Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this interview with Derek Parent and Nikki de Courval. Derek, who goes by the moniker “Silversand” on the Internet forums, is a geospatial analyst with a focus on landscape ecology, biogeography, and animal movement. His area of interests include Central America and Mexico though he has also worked in the Philippines, North Queensland, and New Mexico. He has written a number of articles and books on various topics and has appeared in an A&E Television special on the lost cities of Central America. Like Derek, Nikki has a passion for indigenous ruins. Her interest in recurrent symbols among rock art drove her across North America to numerous archeological sites. She enjoys the geography of landscapes and landscaping, painting and writing. Her study in geography afforded her a job in Pandemic and Disaster preparedness in the IT world. All these avenues add flavor to the observations and interpretations of Derek and Nikki’s off-road adventures.
Thanks, Derek and Nikki, for taking the time to talk. When did you first get into truck camping?
Derek and Nikki: Our interest in truck campers seems to have stemmed from our need to have a vehicle to service the country property just before 2004, transporting gardening equipment, related materials and heavy construction items for renovations. The small Chevy Tracker, our primary transport back in pre 2004, was getting a bit old and tired. This was Nikki’s dream vehicle, and she bought it back in 1998. The Tracker had done numerous back-country expeditions to very remote parts of New Mexico with tent camping gear (see the Salt Creek, Needles District, Utah photo below). There must be a better way to enjoy the backcountry. We were concurrently looking for some genre of RV that would handle the same terrain that the Tracker had tackled.
Nikki’s uncle had actually built a truck camper back in the early 1960s, and had used it to explore the Southwest back then. So, the idea of having a removable camper designed for the future pick-up we were contemplating made sense on numerous fronts: the pick-up could be bought with four-wheel drive with the rear Eaton locker option. The pick-up, a Chevy three-quarter-ton HD, would have the clearance to tackle places in New Mexico we were yet to investigate. A truck camper could be separated from the truck, freeing up the truck for other duties, and most importantly, with a truck camper rig we were not obliged to buy both an RV rig only partially suitable for our needs and an expensive pick-up truck. The pick-up truck would replace the old Tracker at some point.
I think that U.S. buyers of vehicles may not realize just how expensive new trucks and cars are in Canada. Typically, pick-ups, like the Silverado 2500HD extended cab (our model) with 6 liter gasoline engine both back in 2004, and today are about 20 to 30 percent more costly in Canada, and are taxed heavily. The Silverado 2500HD with options was close to $50,000 gross way back in 2004. Today nearly 12 years later, the same truck with same options is in the $76,000 range plus taxes here in Canada.
We should briefly run through the various RV options we investigated during our 2003 research that contributed to our interest in RVing. We looked at primarily camper vans, like the first iteration of Chevy’s New West model, because our condo parking allotment was very limited. We then looked at the Safari Condo 20 foot camper van and I also looked at Sportsmobile four-wheel drive conversion van units. When we analyzed the price to utility aspect, the three-quarter-ton four-wheel drive pick-up with truck and separate camper became overwhelmingly enticing.
Can you tell us about your truck camper and why you chose that particular make and model?
Derek and Nikki: We took seemingly a long time researching ruggedly-built campers made primarily for off-roading or unimproved back-country driving. We shied away completely from wood framed pop-up up truck campers to settle on welded aluminum-FRP composite framing, with XPS bonded structural foam. We were researching intensely truck campers for six months asking myriad build questions of truck camper manufacturers. One of our primary concerns was getting a camper that would “weather well” in our rain-forest like climate in the Northeast. At that time, we did not have any shelter to store the camper in, to protect it from our many weeks of Northeastern rains. So, wood framing was completely out.
We looked at personally or investigated through the Internet just about every brand of truck camper manufactured in North America on the market, back then. We compared the interior volume of hard-side truck campers with pop-ups. We were quite pleasantly surprised with the interior volume of the pop-up genre in general. We like “open concept” both in housing and in tent camping, so, why not look for something open concept in a truck camper? Well, we found it in an Outfitter 8 foot floor pop-up. We didn’t like the ceiling to floor build-in interior walls and storage the hard side campers had. We went with a single ceiling-mounted (hanging) kitchen cabinet, and opted for a large rear nearly walk-in closet for equipment and portable toilet. Also, the lack of windows in hard side campers gave us claustrophobia. Our Caribou has 10 large windows built into the soft side lightly insulated Weblon, giving us a 360 degree panoramic view of the surroundings.
