When it comes to truck campers and extreme boondocking, few people have gained more knowledge and experience than Bryan Appleby. Known on the Internet forums as “bka0712,” Bryan has been a full-time RV’er since 2009. He grew up on the plains of Kansas before moving out west where he worked as both a national park ranger and as a state policeman, the latter from which he is now retired. Bryan is also a published author, an accomplished photographer, and holds licenses in various car racing disciplines including high-speed driving instructor. Aside from exploring the American west, consulting is his passion now, assisting communities with their open space planning and implementation, mixed in with a dose of driving instruction, writing, and photographic work.
Thanks, Bryan, for taking the time to talk. Let’s start with the basics. What truck camper do you own and why did you choose that particular make and model?
Bryan: I purchased my first RV, a Lance 1191, in 2008. This was after researching and visiting numerous truck camper dealerships and RV forums. This process took me four years. Some of the requirements I was looking for were different from most who were purchasing a truck camper as my intention was to live full-time in mine. I wanted something that would provide me with both room and comfort, which had four season capabilities, had a quality, fit and finish, and had larger capacity reserves, such as water and storage. Essentially a base camp on wheels.
What truck do you use to haul your Lance 1191?
Bryan: My truck is a 2008 Ford F-550 Crew Cab, 4×4, DRW, with an extended frame. The engine is the 6.4L Powerstroke Turbo Diesel. Over the years I had been purchasing my personal and work vehicles from a Denver Ford dealer, Phil Long Ford. I worked with them to order a truck specifically for use with a truck camper and the modifications I had intended to allow me to boondock for extended periods in remote locations. When purchased, the F-550 averaged 10 mpg. With my finished rig, I have averaged approximately 7.1 mpg over the last 60 months. I chose this particular truck for its massive 13,700 pound payload. It has the 4.30 ratio limited slip axle, the heavy-duty payload package, an additional transmission cooler, and the snowplow package.
I don’t see a traditional truck camper tie down system for your Lance camper. Is it permanently bolted to the bed of your truck?
Bryan: No. With the service body, a new strategy was developed for attaching my truck camper. I had Unistruts welded to the top of my Knapheide service body. We used some brackets for a bulldozer attached to the Unistruts coupled with spring-loaded turnbuckles from a parts bin for Crane Body applications. In five years of use there has been no movement or changes with these brackets.
I’m glad you mentioned your service body. It seems like they’re becoming more popular with truck camper owners. Can you tell us more about yours?
Bryan: My F-550 service body serves me very well for full-timing. Even in the winter months, I use some of the compartments as an auxiliary freezer! I knew from the onset that a service body was in my plans. When I purchased my Ford truck, I applied for Ford’s upfitting rebate available with their fleet sales. I also arranged to have the service body purchased with the truck and used their upfitter to perform the work. This saved me many dollars in sales taxes and time. In fact, the rebate I received almost paid for the entire service body! While many choose to go the route of a custom service body, I didn’t. I ended up ordering one right out of the Knapheide catalog. I used Layton Truck Equipment of Denver, a great company that was more than willing to work with me. The eventual cost was $8,040, including the service body, painting and installation. This was half of what it would have been, going with a custom manufacturer.
Tell us a little bit about your utility trailer. What exactly do you store in it?
Bryan: Behind my F-550, I pull a Haulmark 8×14 foot Motorcycle trailer. While my intentions were not to pull a trailer, to allow more maneuverability, I soon learned that the platform I had envisioned on the back of my truck and truck camper would not be a workable solution for carrying a BMW GSA motorcycle. My plan was to use this motorcycle as a get around vehicle. While it certainly is a compromise in having a trailer, I have found the positives, in actuality, far outweigh the negatives. For security reasons, I won’t provide details of what I have in my camper and trailer, I will say it’s no different from what a person’s garage provides for someone living in a home. I carry many toys, like kayaks, bicycles, skis and things, but it provides more than that. This trailer provides me with the ability to extend my time in remote areas, with additional fuel for the motorcycles, seasonal items, food as well as my main battery bank for one of my two solar power systems.
Can you tell us about your motorcycles?
Bryan: Sure! One of the reasons I’m successful full-timing in my truck camper is because of my “get around” vehicle. I chose this vehicle before I made the decision on what truck camper to get. My first motorcycle was a 2008 BMW GS1200R Adventure and I’m now riding a 2012 BMW GS1200R Adventure. Much of my riding is exploring the trails and roads in the areas where I visit and my BMW is set up for this type of riding. When the trails become even more extreme, I use my second motorcycle, a 2006 Honda CRF450X dirt bike.
