Smart’s F550-Northern Lite Rig Wins Top Honors at 2023 TCA Rally

Austin Smart’s Ford F550-Northern Lite Rig took home top honors at the 2023 Truck Camper Adventure Quartzsite Rally. As a matter of fact, his rig, consisting of a 2022 Ford F550, a Northern Lite 10-2, and Highway Products truck bed, impressed the five-judge panel (which included last year’s winner, Todd Lemke) so much that the choice was nearly unanimous. What are the requirements to win this coveted award? First, the rig has to look good. Second, it needs to be functional in all respects. What good is a rig if you can’t use it? Third, it needs to have the “X” factor, something about the rig that makes it “pop.” After reading this article and looking at the photographs, we think you’ll agree that the panel’s choice as “best rig” was correct. It checks all three boxes and more. To learn more about Austin’s amazing rig, he was kind enough to answer several questions.

Congratulations, Austin, on taking home first place. First, can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from?

Austin Smart: Thanks, Mike! The rally was a ton of fun. We already have our route planned to make our way back next year. My partner Meghan and I are from the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and Portland). We travel North America full-time in our truck with our two dogs Sadie and Sacha. I work remotely as an engineer and Meghan is an artist and silversmith, she makes handcrafted one of a kind sterling silver and turquoise jewelry.

Austin Smart posing with the winning trophy for “Best Rig” at the 2023 Truck Camper Adventure Quartzsite Rally.

How long have you two owned your truck camper?

Austin Smart: We purchased our 2019 Northern Lite 10-2 EXCD SE, wet bath, face-to-face dinette, in February of 2022 from the original owner. He had also traveled the country full-time in the camper and had built it up as a great starting spot for our modifications. In the one year we have had the camper we have made quite a few modifications, both adding on to the previous owners touches and making it our own as well. We had plenty of time to modify the camper while chipping away at building the truck.

Can you tell us about your Northern Lite truck camper and why you chose that particular make and model?

Austin Smart: The choice of which truck camper to go with was based on what the truck is built for and the places we intend to take it. The truck is built with an off-road focus, within reason. Eventually our Ford F550 will have a subframe-mounted composite habitat. When looking at the different truck camper options in our desired footprint and size, the clear winner in terms of strength and tolerance to abuse was a hard-sided fiberglass clamshell. We also love to ski, so a true four-season camper was a requirement. That really only left Northern Lite and Bigfoot, which I liked equally. We lucked into our 10-2 at the right time and place and jumped on a great deal.

Both Meghan and I are short (less than 5-6) and have a ton of headroom in the 10-2, even when standing on the step in front of the bed. We thought about a camper with slides but we felt we didn’t need more space than a 10-2. Slides also come with some big drawbacks for what this truck is built for and the places we intend to take it, mainly regarding weight and strength. We have toured quite a few different campers from different manufacturers (leaning towards the largest campers each manufacturer makes) and we are very happy with our choice of a 10-2 for our lifestyle.

What mods have you made to your Northern Lite to make it your own?

Austin Smart: The list is so long, I’ll probably forget a few. I’ll also include the previous owners modifications that I added on to or improved:

  • Added 400 amp hours LiFePO4 (heated) 12 volt battery capacity
  • Added 840 watts solar (increased from factory 100 watts)
  • Added Victron electrical equipment
  • Added a shore power surge protector
  • Added Mopeka Bluetooth sensors (connected to the Raspberry Pi and Victron VRM)
  • Added Ruuvi temperature/humidity/pressure sensors. Interior, exterior, basement, truck, etc. (connected to the Raspberry Pi and Victron VRM)
  • Added a 5G 4X4 MIMO LTE, 2×2 Wifi, GPS Antenna (the grey tank vent cavity in a 10-2 is a great spot for this)
  • Converted Starlink to run via a DishyPowa POE injector and 12 volts to 48 volts DC boost converter.
  • Added a Peplink router with WAN bonding and failover. Our primary cell carrier is T-Mobile for rural band 71. The router bonds Starlink, cellular, and local Wifi networks into a single internet connection.
  • Removed the factory 12 volt TV and added a 27-inch 4k monitor on an articulating arm in the forward corner of the dinette (and reinforced the dinette). This doubles as a computer monitor when sitting at the rear dinette seat or a TV when laying in the dinette or cabover.
  • Added flush mounted 5 volt (USB) fans throughout the camper cabinetry to increase air flow and help reduce condensation
  • Added USB-A and USB-C PD ports in many spots throughout the camper
  • Added a waterproof panel interface connector to the exterior of the rear wall for a 120 volt plug and a shielded Ethernet port.
  • Replaced all interior lights with higher quality fixtures and warmer temperature LEDs
  • Changed all interior hardware (drawer pulls, cabinet handles, etc.) from brushed nickel to black
  • Removed the window valances, head board, and cabover privacy curtain (this dramatically changes the feel of the interior)
  • Re-covered the dinette cushions to be a nice dark blue, matching the truck’s paint color and allowing space for the articulating monitor arm to mount to the dinette structure.
  • Extended the step in front of the bed. Northern Lite started doing this in 10-2’s soon after 2019. I extended the step to make it easier for our dogs to jump on and off the bed.
  • Replaced the dinette table lowering mechanism with a black marine collapsible pedestal. The original table had way too much wobble for working full time. To securely add the center mounted pedestal, we also strengthened the dinette floor with 3/4-inch plywood.
  • Replaced the factory sink faucet with a taller touch activated faucet to help reduce water use
  • Added a pizza stone in the oven to disperse heat
  • Added a custom cutting board/cover for the sink
  • Added a teak mat in the wet bath
  • Added two extending steps to the factory flip up steps.
  • Removed the exterior decals
  • Removed the electric jacks
  • Isolated and sound deadened the Cummins Onan 2500 propane generator