Surprisingly, we had the furnace and water heater pulled from manufacture, and opted for vastly more kitchen cabinet storage. In retrospect, we do very little to no cold weather camping (by cold weather camping, we mean camping below about 30 degrees F), so not having a furnace was no serious negative. It would’ve been nice to have a small-scale demand hot water system, however in those days (11 years ago) on demand water systems for RVs were rare and unproven in North America. We have recently been hunting for a demand hot water system, and are impressed with the latest hot water integrated with furnace technology we’d seen demos of at the 2014 Overland Expo East. We have no solar panel system, and instead, rely on recharging our AGM battery system by running the truck, and piping current into our camper’s SurePower battery isolator. We use a propane three burner cook top fed from a horizontal gas cylinder.
Wrapping our decision up, our choice of the 8 foot floor length Caribou Outfitter model suited our needs perfectly. However, our camper would be a bit spare and minimalist for most RVers and perhaps even spare for off-roader truck camper types!
Do you remember the first time you went off-road?
Derek: Wow, now that goes back to the early 1970s. I don’t think I have any photos of those off-road ventures that have survived 40 plus years! I off-roaded in Eastern Quebec in the early ’70s, mostly in junker cars in those days. In the mid ’70s, I lived and worked in the tropics for several years, and did extensive off-roading in the outback of Trinidad in the southern Caribbean, on board a Suzuki 125 (I think it was a 125!). I also managed to get an old right-hand drive Vauxhall thoroughly stuck in the jungle on several occasions!
I then worked in the early ’90s in Central America, mapping newly-established reserve parks in the remote Mosquito Coast region of Central America. I was using a Unimog U404 (1960s vintage troop/cargo bed) and Toyota HiLux to crawl into the Mosquitia region of Honduras from the “end of the road”. Most of my four-wheel driving into the Mosquitia was at night; doing this during the day-time in 128 degrees F with 98 percent relative humidity was a recipe for dehydration and heat stroke. You have to understand that even to this day, no contiguous trans-Isthmus crossing of the Honduras Mosquitia down to the Costa Rica border has ever been done, unlike numerous Darien Gap crossings. One would need truck flotation devices to make hundreds of river crossings (some rivers over 800 feet wide).
Now Nikki has not done “off-roading” in the distant past. However, we had done back-country expeditions from Needles District into various canyons back in 2002 with the Chevy Tracker (with full manual lockers). Her first real off-road expedition was in New Mexico, when we took the Tracker to a distant Chacoan outlier site, and across a 1/2-mile long check dam berm with roughly 12 inches of berm on each side of the truck tires. I drove across it with my driver door open, my neck craning out of the truck making sure the driver’s side tires didn’t slip off the edge of the berm!
The “off-roading” we’ve done with the camper rig has been relegated to unimproved roads and forest service roads throughout the Southwest states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Which tie-down and turnbuckle system do you use?
Derek: We use and have always used the Torklift system frame-mounted tie-downs and turnbuckles. We don’t see any cost/time/benefit at this point to go with FastGuns.
What measures do you take to prevent your camper from shifting and sliding around in your truck bed?
Derek: From early on (I think six years ago), I have always used high-density commercial air conditioner closed cell foam pieces both against the bulk-head, and forward of wheel-wells to keep the camper from shifting, or, twisting in the truck bed. These foam pieces are 6 inches by 4 inches by up to 5 feet long. I custom cut them to fit between camper tub and pick-up truck bed. I also trimmed the rubber bed mat to fit the footprint of the camper tub forward of the wheel wells. I found over the years that rain was getting into the truck bed during torrential storms, or from driving at interstate speeds into rain storms. This rain water would drop directly onto the bed mat, and would flow under the camper tub, thereby soaking the under-floor of the camper tub. This under-floor is made up of a 3/16-inch layer of meranti (a Philippines sourced Dipterocarpaceae family woody species), that is stapled under our camper tub to the aluminum floor joists. This plywood can get wet, and disintegrate over time. I’ve since replaced all of that stuff with spar varnished (on all six sides) marine plywood. Then, I coated the new underlay with an inexpensive truck bed liner material.
