Truck Camper Adventure is pleased to present this interview with Steve Blackman. Known on the truck camper forums as “Sabconsulting,” Steve lives in England and has worked on financial computer systems for 20 years. Steve and his wife, Sally, are true international explorers. They’ve traveled on five continents in all types of 4×4 rigs and recreational vehicles. Their impressive travel resume includes several expeditions in Africa, including the spectacular Sahara and Namibia deserts, the latter of which was done in 2007 in a 4×4 truck camper. That 2007 trip is what sparked Steve’s interest in truck campers, an interest that he maintains to this day.
TCA: Thanks, Steve, for taking the time to talk to us. How long have you been interested in RV’s and exploring?
Steve: Our first try at RVing was in New Zealand in 1999. We spent three weeks touring the islands. We learned a lot, but decided we didn’t need a big class C for future travels. Plus we managed to take the RV down at least two of the three dirt roads in the country that we were explicitly banned from driving on.
TCA: I haven’t seen many truck campers like yours. Can you tell us more about it?
Steve: It’s a 1991 Shadow Cruiser – Sky Cruiser 1. There wasn’t much choice here in Britain. A number of old and tiny British campers were available, but didn’t look very comfortable. This American built camper came up on eBay and with some cunning and last-minute bidding it was ours. One constraint you have to be aware of in Europe is the size of our pickup trucks. They are mostly compact, although the tax system means the manufacturers must make them suitable for a one-ton payload. But even with that, the smaller load bed and narrower wheel track means most U.S. campers are out of the question. You can get larger DRW trucks with flat beds, but they are designed for commercial use, don’t have 4×4 and probably aren’t something you would want to drive cross-continent in.
TCA: Do you remember the first time you went off-road?
Steve: I’ve been driving off-road since the 1980’s, but that is in Land Rovers. The RV in New Zealand was exposed to some dirt tracks. Then a 4×4 pop-up camper based on a compact pickup truck in Namibia allowed us to experience proper off-road use with a camper, and taught us we could cope with something smaller than a class C. The first time off-road with our camper was Salisbury Plain, a British Army training area. We used that as a dry run for North Africa.
TCA: Which tie-down and turnbuckle system do you use to secure your Shadow Cruiser to your truck?
Steve: It’s a custom system. I started with ratchet straps onto the rails that run along the outside top edge of the load bed. But because there was no elasticity, slack would build up as I went over bumps allowing the camper to move around in the load bed. I evolved a frame mounted tie-down system of my own construction, using some mountings already on the truck and welding some outriggers to attach chain and turnbuckles to. The front outriggers are welded from one side to the other using re-bar but still retain some flexibility. The rears don’t flex, so I welded up a small box to encapsulate a spring to give some elasticity to the system, especially off-road.
TCA: What measures have you taken to prevent your Shadow Cruiser from shifting and sliding around in your truck bed?
Steve: The truck still has an OEM Ford load bed protector. Maybe I should remove that, but I have some horse stall matting on top, mainly to lift the camper to clear the cab roof. But it also helps keep the camper in place together with the tie-downs. To assist with this, I attached wooden rails to the bottom sides of the camper to widen it to exactly fit between the rear wheel arches preventing it from moving around.
TCA: Have you made any modifications to your Shadow Cruiser?
Steve: Partly modification, partly maintenance. The roof rotted–inevitable in our wet climate. I replaced it with thicker marine ply, welded aluminum checker plate instead of EPDM and roof rails onto which I mounted 160 Watts of solar panels feeding through an MPPT solar/DC to DC charge controller. I also fitted a strong box to keep laptops and cameras safer and replaced the failed absorption fridge with a marine compressor fridge. The latter needs a fair bit of power to run it, but gets cold quickly and will run if parked off-road at angles up to 30 degrees.
TCA: What pickup truck do you use to haul your Shadow Cruiser?
Steve: Again, this is a function of living in Britain. I have a Ford Ranger. Ford took the name and the styling from U.S. trucks for marketing reasons, but the truck is very different to the old U.S. Ranger. It has a complicated 2.5 litre turbo diesel with four valves per cylinder and variable geometry turbo charging. It can get up to 25 mpg with the camper on and performs well. I wanted a super-cab for some extra storage–we had used that configuration in Nambia and the extra space was a bonus. The double-cab has a shorter load bed–a problem for truck campers. The Ford was being used widely by farmers and government agencies, which implied it was fairly tough and reliable. It also had a 2,500 pound payload.
