need because we’ll unload the camper and take off in the truck to get back to even more remote places. I do a lot of kayaking and mountain biking, so we use the truck as a shuttle rig for our gear and stuff. Having a truck that can do that comes in real handy.”
Every great build starts with a great truck and in this all-important decision, Aaron chose well. Aaron elected to go with a one-ton 4×4 truck chassis, a 2016 Ram 3500 powered by the Cummins 6.7L turbo diesel and the AISIN heavy-duty 6-speed transmission. Unlike the plush, high-end Ford truck chassis used in every EarthRoamer, however, Aaron opted to go with a basic Tradesman work truck chassis to help keep the weight down. While going with the Tradesman chassis was the right move, the choice still came with some challenges. The biggest, according to Aaron, was the lack of aftermarket parts to support the build. “I had to create a lot of the custom flat-bed brackets and do a lot of the creation and engineering myself in my welding shop,” he said. “The newness of the chassis probably had a lot to do with the lack of aftermarket parts.”
The key component of this impressive truck camper rig and the one that makes everything work is the custom-built flat-bed. Consisting of nine storage boxes and a custom truck camper tie-down system, the flat-bed turned out to be the most complicated part of the build. “It took a team effort. Sherp-Tek helped me out with the tie-downs and Highway products built the custom boxes around the custom frame that I built at my metal shop,” Aaron explained. “I basically built a flat-bed that was the exact size of the truck camper platform, built that out of aluminum and mounted that to the bed, got that all figured out, and approached Highway Products and they helped me out with filling out every last space with storage around my design.”
A highlight of the custom, flat-bed design, and one we love here at Truck Camper Adventure, is the accessible spare tire mount located behind the cab of the truck. The location of the size-37 spare midships on the passenger side makes getting to it easy and safe. “I had the spare tire mount purposely placed on the passenger side for safety, in case of a flat on the freeway,” Aaron explained. In addition to the unique spare tire mount, the custom designed flat-bed also features a pull-out refrigerator, a pull-out BBQ, a compartment housing extra propane tanks, recovery tools, a compartment to store the camper’s front lift jacks (the rear jacks remain on the camper for stability when camping), a deep cycle battery to power the flat-bed refrigerator, and a compartment to store a 120 watt portable solar panel.
Functionality aside, the heart and soul of this rig is the Lance 825 truck camper. When it comes to building an adventure rig, you want a truck camper that is light, narrow, and has a low profile. That’s why Aaron elected to go with the Lance 825 for his build. The dry weight of this aluminum-framed, short-bed truck camper is only 1,832 pounds, making it ideal for most 3/4-ton and some half-ton pickup trucks. The camper’s dimensions for getting off pavement are ideal, too, with a width of just 7 feet 1 inches and an exterior height of only 8 feet. But don’t let those dimensions fool you. The interior of the 825 is surprisingly spacious with an interior floor length of 8 feet 6 inches and an interior height of 7 feet 7 inches. Even the cabover height is surprisingly generous at 2 feet 9 inches.
“The Lance 825 came in at a very excitable weight range for my build,” explains Aaron. “My goal was to build a truck camper rig that came in under the 14,000 pound GVWR of the truck. There aren’t many campers in the market that have all the amenities of the Lance 825 that still come in at the 2,000 pound weight range.” At the scales the entire rig comes in around 12,500 pounds, well within the GVWR of Aaron’s Ram 3500 truck.
For a light-weight truck camper, you’d think you’d have to sacrifice quality and features, but with the Lance 825, you don’t. The floor plan includes a north-south queen size bed, a full-size dinette, a well-equipped kitchenette, a large wardrobe, and a small wet-bath with a shower. Standard features of the 825 include a 3-way 3 cubic foot refrigerator with stainless steel refrigerator panels, a two-burner stainless steel cook-top, a 5-gallon propane tank, an 18,000 BTU propane fired furnace, and an Atwood 6-gallon water heater. Aaron and his wife opted to pass on the microwave, TV, and air conditioner to reduce weight and increase storage capacity. They did, however, decide to get the optional side and rear awnings. “We really like the layout of the Lance 825, Aaron says. “It has plenty of room for my wife and I to live out of full-time. We are able to sit at the dinette and work on our laptops together. The side awning and the rear awning offer plenty of outside covered area for us to kick-back and relax no matter what the weather’s like.”
Any overland adventure rig worth it’s salt needs decent tank capacities and a capable solar power system for extended time off-grid. To achieve this, Aaron ripped out the single OEM battery box and built a special vented battery box big enough to house two large group-31 batteries. At the factory, Aaron had Lance engineers install a large Zamp solar power system, which includes three 100 watt roof-top solar panels, a Zamp ZS-30A PWM charge controller, and a special port to plug-in a Zamp Solar 120 watt solar suitcase for additional charging. This 420 watt system provides more than enough power for the camper’s appliances that run primarily on propane. As for the camper’s holding tanks, the Lance 825 offers 36 gallons of fresh water (including the 6-gallon water heater), 13 gallons of grey water, and 14 gallons of black. Unfortunately, Lance doesn’t offer the cassette toilet as an option. This is something we hope here at Truck Camper Adventure that Lance will consider offering at some point in the future.
With regards to the Ram 3500 truck, several modifications and upgrades were made that not only adds to the overall look of the rig, but also enhances the rig’s capability for off-road travel. The OEM tires were ditched in favor of a set of highly capable Falken Wildpark M/T 37×12.50RLT tires mounted on a set of matte black AEV 17-inch Salta heavy-duty wheels, while a pair of Bushwacker Pocket Fender Flares were installed to protect the truck from rocks and mud. The truck was also outfitted with an AEV snorkel for deep water fording, an AEV front bumper with a Warn 16.5ti heavy-duty winch mounted on top for recovery, and a set of PIAA flood and spot lights for nighttime illumination. Several modifications were made to the truck’s suspension as well and include an AEV 3-inch suspension lift (this along with the Falken tires gives the truck a 10-inch clearance), a pair of Hellwig Big Wig air bags, and a pair of Hellwig Big Wig sway bars for both the front and rear axles.
As a finishing touch to this special build, a special wrap was commissioned from Harris Design and paid for by Ninkasi Brewing. “The wrap is basically a beer label by Ninkasi Brewing called Pacific Rain,” Aaron says. “It was a fun design that I saw. It’s an aluminum silver, so it changes colors when you see it in different light and it fractions or goes away in direct sunlight. The whole wrap will actually go away. It’s kind of unique. I was trying to go low profile yet still have a Northwest feel.”
Truck Camper Adventure gives this ambitious truck camper build two hearty thumbs-up! We particularly like the flat-bed storage boxes, which not only increases the amount of storage for the rig, but also improves the rig’s ability to stay off-grid. We also like Aaron’s choices in truck (we’re glad that he went with a one-ton rather than a 3/4-ton) and camper (the Lance 825 has everything one could possibly need without the cons of having a slide-out). If you’re interested in seeing Aaron Wirth’s “low-budget EarthRoamer” in person, you’re in luck. He currently has plans to participate in two events in 2018—the King of the Hammers in February, and the Overland Expo West in May. Other outdoor events in the Pacific Northwest in the summer will probably follow.