The year 2020 has been a crazy year with a worldwide pandemic, riots, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding all taking place. With record numbers of RVs on the road due to the pandemic, it was also a record year for RV accidents. In fact, two truck camper accidents were chronicled here earlier, including one involving a 300-foot rollover and fall. In this article, we present yet another. Yes, we all love to take our truck camper rigs off-road, but doing so requires caution since many back roads and 4×4 trails are isolated and hazardous. Yes, your experience-level can alleviate problems, but not always, as veteran truck camper owners, Pres and Janice Meyers, recently found out. Even with years of off-roading experience they still rolled their rig in Southern California’s Inyo Mountains. To provide us with an account of what happened and the valuable lessons they learned, Janice was kind enough to answer several questions.
Hi Janice. First can you tell us about your rig? How long have you owned it and what went into building it?
Janice Meyers: Our rig consisted of a utility bed on a 2004 Ford F-350 4×4 truck with a 10-foot cabover telescoping Alaskan Camper. Our camper was mounted on a Knapheide utility bed with tool boxes on both sides. The original owners ordered the Ford F-350 with the truck bed “unfinished.” Then, they took it to Alaskan Camper HQ to mount the camper. Technically, the camper could be removed. However, we didn’t even have jacks to do this. We were very happy with it being “permanent.”
We purchased the truck camper from the second owners flying to Missouri from California to buy it sight unseen in late March of 2017. That trip was its own adventure including a drive through a blizzard in the Rockies of Colorado. The rig steered like a boat when we bought it. Pres researched and decided to install a Hellwig Big Wig Sway Bar, Bilstien HD shocks, and heavy-duty front springs to raise the rig slightly for better clearance without compromising steering. A 3-inch lift kit was installed in the rear end to level out our rig due to the heavy duty springs on the front. These upgrades made the truck and camper a lot more maneuverable and more fun to drive.
Can you tell us exactly where you were when you rolled your rig?
Janice Meyers: Our accident happened about 5 to 6 miles from Cerro Gordo on the Swansea Salt Tram Road in the Inyo Mountains at about 8,300-foot elevation. Pres had studied maps online and we used a guidebook to decide on camping along the Swansea Salt Tram Trail. The road makes a loop between the Swansea and Cerro Gordo mines which are located about 15 miles southeast of Lone Pine, California. We were driving in from the ghost town of Cerro Gordo where we saw the sad ruins of the American Hotel that had burned just a few days before we drove through. Our family has visited this interesting ghost town through the years since the 1960s.
What exactly happened?
Janice Meyers: It was mid-afternoon as we made our way onto the trail, navigating over a mountain shelf of shale with sheer cliff exposure. Pres was glad to have that part behind us as we followed the rough route further into the Inyo Mountains. It was very hot in the valley below and we were enjoying the cooler temperatures at the 8,000-foot elevation.
Pres was driving up a steep, narrow section of shale starting into a tight turn. The truck was losing traction so Pres came to a stop and tried to look behind us for a better vantage point to gain traction. He could not open his cab door as the cabover of our camper was leaning just enough to stop the door from opening. At this point Pres used his mirror to back us up, thinking he would find better footing to start back up the trail. Pres got too far over, causing the rear wheel on his side to slip off of the road onto the slippery shale. At this point the truck started picking up speed as it began sliding both backwards and sideways.
It felt surreal and as though we were in slow motion as the truck began to roll. I fully expected to keep rolling, but miraculously the rig came to rest on the driver’s side along the shale-covered mountainside.
Was anybody hurt during the rollover?
Janice Meyers: Pres struggled to reach the key to turn-off the engine as I hung securely from my seat belt looking down at him. All of our belongings inside the truck cab had flown to the driver’s side in a heap. As we checked with each other to see if we were okay, Pres’ cell phone rang! We couldn’t find it in time to answer, but we were thrilled to know we had reception. Neither of us had any injuries!
How difficult was it getting out of the truck?
