When it comes to extreme truck campers (XTC’s) and exploring off-road, few people know more than Jeffrey Reynolds. Known as Jefe 4×4 on the Internet forums, Jeff embarked on his first off-road adventure in 1965 and hasn’t looked back since. He’s owned a dozen 4×4 vehicles of various makes and has traveled well over a million miles in them. In the 1990s he worked as a staff writer on the Jeep section of Off-Road.com then later wrote articles for 4x4Wire.com about the nuts-and-bolts of 4×4 drive-trains. In 2001 he bought a Lance camper to go on his Dodge short-bed pickup truck and his whole world changed from rock crawling in Jeeps and other 4×4 vehicles to less extreme off-road exploring in a truck camper. Now at age 70, Jeff still shows no sign of letting up as he continues to explore exotic locales in the American west.
Thanks, Jeff, for taking the time to talk. How did you acquire the nickname, Jefe?
Jefe: The nickname, Jefe, pronounced Hay’-fay, which means the boss or chief in Spanish, was pinned on me during my tenure as a bass trombonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1969-2006).
Why is the name Cabeza de Vaca stenciled on the rear door of your camper?
Jefe: Cabeza de Vaca is a mystical character and his family name is a double entendre. Firstly, I’ve read all the books about this itinerant explorer and his travels starting with his shipwreck on the west coast of Florida during a hurricane, making his way through the later-to-be Gulf states and west to near the Pacific coast and south eventually to what is now Mexico City to be picked up and taken back to Spain in the early 1500’s. This little ditty took him ten years, at which time he was forced into slavery a couple times by the now-extinct indian tribes; was naked half the time, and almost died of dehydration, starvation, sickness, flogging, over exposure, over and over again. I kind of identify with this guy. Secondly, a side shot of our truck camper gives a hint of a cow’s head if you put eyebrows on the front-side windows.
How long have you been RV’ing?
Jefe: Since 1965. The definition of an RV is a vehicle with accoutrements for eating, and sleeping inside, with or without a bathroom space. In that regard, we camped in all the larger 4×4’s, out of the weather, and mostly in very cramped mode. If your definition includes plumbed water, two showers, a wet bath, a dining area, a three-way refrigerator, heat and a queen size bed, then the first year was 2001.
What truck camper do you presently own and why did you choose that make and model for your XTC?
Jefe: Once we had a car trailer to get my rock rig to the trail-head, then we thought about a small hard side truck camper to go along with it. I opened the Recycler and found a 1998 Lance Squire Lite 165-s. I called the guy. I looked at it. He used it three times. It chose me. I followed him to the bank and wrote a check. The whole thing went down on the same day. Just lucky I guess. My wife, Jeanie, and I have camped in it over 200 nights.
Do you tie down and rig your Lance camper a certain way to take it off-road?
Jefe: Without a three-point or four-point truck camper attachment system on a flatbed, I have relied on “working” the four tie downs to be appropriate to the road surface. The frames on all pickup trucks are built to flex/tweak/rack. The truck bed will flex right along with it. This all depends on road surface and how twisted up you allow the axles. If you do not considerably loosen the rearmost tie-downs crawling over an undulating road surface, the twisting frame will try to pull your truck camper apart, little by little, by making the camper conform to the truck bed and frame twisting. Why the rearmost? In jacking the truck camper up above the truck bed for removal, I noticed most of the weight of the truck camper is on the forward jacks. Hmm? Little weight on the rear, at least on mine. I allow the rear of the truck camper frame to “float” and actually lift off the bed on one side or the other, trying not to conform to the twisting frame/bed, just follow the attitude of the front tie-downs. For off-roading, there is no room for camper jacks. They are just heavy outriggers ready to make contact with a slowly passing boulder. I remove them as soon as the camper is on the truck and leave them at home. Another issue I have pursued is to store nothing on the roof; all weighty items should be stored as low as possible. Potato chips, tea bags, and beer cozies; up high.
What measures do you take to prevent your Lance camper from shifting and sliding around in your truck bed?