Can you tell us about your battery systems and how they’re hooked up to your camper?
Bryan: With my rig, I have essentially three battery banks: two OEM batteries that service my Ford truck, two 6 volt Lifeline GPL-6CT AGMs (300 amp hours) in my Lance camper, and eight 6 volt Interstate GC2 flooded wet cell batteries (928 amp hours) in my trailer. Redundancy is an important consideration for me. The AGM batteries in my camper are maintained by the solar panels installed on the camper’s roof (300 watts total). While they’re wired to provide power for both my DC and AC side of my camper, they’re currently maintaining the DC side of my truck camper. Similarly, the eight 6 volt wet cell batteries in my trailer are maintained by the solar panels installed on the trailer’s roof (920 watts). They, too, are wired to provide power for both the DC and AC side of my camper, for now this battery bank is providing my AC side of my truck camper. My shore power cord is essentially plugged into this bank, full-time, via one of my two Xantrex MSW inverters (2,000 watts and 1,500 watts).
Why the mixture of AGM and wet cell batteries in your two battery systems?
Bryan: The reason I made the choices I did on my batteries was easy. For the batteries I had installed in the cabinet of my truck camper, I chose Lifeline AGMs. This was because of their compatibility of being in a living space. The wet cell batteries I chose for my large battery bank in my trailer are Interstate batteries, available virtually anywhere in the United States. With these batteries performing much the same as AGM batteries, and the fact that they were $2,650 less expensive than comparable AGM batteries, it came down to an economic decision. I could do a lot with the $2,650 I saved and still have batteries that can perform similarly for five to seven years.
You also have an impressive solar power set-up, Bryan. Can you tell us more about it?
Bryan: While I received great information and help from others who had solar power systems, I quickly found out that nobody had built or had attempted to build the system I had in mind. Because of I’m a full-timer, I needed an electrical system that was bigger than most. With my camper and trailer I was able to build two separate, independent solar power systems. This two-system approach allows me to leave my trailer in the sun while I park the camper in the shade. I also wanted two solar systems, in case one were to ever go down, I’d have the other. Both systems also have interchangeable hardware in case of a failure. To keep each system “exercised” daily, I have both systems running, one AC (using an inverter) and the other DC. My two systems consist of the following equipment:
- Trailer: Four Grape Solar 150 watt solar panels; two Grape Solar 160 watt solar panels; Morningstar TS-MPPT-60 charge controller with 4 gauge wiring harness and 60 amp buss breaker; Xantrex 2,000 watt Modified Sine Wave inverter with 200 amp catastrophic fuse; eight Interstate 6 volt, 232 amp hour GC2-XHD-UTL batteries (928 amp hours total).
- Truck Camper: Three Grape Solar 100-watt solar panels; MorningStar TS-MPPT-45 charge controller with 4 gauge wiring harness and 60 amp buss breaker; Xantrex 1,500 watt Modified Sine Wave inverter with 250 amp catastrophic fuse; two Lifeline 6 volt, 300 amp hour GPL-6CT AGM batteries (300 amp hours total).
You’re, obviously, a big proponent of solar power. What recommendations would you offer to those who are thinking about going solar?
Bryan: Have a large checkbook! Okay, perhaps I’m being a little facetious, but it’s accurate. For most, solar is not as practical as adding additional batteries and a good charging regiment. For the weekend camper, or an occasional long vacationer, solar is an expensive option. If you’re moving every couple of days, your vehicle should keep your batteries topped off. Running an inexpensive generator a couple of hours or less, or stopping in campgrounds with hookups will do the same. However, if you’re really set on going to solar, I’m there for you. Developing my solar program has been a life changing event for me here on the road. I don’t move around a lot, but I could and did run a generator every day, the first two years I was full-timing. The two things you need to decide on is how many seasons you are going to need them and what your anticipated demands will be. Do a power survey. The Kill A Watt electricity usage meter is a great aid to help you determine the size of the solar power system and number of batteries you’ll need.
What modifications have you made to your Ford F-550?