Have you made any modifications to your Caribou?
Derek: I’ve made a number of modifications to the Caribou. The first, was to change all the 12 volt DC incandescent light bulbs inside and outside the camper for LEDs. This gives us a very good advantage when running on our AGM 12 volt battery system. Further to this, I replaced the original flooded lead acid battery technology with AGM batteries. The AGMs are now just about 10 years old, and are holding up extremely well. I mentioned above that we have a large nearly walk-in closet at the rear of the camper. We replaced the old 2.5 gallon chemical portable toilet with the new Thetford “Curve” electric flush toilet. This new Curve is about as large as a toilet in one’s home; essentially, a full-sized bowl and seat. Very comfortable, and easy to use. The Curve’s black tank is 5.5 gallons (56 flushes), and the fresh water tank is 4.2 gallons. The toilet is used inside the closet. I am 6 feet tall, and can fit comfortably inside the closet and use the toilet–even with the camper roof down. I’ve also completed the following mods to our Caribou:
- Four additional duplex AC electrical outlets.
- A digital battery monitoring device.
- Two stereo speaker extension outlets.
- An exterior cable TV connector.
- Two interior cable TV outlets (one fore the other aft).
- A six port router and separate wi-fi bridge (with 26 db omni-directional antenna) .
- Several RJ-45 plug-ins (for wired network).
- A weather station, with two external sensors; one sensor inside camper, the other temperature sensor to be placed at the podium where the fresh water and water hose would be located (this to monitor for freezing temperatures, before the hose freezes).
Can you tell us more about your truck?
Derek and Nikki: Our truck is a 2004.5 Chevy Silverado, 2500HD extended cab with the 8 foot bed. We have the manual 4×4 option (a manual shift lever on the floor), with Eaton lockers. We chose this particular brand and model from published reliability statistics, and because it is a make and model widely used in our region by commercial operators. I always want to do my own informal research, so every time we went out (to buy groceries; etc), I always did a visual of every Chevy 2500HD and 3500 I would come across. I would check for rusty chassis, if lights were chronically burned out (electrical issue indicator), funny noises when the trucks were started up, and generally if possible, the opinion of the owner. Over about five months, I had inspected roughly several thousand Silverados (no kidding!), and came away with positive feedback from the vast majority of owners I talked to. Also, we already had a good relationship with a local Chevy dealer (this helps when negotiating the buy).
Anyhow, I walked away very impressed with this brand and model of truck, and its capability of carrying what we had agreed would be a pop-up camper in the 1,300 to 1,550 pound range, loaded.
Have you made any off-road modifications to your Silverado?
Derek: Absolutely no modifications have been made to our truck; this includes original shocks, original leaf springs, original transfer case, OEM brakes, and OEM air filter system.
The only parts changes made were new and improved steering shaft, which eliminated the clunk feeling when turning; and a new under-dash heater control module– this was changed under warranty.
I did most of the maintenance myself for the first six years, then, as my bones got more, um, finicky, I now have the shop do all the greasing and fluids changes. Not to say that I can’t do all this “out in the field” if I needed to, of course.
What kind of mileage do you get hauling your truck camper?
Derek: We average around 13.9 to 14.1 MPG depending in headwinds. We typically drive at 55 MPH to as much as 68 to 70 MPH (going down prolonged hills).
Which engine type do you prefer, diesel or gas?
Derek: Diesel engines are fine and have a good niche, however, our 6 liter gasoline Vortec6000 has far and above the power we need for our payload and geographical stomping grounds. Our truck camper use divides thus: 93 percent east coast driving; 1 percent central driving; 6 percent Southwest mountainous driving. Gas prices are so cheap, there is absolutely no savings to be had with diesel vs. gas for us, and, I used to do all my maintenance, so I never had to deal with a diesel mechanic’s premium price. We also have significantly more payload with the much lighter gasoline engine (not that we need to be concerned with the extra payload fudge factor or performance head-room).