Jefe: A thin, heavyweight bed mat and Lance camper brackets (aka centering guides) are a good start. I went through all the other permutations including; a fiberglass bed liner (huge mistake as the camper just skated around), a thick rubber mat (too spongy which increases your side-to-side sway) and nothing but the bed, which is pretty tough on the bottom of your truck camper. I tried without the brackets but the truck camper still would slide from side-to-side putting inordinate stress on the tie-downs, especially when you loosen the rear for axle twisting. There is only one way the camper can move now and that’s rearward when the tie-downs are very loose. The Dodge has a footman’s loop on each side outboard of the tailgate which could use a 1,000-pound strap to hold the box in the bed. I have had the camper try to make it’s way out the back going up steep hills for miles but it doesn’t get very far. The strap should contain the egress.
What modifications have you made to your truck camper and why did you decide against going solar?
Jefe: Solar power is very inviting, but with all those tree branches dragging on the aluminum roof and the weight of solar panels up high, I think I’ll pass for this lifetime. I purchased the model with no air conditioning, nor a built-in generator to keep the weight down. On off-season trips we take the Honda EU2000i on the off chance we need to run a house current device or charge batteries. I have some mods I’d like to make on the truck camper. I would like to loose both the front window and the pass through window as I find them useless and only there to transmit cold and heat, add weight and leak. If I had the four-season insulation package, I would be happy as we are non-summer campers. In the end, I think I bought the right truck camper for us as there is very little I would change. You know, if it’s paid for, it fits your needs; and you are accustomed to and can work around its foibles, you might be a happy camper.
What pickup truck do you presently drive and why did you choose that make and model?
Jefe: I purchased my 2001 Dodge 2500 4×4 pickup truck brand new at the dawn of the diesel wars. I purchased it because it was the first year for a 35-spline, Dana 80 rear axle, the Cummins HO turbo diesel engine that used a bullet proof NV6500, 6-speed transmission, an NV241HD (wide chain to absorb the shock loading during snow plowing), disc brakes all around, and could run on third-world diesel fuel with pretty good mpg. No smog device. No soot bag. No urea canister. Not as simple as the first generation Cummins, but with a much more stout drive train. My choices had to do with tradeoffs. Notice my choice was focused on drive train strength and survivability, certainly not Dodge’s notoriously flimsy fit and finish. Oh, and it was the only truck engine and drive train that year in which I had any confidence about it outlasting me. So far, so good at 150,000 miles.
What off-road modifications have you made to your truck?
Jefe: If you choose your truck camper well, most of your mods will be to the truck. During the last decade I’ve made the following mods:
- Steering box/frame brace. This cured the “wanderlust.”
- Warn 15,000 pound Winch and Warn lightweight bovine deflecting bumper with 26,000 pound cement mixer “D” rings and front receiver hitch.
- Power Lok rear limited slip (clutches under high preload)
- Mickey Thompson super single or “Duplex” 33 inch tires/wheels on the rear axle. 375x55R16 on 12 inch wide forged aluminum wheels.
- A 3 inch spring lift with 8 leaves on the rear and shocks.
- Changed front four links to longer ones to locate the front axle 1-1/2 inches forward for more fender clearance for 34 inch tires and as a caster cure.
- New Gen IV track bar (panhard rod).
- Changed the dreaded Carter lift pump to a much-improved aftermarket fuel pump on the frame in front of the fuel tank, essentially making the pump a pusher not a sucker. This part was the Achilles Heel of the Gen II, Dodge Cummins. Installed a low fuel pressure idiot light to remind me there is still time to save the injector pump if I stop the engine.
- Aftermarket air filter.
- Added some tubing to the waste gate to make the turbo kick-in sooner.
- New 4 inch exhaust system
- New Spyntec “Shorty” complete hub conversion kit for the Dodge front Dana 60 axle. It has wide-spaced, larger Timken bearings, and from the outer U-joint outbound uses Dana 70 parts including the 35 spline stub shafts (that I am holding above in front of Cabeza de Vaca), and massive Dana 70 Mile Marker interior lockout hubs with a built-in tone ring. This kit replaces the wear prone and completely unserviceable Dodge Unit Bearing assembly. It works on Dana and American Axle Manufacturing (AAM) axles between 2000 and 2013.