Janice Meyers: Not knowing if the truck would start rolling again, we were anxious to escape the cab. My seat belt would not release as my weight was straining against it. I could not find footing, so I could push my weight onto my feet and off of the belt. I rolled down my window to reach my arm out and get a hold. Pres braced his arms up towards me knowing I would fall fast once I released the seat belt. I was able to aim my feet into the backseat as the restraint was released and I landed right behind Pres, who was still in the driver’s seat.
Now we both could stand up inside on the doors being cautious about shifting our weight. Climbing out the passenger side windows above us looked difficult and could possibly trigger the truck starting to slide or roll again. Pres believed the best way out was through the windshield. He was wearing house slippers as he had injured his foot with a deep cut several days before our trip. He gave the windshield several hard kicks causing the safety glass to break and make an opening.
Pres quickly exited through the jagged opening and turned to pull the glass further out for me to get out. I tried to hand him a rubber mat but he had already cut his hand which was bleeding—the only injury from the accident. I reached back through the broken glass to retrieve water, jackets and our phones. We both scurried through the slippery shale to get away from the truck and to better see our situation.
What kind of damage was caused to your rig?
Janice Meyers: Once we were outside of the truck, we could see that a sturdy pine tree had stopped our descending roll. The hard top and roof top air conditioner unit of our camper had slammed into the tree. Pres says God planted that tree many years ago with us in mind. The side mirror on the driver’s side had been torn off as it scraped by a tree during the descent. Other than the windshield and air conditioner there was no visible damage as we could not see the entire driver’s side of the rig upon which it rested.
The camper was still securely bolted to the truck-bed frame. Our portable generator remained strapped on the back. We could hear the refrigerator fan running inside the camper. The camper framed was tweaked enough that we could not get the camper door open. Months later, when our rig was recovered, the right front fender and driver’s door were dented beyond repair, although the window was intact. The rear tool box door on the utility bed was also bent, but still workable. Oddly, the cab’s center console and our two-way radios were missing, otherwise the rig remained undisturbed.
On the exterior of the camper, the roof was dented, roof vent door broken, and air conditioner destroyed. Even though we could hear the motor to raise the camper top, the telescoping hydraulic system was not working. A major part of the damage to the interior of our rig was caused by rodents that moved in during the two months we waited for recovery of our truck camper. We think it was pack rats that chewed through a seat belt and built nests in the cab.
The worst damage was inside our Alaskan camper. The refrigerator had flung-out a week’s worth of meat, eggs, milk, cheese and veggies that rotted and attracted rodents and maggots. The rats partied-hardy, chewing through cookies, cinnamon rolls and bags of potato chips. Nests were made in our sleeping bag and pillows. Sadly, the stench, mold, and filth caused by the rotting food and chewing rodents made the camper uninhabitable. If the camper had been recovered within the first few weeks, we most likely could have replaced the top and repaired our camper, but it wasn’t to be.
How difficult was the extraction process?
Janice Meyers: Very! The extraction required expertise and equipment that only a few professional outfits could offer in our remote location. An off-roader enjoying the trail saw our rig the day after our wreck. It turns out that these folks were connected with Miller Towing in Lone Pine and they tracked us down, calling us while we were driving home in a rental car.
Miller told us they could get our rig out and would do it the July 4 holiday. The accident was on June 19. We got them in contact with our insurance and we thought all was good to go. However, Miller put us off for another two weeks and after that time their shop was so busy they informed us they might not be able to get to our rig until October. Needless to say, we were not happy campers! We researched and called two other tow companies that had the means to do our type of off-road recovery. However, each of those wanted a pricey fee paid up-front to drive to the wreck to confirm they could do the job ranging from $600 to $1,000 bucks. Our insurance refused to pay as there was no assurance the tow company would even do the work.
Through our blog we were contacted by a private individual who had taken a group of off-roaders up the trail where our rig was located. He felt he could put together a group that could recover our truck. We were excited, however, he put us off for several weeks trying to schedule a group with no results. Meanwhile, I was having nightmares about our rig being vandalized, food rotting in the camper, and it becoming the latest raccoon habitat. Waiting until October could mean rain or snow delaying the recovery until next summer!