Do you tow anything like a Jeep or boat with your truck and camper?
Derek: We’re not towing any towable yet. However, we have been toying with acquiring a used 2-door Jeep, and would tow that.
What tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run when driving off-road?
Derek: We have tried four different tire brands since 2004. Our first set were the OEM Steeltex units on our OEM steel rims. These were less than stellar. The Steeltex were changed out for OEM sized BF Goodrich TA/Ko units. After three years, I had them removed. I was not impressed at all; we’ll leave it at that. We then went with Michelin AT2 all terrain/road tires. I truly liked these. They rode well, needed almost no balancing to speak of, worked well in east-coast beach sand, and went almost six years before they needed to be changed. We now have 265/75/R16 Goodyear Duratrac units. This is year 1.5 with the Duratracs. We needed to go with a fully certified winter tire on the light truck, because our winter tire laws in this part of the World have changed, and now include commercial and light trucks under mandatory snow-rated tire laws. And, we absolutely did not want to buy and maintain 2 sets of tires, of course. We took the Duratracs on their maiden voyage to the October 2014 Overland Expo East, held in North Carolina. I had the Duratracs installed just days before the Expo (beginning of October), and we headed out. We were very impressed with the Duratracs on interstate, gravel, and mud (at the Expo grounds!). Post Expo, we shot over to the Outer Banks, NC, for a week, and the tires performed very well in the coastal environment. Deflating for sand typically 30 PSI; for loose sand or sandy bottomed rivers, 25 to 35 PSI.
What tools and recovery gear do you consider essential when driving off-road?
Derek: I carry a fairly substantial tool kit (with breaker bar), several bottle jacks, a high lift jack, and wood blocks to brace the rear axle (if need be). We also carry a recovery strap. I have a quantity of special epoxy to patch things like the transfer case and other fluid-carrying engine receptacles if required. If we are going to an area with no cell coverage, I will also bring non-truck tools like GMRS radios, a GIS system (and multiple GPS units) on laptop with hundreds of map layers (shapefile layers from various government agencies); and, getting back to the mechanicals, we’ll pack extra transmission fluid, extra axle oil, extra engine oil, and extra coolant. A battery operated air compressor and tire repair tool kit is essential, too. We also fill the gas tank just before heading out, and know our rough consumption given the varying terrain and speeds we’ll be traveling; so this give us a max out distance (i.e. when/where we should return).
Do you have any favorite roads or trails you like to explore?
Derek and Nikki: We really like the Valley of the Gods near Mexican Hat, Utah. We like to take Route 163, then onto Valley of the Gods Road (FR-242), to Route 261, then up the Moki Dugway switchback to the Muley Point lookout. This route isn’t particularly difficult at all unless it is snowing. However, the scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful.
The other region of interest we have done some preliminary explorations at is the Dark Canyon Wilderness area near the Valley of the Gods. Continue up Route 261 to Route 95, then head west toward Natural Bridges, but veer off onto Route 275, then FR-88 to FR-92 or onto the Burch Canyon road. The further you go into the Wilderness, be aware that if it rains or if there is snow on these partially maintained roads, it will be very tough to control your truck in the greasy muck.
Which are your favorite states to explore?
Derek: We like to explore Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, North Carolina and Florida on the east coast. On the west coast, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona.
Are there any areas or trails that you think are overlooked by most overlanders?
Derek: I think that the area most unknown by overlanders is the Manti La Sal National Forest, within which the Dark Canyon Wilderness area is encompassed. Additionally, the Mule Canyon and Fish Creek Canyon regions are areas we hear little about, but would be incredibly interesting and challenging to explore. Now, for the east, I would have to say the 3.5 million acre Maine Woods; a truly extremely remote and sparsely populated region just 45 minutes drive from our house.
What advice would you offer those who are considering buying a truck camper to take off-road?
Derek and Nikki: We would suggest to seriously consider your pick-up truck dimensions and capability. For example, if you plan on doing short and sharp switchback exploring, with lots of trail sections where you can get high-centered, consider getting a short wheel-base truck (i.e. the shortest bed pick-up in your hauling class). Once you have a truck picked out theoretically for your exploration style and terrain, find a truck camper model that will fit the truck bed, center of gravity, camper wing overhang over the bed rails, and the rear end departure angle (i.e. will your new camper have a behemoth rear overhang that will kill your angle of departure?).