- Class V receiver hitch
- An aluminum cargo rack that will plug into the front or rear receiver hitch. It
can hold extra yellow plastic fuel cans and boxes of goods including recovery gear.
Which engine type do you prefer, diesel or gas?
Jefe: At one time I did a lot of towing with the GCVW above 16,000 pounds. For big and heavy I like an oil burner. It’s just more efficient than a gas engine. I’ve had many diesel cars (1964 MB200D, 1979 Cadillac Seville diesel, 1980 International Harvester Scout II Traveller Nissan TD, 1981 VW Dasher diesel, and 1983 Peugeot 505S TD) and I got used to the quirks of oil burners. If I were to buy another, say, 350/3500 that would only see occasionally use, I would look for a used Ford or Dodge V-10 gas platform. If you are not in it for the very long haul, or do not plan on much driving, the V-10 gas gets the job done without the $5,000 to $10,000 diesel penalty.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run when driving off-road?
Jefe: I’m a rolling anomaly with super singles. It was a good solution for me. The rears are Mickey Thompson 33×15.50R16’s with a very wide AT tread. They are not made anymore. The fronts are Mickey Thompson 33×13.50R16’s on stock rims. I also have 33×14.50’s on 10 inch wide rims that will fit in front if I’m running the dunes (and also as one of my two spares I must carry) and they are all the same diameter. With the truck camper on, I always keep the tire inflation at the upper limit as printed on the sidewall, either 65 pounds, or 80 pounds, depending. On rough dirt roads I like to feather down the pressure to 32 pounds, front, and 30 pounds rear. Why that discrepancy? The wider and more voluminous the tire, the less pressure it needs to carry the load; it’s just physics. While on blow sand, or the dunes, I’ll take the fronts down to 22 pounds, and the rears down to 20 pounds for the maximum floatation my setup will produce. It’s really strange to see that 10,000 pound white elephant shooting the dunes and still upright and still moving and not sinking up to its eyeballs. My next experiment with tires and wheels is a military surplus tire dealer nearby with hundreds of HumVee wheels and super single tires, 34 inches tall, 9 inches wide, 8 inch lug, and 7 inch backspacing beadlock wheels. I will report back how that goes.
What are your thoughts on the dually (DRW) as an off-road vehicle?
Jefe: A dual rear wheel truck makes little sense on narrow trails. It can be done, and I have seen it done, but you must drive much slower and weave your way through taking lines you would not think worthwhile with a single rear wheel truck. With my 15.5 inches wide rear tires and 12 inches wide rims the rear axle has about a 6 inch narrower track than a truck with duals. Even then I don’t quite fit on seldom used two tracks and if it is very rocky, big chunks of tread go missing out of the outer edge of the tire over time. That time has come. Taking a cue from military trucks, I’m thinking 9-inch-wide combat steel rims with 10 inch wide, 34 inch tall super single tires on all four corners would be a fine compromise between on-road worthiness and floatation for soft terrain, even for folks currently with duals. All those up-armored HumVee’s are equipped for on-and-off-road situations. There is one important distinction here: backspacing. The HumVee wheels have an 8 on 6.5 inch lug pattern, can be had with beadlocks, and more importantly a 7 inch backspacing which keeps the tire centered over the wheel bearings, not slung way out on the spindle like a wheel with a 4.5 inch backspacing.
What advice would you offer to those who experience excessive sway when hauling a truck camper?
Jefe: Sway is hard to pin down. Conventional wisdom recommends using a thick anti-sway bar on the rear axle. However, the very application that makes it work on-road is a liability, off-road. Recoil or rebound is the culprit. I remove the bolt on one side only on the anti-sway bar to allow the suspension to flex more, just like Jeepers release the anti-sway bar when going off-road. Leaf springs have less recoil than coils or air bags. You will get more sway with coils and air bags. Stiff gas-charged shocks will help mollify the recoil. If you have secondaries, apply something in the space between the secondaries and the main pack to apply the extra spring loading sooner. I’ve had success with Stable Loads. If you still have sway, off-and-on road, there is too much weight up high. Maybe that air conditioner, or set of clubs, or the X-Cargo, or those three kayaks? This is one case where you need to “worry your way” through the sway minefield to serenity, a step at a time.