We were lamenting our dilemma to a retired CHP dispatcher and friend who suggested we look on Facebook for the Mojave Desert Off-road Recovery group. After seeing posts of recoveries this group had done we posted a plea for help. Within 10 minutes we had all kinds of folks volunteering to help us! We were blown away! However, now we were concerned about how to choose our rescuer. We did not want anyone to get hurt and wanted the job done safely while preserving our rig. Thankfully, we found the SNORR group and asked them about our concerns.
Jacob, Joseph and Michael connected us with one of their members, Wolfpack Towing, who could work with our insurance. Derek Cornell, the owner of Wolfpack, did the paperwork and oversaw the operation, partnering with volunteers from SNORR. The SNORR folks organized an “event” to do our recovery work in just ONE week! Working together, a crew of 16 people showed up with their 4x4s and equipment. We were overwhelmed and thrilled! The volunteers assured us this was fun for them and that they wanted the experience of a more difficult extraction.
The crew expertly weaved three tow lines from underneath our truck to a combination of winches, snatch blocks, trees, Jeeps and trucks. Righting our truck was done safely with great care, while we got to be present through the entire two-day process.
The story with video and pictures of the recovery can be seen on our blog.
Can you tell us more about the group who helped you and Pres out?
Janice Meyers: The Southern Nevada Off Road Recovery aka SNORR, is a 501c(3) Non-Profit organization. Their mission is to help off-roaders who are stranded, stuck or broken down. SNORR rescuers go through training to exercise the proper and safe recovery of stranded vehicles. Their volunteers enjoy the adventure that off-road recovery can entail. They hold events to offer classes as well as for fundraising to buy equipment. You can check out their Facebook group to see posts of recoveries they have done with photos and video here.
Thanks for giving us this opportunity to let our fellow truck campers know that there are lots of wonderful, capable folks out there who enjoy helping a fellow off-roader get out of some tough predicaments. Some folks volunteer and others are specialized tow companies who charge such as Wolfpack Towing.
Michael Balasko of SNORR put together a resource list of Facebook recovery groups for the US western states. You can get it to print and keep in your truck here.
Did you have any trouble with your insurance claim?
Janice Meyers: Working with our insurance company was a difficult challenge and took perseverance to get through the process of filing our claim. We are okay with the final outcome, but unhappy with effort that it took to get it. We were paid fairly quick once the final evaluation was determined.
We purchased our rig in Missouri and drove it to California, registering it through a DMV branch through a local AAA office. Our custom rig was “unusual” in that we have a toolbox utility bed with the Alaskan Camper bolted to the truck frame. Therefore, AAA does not insure our type of vehicle which was registered with a “PM Body Style.” They sent us to an underwriter to get specialized insurance. This was quite expensive so we checked into Safeco, a Liberty Mutual Company as we had our homeowner’s insurance with them. I made a call to a Safeco agent who assured me that they could cover our type of rig and gave me a quote for nearly half that of AAA’s underwriter. We discussed how much coverage we needed and paid for them to insure our rig.
After being insured with them for three years, we had our accident and filed a claim. Our insurance adjuster initially wanted to abandon our vehicle in the Inyo Mountains on BLM land. We fought to have our truck camper recovered as we really love our rig and Pres felt once the truck was upright, he could drive our diesel out. We also did not like the thought of leaving it as an “eyesore” over time in the backcountry. The insurance was not happy with this expensive option, but finally agreed to Miller Towing’s estimate of nearly $8,000. Wolfpack Towing, with the help of SNORR, did the recovery for a lot less.
However, our insurance claims rep insisted that our camper was not covered and that our policy was not written “correctly.” We showed her our Policy Declaration page clearing stating our coverage was for a “pickup truck with camper.” Nevertheless, she insisted that we have separate policies—one for the truck and one for the camper. We paid the extra in hopes of expediting our claim rather than going to an attorney to fight our insurance. This separation of policies later caused even more problems.