Bryan: I’ll be one of the first to stop and look and crawl around a well set up off-road vehicle, but that’s not for me as I prefer to keep my vehicles stock. With this, I did change out my front bumper to a Ranch Hand winch bumper, to provide more protection to the plastic front end of my F-550. Also on this bumper is a Warn 16.5K winch, a Thule Apex 4 Bike Hitch Rack, and a pair of KC HiLiTES Daylighter II off-road lights. The original 19.5 inch OEM wheels and tires have been swapped to a set of 19.5 Rickson wheels and a set of Continental 245 profile tires. This change provides me with a greater capacity and safety factor for my travels off-road. I also installed a rear deck and a hitch that I built to accommodate carrying additional spare tires for the truck and trailer as well as a receiver to tow my trailer. This hitch also has a side facing receiver to supplement my Lance steps with an additional removable steel step.
In the bed of my truck are two 74 gallon potable water tanks that I use to supplement the potable water tank in my Lance camper. This added capacity gives me a total of 192 gallons of potable water.
Can you tell us more about your Continental tires? What inflation values do you typically run and what are their weight capacities?
Bryan: The current tires are Continental 245/70R19.5G HDRs on new Rickson wheels. These tires have a capacity of 18,700 pounds at 110 psi on the dually rear axle (rear GAWR 13,660 pounds) and 9,880 pounds at 92 psi on the steering axle (front GAWR 7,000 pounds) for a whopping 28,580 pounds. Now that’s a safety factor. A recent TARE ticket showed my steer axle 6,040 pounds, drive axle 14,100 pounds, and trailer axle 5,040 pounds. Total weight: 25,180 pounds.
Have you made any modifications to your F-550’s suspension?
Bryan: Yes, the only suspension modification I did was to install a set of air bags. I had air bags on my previous F-350s to assist leveling out the back of these trucks for the tongue weights of my race trailers. I had thought it would be a slam dunk to have on the F-550 as well, so I added them during the first few weeks of owning it. Soon, it became evident that the truck’s spring packs were more than capable of carrying all the extra weight of the service body, aux tanks and camper without a “blush.” What I use the air bags for is for leveling out my truck when I arrive at camp. After previous experience with aux air pumps, I opted out on one and just installed the left and right air inlets in the curb-side cabinet of my service body where my fore and aft and left and right bubble levels are under the skirt of my lance. It makes it convenient to stand in one place and do all of my leveling. I also installed another bubble level in the passenger compartment of my F-550. This level is in an area of the passenger door pocket that can only be seen from the driver’s seat. This makes it easy to better discern a great spot or whether my ramps will make it work.
Some may question your choice in choosing a truck camper over a motorhome or a toy hauler to full-time in. What would you say to them?
Bryan: When I first decided to buy an RV and go full-time, I thought it would be in a 5th Wheel. But after looking at several, I was totally turned off with their excessive size and lack of maneuverability. Motorhomes and van conversions were discarded due to the fact they didn’t conform to my “two use rule of backpacking.” I wanted something I could switch out if I decided to upgrade or use my tow vehicle when I got off-road. Plus, my Ford F-550 gives me a proven equipment, frame, and 4×4 suspension standard that you can’t get with other RVs (EarthRoamer starts with an F-550 for this reason, too). The serviceability of a Ford, in the areas where I travel, was a big plus, too. For repairs and maintenance, my truck is engineered to be lifted off the frame to enable work on the driveline. You can’t do this with other RVs! The off-road clearances for the aforementioned RVs just wasn’t there either. So when you take into consideration the modifications I was able to do to my F-550, that I would not be able to do on a motorhome or van conversion (like propane, water tanks and storage and higher tongue weight rating), it was an easy decision for me.
When you were talking about your solar power system earlier, you mentioned how your solar upgrade was life changing. Will you share with us why that was?
Bryan: Reflecting back to the beginning of my full-timing adventure, I realize now I had it really tough those first two years. So much so, that knowing what I know now, I might have just given up. There were a number of factors that put me there, including a naïve approach in determining my daily power needs. I was running my generator two to three hours a day, much more than I wanted to do to maintain my batteries. I soon found myself seeking out public libraries and picnic shelters for their electrical outlets to plug my laptop into. Something had to change and giving up was not one of them. Fortunately, solar power proved to be the solution for me, though it took me several years and a phased approach to reach the point where I currently am. I was also fortunate that I had several individuals who advised me. I now have a 1,200+ watt solar power system that meets my needs for all four seasons. The stress of having enough power to meet my needs is no longer there. Now I only use my generator on cloudy or snowy days to keep my batteries topped off. So as you can see, solar power has been life changing for me.
What things have you learned as a full-timer that have enabled you to extend your boondocking stays in remote areas?