What tools and recovery gear do you consider essential when going off-road?
Jefe: The idea is to get to terra incognita and back to civilization without external support. Maybe I take too much recovery equipment. Having made hundreds of winch pulls I just add stuff to my self-recovery arsenal whether I just used it once or hundreds of times. It’s basically the same gear that I take rock crawling, but on steroids to pull that 10,000 pound beast out of trouble. And I have been stuck in that thing. Besides the front winch and enough recovery attachment points fore and aft, I take:
- A 20 foot, 4 inch nylon recovery strap with loop ends.
- A short, 4 inch wide nylon tree saver with loop ends.
- Four “D” rings: medium and large.
- A ½ inch Cat Choker (logging).
- A 5 inch hook with clevis.
- A short piece of coiled ½ inch wire rope with clipped hooks.
- A 20 pound CO2 bottle with hose/attachments for filling tires.
- Four manual, screw-on tire deflators.
- A snatch block.
- Several, high quality tire gauges.
- A small bag with tire repair parts like stems, valve cores, caps, and extensions.
- A Safety Seal Pro Tire Repair Kit. Comes with 30 glue-laden plugs that look like caterpillars.
- A small, high quality, fold-up shovel.
- A 12 ton bottle jack that will fit under an axle with either side’s tire flat.
- A 4 foot breaker bar.
- A few 10,000 pound ratchet straps and some 1,000 pound ratchet straps. I’m always taken by how many ways these come in handy when all else fails. They’re kind of truck camper duct tape.
- A 1 foot square jack board. (two ¾ inch pieces plywood glued and screwed together as a base.
- A dozen leveling blocks to keep the ammonia transfer fridge happy.
- A thin foam camping pad to lay or kneel on when working underneath or use when changing a tire in the mud or when installing chains on an icy day.
- Enough tools, but not the kitchen sink.
- I do not take a high lift jack. I have a 60 inch high lift and it’s very useful around the ranch and during rock crawling, but for it’s weight and bulk, it has very limited use with a camper on a truck. No rope or chain. The need for sand ladders or mats seems like a lack of floatation to me.
What are your favorite trails and roads?
Jefe: It’s seasonal. In the Fall I like to roam around the Sonora Pass area of the Sierra-Nevadas and one range to the south east in the Inyos. In the past we enjoyed early summer trips to Monache Meadows, Rockhouse Basin, (now closed to motor vehicles) along the Kern River Plateau’s upper reaches. We enjoy the whole area within 300 miles of Moab, Utah. We’ve done the high passes in the San Juans many times with different machines. Magical place. There are several beaches along the Pacific Coast that allow vehicles. They are all gems. The granddaddy of all truck camper excursions is a trip to Alaska, from wherever. We did the 32 day, 9,000 mile round trip in 2003, traveling on 2,500 miles of dirt and gravel byways, camping on sandbars and in gravel pits above the Arctic Circle.
Do you have a favorite state where you like to explore?
Jefe: Not really. The entire western U.S. and Canada west of The Rockies and all through Alaska are wonderful with a truck camper. Nevada is probably the most truck camper friendly state, as there are no trees to slither by, and it’s remote almost everywhere. But, you had better like desert. Over my lifetime, The Visciano Desert in Baja California del Sur is the most remote place I’ve ever been in an RV.
What advice would you offer to those who are considering buying an XTC to take off-road?