We had understood that our rig would be towed to an insurance approved yard for an estimator to appraise the damage. We had to provide photos before the towing would take place. Our truck camper was towed to a Coparts yard in Bakersfield and declared a total loss. We wanted to repair our truck and did agree our camper was a total loss.
To keep our truck and salvage the camper, our insurance then demanded that we provide a separate DMV title for the camper and pay to separate it from our truck. The yard would not allow Pres to do this, and we paid a tow company $400 for two men and two trucks to separate the unit. Also, our insurance would not cover a tow to get the truck to our house which was a two hour drive.
I can feel the steam rising as I answer this question. In the end, our AAA Membership covered the tow to our local shop, A-1 Glass, to put in a windshield. Pres then drove our truck the short distance home where he is working to repair it. None of the contents of our vehicle were covered! We were offered to make a claim on our Homeowners with a $2,000 deductible which we passed on. We did get a small “lost luggage” allowance. Even though we had to throw away many of our belongings, we did recover durable items that can be cleaned.
The insurance paid us enough money that we can repair our truck and have a down payment for a new camper. We are now in the process of deciding what we want and are considering a flatbed option with a side entry camper bolted to it. We have not decided yet.
In retrospect, do you recommend the Swansea Salt Tram Trail to other truck camper owners?
Janice Meyers: No. There are class IV and V sections that you cannot drive unless you are in a short wheelbase vehicle and a seasoned driver. The narrow road follows a shale shelf with a very steep and dangerous cliff exposure not suitable for truck campers. The guide book we used did not include this in the route description, which only proves you can’t always know what lies ahead and that traveling with other off-roaders is much safer.
Thanks for letting us know. Any final thoughts on the incident?
Janice Meyers: We know it was a miracle that we walked away from the accident unharmed on our 44th wedding anniversary. If we had missed the tree that stopped us, we would have rolled much farther down the steep mountainside and perhaps have been killed.
We were rescued by Bureau of Land Management rangers on that dark, starry night and we are so grateful to have each other above all. I posted our story with the Ridgecrest Daily Independence newspaper to recognize these heroes. You can read the story in their archives or on our blog.
If we had known about the Facebook recovery groups, we could have been spared a lot of anguish and perhaps repaired our camper before rodents could damage it.
TCA: Now that the dust has settled, do you have any advice for our readers?
Janice Meyers: We sure do! This accident made me realize how ill prepared we were in the event one of us had serious injuries or if we had to spend a few days in the wilderness outside of our vehicle.
Our first aid kits were inaccessible—one was in a toolbox that the truck was laying on, and another was inside our camper. Keep a fully equipped first aid kit in the truck cab with you!
I want to carry “Go Bags” or Bug Out Bags in the cab with us. They will take up room, but will be worth their weight in gold should the need arise. We had water, our jackets, boots and hats but no survival gear in the cab—a blanket or sleeping bag, backup batteries for our cell phones, two-way radios, ready to eat food, knife, bandana, toilet paper, gloves, socks, first aid kit, flashlights and hiking poles. Those kinds of items can make a big difference if you can’t stay with your truck or be inside your camper.
Be sure your insurance policy is written correctly for your type of rig. How? I really don’t know other than to have it reviewed by an attorney. We will be doing this again, so we are open to Truck Camper Adventure reader’s advice.
Pres will be installing a locking differential on the truck. He feels this may have saved us as we could not get traction when the rear wheel got on the loose shale despite using 4×4 low.
Pres also advises not to cut corners when you are tired and just want to get there. He couldn’t open his door to get out and look so he relied on his mirrors. In retrospect, I could have gotten out of the truck to spot for him, which I was more than willing to do. Hindsight is 20-20.
Thanks so much, Mike, for letting us share our story with your readers. Our hope is that Truck Camper Adventure readers will be better prepared and know about Facebook recovery groups in the event that their rig should ever become disabled and are in need of help.