TCA: Have you made any off-road modifications to your Ford Ranger?
Steve: I resisted off-road modifications that might add height or weight to the truck, instead focusing on things that would help it carry the camper. I replaced the tires and added rear airbags. The truck handles fine without them, and if anything is less comfortable even with the airbags at their minimum pressure, but they mean I can take some of the load off the springs reducing the risk of spring breakage in remote locations. Another small but significant modification was adding a switch that overrides the automatic free-wheeling hubs on the front axle. This allows me to run in low ratio on the road when maneuvering slowly or for better engine braking when descending mountain passes in the Alps. Clearly care must be taken–I’m not going to engage low ratio first gear and mash the skinny pedal to the floor.
TCA: Which engine type do you prefer, diesel or gas?
Steve: Like a politician, I will answer a slightly different question–I prefer a turbocharged engine, whether that’s diesel or gas–it gives the low down torque ideal for hauling loads with good mileage. However, there isn’t much choice for trucks in Europe–they’re all turbo diesels. That suits me fine. In other parts of the world the same truck may be fitted with at least a 3 litre gasoline engine (without turbo), but I doubt that would be anywhere like as nice to drive as the smaller turbo diesel. Following the VW debacle people in Europe are looking more skeptically at diesels–I have changed my daily driver to a turbo gasoline–if a truck was available here with turbo gasoline I might go for that too.
TCA: Do you tow anything like a Jeep or boat with your truck and camper?
Steve: No. We used to have a Suzuki Samurai, but its suspension geometry meant it wouldn’t flat tow properly. I modified a tiny trailer to take it, but I’d have needed a hitch extension. In the end I gave up. My truck has rear drum brakes and I wouldn’t trust it towing a 4×4 on a trailer with the camper loaded where we live here in the hills. We’ve since replaced the Samurai with a Jeep Wrangler TJ, which is of course much heavier–so I’m definitely not going to attempt to tow that.
TCA: What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run when exploring off-road?
Steve: The truck came with P rated tires rather than LT rated. I replaced them with BF Goodrich AT-KO tires which have a higher load rating and strong side walls–useful for the sharp stones in the desert. These are only D rated, but my truck and camper don’t weight much, so there was no need to go with a stiffer E rated tire. With the camper on I run around 50 psi rear and 40 front on the road. I’ve dropped to 15 psi to get out of soft sand in the desert. I found 30 psi was a good compromise in the Sahara Desert. Soft enough to float on the sand, but not too much sidewall exposure to cause problems every time that sand changed to sharp rock (about every half mile).
TCA: What tools and recovery gear do you consider essential when going off-road?
Steve: A 12 volt compressor, tow rope, heavy duty jump cables. I considered a winch, but didn’t want to add any more weight. I have some fiberglass sand ladders, but have never needed them and rarely carry them these days. The gear I carry in the camper differs substantially from the serious recovery gear I carry in the Jeep. I do carry an EPIRB–in remote locations being able to signal help could be a life saver.
TCA: Do you have any favorite trails where you like to explore? What was the most difficult?
Steve: There are few trails available in Britain. Plus they are often muddy and easily damaged if you drive a heavy vehicle on them. I enjoy Salisbury Plain. This is an iron-age landscape used by the British Army for training and criss-crossed by 4×4 trails. They are not difficult, but I am unlikely to do more damage than a 60 ton tank and it is great running into the armed forces during their exercises. Morocco in North Africa is good for off-road driving, but that is quite a drive from here.
TCA: Which are your favorite places where you like to explore?
Steve: In the U.S. that would be Arizona and Utah. On my side of the Atlantic it is either my home of England, especially the Lake District, or the Dolomite mountains in northern Italy.
TCA: Are there any areas or trails that you think are overlooked by most overlanders?
Steve: Russia and Asia are the new Africa for those driving from Europe. Africa is becoming a real problem due to conflict and the traditional routes that run through the continent are dangerous. People are starting to explore eastwards through Russia.
TCA: What advice would you offer to those who are considering buying a truck camper to take off-road?