Jefe: Mass and weight and how high up that weight is placed are the main issues here. I always advise one buy more truck and less camper than you think you can get away with. This gives you the best chance to be far from the brink. The best truck camper for serious off-roading is a pop-up on a tray or pivoting frame short bed flatbed. The XP Camper comes to mind. I have no relationship with XP even though I live about a mile from the owner and founder. For a little less serious off-roading (the kind I do) or if you’re planning on traveling for months on end during the winter, the lightest aluminum frame, less tall, less wide, hard-side truck camper will be a comfort at 20 degrees in a blinding snow or sleeping through 80 mph winds.
If you were to buy a brand new truck camper, what make and model would it be?
Jefe: Two come to mind. First, the Nimbl Evolution. Still state of the art with tried-and-true technology. But at $70,000 per pop, it’s not in the state of my budget. For that price, you do get the three-point, floating tray flat-bed. Time will tell for Jeanie and I whether one of these is in our future. Second, the Lance 865. Much less costly and has all the most up-to-date components and can be ordered with the four-season package with block insulation and double pane windows. It’s a winner compared to other similarly equipped, higher priced truck campers. The biggest difference is in the weight: smaller tanks and no basement.
I understand that your Lance has only an 18 gallon fresh water holding tank. What do you do about fresh water while boondocking?
Jefe: I try to tailor the amount and type of water I take into the boondocks for each projected trip. I take two types of water: drinking/cooking water, and water I would only drink if I had to. With only an 18 gallon fresh water tank one must get creative on how much and where to store and transfer on-board water. We always carry 24 or more, 16 ounce drinking water bottles stored behind those little doors near the floor that lead to the space in front of the wheel wells: not very convenient, but the weight is down low. For short three to six day trips we always put our general use fresh well water into the 18 gallon tank and fill the sturdy white liter and heavy-duty blue one gallon plastic water bottles to store in a low cabinet at the rear near the door. They fit like a puzzle in there and that’s by design as the jostling has split many worthless-for-TC’ing milk gallon containers during transit. There is a lot of weight in there and the door catch kept popping open until I added an exterior latch. The next echelon of priority for longer trips or with more bodies to water is to add two, 2-1/2 gallon plastic water jugs. If this is not enough, we add a 5-gallon plastic water jug. By now the jugs are getting too heavy to lift up to the water-spout on the truck camper. If a next step is needed, we tow the jeep trailer and fill a leftover earthquake preparedness 25 gallon water jug on the trailer and must use a small drill driver and long hose to pump it into the truck camper. This is really a hassle and the option is not used very much.
What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring in your Lance camper?
Jefe: I’m not in charge of food. Luckily I am married to a wonderfully creative cook. Jeanie should have her own TV cooking show on how to make something out of nothing. She is Queen Leftova. Our first night is usually tacos with all the trimmings using already cooked meat in sauce/frozen in time and unveiled at camp. It’s always a winner. All our meats from home start out frozen and marinated. Another favorite is grilled carne asada with tortillas and homemade salsa. Chicken Baja is another favorite. It’s a pattern we’ve developed on the road over the decades. We usually only carry a week’s worth of food onboard with Jeanie slowly working this or that into the menu. We shop for food like the French do: a little at a time and just enough for a day or so, unless we are way out there. It’s a miracle. I do most of the grilling outside on the Weber. She knows what to expect; how to pack; how to get the most food value out of the least weight and bulk. Some of the greatest tasting meals in my lifetime were out of the TC, in the woods or out in the desert at sundown. Jeanie has a habit of mixing her “Tequilla Sunset” as an aperitif at happy hour. Just remember, no matter what time of day you consume said beverage…the sun goes down.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Jefe: Well, of course hard-core Jeeping has been a focus for decades and is only now fading. I’m a big fan of Western U.S. History and the little 3 foot narrow gauge railroads that plied the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. I never met a roadside historical plaque that I didn’t want to stop and read. We are set up to do a fair amount of birding. When the time is right, our next big adventure will be “Vagabonding” around the U.S., off-season in the truck camper for 12 to 16 weeks.
Thanks, Jeff. This has been great talking to you. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. Do you have any final advice?
Jefe: Follow your star. Do what you love doing. Do that at which you are good. Truck camping is one of the few things left that I love to do, down Jefe’s road to XTC.