So, you recommend buying your truck first?
Derek: Yes, I know many will disagree, however, in our mind, if you pick a camper for off-roading before the truck, you may end up with a lot more comfort but a camper too long and unwieldy for off-roading: remember, the camper isn’t driving you into the untracked wilderness, the truck is; so pick the truck for your genre of off-roading, and buy a rugged camper to fit onto it. I’ll reiterate this, too: watch your camper width! Truck campers come in two widths (depending on model): narrow, and full width. If you plan on off-roading on trails with narrow rock walls or narrow tree corridors on one or both sides, will your camper actually comfortable fit without your jacks being torn off? Will you have to remove your jacks for your entire expedition? Or, just to “get through?” Even with your jacks removed, will the camper shell fit the trail?
We are obviously proponents of pop-up campers for back-country, however this does not mean that others who would feel more comfortable in a small/compact hard side should give up going compact hard side.
Our lower profile roof height and 1,300 to 1,400 pound loaded camper will be extremely advantageous in numerous ways. We have no air conditioner nor any cargo on our roof, so we are net 8 feet, 1 inch high, without our rear vent over-cover on. Our rear vent over-cover has quick removal pins, where we can remove the cover in seconds to clear something immovable itself.
If you were to buy a brand new truck camper or overland RV, and price wasn’t an issue, what would it be?
Derek: If we would be in a position to buy an unlimited capability overland RV, I think it would be probably a Land Rover Defender 130 flat-bed, with a Quantis GmbH Marq 1.1 custom living unit designed in Iceland, attached (easily removable; sleeps four big adults very comfortably; has a 6 foot wide by 5 foot high rear high-impact glass window; has a Truma dual air and water heater). However, I digress. Nikki would kill me if we somehow came into the Quantis! She would want the EarthRoamer XD-HD 2016 model, with a few options, at an estimated $1.3 million U.S. It comes with a 250,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, I hear.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced during your travels?
Derek: Hah, hah. That’s an easy one. We were stopped in the outback of Nebraska, during the spring of 2007. We hear a distant tornado siren go off, as black tornadic clouds race towards us, and storm chasers start popping up around our rig. Yes, it was an F2 tornado…just missed us!
Have you had any notable run-ins with wildlife?
Derek: Not especially dangerous. However, on our way out to the Chaco Canyon on an unimproved road, a fairly large rattler slithers out of the scrub beside the hellacious track we were negotiating, right in front of the rig. This snake was pretty huge–over 4 feet long and quite thick–I would guess. So, I jump out, and try to get as close as I dare. However, it slithered remarkably fast off the gravel and into the scrub along the trail. They can be very, very fast. Lesson learned.
What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring in your camper?
Nikki: We pack some pretty high-end stuff. Various Swiss cheeses; fresh-baked crusty breads; various crackers; multi-grain hot cereals; yogurt; fruit and veggies; pasta and pesto; canned fish; frozen lobster meat (when we’re expeditioning on the east coast); Amy’s light and lean low sodium canned foods; several bottles of good Bordeaux, several bottles of Kim Crawford white, a few cases of Old Speckled Hen English ale, several bottles of Hacker-Pschorr naturtrüb (resealable ceramic top).
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
Derek: Other than hunting for ancient lost cities in the remotest jungles of Central America during my off time as a spatial analyst and geomatics professional, not really. One of my expeditions to uncover an ancient city ruin in Central America was filmed for an A&E TV documentary, broadcast back in 2000.
Nikki, between her planning for disasters and fending off cyber attacks, loves to paint (acrylic) abstract expressionist scenes from sketches she does during our expeditions, writing documentary adventures, and doing field research (this prior to 2007) into some of the World’s most insidious diseases, hmm? That’s about it.
This has been great talking with both of you. Thanks again for taking the time to talk. Do you have any final advice?
The only advice I have in closing is: Mike, keep up the tremendous work on Truck Camper Adventure! Excellent concept. Our website can be found at: http://truckcamper-travels.ca