Steve: Consider the weight and the strength of the unit. It is going to be subject to twisting and vibration from corrugations. Ease of cleaning is another consideration. Fine dust can get into even the most sealed of campers, so something you can brush out easily. Also consider the storage–how well are the locker doors and their contents secured? If you are likely to park at an angle overnight then a compressor fridge is a sensible choice.
TCA: If you were to buy a brand new truck camper or overland RV, and price wasn’t an issue, what would it be?
Steve: If I were looking at a truck camper then probably a Hallmark pop-up camper. But we like our hard-side, apart from the rot. For a hard-side I would consider a Northern Lite with its clam-shell fiber-glass construction. For a longer distance expedition truck I’d probably build a camper pod on a torsion-free mount on a Mercedes 4×4 truck chassis. Mercedes have the advantage of being sold throughout the world, so parts should not be a problem. You might assume I would choose a Unimog, but I’d be equally likely to choose something like the 12 ton 4×4 Atego. If I don’t need the extreme 4×4 abilities of a forestry tractor then a better compromise might be a model that is more common and for which off-the-shelf parts will be available globally, and which is more optimized for handling huge road mileage.
TCA: What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Steve: That would have to be when we were camped in the Sahara Desert. A massive lightning storm approached and lightning was striking all around us. I ran jump leads from the aluminum roof rails down to the sand to act as a lightning conductor, and we sat inside with all the electrics turned off. My main fear was of a strike disabling the truck’s electronics leaving us stranded.
TCA: Have you experienced any notable run-ins with wildlife?
Steve: In the 4×4 camper we used in Namibia, on the edge of the Etosha salt pans, we sat near a water hole and Sally wanted to step out for a cigarette. Something didn’t feel right, so I stopped her. A minute later a large lion strolled right past the truck door.
TCA: Yikes! That was a close call. What was it like traveling in Africa?
Steve: Well, this varies depending upon country, or at least by region. Much of North Africa has been a problem for travelers since the Arab Spring uprising. It can also be tiring since it seems everyone is trying to sell you their wares or services in a very insistent manor. Our truck has been chased across town more than once by guys on 125cc mopeds trying to get us to stay at a specific campground. And don’t expect nice bathrooms at those campgrounds. Southern Africa is different altogether–the people are lovely and you don’t get hassled continuously. In South Africa and Namibia, and probably in neighboring countries, there are some great campgrounds but surprisingly few places to boondock as much of the land is private and fenced off. As well as campgrounds the guest lodges are wonderful and reasonably priced–often run by the wife of a farmer.
TCA: What differences and challenges between the U.S. and Europe have you noticed during your travels?
Steve: First the obvious ones. Fuel is much cheaper in the U.S. than Europe (which also has a big bias towards diesel) and roads in the U.S. are better suited for large RVs. Don’t get me wrong–multi-lane highways are the same in both, but Europe, having much older cities and rural road networks often have much narrower roads. It can be a challenge competing with trams in the narrow cobbled streets of Prague, or squeezing between overhanging trees in Cumbrian lanes only inches wider than the camper, hoping nothing comes the other way. The U.S. has a great range of camping in national and state parks, BLM land, Army Core of Engineer land, etc. In Europe it’s mainly private campgrounds and there are often few places you can legally boondock.
TCA: What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring in your camper?
Steve: Sally cooks food in advance, such as chicken curry, Bolognese, etc. She seals the food into bags using a vacuum sealer, then freezes it flat to load into the camper freezer compartment. These are efficient to carry and easy to prepare when camping. The camper has a four burner stove, but I also carry a 30 year old, two burner camping stove in the truck, which I set-up outside if I want to cook anything smelly or likely to splash fat around like sausages and bacon.
TCA: Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Steve: We help run a local 4×4 club called Burnham Offroaders, and the Jeep earns its keep winching people out of holes on our off-road site. We walk as much as we can in the countryside and do a little bit of rock climbing. The camper serves as a great base for such activities. We are also members of the Jeep Owners Club UK.
TCA: This has been great talking to you, Steve. Thanks again for taking the time to talk. Do you have any final advice for our readers?
Steve: Just to get out there, camp and enjoy the outdoors. It’s easy to spend much time and money preparing the perfect overland vehicle, but always weigh up whether you would be better compromising on the vehicle and spending the time and money saved overlanding instead.