Holy cow, that’s a lot! Probably more mods than any other camper we’ve featured on this website. How do you like your camper? What are your favorite features?

Austin Smart: Meghan and I love the very straightforward layout of the Northern Lite 10-2. It maximizes space and makes the interior feel very open. The skylight in the cabover helps a lot with that feel. The wood cabinetry is well-made and the kitchen area is ample enough for cooking a complicated meal. Our dogs always have somewhere to sleep that is out of the way, and they seem to enjoy the camper as much as we do.

Looks like solar power is your go-to source to keep your batteries topped off. What are your thoughts on it compared to the others?

Austin Smart: We use solar power for near 100 percent of our electricity needs, the DC-DC chargers cover the rest. The camper came with a propane generator that we kept as a backup for cloudy winter days, but we are considering removing it to free-up space and save weight.

We love the Highway Products truck bed you built for it. Can you tell us more about it?

Austin Smart: The Highway Products aftermarket truck bed is custom engineered for the truck, including tire and suspension size as well as the short wheelbase 60-inch CA cab and chassis frame. It is hand-manufactured out of aluminum, and the build quality is outstanding. There is a 40 gallon auxiliary fuel tank mounted behind the cab. The bed was based on previous customers but with a few modifications to suit our truck better (tire chain clearance, re-located DEF tank, etc.). Highway Products—while enduring a lengthy wait time—was great to work with.

Nice! Why did you decide to go with Highway Products? Was it the looks or the functionality?

Austin Smart: I looked at a variety of flatbed manufacturers. Highway Products happened to be local enough that I started researching them more. The selling point was the fit and finish of their work, as well as the opportunity to have everything be built exactly to my specification. The end product is a flatbed that both looks very clean and sleek and is incredibly functional. The extra storage provided by the upper bedside boxes more than makes up for the lost storage of a short wheelbase truck.

Can you tell us about more about your truck?

Austin Smart: This truck, flatbed, and camper combination is inspired by Corey Hoffman’s Funroamer build that Truck Camper Adventure covered in March of 2021. I took the combo and added a few touches to make this truck unique, though I owe Corey many thanks—and maybe a cerveza in Baja one day—for doing the initial hard work of the flatbed engineering.

The truck is a 2022 Ford F550 XL Crew Cab 4×4 6.7L 60-inch CA cab and chassis truck. It was purchased new in 2022 after a long search for a suitable used vehicle. Out of 1,000 listings I found six matches (the short wheelbase is exceptionally difficult to find in a crew cab diesel 4×4 configuration). All of them were rusty work trucks with 100k+ miles that were being sold over MSRP. It was a gamble to order a 2022 Super Duty at the time, some would arrive in a couple months, some were taking over a year to arrive. We ordered a base model XL in hopes that it would have limited supply chain issues. Luckily the truck arrived in four months.

Austin’s Ford F550 chassis before the super singles conversion.
Austin’s Ford F550 after the Buckstop Super Singles Conversion and Buckstop Front Bumper.

Being a Ford F550. We suppose that you are under your truck’s GVWR? Have you had your rig weighed?

Austin Smart: The truck weighs 16,500 pounds fully loaded with fuel, water, two people, two dogs, and full of food and supplies. The GVWR of the truck is 19,500 pounds, so we have 3,000 pounds of payload left.

Perfect! Did you need to make any modifications to your truck’s suspension?