Bryan: While I had set my original goals to living off-the-grid, I soon found I wanted to go even further. I wasn’t satisfied with going out for only a week or two, but wanted to extend that time to a month or two. This is what I call extreme boondocking. When I first started out, the best advice I received from other truck camper owners was to go out and do test runs even if it is in your own driveway. From this I learned to identify things that will impact where you can or cannot stay longer. Here are some specific things I have learned:
- Water: Carry additional water in separate water vessels and have the ability to transfer this water to your camper, easily (I average 17 gallons a week). Also, when available, use other water sources for non-potable needs such as bathing and washing clothes (yes, I wash my clothes while boondocking with a three-bucket method).
- Propane: Carry enough Propane to cover the length of your stay, plus some emergency volume (I average 250 gallons a year).
- Food: Experiment with preparing food that can be made with bulk ingredients; grains, pasta, cereals and many items available on your grocery shelves, like foil tuna and chicken, as well as canned goods. By repackaging fish and salmon and freezing them in your RV fridge, they will take the shape of your RV Fridge, thus saving room for more (I average $150 a month for food).
- Power: Determine what your main source will be, either AC or DC. Build upon one or both. I have two solar power systems, one on my camper, the other on my trailer, that handle the AC and DC loads separately. I also have two generators, a Honda EU3000iS and a Cummins Onan RV QG 2500.
- Clothes: Keep things simple. Carry clothes that meet all of your needs for that particular season. One issue for me is that I full-time, so I need to carry clothes with me for four seasons and for all of the outdoor activities I partake in. Having the capability of washing clothes while boondocking helps make up for carrying lots of clothes, as well as clothes that can be washed and dried easier.
Do you have any tips for our readers on how to locate great boondocking spots?
Bryan: As of today, I have over 1,830 days of boondocking and living off-the-grid. It has been an education, sort of a road of hard knocks. I’ve come to realize that boondocking is actually simple, if you have the right mind-set. What is that mindset? That I will NOT stay in a campground! This mindset has proven really useful when traveling through unfamiliar country. In addition to this mindset, I’ve developed additional skills to assist me in finding great boondocking locations. Some of these are:
- Don’t be afraid to ask. When visiting a new town or park, ask the locals if there are any locations in the area where you can camp off-the-grid. Police, fire stations, ranger stations, and small town post office employees have proven to be my best sources for information.
- Use your friends on the Internet RV forums. Many are more than happy to share some ideas and places where they have stayed. Start a bookmark on your computer or road atlas, as I do by state, even if you aren’t going there, yet. Your website, Mike, has been a great boondocking source for me many times.
- Use your eyes as you drive along your route and start evaluating locations, even if you aren’t ready to stop for a few hours. Make it a game just like when you were kid and playing “Slug Bug” with your
sister. With this, you will sharpen your skills in determining what does and does not work for you and your RV.
- Having a “get around” vehicle is a great asset. Whether you’re near a populated area or out in the “boonies,” park your RV in a secure area and explore on your motorcycle or in your toad. This is a great way to find those hard-to-find boondocking locations.
- Google or use other satellite services is one of my favorite search tools. I use this
often, scouting where lakes and rivers have access points and meadows
for me to get to.
Those were some great tips, Bryan. Do you have any similar tips for “stealth” camping in urban areas?
Bryan: As I travel, I’m often traveling through and stopping in populated areas. This is part of the full-timing experience and having good stealth camping skills is equally important, especially when shopping or visiting friends or family. Wal-Mart’s are popular places to camp overnight, but have you ever considered where these are located? Often in areas ripe for stealth camping. By just exploring around you will find empty gravel lots and long empty curbs where you can pull-in and park overnight. I’ve also learned that people are very territorial about the curb space in front of their homes, but could care less about the ends of streets. Often there is adequate curb space here. Knowing the rules for parking are also a plus: your wheels must be within 12 inches of a curb, more than 15 to 20 feet from a fixture (which includes driveways, mail boxes, and fire hydrants) and 50 feet from an intersection. Keep all signs you are in your camper to a minimum; use only necessary lighting, black out curtains or lower blinds. Keep radios and TV volumes to a minimum. Do your shopping in the evening and then seek and stealth camp after 8:00pm. Leave early the next morning.
If you don’t mind me asking, how much does it cost you per month to be a full-timer?