The truck is sitting on a 4-inch lift Liquid Spring Smart Suspension front and rear and 41-inch Goodyear MSA G275 tires. I get asked a lot if the Liquid Spring suspension is worth the investment. My response is always that yes, it is worth the investment. I would not build this truck without a Liquid Spring setup, it just wouldn’t be as enjoyable to drive on or off-road. We love the ability to lower the truck to the bump stops when parked at a campsite and we can’t wait for the camp-leveling feature to finally be released.

What other mods (if any) did you make to your truck?

Austin Smart: I try to stay within the boundaries of what I could reasonably claim on the trucks factory warranty. For now I am avoiding any powertrain modifications.

  • Buckstop Truckware super single wheels, bumper, and color matched front flares
  • Baja Designs LP4 and LP6 lights.
  • Warn 16.5ti winch
  • Morimoto XB amber headlights
  • Paint Protection Film on the hood, fenders, lowers doors, and door cups.
  • Front windows tinted to match factory rear tint
  • AMP Research XL Power Steps
  • Seven-way adjustable electric drivers seat from an F150
  • Flow through center console from an F150
  • Dog platform in place of rear seats
  • 12-inch tablet head-unit
  • Sound deadening
  • ARB Dual Air Compressor
  • 30,000-pound rated rear hitch
  • Custom spare tire carrier and hoist
  • Removed factory badging and logos

Do you have any regrets in any of your truck and camper choices? Anything you wished that you had done differently?

Austin Smart: Not yet! Maybe check back in a year. The build is relatively fresh, it just had its 5,000 mile oil change and tire rotation a couple of weeks ago. We will probably put another 20-30k miles on the truck this year. I’m sure something will have me regretting at least some choices at some point, that’s just the nature of the hobby.

What is your favorite truck camper mod or piece of gear that you take with you?

Austin Smart: The solar power, electrical system, and robust internet connection is by far my favorite overall modification. That is what allows Meghan and me to work and travel full-time.

Beyond that, Meghan enjoys the extended steps to get into the truck since it’s so tall. I think the Bluetooth temperature sensors connected to the Victron VRM are my favorite. Being able to check on the comfort of our dogs while we are away gives us great peace of mind.

What is the longest amount of time that you have spent in your camper?

Austin Smart: The longest we have spent in the camper is one month, though we have transitioned to living in it full-time, so hopefully that turns into a couple of years at least. We’ve found that we can stay out in the wild for a maximum of eight days before our black tank is full, so we might switch to a composting toilet soon.

Where have you taken your truck camper thus far?

Austin Smart: So far this truck and camper setup has stayed on the west coast. We have traveled from the Straights of Juan de Fuca in Washington to the USA/Mexican border in Arizona, though definitely not in a straight line. We’ve explored the rain forests of Washington, the high desert of Oregon, the rocky Sierras, and the vast landscapes of the desert Southwest.

What kind of mileage are you getting with your setup?

Austin Smart: We currently get 10.2 mpg on a flat road with no headwind at 60 mph. If we have a headwind or a windy road the mileage has dropped as low as 8.3 mpg. Off-road I’ve seen as low as 5 mpg in 4WD for extended periods of time. Having the extra 40 gallons of diesel gives us a comfortable 700-mile range.

What wheel and tires do you have on your truck and what inflation values do you typically run?

Austin Smart: The wheels are 11×20 inches 7K PRO HD 7390-pound capacity DOT Compliant Aluminum Reversible Wheels from Buckstop Truckware, the tires are 335/80/R20 Goodyear MSA G275. I run 75 psi in the front and 80 psi (maximum) in the rear. In soft sand or snow I run 20 psi in the front and 25 psi in the rear.

What kind of places are you planning to visit in your truck camper rig?

Austin Smart: We hope to travel to Alaska and Mexico in the coming years. The truck is built to get us into some remote areas to explore and enjoy. We tend to shy away from National Parks and big cities and usually find ourselves up a skinny, double-track trail, or out in the middle of BLM land in the desert enjoying some sunshine. Part of why we travel full-time is to see more of the United States and find somewhere better to call home than the PNW. So far we haven’t found it, but who knows, maybe it’s just around the corner!

Do you have a website and/or social media channels that our readers can follow?

Austin Smart: You can follow the truck and our adventures on Instagram @bruce_plus4 (the truck’s nickname is Bruce).

About Mello Mike 868 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a certified RVIA Level 1 RV Technician, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. A communications expert and licensed ham radio operator (KK7TCA), he retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, holds a BS degree, and now runs Truck Camper Adventure full-time. He also does some RV consulting, repairs, and inspections on the side. He currently rolls in a 4WD Ram 3500 outfitted with a SherpTek truck bed with a Bundutec Roadrunner mounted on top.

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