Bryan: In all honesty, this should be the first question you ask yourself. Nobody wants to quit or fail, so establishing a budget was important for me. My original budget is much the same now as it was when I first started. A few things have changed. I had anticipated using campgrounds more, but that soon was thrown out the window! Also, not expecting the fuel costs to go up more than a $1 a gallon my first year was a surprise. Also, the cost of health care continues to increase. I set my mind to living for less than what it would cost me to pay for a mortgage or apartment. I did this because if I were to leave the road (What?! Am I crazy!!?) I’d still pay out the same amount of money for lodging and living expenses, so why not just live on that fixed cost? I do, as my monthly budget (after health care/insurance/cell/Internet/sat TV are deleted) is approximately $750 a month for food, fuel, and entertainment. This figure was what my housing cost was prior to going on the road. The reality, I’m still living in a place, but my scenery changes frequently outside my windows
Do you have any favorite places or states where you like to explore?
Bryan: Absolutely! What might come as a surprise to you is that my favorite state to visit is Kansas. I wish more people saw the Kansas I know, beyond the interstate highways. I have also spent considerable time backpacking through Yellowstone National Park. Every year I go back. In fact, I was there just a few days ago. I also love the Eastern Sierras and the Rocky Mountains as well as the Sonora, Mojave and Chihuahuan Deserts.
Have you experienced any noteworthy run-ins with wildlife?
Bryan: Actually, yes. I’ve had several run-ins with all kinds of wildlife, including grizzly bears. One of these was while solo kayaking at a back country lake in Yellowstone (permit required and hand portage only), I came around a peninsula into a cove and saw a grizzly sow, with cubs, in front of me on the embankment. I was so surprised I reached for my camera in the pocket of my PFD and completely forgot about the forward momentum that was carrying my kayak towards her. The grizzly sow became enraged and false charged towards me, coming to a dust throwing halt at the edge of the water. I somehow reacted by turning my kayak away with my foot mounted rudder controls. I am talking about just a few yards between the two of us and her cubs before I realized my stupid lack of priorities.
The other time occurred while I was hiking up from a trail head in Yellowstone (I have spent 40 continuous years working, backpacking, and visiting this park). I had rounded a bend and found a grizzly bear occupying the trail directly in front of me. I stopped and started backing up until I was back around onto the aforementioned trail. Turning, I skedaddled back down the trail to my camper. I opened the door and grabbed my camera. Suddenly, I noticed the grizzly following behind me, down the trail from which I had just retreated. I stood behind another car parked at the trail head as I watched it walk up to my camper, pausing in front of my now opened door (in my hurry I forgot to shut it). I could see my dog sitting at the top of the stairs as the grizzly took a look at him. The bear soon turned, ambled across the trail head parking area and then across the road and into the forest, much to the pleasure of the passing tourists armed with cameras.
Your photography is very impressive, Bryan. If somebody wanted to contact you about your photography, or wanted to talk to you more about your extreme boondocking, what would be the best way to contact you?
Bryan: That is very kind of you, Mike. Thank you! While I am far from the level of a professional photographer, I have had some remarkable success with some of my work being published. I have a Facebook Photography Page titled, A Wanderer’s Photography, or you could contact me at my email address: email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from anyone.
What meals do you typically eat as a full-timer?
Bryan: It has been no secret to my family and friends that many could starve to death hanging around with me. I don’t eat on a regular schedule and don’t have snacks with me. I enjoy ending the day with watching a sunset while eating dinner. What is a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like? For me, when available, I eat eggs, cereal (cold or hot depending on the season) for breakfast. Lunch is often a sandwich, apple or almonds in a pack, as most days I am long gone from camp at this time of day. Dinner often finds me outside with one of my grills (propane or charcoal) cooking up a dinner of vegetables with salmon or chicken. I don’t eat very much red meat. I can usually carry enough foodstuffs to last six to eight weeks.
Do you have any other hobbies or interests as they relate to the great outdoors?
Bryan: My greatest interest is just that, the outdoors. I enjoy reading and often am found hiking to some location, just to set up and read a book. I love documenting the small details of the outdoors through my photography. It’s great to spend time with friends, enjoying riding one of my motorcycles, hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing or just simply watching a sunrise or sunset. It’s not unusual for me to have my clock set to ring and remind me that it’s “sunset time,” then the dog and I pause for a moment and just take in the wonderful show at the end of the day.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Bryan. You’re definitely living the dream. Do you have any closing advice?
Bryan: Yes, I do. Don’t delay taking the time to enjoy life away from work. Just spend that time with family, friends or maybe just sitting and watching the sun set for those few minutes. You can bet I will be out there doing just that for what I hope is for many years to come.